BEIRUT: Does Valentine’s Day mean a box of chocolates and a romantic night out? Or is it staying at home, watching a sappy movie while indulging in a pint of chocolate ice cream? For many, it’s the latter.
A holiday that promises fairy tale romance can sometimes have the reverse effect of inundating people’s senses with advertisements of red roses, wine and big teddy bears – leaving some people wondering why they’re not getting the day of love that everyone else in the world seems to be having.
“When I see people holding hands and walking down the street, I think: I want that,” says Dana, a young saleswoman on Hamra Street, as she looks out the window at the thoroughfare of shops and restaurants, many of which have displays of festive red clothes and ideas for romantic gifts.
She says she has never been in a relationship on Valentine’s Day, and the one time she thought she would have a date for the occasion, last year with a man she knew from Dubai, he ended up canceling his trip to Lebanon. “Ever since then, I’ve hated the holiday.” If she were with someone, she thinks it should be the man’s responsibility to surprise her.
“You feel bad if you don’t feel ‘special,’ especially as a girl. It’s very rooted in gender roles and stereotypes. It really feeds off of people’s insecurities,” says Michael Oghia, author of the blog LOVEanon, who last year finished his master’s degree in sociology on love and relationships at the American University of Beirut.
Indeed, if women are under pressure to be loved, then men are also under pressure to show the love – surrounded by advertisements for fancy dinners, big bouquets and sweets. Some billboards on the highway between Beirut and Tripoli are even telling people to celebrate Valentine’s Eve.
“The Lebanese have mastered both capitalism and caring about things they shouldn’t, so Valentine’s Day happens on a ridiculous scale,” says Paris-based Nasri Atallah, author of the blog and book by the same name, “Our Man in Beirut,” in which he gives cynical and humorous observations about his hometown. Here, he describes the day as “people being crushed by an avalanche of chocolate and red hearts, stupid symbolism and forced meaningfulness.”
“It’s just really everywhere, and it follows the New Year’s Eve kind of ‘fear of missing out’ pattern. You’re bombarded with events happening here and there, and you start to become convinced that you have to join in,” he says. “And of course, no one is motivating you to carve a sculpture for your loved one; they want you to come along and cough up $200 for a five-course Valentine’s Day Menu. Because, you know, that’s how you quantify love, over one dinner a year.”
As for his own relationship status, he says he’d rather remain single than “take part in the orgy of stuffed toys and cheesiness.”
“When you’re single, and wish you shared your life with someone, the tough days are the normal days, not Feb. 14. I think that’s the one day everyone should be very happy to be single,” he explains.
Overhearing people at a cafe in Hamra discussing the hardship of singlehood on that dreaded day, a woman working on her laptop at a nearby table laughs. She jumps in on the conversation, saying, “If you think being single is bad on Valentine’s Day, it can suck even more if you’re married.”
Giving only her first name, Nisa, married for 15 years with a 2-year-old child, says, “I think married people, like singles, feel like they’re supposed to feel love. It can feel really contrived.”
For singles, she believes, “there’s a sense that there are possibilities. It’s a day of promise.”
On the other hand, for those who do have a date that day, particularly new couples, she dreads the thought of the blunders they’ll make under the pressure to be romantic.
“At TSC [supermarket], there’s an enormous human-sized teddy bear. I bet some poor guy will think he’s supposed to get that for his girlfriend, and she’ll have to grin and bear it.”
For one new divorcee, who declined to give her name, the day can be a good occasion to be grateful for freedom and the possibility of better times.
“It’s cute for people it works for, but no, I never celebrated when I was married. At the time I didn’t mind. Now the next boyfriend I have had better do something,” she says.
“I’m almost looking forward to meeting other single people. It’s better than being with someone you’re not that thrilled with.”
Dania Sinno, who works at a shop on Hamra Street, says she doesn’t understand the point of Valentine’s Day. “It shouldn’t be just once a year that you show your love. It should be every day.”
Oghia agrees. “In Lebanon, I also notice a lot of empty affection,” he says. “Yeah, restaurants may be overbooked on Feb. 14, but people have difficulty marrying for love, have to conform to community and society standards, and cannot even get a civil marriage in Lebanon. In the end, I feel like much of this pomp and circumstance for love is just another facade.”
“I guess I just hope that more people both now and in the future celebrate Valentine’s less because they need to display their love, and more because they are actually happy.”