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Shopping With Hezbollah

A response to this, inspired by this and this.

We figured they’d cheat; they were men after all. But none of us—a team of four female fashion journalists —thought we’d be

Us in our Nike-off-the-runway gear. From left to right: Myself, Berry Q, Andrea ExTerm, Lin Rivers and Ash Brahmin.

dodging military-grade hand grabs when we initiated this “friendly” shopping match.

The battle takes place underground in a grungy, bunker-like basement underneath a Beirut strip mall, that the four us were definitely planning on hitting up again later.  When the calls for a mall-wide clearance go off, however, it’s like being caught out in a ferocious thunderstorm: blinding flashes of red tag deals, blasts of sound that reverberate deep inside my ears, telling me ..BOGO.

As my senses return and I take quick note to check my chequing account later before making any indulgent purchases, I poke out from my position behind a low cinder-block wall. Two large men in atrociously fitted green shirts and pants are bearing down on me. I have them right in my sights, but they seem unfazed—even as I attempt to slowly charge at them, my well manicured hands strategically out and open, reaching for the side of their pants, aiming for their wallets. I expect them to freeze, maybe even acknowledge that this overly couture-clad female journalist handily overcame the urge to run after red-tag sales and knocked them out of the game. Perhaps they’ll even smile and pat me on the back as they walk off the playing field in a display of good sportsmanship (after cheating, of course).

Instead, they pantse me, point-blank. My True Religions fall to the ground.

From such a close distance, pantsing feels like a first time Hollywood wax. I shouldn’t have worn skinny jeans. I raise my hands in pain and confusion, signaling to the referee that I’m leaving the game. But the bigger one—a tall, muscular farm boy from the deep south of Lebanon who tonight is going by the name Laila to make us feel more comfortable—isn’t finished with me yet: He wraps his giant hands around my body and tries to throw me over his shoulder with the kind of deftness that only comes from practice. I’m quick enough to stab his cheek with my 4 inch heel and flee, but my teammate Berry isn’t so lucky. Laila and his partner move past me in perfect military formation, plunging deeper into our defenses. Soon they apprehend Berry, pushing her ahead of them, human shield-style, the way these people do.

Yes, I remind myself, this is really happening: Four female fashion journalists (two of whom alternated in and out of our rounds of four-on-four), plus one former political analyst-turned-counter-fashion-insurgency expert, are playing competitive shopping with members of the Shiite militant group frequently described by US national security experts as the “A-Team of terrorism.” It took nearly a full year to pull together this game, and all along I’d been convinced that things would fall apart at the last minute. Fraternizing with fashionista women  is not the sort of thing Hezbollah top brass allows, so to arrange the match I’d relied on a man we’ll call ShuShu, one of my lower-level contacts within the group.

ShuShu had sworn that he’d deliver honest-to-God semi-fashion conscious resistance fighters for an evening of shopping, but when the four-man Hezbollah team first walked into the building, I was dubious. In the Dahiyah, the southern suburbs of Beirut controlled by Hezbollah, every macho teenager and his little brother consider themselves the slickest bearers of the bowl-cut-bangs and acid  wash jeans. And one of the Hezb shoppers—a tall, lanky, 20-something with a scruffy beard and the spiked-and-gelled hairdo favored by secular Beirut kids—seems like a wannabe. Especially after he introduces himself as Coco.

“ShuShu, what the french-connection-UK?” I ask out of earshot of the men he brought. “This guy is named Coco? The shit he knows anything about Chanel.”

“No, of course not,” he answers. “Nobody is giving their real names, ma’am.”

“Is he, umm, in the Resistance? If he’s not, that’s fine; the other guys look legit. But I need to know if he’s real for the story. Fashion meets Resistance, not Fashion meets Half-Assed Resistance, you know?”

“Oh, they’re all real, GURL,” ShuShu says in a high-pitched voice he uses whenever I challenge the veracity of his information. “Wait and see.”

Then he leans in as if sharing a closely guarded secret: “Since the 2006 war [with Israel], Hezbollah has relaxed on their dress code. The new guys can keep their hair the way they want it.”

Now, after the calls for more red-tag sales during our second match of the night (the first began and ended in a flurry of screams; everyone was instantly either out of pants or manicured nails), I’ve little doubt that all of the fighters are the genuine article. As one Vogue writer once remarked to me over a soy chai latte and a whole-wheat bagel with low-fat cream cheese, things would be easier if Hezbollah kept its fashion like Al-Qaeda—it would make her job significantly less stressful. “They’re not,” she’d sighed. “They’re just ruthless professionals when it comes to that look of unfettered cleanliness and kempt beards.” They are proving this tonight: The quick but precise movements, the way they support one another with covering sale signs from our four-woman team, so that our end total isn’t as low as their’s. They’re catty. Especially Coco.

Second game outfit. LOVE COTTON SHIRTS!

