Wednesday, May 30, 2012
First published on THE MANTLE
Not too long ago I had been reading Lina Khatib’s book “Lebanese Cinema: Imagining the Civil War and Beyond” (2008) and was fascinated by her bold proposal: Modern Lebanese cinema is best explored in the context of the Civil War, partly because almost all Lebanese films since the outset of the Civil War in 1975 have been about the war. I was always fascinated by the history of the Lebanese civil war, if only because of how little it was history or a history.
Canonical films such as Ziad Doueiri’s “West Beirut” (1998) and Jocelyn Saab’s “Once Upon a Time, Beirut” (1995) are set against this background. Civil war films are an entire industry in Lebanon and titles become available each year, and though these films are somewhat critical, the truth remains that the history of the civil war has never been written, let alone spoken.
Without a history, you cannot tell a story.Bernard Khoury expressed this with utmost accuracy: “Local artists are undeniably prisoners of war. In the end, Beirut’s image is a prisoner of the Other’s gaze.” But Lebanon is a country where living exacts a price that is dearly paid, and what is important always is precisely that, the living. This is the story that Samer Daboul’s“Out Loud” (2011) is telling, with an uncanny sense for magic and daydreaming.
The film is an unusual tale of friendship and love in modern Lebanon in which five strangers are brought together in postwar Lebanese society in a struggle to break through the traditional boundaries imposed by society. That being said, this doesn’t come as a surprise for the connoisseurs of the emerging Arab cinema in which traditional films have become the benchmark of its identity and the battleground for cultural antinomies.
But “Out Loud” has little to do with tradition films. The colorful and bitter-sweet tale begins with the encounter between Nathalie – a random girl from the Internet – with this unlikely group of five friends, raised up in the openly violent tensions of Lebanon and struggling to find a way out of the vicious circle – the memories of the war, homophobia, corruption, hatred – in order to do what the Middle East deems impossible: To simply live as who you are.
After Rami and Ziad were found out to be a gay couple by their families, they have to run for their lives – and this part of the story is hardly a fiction in Lebanon – finding first temporary shelter in Jason’s house, where the five friends pledge loyalty to stay together and marry the one girl, and then at Nathalie’s chalet in Zahlé, where they plan to settle down, far away from a hostile world, which is alas, everybody’s world.
But we don’t need the movies to tell us that love is not like in the movies. Hannah Arendt reflects that even if you turn life into a story and tell beautiful stories about life, you cannot make life beautiful by telling a story, except at the expense of life playing tricks on you. The original plan is somewhat changed, but not altogether given up. After all, it is promises what constitutes the basic currency of the human world.
What is demanded here isn’t resignation or the acceptance of a certain sealed fate but the facing up to reality – that includes both of the orders of happiness and unhappiness. What is this world in which they want to live? That they want to create? Is it possible? Is it real? Old as those questions might be, they’re never irrelevant and for Lebanon, they’re the thread of silence that extends between one war and another.
Suffice it to say that there is no movie like “Out Loud” ever made in the Middle East. In Lebanon, the year 2009 saw the release of Marc Abi Rached’s film “Help”that also dealt withhomosexuality – though in passing – together with other taboo topics such a delinquency and prostitution. The film was banned short of its release.
Joanna Andraos, who played the role of young prostitute Soraya in “Help” tells us about the film: “Many films talk about politics, war, conflict… but the singularity of this film is that it just tells a story”. “Out Loud” is also another story-telling film – which is somewhat rare in the Middle East – that also speaks about politics, war and conflict but in such a subtle – yet explicit – way that it doesn’t obscure what the film really wants to tell.
“Out Loud” – to put it in simple words – isn’t only challenging the taboos of a society but also telling a beautiful story and at that successfully. Unlike most films that tell linear stories with socially relevant content – and somehow evoke the format of the traditional novel – there’s hardly any social realism in it and the aesthetics of the film is somewhere between poetry and hope.
Director Samer Daboul wanted to plant a seed for the future, and this film is precisely it. It is a question mark and an exclamation mark for all those who want to live in tolerance and equality. This film – Romantic, epic, sardonic – being humble as it is, is a microcosm of the real Lebanon that lurks underneath the wars and the endless political diatribes. In this Lebanon, there’s just so much life, there’s just so much death; all at once. But it’s all in our hands. Kierkegaard writes: “Decision is the eternal protest against fiction.”
In my next review, I will be speaking about “Out Loud – The Documentary” that was released together with the movie and that tells in detail about the ordeal of shooting a movie of this kind in Lebanon and the status of human rights in the country.
