There's nothing that is not possible and available in Beirut but asking for tampons, the whole city breaks into cold sweat. Mirna El Masri documents her tour through shops and pharmacies of Beirut.
Lebanon has gained a reputation for its diversity, openness and modernity. At least when compared to other countries in the Near and Middle East. Everything ranging from a decadent party capital to the city with one of the highest rates of plastic surgery worldwide is a facet of Lebanon – with the exception of something as commonplace as tampons. These are precarious as they are intended for insertion in the vagina – and woe betide whoever tries to insert anything vaginally in Lebanon! A mere reference to the unmentionable private subject causes people to break out in a cold sweat, even pharmacists who can be assumed to have a certain level of education. Generally speaking, the Lebanese coyly refer to it as “down there” – or point their finger in the direction of the problematic body parts, accompanied by an audible clearing of their throat. A topic similarly only mentioned under one’s breath is a woman’s period, a circumstance that led Marsa, a sexual health centre in Lebanon, to produce the informational video titled “Leila the Spy”.
Oblivious to the touchy situation at first, I strolled through shopping malls and small shops in Beirut hoping to buy tampons. After I had trouble finding them even in the third shop, I decided to ask the shop assistant in the fourth. She proceeded to eye me up and down - sceptical and reproachful in equal measure. To look much younger than one’s actual age can often prove an advantage – but that does not extend to any sexualised matters, as evidenced by the assistant’s reaction: “Tampons? That’s nothing for girls,” she decreed. I was lost in confusion for a moment – for boys, then? Finally the penny dropped; she obviously saw me as a “girl” rather than a “woman”. After a short discussion, I was told that tampons were dispensed in pharmacies.
So I proceeded to the nearest pharmacy. Once again, I found myself critically examined, this time by the female pharmacist who asked: “Tampons, what would you need those for?” Perplexed, I answered: “Oh, I wasn’t aware there is more than one way of using them…? I, for my part, use them during my period by inserting them into the vagina.” Vagina, the word alone caused another female pharmacist to giggle hysterically while the face of a male assistant turned bright red. The pharmacist hesitantly replied: “Yes, we do have tampons… but you’re married, right?”
The question then arises: What is more unsettling? People’s fear of premarital deflowering – or the glaring ignorance of not knowing that the use of tampons does not cause it because – as should be part of every pharmacist’s knowledge – the hymen dilates during a woman’s period?
Despite the devastating danger of premarital deflowering by a tampon or even more unspeakable possibilities elsewhere, the matter can, thank goodness (!), be corrected by means of a surgical procedure, and it will only set you back a mere 2,000 - 5,000 $ to have a new hymen conjured up. That ensures the orderly bloodstain on the sheets during the wedding night, the mark of a commendable woman – a virtue unattainable without a hymen! By the way, hymen reconstructions are also a widespread trend in Lebanon.
Translated from the German by Christine F.G. Kollmar