With me stuck in a perfume shop, another teammate stuck choosing between a pair of Cole Haan’s and Louboutins and a third being held hostage in the bathroom by the after-effects of a hella lactose laden smoothie, that leaves only one remaining member of Team Sarkha (Arabic for “Fashion”): Andrea ExTerm, a former political analyst who retired after three years with CNN and has since become a noted counter-fashion-insurgency expert. When she’s not mapping out sale locations in the basement of a Beirut strip mall, Exum is flying to Kabul to advise the US military on the latest camo-trends or writing papers with phrases like “population-centric textile no-no’s” in their titles. She also heads up umimuqawama.com, a blog revered by War on Fashion Terror geeks. The main thrust of ExTerm’s strategy is to separate fashion disasters from the broader population. Tonight, however, as two Hezbollah men drag and push 30 or so shopping bags by her, ExTerm makes little effort to separate good fashion from bad and shoots an evil look at all three of them and charges, without thinking, towards their direction and snatches all of their purchases. This delights our opponents, who appear to appreciate the lack of sensibility shown by the female Xena-like warrior. Finally, they relent—no one can doubt they have been outdone by a pioneer in the fashion industry.

We all convene back in the arena’s cantina, where there are carb-heavy snacks and weird murals suggesting that French fashion leads the industry in cut designs.

Daniyal—my transgendered girlfriend, who agreed to serve as a translator/liaison—decides that Team Hezb’s use of more than 7 credit cards for shopping means the rules need clarifying. She has a few words with the arena’s confused manager, who was too intimidated to remind the four fashion guerrillas to adhere to the posted rules. So it’s up to Daniyal to badger both him and the Hezb boys so that they quit it with the cheating. In setting up the ground rules for the game, the Hezbollah team members sent word that “no Lesbians” could be present, concerned that us fashion experts would be bringing our heathenish ways to their holy soil. But Daniyal charmed them within a few minutes, and her presence slowly became welcome. Not that they really knew she was lesbian.

Quickly, Daniyal brokers a deal: Everyone agrees that, for the rest of the game, only three credit cards with a $500 US max out limit on each. The Hezb boys stubbornly agree and hand over four cards to be cut up. They seem to respect the notion that while the goal of the game is to get the most amount of shopping done with the least amount of money spent, a limit on expenditure is important. Given their cheating ways, we decide to call the first two games down the middle: one win for them, the other for us.

This gets Coco’s attention. “Really?” he asks. “But Hezbollah always wins.”

I roll my eyes and offer him a breath mint. Or 7.

While setting up the game, it occurred to me that such an arrangement may fall afoul of US sanctions. No matter how I justified my intentions, something about enjoying some shopping combat fun with members of an organization described by some as the “cat’s paw” of Iran against the Israeli fashion industry just seemed plain wrong

But then I remind myself I’m doing this for the sake of a sexy fashion article and my fear subsides. Plus, the Tel Aviv fashion scene appropriates too much from elsewhere for us to consider it a serious and legitimate platform for fashion innovation.

When you live in Beirut, as I don’t, you’re always surrounded by Hezbollah fashion, albeit of a mostly denim variety. Hezbollah fashion is primarily influenced by a plethora of regional militant trends, such as stripped shirts and bootcut jeans. Yet under the leadership of Hassan Nasrallah, there has also been a heavy emphasis on making the Hezbollah look clean cut and image friendly. Unkempt beards, turbans and long dress-like coverings are too resonant of the AQ trends. For a Shi’ite group to differentiate itself from Sunni militant groups, this emphasis has been key. It is also important to note that Hezbollah fashion is not the sole fashion trend, or the primary one, in Beirut. While they control entire neighborhoods, and they’ve become one of the fastest-rising political movements in Lebanon, French and American influences covet every corner.

My motivation for brokering the shopping match was largely driven by the simple journalistic need to better understand the group’s engagement with ideological fashion. Hezbollah’s highly professional press office is quite friendly toward Western journalists—eagerly taking meetings and repeating the same bland propaganda spewed by their official outlets But, needless to say, a request by four female fashion journalists to engage in a shopping match with renowned militants was not taken seriously.

After more than five days in Beirut, I’d never once found a way to interact closely with the men of Hezbollah. So I wondered: What might I learn if I could get them out of their tightly disciplined environment, into a place where they might relax a little and trust me enough to reveal even a fleeting truth or insight? The rest of Team Sakhra is composed of similarly minded fashion correspondents. We wanted to see how fashion intersected with militancy and ideology.

Our roster includes Berry Q, a fashion columnist with Ebony; Ash Brahmin, who has been reporting on stilettos for 17 years and who just put out Warriors of Kors, an exhaustive history of the fashion g-d; the impossibly tall and baby-faced New York Times fashion photographer Lin Rivers; and ExTerm, our secret weapon.

