How do you say “beautiful” in Arabic?

Dear Folks,

Well, as it is a fabulously beautiful day today in Brussels, all the young and gorgeous professionals of this city are falling out of bars wearing the latest spring/summer fashions. It is definitely turning into the season to be seen. Shedding winter clothes and revealing one’s figure, is often met with some anxiety at first, especially for women, who have spent the previous months enjoying comfort carbs.

One thing that the everyone enjoys no matter what culture or nationality they have,  is the appreciation of beauty and the desire to be considered attractive in the eyes of others. However what does vary from culture to culture is what is considered beautiful. What was once seen attractive a hundred years ago, may not merit a second glance in today’s world. The same theory applies for different countries, or rather regions of the world.

In the Middle East when one thinks of beautiful women, one often imagines women with luscious curves, full lips, kohl darkened eyes and olive-flecked skin. Certainly it is one part of the world where it is considered more appealing for women to embrace their womanly figure. However given the influence of satellite television, more and more Arab pop singers are embracing the skinnier Hollywood look.

One country that really has the first and last word in  beauty and fashion is Lebanon. Women from all over the region flock here to undergo all manner of beauty procedures. The most common being nose operations. It is almost a matter of course, similar to getting braces, that a young man or woman has their nose redefined. In one notable example, in May 2007, the First National Bank of Lebanon offered loans to pay for cosmetic procedures. Their selling slogan for potential clients was “have the life you’ve always wanted”. The bank received at least 200 calls each day asking about the offer. Even during war and recession, the beauty industry hardly felt a dent.

Lebanese women take tremendous pride in their appearance, and the country’s most popular singers are a huge inspiration to young women across the Middle East. Their images, which are often given full-blown Photoshop treatment  are honed to emphasize their creamy white skin, dark hair and pencil-thin eyebrows. They ooze sensuality and Femininity. Celebrities such as Hayfa Wehbe, Nancy Ajram (picture above) and Elissa have all undergone cosmetic surgery and it helped to catapult their careers. It is no wonder that many thousands more men and women are encouraged to follow their lead. However Lebanon is beaten by the Islamic Republic of Iran for the highest rate of nose surgery in the world. In 2005, the UK’s Guardian newspaper reported that even the daughters of senior Islamic clerics have nose jobs. It is completely normal to see people of all ages walking through the streets of the capital Tehran with surgical tape strapped across their newly shaped nez.

In  conservative Saudi Arabia, women are under obligation to dress modestly due to the no-nonsense religious police or mutawa, who are at the forefront in preventing even the nearest wisp of immodesty to prevail. However, despite the Kingdom’s social restrictions, Financial Times reported in 2009 that Saudi women spend an estimated 1.9 billion euros on cosmetics, which is among the highest per capita sum in the world. Licenses for beauty parlours are restricted in the Kingdom, which leaves the ones which operate vulnerable to raids by the religious police. Saudi women resort to hosting “make-up nights”, in order to show off the latest techniques. There are only a few places where women can reveal their finery without interference. The pay-off being they can attract the interest of mothers on the look out for suitable brides for their sons.

Having white skin is also an appealing physical trait. While in the west having long tanned limbs is a must-have and growing up in southern Africa, I remember full well the looks of disdain that English tourists would receive for possessing lily white  limbs. In many parts of the Arab world light skin is so coveted that many ladies turn to skin-whitening products such as Unilever’s Fair and Lovely. On the brand’s Pakistani website, it offers “fairness that changes your destiny”.  In many countries the product sells like hot cakes, as many women associate clear pale skin with attaining a successful career and the perfect husband. Who knew a change of skin tone could do all that?

In short no matter where you go people around the globe have a gripe with what God gave them. Perhaps this is His way to ensure that people who decide to become plastic surgeons can look forward to a long and successful career. As it is in most places in the world, the drive for physical perfection is firmly planted in everyone’s DNA. We all just want to be sexy!

One last thing, in reference to the question above, the answer is “jameela” or “jameel”.