Wasta Capital: Ethnographic Reflexivity at a Rooftop Nightclub in Beirut
SOAS, University of London (UK)
Over the course of my year-long fieldwork in Beirut, I often joked with Ali, a prominent Lebanese DJ and electronic music producer, about how he would make an excellent anthropologist. His ability to read social situations and adjust his behaviour immediately in order to make people comfortable in his presence was remarkable. I met Ali by chance at a nightclub about a month after arriving in Beirut, where I was researching beauty practices and the local cosmetic surgery industry. He quickly became not only a friend, but also a useful informant and gatekeeper for my research. Not knowing at first his status as a local celebrity, I was surprised by how many people Ali seemed to know wherever we went in the city. He was often stopped on the street and greeted by fans that had seen him being interviewed on television or recognized him from the nightclub scene.
Interested in the ways in which ideal beauty is imagined, created and performed, doing fieldwork at nightclubs became an essential extension of my ethnographic research. As fieldwork progressed, I learned the importance of nightclubs as platforms for the performance of wasta, a word in Arabic that refers to how one is able to use and exhibit one's social connections to exert influence and get things done. These spaces allow for this enactment of "who's-who", where everyone knows everyone else, if only by virtue of facial recognition in a vast and yet intimately interconnected social web. Accordingly, these nightclub venues also reveal uneven fields of power and embedded networks of prestige. Whereas nightlife locales in other contexts, usually western, are understood as spaces where people can come together to relax and let go, in Beirut these spaces are perhaps better understood in terms of how they are integrated crucially with the notion of keeping up appearances and cultivating social status. For example, the demarcation of space according to private tables, reserved annually by wealthy individuals from prominent families, both mimics and reproduces social realities in everyday city life. For those individuals lacking wasta connections derived from prestigious familial, sectarian and monetary ties, knowing how to manipulate one's social and perhaps erotic capital (Bourdieu 2008) is of the utmost importance. For separate reasons, both Ali and I found ourselves implicated in this project.
Coming from humble beginnings, by age eight Ali was working in a carpentry shop to help support his family after losing his father at age three. Although shy as a child, during his teenage years Ali gained confidence by selling keyboards in music shops and beginning to DJ at his friend's parties and neighbourhood bars. As his career progressed, he found himself playing gigs around the region, making music videos and spending time working in New York. Having tired of this chaotic routine, he now prefers to focus on producing music for Arab singers and collaborating with international artists who come to Beirut to perform. He splits his time between the recording studio and socializing at different nightlife venues, sometimes visiting as many as three during the course of an evening. In many ways, Ali stands out as a distinct character on the nightlife scene. His carefully groomed aesthetic style compliments his aura of confident hyper-masculinity and impish proclivity for fun and living in the moment. His self-confidence is particularly apparent when it comes to his rapport with women. We often spoke of his reputation as a "ladies man", and although he admits to enjoying this attention, he prefers to be known for his other qualities and career achievements. Ali's aspirations for increased fame and social recognition are set against the backdrop of insecurity associated with sectarian political fragmentation and the weak Lebanese state. His professional life working as a DJ and in music production has allowed him to further develop his wasta connections, complimented by the manner in which he has successfully manipulated his self-image.
Personally, I faced the task of securing a position as a relevant social actor in the nightlife scene in order to gain access to an important group of interlocutors. Essentially, I had to develop and display my wasta as an ethnographic method to the fullest extent possible. With no hereditary ties to Lebanon, and having initially only a handful of personal connections, I quickly came to see the importance of manipulating my "foreign" status and appearance as a methodological technique. My power as an ethnographer in this context was derived from my status as a Canadian studying in London. Because wasta works according to another's perception of how you might return their social favours, as a westerner I was someone of value because I could be used as a point of contact for those wishing to travel, work or move abroad. Lebanese who do not hold foreign passports often run into a number of restrictions on their movement across borders, and accordingly one's international wasta connections are invaluable. Attention also shifted to my appearance as a "western" beauty when doing nightlife ethnography, and my physical appearance was a key factor in legitimizing my presence in these settings. This orientation had both positive and negative aspects; especially in light of the way I was viewed as a young, secular, unmarried female usually found in the company of older local men. Nevertheless, my positionality as an outsider allowed many of my interlocutors to open up and share insecurities they would otherwise remain rather guarded about with members of their own society.