Wednesday, May 23, 2012
Friday, May 18, 2012
In the aftermath of the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), the Lebanese hastened to escape the burden of the recent past, either erasing the memory of the war or longing for the re-establishment of life as it was before the war.
The public sphere – NGO’s and civil society organizations no less than politicians – also quickened to establish all fashion of committees, courts and movements in order to promote dialogue and reconciliation.
While the public sphere thrived on this optimism and defiance and against the official discourse of “no victor, no vanquished” that prevalesced, the private spheres remained at the level of remembering the war through the narrative of the sect, party and even family.
The question of the cultural memory – in the absence of which there can be no national consensus or identity with which to move forward – remained fragmentary and thoroughly absent from historical studies on the period. One of the sole exceptions is the work of Danish scholar Sune Haugbolle, articulated in his 2010 book “War and Memory in Lebanon”, reviewed here by the Middle East Policy Council.
Haugbolle begins his book with the blunt assumption that the Lebanese are not dealing with the past but simply coping with it and brings into fuller view the degree of state-sponsored amnesia throughout the years between the end of the civil war and the assassination of Rafik Hariri in 2005.
The Danish scholar's lecture “One day we’ll be looking back at this with nostalgia – Memoirs and public testimonies of the Lebanese civil war” is a substantial contribution to a vast field of unexplored Lebanese historiography in which under the surface of public reconciliation, lurks a wide variety of conflicting memories and narratives often hostile to each other.
In a rare display of boldness the interactive exhibition “Another Memory” did precisely that: To allow the private and the public spheres of Lebanese society to overlap at the level of memory, confronting the public with narratives about the war other than their own. Certain key dates of the civil war were selected from the newspapers An-Nahar andAs-Safir and reprinted in large displays. The public interacted with the exhibit adding their notes footnotes to the articles in post-it notes and bringing together a wide variety of opinions and reactions to certain events of the war.
The exhibit, organized by Lebanon’s Tajaddod (Democratic Renewal Movement) Youth in cooperation with Danish Radikal Ungden (Social Liberal Youth) was conceived under the assumption of what Haugbolle so clearly articulated in his book, albeit closer home:
“We believe that for real reconciliation to take place one has to be confronted with other narratives of the war than one’s own. In Lebanon the narratives are passed down by family and community and, particularly with young people who didn’t live the war themselves, are limited to one inherited version of events. Our hope is that knowing and trying to understand each other’s perspective on the past is the first step of working together on creating a common future.”
Lebanese war and post-war literature has also stepped up to the challenge. Elias Khoury for example articulated his novel “The Little Mountain” (1977) the hope for a better future – without knowing what would happen during the following decade – but it is in his novel “Gate of the Sun” (2000), an epic about the life ofPalestinian refugees in Lebanon since 1948 where he addresses best his own ideas on memory, truth and story-telling.
In an interview with Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot from March 2002, when his novel was published in Hebrew translation, he said:
“The Israeli is not only the policeman or the occupier, he is the “other,” who also has a human experience, and we need to read this experience. Our reading of their experience is a mirror to our reading of the Palestinian experience.”
Khoury might have been referring not only about the Israeli as the “other” but also about the struggle of memory and narrative in his native Lebanon insofar as the “other” is concerned and hence, the unresolved conflict.
A certain short documentary aired on BBC last year, “Open Eye: Lebanon’s missing” confronts us with the realities of the Lebanese civil war: In the documentary, photographerDalia Khamissy attempts to uncover what happened to the thousands of people who were kidnapped and never returned from the war; it confronts Amina Hassan Banat whose four sons were rounded up and disappeared in 1982 with Assaad Chaftari, a man involved in the disappearances. In spite of the brutal honesty of the documentary, there are no answers to be had and when asked about the whereabouts of Amina’s sons, Chaftari can only answer:
“I don’t know. The whole Lebanese soil is planted with mass graves.”
That is why initiatives like “Another Memory” are so important in a country with such a fragile shared memory like Lebanon, because as Haugbolle puts it: “No one is in possession of the absolute truth of the war… In such a public sphere, one might have to stop insisting on the truth and instead listen, very carefully, to the conversation.”
For an essay about cultural memory in Lebanon seen from Hannah Arendt's perspective on forgiveness and reconciliation, see my "War and Memory in Lebanon".
Thursday, May 17, 2012
“But this is the point. You die for your country. Suppose. Not that I wish it for you. But I say: Let my country die for me. Up to the present it has done so. I didn’t want it to die. Damn death. Long live life!” –James Joyce, “Ulysses”
The early evening seemed squalid, though somewhat warm. Blotches of purple, cerulean and always the thick white - the summers in the south are never blue. Fernando's mother had gone to Venice and we had only a couple of hours to enjoy, more than we had had in long weeks. “Il Pomeriggio” was always the place; after all none of us was older than sixteen, and in spite of the dyed hair, the trench coats and the incessant smoking, the obvious anxiety gave our ages away at mere hindsight.
