WORLD JANUARY 29, 2007
Last summer, during the war with Israel, Hezbollah's Al Manarsatellite TV channel ran an advertisement featuring Reem Haidar, anattractive Lebanese woman with a special request for Hezbollahleader Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah. "I want his cloak that he sweatedin while he was defending me, my children, my sisters, and myland," said Haidar, with a toss of her highlighted hair, as martialmusic played in the background. "I want it so that I can rub someof its sweat on myself and my children. Maybe they can alsodistribute pieces of it to the people, so that they can soak upsome dignity, honor, and nobility." In her sunglasses, plungingv-neck, and red bandanna, Haidar made quite an impression. Al Manarput the Haidar clip in heavy rotation, and, after the war, she gother wish: Hezbollah presented her with Nasrallah's presumablysweat- soaked clerical robe.
Haidar's desire for the perspiration of Hezbollah's blackturbanedleader may strike Americans as a little odd (imagine--or perhapsdon't--women clamoring for the sweaty garments of Dick Cheney). Butthe odor of sanctity is a powerful draw; just as Catholicstraditionally believed that the bodies of saints gave off the scentof roses, Shia believe that the soil of Karbala--where the martyrImam Hussein was beheaded--smells sweet, like musk. Muslim orChristian, man or woman, everybody wears perfume here: Men hawkbootleg couture fragrances on street corners, and stores willcustom blend knockoffs of your favorite fragrance while you wait.So, given the cult of Nasrallah and the culture of perfume, perhapsit was inevitable that, sooner or later, Beirut's latest must- haveitem would invoke the essence of his sweaty robes: the "Perfume ofResistance"--eau de Hezbollah.
I first smelled the Perfume of Resistance at the opposition sitinthat has occupied downtown Beirut since December 1, 2006, in anattempt to topple the U. S.-backed government. There seemed to besome disagreement about what exactly the smell of the resistancewas: Non-Shia, outraged at seeing Lebanon's permanent underclassoccupy its swank city center, started sending out text messagessneering that the protesters smelled bad. (One suggested that thestatue of dead Sunni politician Riad Solh came to life in order tohold its nose.) But, for the Shia faithful and their Christianallies, the sit-in had taken on the character of an outdoor bazaar,with vendors offering a wide and enticing array of Hezbollah-themeditems. It was there, amid all the tchotchkes ofresistance--Hezbollah banners, Hezbollah cell phone holders,flashing Hezbollah buttons, lighted crystal Nasrallah paperweights,smiling Nasrallah keychains--that I spotted the little yellowpackets of Nasrallah-themed perfume.
The Attar (literally, essence) of Resistance comes in jasmine,gardenia, and tea rose (the latter, because it supposedly foundfavor with Iranian Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, is rumored to beNasrallah's personal pick). The slender vials are packaged inlittle laminated folders with excerpts from Nasrallah's speechesprinted inside. On the front, Nasrallah waves a hortatory hand,with Lebanese and Hezbollah flags fluttering behind him, while amissile sinks an Israeli gunboat. On the back, there's a photocollage of lilies and rocket launchers. All this for
$1? Who could resist?
Everybody wanted some. A friend took it to work, only to spend allday fending off coworkers' attempts to swipe it. "I had to take ithome at the end of the day," she told me. "They were just waitingfor me to leave so they could steal it!" We went back downtown tofind more, but the vendor just shrugged; he was sold out. So I setout for the dahiyeh, the sprawling Shia ghetto on the outskirts ofBeirut, to track down the perfume's creator.
A voluble, apple- cheeked man with earnest brown eyes and a tuft ofsilvery hair, Ali Khalil was waiting by the door of his storefront.Hezbollah members don't usually shake hands with femalenonrelatives, but Khalil, the 45-year-old Shia entrepreneur whodreamed up the perfume, is a man of commerce and is not a partymember. 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, HelloKitty thermoses, plastic jewelry, temporary tattoos. On display wasalso 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 LebanesePrime Minister Fouad Siniora's government want to take away. But italso has a broader meaning: of popular struggle against Israel, theUnited States, or Western powers. For Khalil--who is also a poet,prisoners' rights activist, and occasional independent politicalcandidate--the resistance doesn't have to be violent. "I don'tbelieve in weapons or arms," says Khalil, who deplores theSeptember 11 attacks on the United States. "There are many ways ofresisting. Resistance can be a word; it can take many forms." Likeperfume.
Khalil's inspiration came on September 22, 2006, five weeks afterthe end of last summer's war, when Hezbollah staged an enormousrally in the bombed-out ruins of the Shia neighborhoods where itsoffices used to be. As hundreds of thousands packed into the newlycleared square to celebrate the "divine victory, " Khalil lookedaround and saw a sea of trinkets bearing pictures of Nasrallah. "Idecided that I wanted people to have something more enduring," saysKhalil. "I wanted people to know the essence of the resistance."
After the rally, Khalil ordered 15,000 bottles of perfume and hadthe packages printed up at a cost of
$3,000--a big financial risk for a small-time capitalist. "Becauseit had the picture of Sayyid Hassan, I didn't care as much aboutthe expense. I wanted it to look nice," he explains. "It was less acommercial 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. ALebanese guy from Dearborn, Michigan, passing through on his way tothe hajj, wanted some but was afraid to take it back to the UnitedStates. Khalil started to field requests for spinoffs. An Iraqi manasked Khalil if he could make Moqtada Al Sadr perfume. He even gotcalls from Christian neighborhoods like Ashrafiyye. One Christiancaller asked if the perfume smelled "like blood or gunpowder," butothers liked it; many of them requested a scent for Michel Aoun, theMaronite Christian general who is aligned with Hezbollah againstthe current government.
But, despite the perfume's popularity, you won't find Nasrallahdoing product endorsements for Resistance: Both it and its sisterline, the Perfume of Victory, are knockoffs. In other words, itisn't actually produced or sanctioned by Hezbollah, whichpresumably has more pressing matters on its collective mind, likebringing down Siniora's government. But Hezbollah's leaders arenothing if not media-savvy; they know free advertising when theysee it. Getting ripped off is just another form of viral marketing,and so the group takes an indulgent line on piracy. "Nasrallah isin the public domain; he's not private property," says HusseinRahhal, Hezbollah's affable spokesman. "There are more peopleoutside Hezbollah who love Nasrallah than there are members in theparty, and so we treat him as a public figure." The perfume, saysRahhal, is a testament to Nasrallah's crossover power. "This showshow the resistance is now part of the popular culture," he noteswith satisfaction, "and not just a political movement." Nasrallahas global brand.
The perfume was so successful, in fact, that Khalil went to theMinistry of Trade and copyrighted the idea for 15 years, worriedthat some unscrupulous businessman with deeper pockets might edgehim out. "I'm thinking of expanding, " he says thoughtfully. "I'mthinking of doing a deodorant spray." By way of demonstration, heleaps up and grabs a tube of the cologne "Poca Cobanne." He has noshortage of ideas for future Nasrallah knockoffs, including a greatplastic cell phone with--"But wait, maybe you'd better not writeabout that," he says, furrowing his brow. "Somebody might readabout it and steal my idea."
Annia Ciezadlo is a Beirut-based writer.