In many ways, and stemming from the trust established over several months of friendship, Ali and I came to play off one another in these spaces in order to achieve our own larger social aims. When Ali approached me and introduced himself on the occasion of our first meeting, we positioned one another initially in categories based upon our first impressions of one another. I viewed him as a typical Beirut party guy, and he imagined me to be a young western woman on vacation seeking to experience the famed Beiruti nightlife. As the months progressed and our friendship deepened, these initial perceptions changed as we discovered the importance of these nightlife spaces to our separate professional projects. As a result, in different and yet complimentary ways, we developed skill sets that proved invaluable in terms of securing my access to elite circles and continuing his status as a local celebrity. Whereas Ali was already adept at utilizing his own physical capital as a confident Lebanese male in this context, he supported me in developing and employing my own version as a visiting foreign female. The ethnographic vignette that follows comments upon not only my own methodological use of wasta to access these kinds of spaces, but also the way in which I came to understand myself as an actor through which wasta was activated and performed.
One Friday evening in August, I received a telephone call from Ali telling me that we were invited to party that evening at the VIP table of a "high-rolling" acquaintance and government official whom I had not yet met. When I asked how they knew each other, Ali said that Tareq had seen him out a number of times and, thinking he was "a cool guy", invited him to join his table whenever he liked in the future. After agreeing to join him, I searched my closet for a suitable dress and high-heels and began the long, yet admittedly pleasurable, process of creating the appropriate hair and make-up style for the nightclub venue we would be attending. At around eleven o'clock Ali picked me up and we made our way down towards the Beirut waterfront from my neighbourhood of Achrafieh. Sitting next to me in the back of the taxi, Ali was dressed in his usual uniform: a tight black t-shirt, distressed Diesel jeans, and silver Puma sneakers. Driving through the pristine and completely modernized downtown core, we chatted about who we expected to see that evening. We turned out onto the reclaimed spit of land where, alongside a number of warehouse buildings, an exhibition centre, and a newly opened waterfront promenade, Beirut's most famous nightclub, SKYBAR, is located. Opened in 2007, the nightclub was ranked the best bar in the world by 2009. Each summer it continues to attract international performers as well as consistent crowds of well-heeled Lebanese and international glitterati. Instead of allowing the taxi to drop us off directly outside the nightclub, Ali asked the driver to stop just around the corner. After he paid the driver we walked the short distance to the entrance, giving the impression that we had parked in the neighbouring lot. Patrons who frequent these nightclubs regularly place a high value on how rare and expensive their cars are, especially as men tend to view their vehicles as an extension of their own success and masculinity. Ali neither owns a car, nor displays any interest in driving through the hectic streets of Beirut.
As we approached the entrance, about thirty on-duty valets were on hand to park the long line-up of flashy cars, the most expensive of which were positioned directly in front of the nightclub, providing a hassle-free exit for those clientele willing to pay the price. In front of us two lines were formed, one for the VIP entrance of those guests claiming the most prestigious and well-situated tables, and the other for those with reservations at the remaining tables, the bar, or perhaps those finding themselves in the unhappy position of trying their luck without having access to a booking. We approached the former line, skipping the queue of guests and moving directly to the front. Ali greeted the doorman warmly by name, they shook hands, and the bouncer who had been watching from close by unclipped the red velvet rope and allowed us to pass through towards the elevator. "That bouncer doesn't like me, I have no idea why, but he can't do anything about it, I know everyone here", Ali explained with his characteristic playful smirk. As we squeezed into the mirrored elevator with the evening's other partygoers, Ali turned to me and continued his previous thought, smiling as he told me that tonight, like all nights, "We are the kings and queens". While I was perplexed at first by Ali's comment, I came to associate it with his feeling of professional success and self-awareness of how his charismatic persona as a local celebrity in the nightlife sphere was received by others. It is the combination of these factors that allowed him to call upon his wasta so successfully in this setting. This is remarkable in Beirut's elite social circles given his lack of entrenched familial prestige and moneyed pedigree.
