Ziad Rahbani's 'A Long American Movie': A timely release

Ziad Rahbani's 'A Long American Movie': A timely release
Comment: Set in a psychiatric hospital in Beirut, Rabhani's play is a reminder of how purportedly 'ancient' identities are in fact products of modern political influences, writes Bassel Salloukh.
7 min read
17 Nov, 2016
A still from film footage of Ziad Rahbani's play 'A Long American Movie' [YouTube]

The recent film release of Ziad Rahbani's 1980 play Film Ameriki Taweel (A Long American Movie) in cinemas is testimony of just how much Lebanon has changed in past decades, but also how much it remains the same.

Set in a psychiatric hospital in then West (read Muslim) Beirut, the play revolves around the daily routine and questions of patients suffering from war-related mental illnesses.

There is the leftist university professor who was maddened by the whimsical nature of shifting alliances between the so-called "left" and "right" ideological camps, not just in Lebanon but across the Arab world. His inability to make sense of or predict political developments ultimately traumatised him.

The journalist who wants to objectively uncover the main causes of the civil war, but finds himself bombarded by different versions, each claiming a monopoly over the truth. The Armenian Lebanese merchant who refused to take sides during the war, insisting on his polyglot national identity, and whose music store, on both sides of the city's imperfect religious divide, was blown up. In desperation, he decides to migrate to Canada.

Edward, the Christian obsessed with the country's Muslims, and hence - like most Lebanese - perpetually asking about peoples' religious identity. The drug addicts who fail to understand why they are expected to lead a drug-free life in an otherwise mad country.

And, of course, there is Rachid, played by Rahbani himself, who lost his senses when he realised that almost all Lebanese are liars: They claim they are law-abiding citizens or fighting the war for a good cause when they are culprits in the lawlessness engulfing the country and seeking personal aggrandizement.

Blame the people, and not just the political elite, Rachid insists

Rachid, this enigmatic character that tiptoes between sanity and insanity, is the alter ego of every Lebanese person trying to make sense of the madness that was, and remains, everyday Lebanon.

His madness is meant to demystify Lebanon's difficult but always unspoken truth: that albeit the majority of the population claims they want to live in peace and harmony as law-abiding citizens, in fact it is this same majority that celebrates – nay cannot live and prosper without – the everyday lawlessness and corruption of Lebanese life and benefits from the political system's clientelism and nepotism.

The circular nature of this dilemma is daunting: it is not just the political system that is corrupt, average citizens are to be blamed also for the manner in which they instrumentalise the political economic system for their own selfish interests. Blame the people, and not just the political elite, Rachid insists.

This is a recurring theme in Rahbani's plays, interrogating common shibboleths meant to exonerate the average Lebanese of any guilt or blame for the country's travails. Like a Socratic gadfly, he relentlessly blames Lebanese for what has befallen their country, reversing the usual national pastime of blaming the political elite and foreign conspiracies for the country's myriad problems.

It is this quest to unmask the conspiracy behind the civil war that ultimately torpedoes the drug-induced serenity of the psychiatric hospital

And it is this quest to unmask the conspiracy behind the civil war that ultimately torpedoes the drug-induced serenity of the psychiatric hospital and the artificial amicability of its staff.

In a dramatic scene towards the end of the play, medical staff and patients sit together for a discussion of the root causes of the civil war, a deeply divisive topic even today.

Yet what was promised to be a civil discussion among staff and patients quickly degenerates into accusations and recriminations between the members of the medical staff. Mirroring the main political and sociological fault lines during the civil war years, the Christian nurses blame the war on external factors, namely the Palestinian armed presence in the country, and on how "the Muslims", political elite but also population, permitted the Palestinian commandos to infringe on Lebanon's sovereignty.

By contrast, the Muslim staff members blame the war on the intransigence of the Christian political elite and their refusal to accept any reforms to what by then was an outdated power-sharing arrangement. And so, what had started as an attempt by the medical staff to answer their patients' vexing questions about the war ends up in violence and mutual threats along strictly religious lines.

The false serenity of the hospital is laid bare for all to see. And in a sudden reversal of roles, the purportedly insane patients attempt to restore a semblance of peace among the supposedly sane staff.

In a sudden reversal of roles, the purportedly insane patients attempt to restore a semblance of peace among the supposedly sane staff

The hospital's response to this disastrous turn of events was to electroshock the patients into an artificial but fragile docility. Henceforth all the patients were conditioned to repeat the same false mantra: that they are all brothers and sisters, and that the war was the result of one big, but inscrutable external conspiracy.

This is the docility produced and dictated by the confessional - and later sectarian - system. It may be punctured every now and then by voices of resistance to the established political economic order, as in Rachid's unfathomable scream towards the end of the play, but it always manages to rebound and re-establish itself.

Rahbani demystifies the shallow nationalism upon which Lebanon was erected. Some twenty-six years after the end of the civil war (1975-1990), ask five Lebanese to explain the causes of the war and you may receive as many as five different answers.

No serious attempt was made in the postwar years to undertake a process of truth and reconciliation

No serious attempt was made in the postwar years to undertake a process of truth and reconciliation, one that would allow for a proper interrogation of the past so that the future is built on stronger national foundations.

Given the substantial autonomy offered by the Constitution to private schools, and the state's failure to produce a unified history textbook, postwar generations are denied a proper understanding of the country's history and the causes of its conflicts. Instead, and to borrow from the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, Lebanon today is a country of nineteen "solitudes", eighteen officially-recognised sects plus an additional community of anti-sectarian and trans-sectarian citizens, each imagining and living their distinct - in Albert Hourani's powerful formulation - "visions of Lebanon".

Yet beyond the timeliness of its themes, Rahbani's Film Ameriki Taweel is also a vivid example of the malleability of ethnic, sectarian and tribal identities. It is striking how throughout the play it is religious (Muslim-Christian) differences that mark the main political fault lines among Lebanese. One hears no mention of sect and sectarianism; an honest reflection of the general political mood of the time.

For albeit historically constructed in middle nineteenth century Mount Lebanon, and later institutionalised into the Lebanese political system, throughout the war years religious (or confessional) differences overlapped with economic disenfranchisement to shape political demands and conflict.

It was later, starting in the early 1980s, when the country's Shia community exploded into the political and military scene, and undeniably in the postwar years, that sectarianism emerges as the main marker of political identities and driver of political mobilisation and conflict.

In this respect, and at a time when sectarian agitation dominates the Lebanese and Arab public spheres, Rahbani's Film Ameriki Taweel is a reminder of how these purportedly "ancient", unchanging, and primordial identities are in fact products of always modern situational, political and geopolitical factors.

And if sectarianism can be made, then perhaps one day Rachid's deafening scream will awaken all those Lebanese tired of the sectarian system's disciplinary violence, and will help them overthrow their docility to produce new and alternative peaceful polyphonic identities beyond sectarianism.

Dr. Bassel F. Salloukh is Associate Professor of Political Science at the Lebanese American University (LAU) in Beirut. His recent publications include the co-authored The Politics of Sectarianism in Postwar Lebanon (Pluto Press, 2015), "The Arab Uprisings and the Geopolitics of the Middle East" in The International Spectator (June 2012), the co-authored Beyond the Arab Spring: Authoritarianism and Democratization in the Arab World (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2012).

His current research looks at post-conflict power-sharing arrangements, the challenge of re-assembling the political orders and societies of post-uprisings Arab states, and the geopolitics of the Middle East after the popular uprisings. Follow him on Twitter: @bassel67

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.