Honorary membership in the bourgeoisie gave teenagers in those days the privilege of partaking in the world of the adults; especially expensive alcohol and lies. The nervous conversations, like verses written in free style without punctuation, filled the entire air and froze it, showering the half empty martini glasses with a thawing breath, half incomprehensible, half miraculous. It is called love. Only at “Il Pomeriggio” such pleasures could be thoroughly enjoyed, not entirely free from guilt.
When he left – as the clouds turned from purple into violet and then invited the ocean of dark – I thought, “Maybe I could linger a little longer”. I was a careful observer of nature; not of the plants and thrushes, as much as of the faces. “Where is this man going?” I asked myself. “—Hello, Bloom. Where are you off to? –Hello, M.Coy. Nowhere in particular.” I imagined that conversation from the Ulysses. And anyway, observation of human nature at that moment saved me.
Saved me from provincialism, from the inanity of home, from the obligation to read that book about the “Ladies in Blue” fresco from the Cretan palace of Knossos and anyway Juana had interpreted much better than me. She was better than me in everything, in the love of Greek and in the love of men, that came to her easily. At a time when I struggled still with a few phrases from Xenophon, she was already reading Euripides and was a regular fixture at the important parties in the city, which I only dreamt attending.
I wasn’t curious about the parties because I thought it would be nice to be free for a few hours, but rather the opposite. I wondered about the little deaths of the people and the stories they had to tell. Maybe I would meet somebody interesting. I guess that is why I began writing in the first place: Since the people I had met at the parties had never been interesting – with the sole exception of Tundama, whom I met many years later and now lives in Siberia – perhaps the anonymous readers I would find them.
I thought that the world was divided in two: Those who belong to the secret society of books and those who don’t. For that very reason, I always walked around with a book and when I sat in cafes in the city, I thought that reading a book would always bring people to me with a casual “I also read that book!” or even better, “That’s an interesting book! I’d like to read it as well”. This of course never happened. Neither did it in the countless museums, art galleries or even brothels. Reading books in brothels. How little did I understand.
But that night at “Il Pomeriggio” was not like the other nights, walking all night, looking for someone to talk to. In the cold, in the rain, in the brimming sunlight. Sonia was very elegant, like those women I had seen only in films and sometimes at the tailor’s shop. Her long hair sprouted sidewards like a fountain of glittering brown and formed one vast unity with her fur coat. It all began with a cigarette, still unlighted for her. Then the coughing and that young people shouldn’t be smoking. Then the shy approval.
My grandmother, prostrated in her bed, so full of hubris and slurs, seemed from an entirely different planet. Sonia was a psychoanalyst and then we talked about Fernando: “But he’s so young!” she exclaimed, as if forgetting for a moment that so was I. “Isn’t that a curious name of yours?” she inquired and then I told her it was a name for a Jew. Her friend, Mrs. Goldman, also exhilaratingly beautiful had just left and Sonia told me she was also a psychoanalyst, and her parents had come after the Holocaust.
I wasn’t too worried about an age difference of at least four decades, and all what mattered after all was the friendship. Not the friendship of comradeship or complicity, but rather the polite, distant and very political friendship of conversation. I didn’t know quite well what “Zionist” meant at the time, except that all Jews were Zionists, because Israel was the land that the Eternal, our God, had given to us. Israel was not in this planet, it was something otherworldly. Sonia taught me, but not on that day.
The next time I saw Sonia – a few weeks later – she invited me for a succulent dinner at the same place and I was so elated, never had I eaten in a luxurious restaurant like that, then given alcoholic drinks and chocolates and cigarettes. At my age, I only had enough money to buy one drink – always the cheapest on the menu – and cigarettes I stole from my father’s drawer. She told me then a mysterious tale: Her father, a Palestinian, had once bought a Hebrew manuscript in Damascus and she wanted to know what the age of the text was.
Along the way, I learnt that “your people, the Zionists” burnt the house of her father and forced him into exile, long before the establishment of the state. Then he fled to Lebanon where he met her mother, and together they left for the new world, though they were always called “Turks”, because Lebanon still belonged to the Ottoman empire and they traveled the entire world on a boat with nothing but a Turkish passport. That night I learnt that the Zionists had burnt her father’s house and that knowledge still didn’t change anything.
