On being Arab and Queer : How Caramel by Nadine Labaki taught me that it’s okay to be “secretely” gay

by Yasmine Ben Abdessalem

During the last lockdown in Tunis, I found myself watching a lot of movies touching upon the topic of my identity. As a Queer and North African woman, it was hard for me to completely relate to series such as the L Word that deal with similar topics of sexuality and society. Caramel, produced in 2007 by Nadine Labaki, appeared as a really cool find.

Labaki casted 5 women that weren’t originally actresses to embody the roles of hairdressers from Beirut, that narrate their everyday reality, between their love life, work, in the subdued atmosphere of hot afternoons at the salon. To me, this movie really reminded me of this typical ambience between the nonchalant hairstylists that are complaining about their vagaries of their days, and the customers that are constantly gossiping and cackling, that is so present in Tunis -and Beirut. In Nadine Labaki’s movie, the topic of homosexuality is explored, however, in its own terms, in opposition to mainstream portrayal of homosexual characters, ranging from the token gay best friend in Netflix series, to the overly mannered or tomboy-ish characters.

There is a strong emphasis put in the movie on romantic relationships, and how they can be kept secret- for better or for worse. In Caramel, Labaki explores in an ambiguous way a romantic attraction between two women, through the prism of secrecy and voyeurism. Rima is one of the hairstylists and is presented as different from the other four characters. She is implicetely labelled as a gay women through her lack of interest towards men, or by referring to her appearance and showing her refusal to wear a dress and to wax her legs in certain scenes of the movie, making direct connotations to her lack of “femininity”. In the movie, she nurtures a special relationship with one of the customers, that is immediately visible by their body language, the glances, and the smiles they give each other. The shampooing sessions become longer, and with that it becomes clearer that Rima is attracted to the customer -and by extension that she’s queer. In the end, nothing concrete happens between the two.

What Labaki showed in this movie, is an interesting notion relative to sexuality in Lebanon. Labaki says that girls in Lebanon are raised with the word ‘ayb’ (shame). Ayb is a word that has been heard by many young girls raised in the Arab world. When I was younger, I would argue with relatives that said “Lé ! 3ayb wah, mayjich/ tofla mettrobya meta3melch haka” ( It’s a shame! Nice girls don’t do that/ don’t behave like this!), while commenting on the rocambolesque lifestyle of some of our family friends or cousins. Here, this shame is seen by the fact that there is a certain distance that is always kept between Rima and the customer – even though this shame is also intertwined with modesty- and Labaki’s will to not reveal everything. Labaki’s portrayal of these women’s sexualities offers a realistic account on homosexuality in the Arab World, by having a lesbian protagonist that is not necessarily eager or willing to come out, and would rather live her attraction under the prism of discretion. To have a fair and authentic representation on homosexuality in Lebanon, As the filmmaker puts it, “ You have to cheat in a way where people get the message without bluntly seeing it”.

What is intesting is that Rima refuses to live a potential love story, to be herself fully because of the sacrifice; which is again very relatable for young Arabs, whether they are queer or not sometimes. 

This movie can lead you to bigger discussions about why and how one should come out -or not-, and the multiple shapes queerness takes in Arab spaces. Events such as pride for example have been acclaimed globally for its positive effects on the communities, but it also eroded its goals of achieving queer shamelessness. This appears to be especially true for queer people in Lebanon, that are at the same time shamed locally for infringing socio-moral codes, but also globally for being too gay or not gay enough. As a reaction, Beirut pride claimed that it is not a “westernized, imported” event but rather a local-based platform that reflects on the Lebanese complex social fabrics. Therefore, coming out is still a practice that is met with obstacles, one of them being how to come out without compromising on your identity.