Going up four floors with the pulsing of the dance music growing louder and louder, we emerged onto the open-air rooftop of the nightclub. We stopped briefly to chat with the three door-girls, polished and manicured in every aspect of their appearance. One of them confirmed the name under which our table was booked and chatted amicably with Ali, having recognized him immediately upon our arrival. Finally, we turned the corner to the main terrace of the nightclub, its flashing lights and digital video screens coordinated with the occasional burst of pyrotechnic flames from atop the pillars framing the venue. We moved in the direction of the predominant triangle-shaped bar, crowned by a DJ booth, and set against the glittering lights of the city suburbs and mountain villages across the bay. Finding our table, Ali indicated that our host had not yet arrived and began to introduce me to the group while exchanging his own handshakes, hugs and kisses of welcome. I seated myself at the edge of the table closest to the bar, as I knew that Ali preferred to stand so that he could be free to move around as he liked. This was a personal as well as pragmatic choice. Because of his notoriety and the usual social customs, Ali was often interrupted by an unending stream of passers-by, greeting one another as friends and exchanging brief pleasantries in rapid mixed Arabic, English and French before clinking glasses and moving onwards towards their own tables.
Drinks were mixed and served to us by a personal bartender who had our table's number printed on the back of his nightclub logo t-shirt. We took turns in answering our tablemate's questions about where and how we had met, with whom Ali had been collaborating musically and what my impressions were as a foreigner of Lebanon and the Lebanese. I was never asked anything about my own interests or research aims, and the only further comments I received were directed at my physical appearance. I came to understand that I was invited to share the evening with this group not only because of my connection to Ali, but because of the cachet I brought to the table as a western woman visiting from abroad, having a style and beauty they described as "international". Ali himself was not immune to this fact, being fully aware of the status I brought to him as a friend. To my initial amazement, my own beauty practices were often assessed as a subject of critique in these situations. For example, while my blue eyes and tall stature were seen positively, my fair skin and fine hair were suggested as features to be worked upon at local beaches and beauty salons. As a result, I became well versed in learning to mobilize my own physical capital in order to present myself appropriately as a respectable and yet sexually alluring female. I came to view these techniques of beauty work and self-presentation as a useful ethnographic method and a necessary and yet uncomfortable evil.
Meanwhile, Tareq, our host for the evening, had arrived just before midnight. After greetings and introductions, he asked our bartender to move his chair to the head of our table, affording him a better view of the rest of the rooftop patrons. During the taxi ride Ali described that Tareq held a high-ranking position in a department of the Lebanese government, and that a number of his subordinates would likely join him at the table with their girlfriends. By the time he had arrived, we were at least ten people, only one other of which was a woman. Despite greeting me warmly, she proceeded to regard me suspiciously from the other end of the table for the rest of the evening. I had encountered the same watchful gaze from women previously, and when I questioned local friends about this behaviour they suggested that perhaps in these circumstances my presence could be understood as a threat. As a foreigner, although I stood outside the usual family politicking and posturing around securing a good marriage, I could not expect to escape becoming the subject of rumour and gossip like everyone else. Assumptions about my morals were made according to longstanding ideas of western women, and these were only intensified when I was seen out with Ali. While this experience was infuriating and uncomfortable at times, I began to eventually confront the impossibility of conducting ethnographic research in these spaces while maintaining my privacy and anonymity. As Ali continued to remind me with an air of sarcasm, "Everyone's a celebrity in Beirut", and discussions with respect to one's appearance and reputation, however harmless, are commonplace. I can remember vividly my own discomfort when a nightlife acquaintance referred to me as a "socialite". When I joked with him about the negative connotation I associated with the word, he suggested that perhaps I would prefer being called a "social butterfly" instead. With this in mind, nightclubs represent spaces of social risk. They can engender downward social mobility if one is not vigilant in acting with decorum as a respectable female. Judgements about one's character can solidify obstacles or grant opportunities of ethnographic access in equal measure.
