24-year-old Dima Arabi peers from behind a curtain at 600 guests socializing beneath a glittering chandelier at the Casino du Liban in Jounieh, Lebanon. Nervously giggling with her girlfriends, she retraces her dance steps in a white floor-length ball gown.
They are the Debutante Girls: daughters of the wealthy, connected families of Lebanese high society, college-educated women making an entrance in a lavish evening event.
“It’s a way to present yourself to society,” photographer Natalie Naccache tells TIME. “But it’s also a way to be a princess for a night.”
Known as the Paris of the Middle East, Lebanon was the epicenter of nightlife in the mid-1900s. And then the war hit, followed by an influx of Syrian refugees and sectarian tension. Despite the tense political climate, Naccache says it’s a culture that persists. “This ball is their way of carrying on, no matter what is going on in their country,” she says. “This was them retaining their little Paris of the Middle East.”
Naccache began reporting in Lebanon in 2010. She started photographing glamorous Lebanese weddings, which led to photographing society and beauty culture. A Lebanon native, she was interested in showing a part of Lebanese society that few focus on. She also wanted to combat stereotypes usually associated with the Middle East. “When people see images of Lebanon, they are usually images of refugees or of destruction,” she says. “This is a part of modern-day society that is never revealed. Why is it never revealed and why aren’t people from high society ever documented or photographed?”
Naccache attended every Saturday rehearsal to photograph the girls. As time drew closer to the ball, she would stay late with them as they rehearsed until midnight. “I spent as much time as I possibly could with these girls, getting to know them,” she says. “I came to admire and respect them. They’re not just a bunch of silly, lofty bimbos prancing around and doing nothing with their money. They are college-educated women who work hard to ensure that their money and time goes to a good place.”
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