|The New Republic |
by Annia Ciezadlo
Post date: 01.18.07
Issue date: 01.29.07
Last summer, during the war with Israel, Hezbollah's Al Manar satellite TV channel ran an advertisement featuring Reem Haidar, an attractive Lebanese woman with a special request for Hezbollah leader Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah. "I want his cloak that he sweated in while he was defending me, my children, my sisters, and my land," said Haidar, with a toss of her highlighted hair, as martial music played in the background. "I want it so that I can rub some of its sweat on myself and my children. Maybe they can also distribute pieces of it to the people, so that they can soak up some dignity, honor, and nobility." In her sunglasses, plunging v-neck, and red bandanna, Haidar made quite an impression. Al Manar put the Haidar clip in heavy rotation, and, after the war, she got her wish: Hezbollah presented her with Nasrallah's presumably sweat-soaked clerical robe.
Haidar's desire for the perspiration of Hezbollah's black-turbaned leader may strike Americans as a little odd (imagine--or perhaps don't--women clamoring for the sweaty garments of Dick Cheney). But the odor of sanctity is a powerful draw; just as Catholics traditionally believed that the bodies of saints gave off the scent of roses, Shia believe that the soil of Karbala--where the martyr Imam Hussein was beheaded--smells sweet, like musk. Muslim or Christian, man or woman, everybody wears perfume here: Men hawk bootleg couture fragrances on street corners, and stores will custom blend knockoffs of your favorite fragrance while you wait. So, given the cult of Nasrallah and the culture of perfume, perhaps it was inevitable that, sooner or later, Beirut's latest must-have item would invoke the essence of his sweaty robes: the "Perfume of Resistance"--eau de Hezbollah.
I first smelled the Perfume of Resistance at the opposition sit-in that has occupied downtown Beirut since December 1, 2006, in an attempt to topple the U.S.-backed government. There seemed to be some disagreement about what exactly the smell of the resistance was: Non-Shia, outraged at seeing Lebanon's permanent underclass occupy its swank city center, started sending out text messages sneering that the protesters smelled bad. (One suggested that the statue of dead Sunni politician Riad Solh came to life in order to hold its nose.) But, for the Shia faithful and their Christian allies, the sit-in had taken on the character of an outdoor bazaar, with vendors offering a wide and enticing array of Hezbollah-themed items. It was there, amid all the tchotchkes of resistance--Hezbollah banners, Hezbollah cell phone holders, flashing Hezbollah buttons, lighted crystal Nasrallah paperweights, smiling Nasrallah keychains--that I spotted the little yellow packets of Nasrallah-themed perfume.
The Attar (literally, essence) of Resistance comes in jasmine, gardenia, and tea rose (the latter, because it supposedly found favor with Iranian Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, is rumored to be Nasrallah's personal pick). The slender vials are packaged in little laminated folders with excerpts from Nasrallah's speeches printed inside. On the front, Nasrallah waves a hortatory hand, with Lebanese and Hezbollah flags fluttering behind him, while a missile sinks an Israeli gunboat. On the back, there's a photo collage of lilies and rocket launchers. All this for $1? Who could resist?
Everybody wanted some. A friend took it to work, only to spend all day fending off coworkers' attempts to swipe it. "I had to take it home at the end of the day," she told me. "They were just waiting for me to leave so they could steal it!" We went back downtown to find more, but the vendor just shrugged; he was sold out. So I set out for the dahiyeh, the sprawling Shia ghetto on the outskirts of Beirut, to track down the perfume's creator.
A voluble, apple-cheeked man with earnest brown eyes and a tuft of silvery hair, Ali Khalil was waiting by the door of his storefront. Hezbollah members don't usually shake hands with female nonrelatives, but Khalil, the 45-year-old Shia entrepreneur who dreamed up the perfume, is a man of commerce and is not a party member. Gripping my hand warmly, he led me inside his tiny shop, which bursted with gewgaws: beaded purses, Furbys, nail polish, clear bra straps, toy cell phones, cap guns, teddy bears, Hello Kitty thermoses, plastic jewelry, temporary tattoos. On display was also a wide selection of bootleg perfumes, from "Veirsache" to "Bolgari." But the Perfume of Resistance is Khalil's baby.
In Lebanon, the word "resistance" often denotes Hezbollah's rockets, missiles, and machine guns, which the United States and Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's government want to take away. But it also has a broader meaning: of popular struggle against Israel, the United States, or Western powers. For Khalil--who is also a poet, prisoners' rights activist, and occasional independent political candidate--the resistance doesn't have to be violent. "I don't believe in weapons or arms," says Khalil, who deplores the September 11 attacks on the United States. "There are many ways of resisting. Resistance can be a word; it can take many forms." Like perfume.
Khalil's inspiration came on September 22, 2006, five weeks after the end of last summer's war, when Hezbollah staged an enormous rally in the bombed-out ruins of the Shia neighborhoods where its offices used to be. As hundreds of thousands packed into the newly cleared square to celebrate the "divine victory," Khalil looked around and saw a sea of trinkets bearing pictures of Nasrallah. "I decided that I wanted people to have something more enduring," says Khalil. "I wanted people to know the essence of the resistance."
After the rally, Khalil ordered 15,000 bottles of perfume and had the packages printed up at a cost of $3,000--a big financial risk for a small-time capitalist. "Because it had the picture of Sayyid Hassan, I didn't care as much about the expense. I wanted it to look nice," he explains. "It was less a commercial venture than an opportunity to send a message."
Message sent. People bought dozens as gifts for friends in Bahrain, Syria, Japan, Sierra Leone, Germany, Sweden--even Denmark. A Lebanese guy from Dearborn, Michigan, passing through on his way to the hajj, wanted some but was afraid to take it back to the United States. Khalil started to field requests for spinoffs. An Iraqi man asked Khalil if he could make Moqtada Al Sadr perfume. He even got calls from Christian neighborhoods like Ashrafiyye. One Christian caller asked if the perfume smelled "like blood or gunpowder," but others liked it; many of them requested a scent for Michel Aoun, the Maronite Christian general who is aligned with Hezbollah against the current government.
But, despite the perfume's popularity, you won't find Nasrallah doing product endorsements for Resistance: Both it and its sister line, the Perfume of Victory, are knockoffs. In other words, it isn't actually produced or sanctioned by Hezbollah, which presumably has more pressing matters on its collective mind, like bringing down Siniora's government. But Hezbollah's leaders are nothing if not media-savvy; they know free advertising when they see it. Getting ripped off is just another form of viral marketing, and so the group takes an indulgent line on piracy. "Nasrallah is in the public domain; he's not private property," says Hussein Rahhal, Hezbollah's affable spokesman. "There are more people outside Hezbollah who love Nasrallah than there are members in the party, and so we treat him as a public figure." The perfume, says Rahhal, is a testament to Nasrallah's crossover power. "This shows how the resistance is now part of the popular culture," he notes with satisfaction, "and not just a political movement." Nasrallah as global brand.
The perfume was so successful, in fact, that Khalil went to the Ministry of Trade and copyrighted the idea for 15 years, worried that some unscrupulous businessman with deeper pockets might edge him out. "I'm thinking of expanding," he says thoughtfully. "I'm thinking of doing a deodorant spray." By way of demonstration, he leaps up and grabs a tube of the cologne "Poca Cobanne." He has no shortage of ideas for future Nasrallah knockoffs, including a great plastic cell phone with--"But wait, maybe you'd better not write about that," he says, furrowing his brow. "Somebody might read about it and steal my idea."
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