Nisreen Abdul Salam has few ways to treat herself these days – to feel beautiful and comfortable in who she is. The 46-year-old mother of four lost her husband and home one fateful night during the 2014 war when a missile hit, she told The National. She is a teacher's college graduate now unemployed and back to living with her parents.
Ms Abdul Salam’s physical injuries from Gaza’s most recent war have since healed. But the psychological ones remain. And she’s convinced they have taken the form of pesky hairs that started growing on her face like they never did before the war, she said.
Culturally, hair on a woman’s face is frowned upon in Gaza. But it’s more than that for her: the hairs remind her of all of the stresses and pains, she said, of what she’s lost and won’t have again. She just wants them to go away.
So that’s why Ms Abdul Salam was at Gaza’s most trusted cosmetic clinic one Saturday in November to spend 100 shekels (Dh101) for another instalment of laser hair removal. She came with a relative by marriage, Iman, 39, who said she had developed a rash after a reaction from swimming in Gaza’s polluted sea. She, too, just wanted it erased.
“The economic situation in general is very hard for everyone,” said Iman, whose husband works at a mini-market in northern Gaza and has seven children. “But for me, for myself, I want to have a pretty appearance and when I go out to be happy. So I’ll spend money to feel comfortable.”
That is the philosophy behind why Dr Salah Al Zanin, 56, opened, and has kept open, his plastic surgery clinic as the only plastic surgeon in Gaza with European qualifications. Despite the Israeli siege, collapsed economy, and repressive politics of ruiling Hamas, he has continued to see customers coming in for simple pleasures, such as hair removal, liposuction, Botox and dermabrasion, among others.
“A Palestinian woman in Gaza has the right to look beautiful,” said Dr Al Zanin.
Some of his customers are like Abdul Salam or come to remove the physical scars of war, finding him on Facebook or through word of mouth. Other times it is husbands surprising their wives with Botox or another kind of cosmetic touch-up – the equivalent of a romantic getaway for a Gazan couple who cannot travel out, according to Dr Zanin.
“The psychological situation and pressures of people in Gaza, makes it so that one who lives 30 years in a European country is not like one who lives 30 years in Gaza,” he said.
Gaza’s political and humanitarian crises have in turn taken a particular toll on marital relationships in socially conservative Gaza, where it is now common for a man to divorce his wife if she is injured in exchange for a younger or healthier bride. Dr Al Zanin also marketed his clinic as an alternative to this.
“If the husband just brings the woman here it would be cheaper than getting a new wife,” he said with a laugh.
Dr Al Zanin has been working in this field for more than 30 years. He studied cosmetic surgery in Greece, where he received citizenship. But, watching his people suffering from afar, six years ago he decided to return home and offer his services here.
It hasn’t been easy. When first deciding to move back with his wife and three children, Dr Al Zanin figured he would be able to come and go with this European citizenship. Instead, like most Gazans, he hasn’t been able to leave Gaza since, he said. He also has to pay many taxes, both to Israeli and Hamas authorities, on all of the machines, tools and other items he imports. The profits are therefore minimal: for a Botox procedure that costs 1,300 shekels, he only makes about 100 shekels after paying off the associated costs, he said. He also often gives discounts or free services to those really in need.
“Every year is worse than the year before,” Dr Al Zanin said, echoing a sentiment shared by all Gazans no matter their class. For instance, he used to have 10 operations a month while now it’s just a few. Despite that, the prices in Gaza for cosmetic surgeries are significantly lower compared to neighbouring countries. “Lots of people are poor and cannot afford, like in all of the world,” he said.
Still, Gaza’s beauty salons and homes buzz with women and their wedding parties preparing hair and makeup for marriages that continue nonetheless.
The expectation that women will focus on their beauty practices does, on the one hand, reflect a restrictive kind of patriarchal politics with women regarded only as objects meant to please men.
But on the other hand, May Elefranji, 29, sees her passion for makeup as a means of self-expression and self-fulfilment that goes beyond just the male gaze.
Ms Elefranji is a rare Gazan Instagram "fashionista" who posts makeup tutorials to her thousands of fans on the photo-sharing platform and Facebook.
“You know Instagram and Gaza and personal photos, and such … it’s a bit sensitive,” said Ms Elefranji, who lives with her husband and daughter in an upscale apartment building. At first, she did not like the medium and just posted on another, more private photo-sharing app, Snapchat. But then she said she realised women from her Snapchat could use her Instagram to replicate her makeup tutorials, growing both her following and her influence.
Ms Elefranji described her vision as developing Gazan women’s beauty practices: she’s trying to popularise new makeup styles and techniques and is planning to start a spa-esque salon that “will be open for everyone” as a place for women to relax and feel beautiful, she said.
The salon has been in the works for months, though, as starting something new is very difficult under the current conditions in Gaza.
“When I’m angry or tired, I [do my makeup and] feel better,” said Ms Elefranji. “You see yourself in the way you want to be.”