Always Coca-Cola – Alexandra Chreiteh (translated by Michelle Hartman)

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Always Coca-Cola tells the story of three friends – Yana, Yasmine and the narrator, Abeer Ward.

Abeer Ward means ‘fragrant rose’ in Urdu. It is also the name of the florists that Abeer’s father runs and she hates it. She planned to change it when she reached eighteen but realised she could neither afford it nor be bothered with the legal proceedings.

In all of this, the most important thing is that my father – the moment I let him know about my plan – forbade me unequivocally from changing it because my name is the most beautiful name that a young lady could possibly have, in his opinion.

And thus I lost hope that I could exchange Abeer Ward, Fragrant Rose, for another name. I surrendered myself to this reality, thinking that whenever I get married I can exchange my family name for my husband’s.

It is fairly clear from this opening that Abeer is entrenched in patriarchal rule. This is supported by the way her father treated her mother during pregnancy:

Abeer has a birthmark between her shoulder blades that looks like a Coca-Cola bottle. She believes this is the result of her mother’s unquenched thirst during pregnancy when Abeer’s father refused to allow her certain food and drink in order that the baby ‘be born clean and pure’. This also brings out Chreiteh’s other key theme, which is capitalism and the ubiquity of brands. Both of these ideas are often entwined.

 

Abeer sees her friend Yana – or at least an image of her – every day. Yana is a model and opposite Abeer’s apartment, where there used to be a view of sea and sky, there is now a gigantic billboard with Yana drinking a bottle of Coke on it.

Yana, as usual, was completely naked except for a red bikini, and I was facing her in my underwear.

As usual, I started inspecting my body, searching for flaws. I grabbed my breasts and pressed them close to each other and then I sucked in my belly and stood on my tiptoes to seem taller. Then I stood flat on my feet, turning around to see my rear end, which seemed really big to me, much bigger than I had hoped.

Disaster!

Yana’s Romanian and came to Beirut with her now ex-husband who is Lebanese. She was expecting ‘deserts, palm trees and mirages’ and instead found ‘a lot of dust’ and a beach ‘covered with the glass of broken bottles and used needles’. At the start of the novel, the three women are going to buy a pregnancy test for Yana who thinks she is pregnant by her boyfriend, the manager at the Coca-Cola factory. Ameer is keen to see Yana as she’s asked her boyfriend if Ameer can have a job, a role she needs to complete her degree. However, she is afraid of her father, or anyone he knows seeing her buying a pregnancy test in case he thinks it is for her.

Yasmine is different to the other two in that she lives alone and thrives on fitness. She boxes, a choice that Ameer doesn’t understand.

…it’s the kind of sport that strips a young woman of her most important attribute, her femininity. I’ve tried to convince her that she should do any other sport, because women aren’t born for violence and physical fighting, it goes completely against their nature, they should be soft and tender like the jasmine flower of my friend’s name.

Ameer goes as far as telling Yasmine that there are rumours at the university that she’s a lesbian and insists on meeting her in remote places because she’s embarrassed to be seen with her.

Always Coca-Cola is a novella about what it’s like to be a young woman in a patriarchal society, whether that society is in the east or the west is irrelevant, there are many scenarios here that are utterly recognisable. Ameer and Yana’s views and ideas are largely shaped by patriarchal viewpoints – although there are moments when we see glimpses of hope for them both – while Yasmine seems to stick a metaphorical middle finger up at the system. Despite that, there is still a scene towards the end of the book where it’s clear that she too has moments of insecurity brought on by society.

The novella doesn’t have any neat conclusions, Chreiteh appears to be showing us the status quo remains…although perhaps not entirely. Recently I saw Caitlin Moran bemoaning the lack of menstrual blood in films in particular, although the same could be said about novels. Here, in Always Coca-Cola are female bodies in all their glory, including two scenes (both across several pages) about Ameer’s period. The first involves her period starting while the women are in Starbucks and the second involves her being fitted for a dress, by a man, while she’s wearing a sanitary towel and worrying whether he can smell that she’s having her period. It may be the only novel I’ve seen such scenes in but it only takes one to start a revolution.