Saturday, 2 November 2013

The Arabian Beauty Salon

Other than the large hotels mostly set on the beach and the odd excursion to one of the major cities, there is very little to do in for expat teachers in rural Arabia. Once you have experienced the glamour and glitz there is little else to do week after week. As westerners we had to be very careful to abide by the local rules and laws and also careful not to offend, so our western way of life had to be carried out in the lounges of such hotels and more or less from behind closed doors. This is the only place we could eat, drink and be very merry, so for four very English teachers, Sunday afternoon visiting the local beauty salon to have a manicure or pedicure was a treat and a half and believe it or not…a big event.

We loved this outing every Sunday, apart from the fact that we ended the afternoon with beautiful nails and toes; we also loved it because we were able to experience a vision and flavour of the Arabic women’s world that we could not watch anywhere else. We were able to surreptitiously get inside their world and be part of the intimacy of Arabic women and experience the harem clique and striking atmosphere. As western women we were not supposed to become close to the local women in case we influenced them in some negative manner. Some of us had, over the months, made close friends with local women only to find, sadly, the relationship died a very quick death once their men folk became aware of the relationships, consequently the women back peddled and didn’t turn up for coffee again. Sadly, we never made friends with an Arabic woman.

The beauticians are, generally, young Pilipino women who have left their families in their home countries and travelled to the Middle East to make a better life for themselves and their extended family. We got to know many of these Pilipino beauticians and were privileged to have many deep and difficult conversations with them over the years spent working in this rural town. One extremely young beautician shared her very sad story with us whilst filing and shaping our finger and toe nails. She had not seen her two year old baby for two years and missed him terribly; she just worked long hours and sent most of her money home in order to help take care of her son and give him the life she felt she never had. Quietly shaping she shed quiet tears.

The beauty salon we attended was large and must have employed over twenty of these young girls who were all supplied with very basic accommodation and employed by a wealthy Arabic madam. The girls would shed a few tears reciting their life stories to us and were so grateful that someone listened with empathy and compassion. The girls looked forward to our visit and made us very comfortable and welcome and over time we all became good friends.

Sunday afternoon at the salon was amazing for many reasons including outlandish expanses of mirrors, leather and crystal but watching the Arabic women paint themselves from head to toe for weddings, parties, dinners and just to please their men folk was an incredible sight and privilege. Kohl eyeliner, bright eye shadow, vivid lipsticks, hair extensions, dyes, gel nails and jejazzles were everywhere, not to mention frills, petticoats, sashes, stilettoes, beads and bustles bedazzling us. We sat surveying this exotic opera for hours as they paraded back and forth in front of us. No expense was spared and the adornments glittered and sparkled bright enough to blind any spectator watching this spectacle.

Four very English teachers sat, hands splayed, with our Pilipino friends busying away at making our nails gorgeous while we were entertained by these amazingly beautiful women and young girls in their magnificent makeup and attire. Sunday afternoons transformed the salon into a local meeting place for chatter and gossip, laughter and tears, playfulness and teasing; a tranquil setting for Arabic women to come together safely and allow their reticence and restraints to be shed for a short while, and bare their hearts and souls in a culture where this is hard to ensue. Thankfully, for us very English educators, we were fortunate and blessed to be able to witness this beautiful pastime and be a small part of it too.

Waiting for our manicures to dry, we sipped sweet black Arabic tea from crystal clear miniature mugs; it was a pleasure.

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