Dan Azzi
September 2017


Nouveau Riche & Lebanese Culture

Dan AzziDan Azzi

If you want to understand Lebanese culture, you can start by examining some of the idioms. Let’s look at the term “nouveau riche” which, in Lebanon, is a derogatory term, meaning someone who is recently wealthy, as opposed to inherited wealth, and therefore does not behave properly like people who are accustomed to wealth. 

The other day I was sitting with someone who described herself as being elite. The funny part is that she was from a bland neighborhood in Achrafieh, with old buildings, still riddled with bullet holes, because their occupants are not willing or able to repair them, so, at best, she would be middle class. The apartments there were the ones with no en suite bathroom. In fact the toilet flushed though a chain hanging from the ceiling and some of the toilets were the type which are basically a hole in the ground (“Arabic toilet” as they’re called). However, in the last decade or two, after all these shiny new glass towers were built, all of a sudden, these old buildings were located in Beverly Hills, and now, people like her started to believe that they are part of the elite.

 The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “nouveau riche” as “a person newly rich.” It’s as simple as that. In America, you might also call him a “self-made man” which is one of the most complimentary descriptions you can give a person. But in Lebanon, nope – a person who was born in the lucky sperm club is to be admired and looked up to. So a person who did and achieved nothing in his life, but happened to inherit a fortune from his dad, is to be admired. Mind you, the dad himself may have made the money illegitimately or himself inherited it from his dad, but that’s OK.

The proponents of the usage of this term will say that the nouveau riche are tacky in their ostentatious display of their newly acquired wealth, like the requisite Rolex watch or Chanel bag. Of course, most members of both the nouveau and vieux riches (and middle class wanna-be) display their wealth through material things, that are “signée” (luxury brand names). The only difference is that new money just doesn’t know how to wear the same brand in a subtle manner, or so they want to believe, that it takes special skills and technique to wear a Rolex and still look humble. The paradox of the whole thing, is that if you ever run into a rich person who is frugal and doesn’t care about dressing up in luxury brand names, they would be labeled an even worse term in Lebanese culture – a miser.

This now brings us back to the effects of having a culture like this. If you want to know why it’s the same families who are running the country into the ground for decades, all you have to do analyze the culture behind it. My friend from earlier aspires to be part of this spoiled, entitled elite, who inherited all their wealth and power. Next time your building loses its electric current and you wonder why 27 years after the war, the government still can’t provide power 24 hours a day, like every other respectable country, or the trash is being dumped all around you or in the sea, think about this. The guy who’s supposed to be accountable to you, the voter, feels entitled to his position and will always get elected … by you … because he’s one of the vieux riches.

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