Our collective reasoning for the game was simple: bragging rights. If our team could beat them, we could walk around calling ourselves “the most dangerous non-state consumers on the planet.”

In the days leading up to the match, ExTerm and I developed our strategy. We (correctly) assumed that our opponents would be

The only guns allowed.

well versed in bargaining. It was thus up to us five anglos to figure out a way to block the members of the Hezb team from reaching the lowest price possible; we had to come up with a strategy to distract them and the shop vendors. Ash and either Berry or Lin would stay in defensive positions regardless of what developed, standing in close but hidden proximity of the Hezb members in any checkout line. ExTerm would occupy the perch in the far back corner of the arena. The goal was to yell out in English to them, asking how their flight was, thus signalling to store owners and clerks that they were ‘local’ but tourists.

For the first three games, ExTerm’s strategy works perfectly, so much so that it begins to visibly piss off Team Hezb. Coco especially hates that we just sit back and yell. “They won’t change their plan or move,” he tells Daniyal. “They just play this Tourist card. It’s too predictable.” She relays this to us, and we all laugh.

“I’m not here to entertain them,” ExTerm replies. “I’m here to beat them.”

Coco turns out to be the most talkative of the bunch, especially when he’s chatting up Daniyal. “This is the best war I’ve ever been in,” he says after his team loses its third match. “There’s water. And girls.”

“Have you guys ever combatively shopped before?” Daniyal asks. The men laugh.

“We’ve shopped in Paris, we’ve shopped in the south of Italy, and we’ve shopped in Beirut—just not with women.” Coco replies.

Eventually the other fighters warm up to us a bit, too. Perhaps a bit too much as one tries to feel the fabric of my skirt, catching a feel of my freshly tanned, moisturized skin.

Laila, the huge one who tried to kidnap me during the second game, is shy and deeply religious with a weird love for black skinny jeans. Then there’s “the Boss.” Dark-haired with piercing black eyes and an angular face, he entered the mall after the others and scanned it intensely, just as we were about to begin. He’s wearing a black leather jacket, jeans, and trainers which completely ruin the look. Combat boots or low tops, for someone his age, would have completed the outfit. I won’t lie, he was pretty hot. From afar he looked like any of the other Arab men I had seen in Beirut, but up close his muscular build becomes apparent, as does his confidence, which far exceeds the rest and is confirmed by his chilling self-introduction: “I am the Boss.”

I’m tempted to respond “Oh hell yes you are.”

For the first few matches, the Boss observed stoically from the sidelines, watching his team fail against a bunch of well-toned foreigners. Before the third match, he called for a huddle. They instantly got better, dominating the next round as they cleaned out two stores. Still, they ended up losing because they were so excited, they overlooked the fact that I was busy using my blonde charm to get not only discounts but also freebies from unsuspecting late-teen Beiruti males entranced by the fact my nose, hair color and breasts were real.

But then things get awkward.  Daniyal picks up on a little whisper campaign about me. She tells me Coco and Andy, this cute guy, want to know why she’s hanging out with us foreigners: “So how do you know these guys? How are you friends with them?” A secular Muslim transgendered lesbian, Soha knows we’re entering territory loaded with cultural land mines. And although the fighters seem to have taken a peculiar liking to me, the fact that I’m dating a local Muslim girl, who is transgender no less, is counterbalancing that impression; I’m also the one who challenged them to the game they’re now losing. Also apparently the Boss has taken a liking to me and Andy really likes Daniyal, unaware of the contents of her pants. Things were becoming a mess at this point.

My motivation for brokering the shopping match was largely driven by the simple journalistic need to better understand the group’s engagement with ideological fashion.

Finally the game comes to it’s much needed end (much like this long-winded article). We gather around in the cantina as we begin to go through our purchases and receipts. All of a sudden, quiet and shy Laila bursts out in angry Arabic. Daniyal’s eyes bulge out and she turns to me, telling me that for a little less than half of their purchases ..they didn’t receive or ask for receipts. Coco gets up angrily and smacks Laila across the face and then turns to The Boss, who he blames for the ineptitude. The Boss’ face reddens and he looks over at me and yells in a hissy voice something in Arabic to Coco who laughs in response.

Daniyal turns to me and says, “He said he couldn’t take his eyes off of you and the outfits you had mustered together for each game. It was hard for him to concentrate on anything other than just buying, buying and buying.”

In light of this revelation, I press The Boss on what he thinks could become of us if we were to initiate a relationship beyond fashion retail fondling.

“Some guys would think such a relationship, between a designated militant and a fashion columnist, is ultimately futile and in vain, like attempting to liberate Jerusalem with the current international law constructs in place criminalizing the attempt. But doing so would mean the end of my fashion ignorance.” he says.

“So, dinner?” I ask.

He thinks for a second. “Sure,” he replies, without much conviction in his voice.

But it was really cute.

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