As the drinks continued to flow, I asked Ali whether he knew the DJ who was playing, now joined by a number of partygoers dancing alongside him and waving to their friends. He explained that everyone in the industry knows of one another, and in some cases success created rivalries due to jealousy and competition for regular employment at the hottest clubs. Our conversation was interrupted by Tareq, gesturing in the direction of two pretty girls dancing beside the bar, and yelling over the music to Ali that he should, "Go talk to those girls, and bring them to our table". As the night moved on and this pattern began to repeat itself, the reciprocal nature of the relationship between the two men began to crystallize in my mind. Ali's fame as a local nightlife celebrity, coupled with his charisma and well defined personal style, were understood as a method of accessing previously untapped pools of women for the enjoyment of the men sitting around the table. In each case, and with no hesitation, Ali greeted the girls in question, many of whom he knew personally, and invited them to have drinks at our VIP table. In a few cases the girls joined our table briefly, preferring usually to continue their one-on-one conversations with Ali before heading back to their own groups.
As the night wore on it became clearer to me that my role was not only to play the part of the intriguing foreign beauty. I began to field the same question from a number of men at the table: "Where are your girlfriends? When are they coming?" In their eyes, and I believe because I was associated with Ali, I too could be mobilized as an intermediary with the potential to deliver access to new and desirable female companions. Having realized this, I made my excuses, knowing full well that my girlfriends had no intention of joining the group that evening. I could tell this disappointed our host, and I worried how his negative reaction would affect Ali. Over the loud music, which by this point had turned from popular dance hits to r & b and house, Ali told me not to worry about it, and that the men were just getting impatient with their lack of success that evening as far as women were concerned. Not unlike Allison's (1994) own findings while working in a Japanese hostess bar, I learned that the role of the beautiful female in these settings is powerful and necessary in order to shore up masculine heterosexual performances and legitimate expenditures. Furthermore, at nightclubs like SKYBAR, it is uncommon for local women to book tables or contribute to any associated costs of the evening. Feeling uncomfortable with this discrepancy, I questioned my male companions about these practices. They pointed to the fact that women contributed in their own way by spending time and money "preparing their beauty", from getting weekly manicures to shopping for an outfit.
Noticing the thinning crowd, and confident in his own interactions with Tareq that evening, Ali and I decided not to linger. We said our goodbyes and slid away into the night, breezing past the remaining partygoers, many of whom by this hour took no notice of our passing. As I reflected on the evening during the drive home, I realized that although my own positionality as an ethnographer seemed particularly well suited to Beirut's nightlife, I was particularly lucky to have Ali show me how to make the rules work in my favour. While almost anyone could learn to play the game, there are undoubtedly hard limits restricting those who may gain access to these social circles. Certainly, my success in infiltrating these venues would have been compromised had I occupied any socially sanctioned minority position, from ethnicity to sexual orientation and class. Although some nightlife ethnographers may demonstrate their knowledge of the rules, they may still be excluded from joining in the game.
Caitlin Robinson is a social anthropologist and PhD Candidate at SOAS, University of London. She is conducting a broad based ethnography of the cosmetic surgery industry and its players in Beirut, Lebanon using innovative methods and approaches to investigate spaces where beauty and self-making occur in the city. A Canadian by birth, she holds a BAH in Political Studies from Queen's University, Canada and an MPhil in Social and Cultural Anthropology from the University of Oxford. She can be contacted at: <Caitlin_robinson@soas.ac.uk>
Allison, Anne. 1994. Nightwork Sexuality, Pleasure, and Corporate Masculinity in a Tokyo Hostess Club. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Bourdieu, Pierre. 2008. "The Forms of Capital". In Readings in Economic Sociology, ed. Nicole Woolsey Biggart, 46–58. Oxford: Blackwell.
 All names have been changed to protect the identities of my interlocuters.
 A similar case would likely be found in the nightlife settings of most other Arab capitals in the Middle East.
 This embedded framework for acceptable social interaction also complicates the manner in which Beirut has been marketed by the media and tourism industries as the ultimate hedonistic pleasure capital.
 Although there is not space enough in this article to further develop this line of analysis, Ali's sectarian identity as a Shi'a has specific implications in light of the political power sharing between religious sects in Lebanon.
 This point will be elaborated upon further in the ethnographic vignette that follows.
 While I argue that hierarchies experienced during the daytime tend to mimic those found in elite nightclub settings in Beirut, the latter are, to a certain extent, more flexible and reassuring for those actors occupying more marginal social positions.