I didn’t speak Hebrew at such an early age – though little did I know, how soon I would find myself in Jerusalem – but I had been taking Greek for two years with Noel, who had been once a militant priest in a revolution and learnt the sacred tongues in Rome and in Jerusalem. He invited me to join his class in Biblical Hebrew, in which for the first time I learnt what the dots below the letters in the prayer book meant and how they were to be deciphered. I took a copy of the Damascus manuscript to him and waited patiently for an answer.
In the meantime, a friend of Sonia – another psychoanalyst – had gone insane after quitting her medication and was now in a mental facility. In the meantime, Sonia had taken to drinking and thought a lot about her father. She told me about the Holy Land, to which she had been once, and where her father house had been, in a place where years later I found instead, a restaurant of Lebanese exiles. Once I called Sonia from Jerusalem to tell her that I had found this restaurant where her father’s home once had been.
About ten years had passed and she no longer remembered me. That’s what happens when you mix alcohol with Alzheimer. But I remembered that “we” had burnt her father’s house, so I came back to the restaurant and asked the Lebanese couple to allow me to put some flowers in the memory of her father, who never saw the Holy Land again. Now I knew who the Zionists were, and I longer had a rational explanation for the expulsion of Sonia’s father. I felt sorry. I wanted to walk all the way to Beirut, and say to people I was sorry.
Of course most of us had been taught that the love of the people of Israel and the love of the state, were one and the same. And why would you not love your people? After all, it was on the name of these people that world history had been wronged; the utopia hadn’t come. How could God have given us this land? Then I remembered my first time in Jerusalem, walking along the street of the Prophets and telling myself: “So, this is the Holy City. Stench of sweat, garbage and dust.”
Perhaps we took it. Perhaps we took it because there was nowhere else for us to go. Perhaps we burnt Sonia’s father house because we were full of resentment. And who is this “we”? Why can’t we be treated as individuals? Zionist no longer means anything other than “those Zionists”, e.g. those who burnt Sonia’s father house. Criminals, villains, thieves. There are no other Zionists. There are no good Zionists. We shouldn’t have stolen the land in the first place. We should have stayed in Europe. Mourn our dead there.
I’ve asked myself for so long, what would have Sonia thought of me, had she lived to see me today? Would she also tell me, “I have no problems with Jews, only with Zionists”, like Ali did? Would she also tell me that we should have stayed in Europe? Would she also call me a jerk? I wonder if Sonia would have returned to Palestine. Perhaps we’re wrong, and no justice can be delivered on any of these peoples, perhaps it is like the Book of Job, we can’t be redeemed even if we do everything to be redeemed. There’s no insurance.
This should have never happened. I told myself so many times as I drove alongside the road to Jericho, and I saw the Israeli soldiers strip searching the Palestinian women clad in abayas. This should have never happened. I told myself when I had to watch on TV the soldiers stabbed, their eyes gouged out and their bodies disemboweled in a square in Ramallah. This should have never happened. I told myself when a friend who bragged about having killed many Arabs was himself killed in Lebanon. I buried him too.
But the truth is that all this did happen and a lot more. Who are these Zionists that burnt Sonia’s father house and that she could never forgive? Perhaps some of them were simply dreamers, running from the Soviet Union, running from poverty, running from death. Perhaps they were born, like Sonia, to people whose houses were burnt too. Perhaps they didn’t have enough time to read Herzl’s “Jewish State” and barely had enough time to reach a boat and leave their entire families behind.
All of them, those people who built that country in which I lived and where I paid homage to Sonia’s parents; they were not murderers, they were not thieves, they were not criminals. They just wanted to live. Those Zionists. Once I heard Tim Hetherington say that wars are something very human – people are put with weapons at two sides of a mountain and asked to defend their comrades. This is how this country was born, in a war. People do terrible things in wars, in order to survive. Even good people.
What if Ali and I went to war? Would he kill me to survive? Would he burn my house? I don’t know, but probably I would. All I learnt from Sonia – in between the lines – is that this war already happened, and we shouldn’t fight the wars of other people. Forgive me, friends, if I can’t un-make the past of my people, since I’m only an individual. This is one tragic story, so countless our dead. But it is a tragedy of two. There’s no innocence to be had in tragedies. Not yours and not mine.
Forgive me if I think you border on hate when you think they’re innocent and we’re guilty; forgive me if I think you border on hate when you think we should have never come; forgive me if I think that you have a problem with me when only my people has to bear all the blame. Forgive me if I think you’re unfair when you label me a jerk for defending myself from generalization. Please forgive me. Forgive me for thinking this is a world made only of individuals, who love and hate, who do good and evil, who have grace and cruelty, all at once.
The only important thing is that I will not die for my country, perhaps for you, but never for my country.