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Defining (a Lebanese) woman: Alexandra Chrieteh’s ‘Always Coca-Cola’

How can a young Lebanese woman define — and defend — the borders of her body, as external forces push and pull, assault and seduce?

While many recent Lebanese novels address sectarianism, war and large-scale violence, Alexandra Chrieteh’s short novel “Always Coca-Cola” addresses a more intimate zone of conflict. The book opens as its protagonist, college-age Abeer Ward, describes the pitched battle that took place over her fetus. During her mother’s pregnancy, Abeer’s father wanted her mother to drink only “pure” bottled water. Her mother, however, craved Coca-Cola, which her father feared would corrupt and contaminate the growing baby. Abeer’s mother obeyed, but the ferocity of her desire marked the tiny baby.

At first glance, Abeer doesn’t seem to have fierce desires: She just wants to help her friend Yana, who is pregnant out of wedlock, and to exert a small measure of control over her body. Abeer is ostensibly a good Muslim girl who won’t even use a tampon for fear it will jeopardize her virginity. But she’s also attracted to other visions of womanhood. Her best friends are Yana, a popular Romanian model, and a tough young female boxer named Yasmine.

Many of Abeer’s limitations are self-imposed: She is afraid of others’ opinions and doesn’t want to be seen as a “bad” or fallen girl. But what is a bad girl? And can a good, feminine girl defend herself against a menacing world?

Abeer keeps a tight rein on herself as she observes the struggles over other women’s bodies. Just beyond Abeer’s window is a super-sized advertisement featuring Yana’s near-naked body, here used to peddle soda pop. But this sexualized and commercialized vision of womanhood is not to everyone’s liking: One night, while Abeer is sleeping, Yana’s giant body is painted over in black. Meanwhile, Yana’s boyfriend gives her an ultimatum: She can either abort her baby or lose the boyfriend forever.

Yana’s boyfriend, manager of the local Coca-Cola factory, also attacks and rapes Abeer, forcing his way into her body and “stealing” her virginity. In a conventionally shaped novel, this would be the action’s central point. But in “Always Coca-Cola,” the rape is downplayed; it’s just one of a number of attacks on Abeer’s body and identity. Indeed, the placement of the Coca-Cola branding is given almost as much importance as the rape. Throughout the book, there is an absurd all-pervasiveness to global corporate brands such as Coca-Cola, Always and Starbucks. Even as Abeer is being raped, a Coca-Cola advertisement looms crazily over her attacker’s shoulder.

Imagined attacks on Abeer’s person are often more vivid than the “real” ones. After Abeer is raped and returns home without her virginity, her brother enters her room with some bootleg Egyptian movies, asking if she wants to watch with him:

“Just as I was thinking about honor, my oldest brother suddenly entered my unlit room. I imagined that he was carrying a submachine gun in his hand, aiming it at my head and shooting me with one round after another, piercing my skull, exploding and splattering my brains on the wall behind me. The strange thing is that this scene was very familiar to me; I felt that I had witnessed it somewhere previously, and not only once but many times.”

The book is constructed not as a story that comes to a climax and then ends with a new “coming-of-age” understanding of the world or the self. Rather, it is a series of attacks and retreats, understandings and misunderstandings. The translation is at times somewhat choppy. But this was the translator’s choice: In an afterword, Michelle Hartman writes that she “was strongly committed to preserving an ‘Arabic accent’” as she moved the text into English.

In any case, this short novel is a wonderful, head-shaking, humorous and sometimes sad journey through and around the forces menacing young women’s lives and bodies, in Lebanon and beyond.

Alexandra Chreiteh’s “Always Coca-Cola” was published in translation by Interlink Publishing in 2012.

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