Dispatch

The Not-So-Radical Roots of Miss USA

Rima Fakih is no Hezbollah hottie -- she's the living embodiment of Lebanon's cultural complexity.

The recent uproar among some conservative American bloggers over Rima Fakih, the Lebanese-American woman who was crowned Miss USA on Sunday, has been unique: Not many people -- let along beauty pageant winners -- have been accused of being both a pole dancer and a Hezbollah operative.

Among less-hysterical commentators in the United States, the victory of an Arab-American in the contest has produced a very, well, American debate. Fakih's detractors have leveled accusations of affirmative action. Others have cast the new Miss USA as a lesson in the value of assimilation and a poster girl for religious and ethnic diversity.

Here in Lebanon, however, the reaction to Fakih's coronation was somewhat less complicated: It was pure ebullience. In an official statement on Tuesday, President Michel Suleiman said, "Congratulations to Rima Fakih for showing the beautiful image of Lebanon in the world." Having been  runner-up for Miss Lebanon Emigrant in 2008, Fakih is already a national icon. Now she will enter history as a Lebanese hero, many commentators wrote.

Claims of Fakih's Hezbollah connection -- which originated with a single American blogger and haven't been substantiated -- generally have been viewed as slander in Lebanon. (The pole-dancing allegations are another matter, though mostly because people here fear she might lose her title.)

"All these accusations about her relationship to Hezbollah are nonsense," Fakih's 80-year-old uncle, Ahmad Said, told me when I visited him at his family's home in Souk el-Gharb, the Christian village in Mount Lebanon where Fakih spent the first seven years of her life before moving with her family to the United States. He was holding a copy of the local newspaper, which carried an article describing the American allegations of Fakih's radical roots. "Everyone in the family, not only Rima, celebrates both Christian and Muslim holidays," he continued.

Fakih's extended family is not exactly the Islamist terrorist cell of the right-wing pundits' imaginations: For one thing, their house is distinguished from the neighbors' by a big U.S. flag hung from its balcony, surrounded by ribbons and flowers. In the entrance, a Quran and a Bible are placed next to each other on a stand; "There are many mixed marriages in the family, so you cannot really call us a Muslim family," Fakih's 62-year-old aunt, Afifa Fakih -- the only woman in the household wearing a veil -- explained. "We love America," she added. "Without the USA, Rima wouldn't have fulfilled her dreams. She made us all proud, and for that, we thank the Americans."

Afifa and Ahmad were resting after what they described as a "hectic week with reporters and celebrations." On a table next to a plate of cake and sweets was a set of family photo albums on display for the family's numerous visitors. Fakih, as a little girl and a teenager, appears in many of the photos, surrounded by family members in Lebanon and the United States. In some shots from the beach, everyone, including the women, is wearing swimsuits.

The bikini that Fakih wore in the Miss USA contest has been the most contentious aspect of the whole affair in the pageant winner's childhood neighborhood in Srifa, the southern Lebanon town where her family is originally from. "I am not specifically proud of Rima. Her behavior contradicts our traditions," said a man named Fayez Najdi, hanging out in a cell-phone shop near the family's home. "This has nothing to do with American politics. Even if she was Miss Lebanon, my position would be the same."

Hawra Nazzal, a 21-year-old woman clad in a veil who was making copies nearby in the shop, disagreed. "I don't think the swimming suit is a problem," she said. "Many women wear it here in Lebanon. I am veiled and I won't wear it in front of men, but she lives in the U.S. Maybe if I lived there, I would have done the same.

"Of course, if she was my sister, I wouldn't encourage her," she added, and smiled.

Salman Nazzal, another customer who had been listening in on the conversation, cut in. "I just got back from Michigan, and I knew Rima since she was a child," he said excitedly. "She made us all proud. Some people can represent us with their veils; others represent us in their swimming suits. What's wrong with that? God created beauty and God loves beauty."

Down the street, a middle-aged man named Ahmad stood outside his shoe shop, smoking a Marlboro cigarette. "I am a communist," he said. "I do not care about her swimming suit. She made me proud of my village and country. Those who are criticizing her cannot see beyond her bikini."

In general, Fakih's old neighbors seemed highly excited about her leap to fame, and everyone was talking about when she might come back to Lebanon. But Ali Najdi, a 27-year-old schoolteacher who I met near Ahmad's shop, saw some problems with Fakih's new prominence. "The head of the municipality told her family that they will hang a big banner with Rima's photo at the entrance of the village," he said. "But many people, namely those who are affiliated with Hezbollah and Amal movement, won't be comfortable having her photo as Miss USA next to the big paintings of Khomeini and Hezbollah's leader Hassan Nasrallah that have welcomed visitors at the entrance of the village for years."

But Hezbollah's official statements on Fakih have been relatively mild. "The criteria through which we evaluate women are different from those of the West," Hassan Fadlallah, one of the party's members in parliament, said during a TV interview on Tuesday. 

"This is none of their business," Afifa Fakih said when I asked her about the comment. "Who cares about what Hezbollah thinks? She is our daughter, not theirs, and Lebanon is proud of her."

MAHMOUD ZAYAT/AFP/Getty Images

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