Loans that shape Lebanon's bottom line
A new nose or derriere can be had on the installment plan. 'Now beauty is no more a luxury,' a banker says.
Lebanon is known as the Arab worlds plastic surgery capital. Here, Dr. Fadi Jiz meets with his patient Talal Mansour, who with his wife, Teresa, was chosen to participate on the television program "Beauty Clinic," in which participants are given free plastic surgery. (Kate Brooks / For The Times)
Forget getting behind on your payments. Maysa, a 31-year-old accountant, is making payments on her behind.
For years the Beirut resident felt uncomfortable with her derriere. She tried dieting, exercise and weight-loss pills, to no avail. Then she discovered that her bank was offering thousands of dollars in loans for nose jobs, breast implants, face-lifts and liposuction.
Maysa, who asked that her last name not be published, signed on the dotted line and went to the clinic with a check for $2,800 -- a third of her annual salary. Hours of liposuction later, she walked out with a new rear end.
"I wanted to do the operation, but it was expensive. I couldn't pay for it in one lump sum," said Maysa, who squirmed and fidgeted with her brown hair at the beginning of a recent conversation about her bottom, but relaxed and proudly showed off her new slim jeans by the end.
"I could have saved up, but I decided to get a loan and get the results now."
Even during a 15-year civil war that ended in 1990, Lebanon was known as the Arab world's plastic-surgery capital. Now, some estimate that the country's 200 or so plastic surgeons perform up to 1.5 million procedures a year, from simple Botox injections to tummy tucks. Plastic surgeons say 90% of their work is cosmetic and 10% is reconstructive for victims of war and disease -- a complete reversal from 20 years ago.
Last spring, after Lebanon's upstart First National Bank launched a bold ad campaign offering loans for cosmetic procedures, the profitable plastic surgery industry grew even more successful. Lower-income secretaries and flight attendants now could join the well-heeled homemakers and debutantes who've long gone under the knife.
First National reports 30% monthly increases in applications for plastic surgery loans, and two other banks have followed with similar offers.
"Now beauty is no more a luxury," said George Nasr, director of marketing at First National. "Anyone can have it."
Though the Arab world has a reputation in the West as a land of piety and austerity, a strong strain of frivolity and vanity also runs through the culture, especially in Lebanon. Their nation perpetually teeters on the brink of chaos and has yet to fully recover from decades of war, but the Lebanese, even in times of strife, have always pursued the good life with zest.
This is a country that placed civic pride over practicality, sinking $40 billion into debt to rebuild to gorgeous perfection a downtown destroyed in the civil war, even as it continues to suffer daily electricity brownouts and monthly tap-water shortages.
"There's a kind of irresponsibility because we look at ourselves and not our country," said Ziad Sleiman, a plastic surgeon.
"It's a vicious circle," Sleiman said. "Good car, well dressed, every day you have to shave. It's a lifestyle, and the Arab countries copy from here. They look to Lebanon to see . . . the fashion, the new trends."
Lebanese barely shrugged as a parade of emissaries, including French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, recently visited the country in an attempt to resolve a political deadlock that has left Lebanon without a president since November.
But they went gaga over Paul van Dyk, the Dutch DJ who was the first major international pop star to play Beirut since Israeli fighter jets and warships bombed the country in the 2006 war against Hezbollah.
Many young people like to spend their extra cash on pricey cellphones and designer clothes, just like their counterparts in the U.S.
"A lot of people tell you, 'Why should I wait five years and collect the money, put it away bit by bit every month, when I can do it now, benefit from the surgery now for the next five years?' " said Amin Nasr, a Beirut plastic surgeon who marvels at the number of patients he attracts in what remains essentially a war-torn developing country.
"Especially in a place where some people don't have enough money to rent a proper house and send their kids to a proper school, where the electricity is still cut six hours out of 24, and people don't have water in their homes, you find them taking loans to get aesthetic surgery," the surgeon said.