Ziad Rahbani's 'What about tomorrow?' - today

Ziad Rahbani's 'What about tomorrow?' - today
Comment: The re-release of the classic play has many lessons for today's Lebanon, writes Bassel F Salloukh.
5 min read
17 Feb, 2016
Ziad's play reflects the political economy of Lebanon which persists to today [YouTube/MMedia]

The recent release of Ziad Rahbani's 1978 play Bilnisbi la bourka shu? ["What about tomorrow?"] on the silver screen took Beirut by storm.

Lebanese cinemagoers of all ages and walks of life were finally given a chance to either revisit the play or, for the majority of the audience, to see it for the first time after memorising every word from audio recordings.

The plot is simple, but tragic: Zakaria, the play's central protagonist, and Rahbani's alter ego, is a bartender who moved from the mountains in search for work in the city.

But Beirut is expensive, and everyday life in this consumerist capital requires a larger income to sustain the family's new lifestyle and the children's constant demands. With the bar's owner refusing to give him a raise, Zakaria accepts grudgingly his wife's work as a part-time prostitute, catering for the bar's foreign customers.

The callousness of this economic choice, and its wrenching impact on his wife, Thuraya, and their marital relationship, is almost lost throughout the play in the details of employee and customer stories that collectively create a panorama of Lebanon's sociology and political economy in the pre-war years.

The bar... is itself a metaphor for Lebanon's pre-war role as a regional hub for financial, medical, educational, and a whole host of illicit services

And so we are introduced to the pseudo-poet who makes a living producing anything from unfathomable poems, commercial children stories, to fake shoes. There is also the vegetable supplier who sits down for a quick snack in the bar only to be instructed in capitalism's exploitative structure when he realises that the lettuce he had just sold the cook makes the bar a profit 800 times larger than its original price.

And the foreign and local customers enjoy Beirut's liberal ambiance and gay nightlife with complete indifference to the socioeconomic tensions boiling under the surface - tensions which ultimately exploded in the 1975 civil war.

Finally, the bar owner, a symbol of the country's national bourgeoisie, who rejects his employee's frequent requests for salary raises and is busy acting as middleman and subcontractor for foreign capital.

The bar, which serves as setting for the play, is itself a metaphor for Lebanon's pre-war role as a regional hub for financial, medical, educational, and a whole host of illicit services.

Read more: Ziad Rahbani - the lost artist

The climax of the play is reached when Zakaria undergoes a sudden epiphany. The cook overhears him chastising his wife for giving herself the liberty to choose among her customers, a diabolical calculation based strictly on who pays more but demand fewer services.

The couple, who had made their way from the serenity of their mountain village to the city in search for the good life, are devoured by Beirut's merciless material logic. But their secret has been revealed, triggering a crisis of consciousness that expresses itself violently when Zakaria stabs one of the bar's customers.

A family's tragedy is no match for Beirut's stubborn political economy, however: Zakaria goes to prison, the customers return to the bar, his wife continues her work, and life goes on unchanged.

The country can no longer hinge its economic fortunes on being the region's only services hub

The macro-rentier structures of Lebanon's political economy, so trenchantly demystified in Rahbani's play, have not only endured, but now make up a greater share of the post-war economy, in the process stretching most Lebanese citizens to their economic limits.

This post-war economy consists of an archipelago of non-productive rentier sectors, particularly real estate, that can neither create the kind of economic growth necessary to reduce a staggering gross public debt, nor produce the number of jobs required to absorb the army of fresh graduates exiting Lebanon's universities and technical schools every year - there were a mere 4,000 jobs for some 23,000 graduates in 2015.

The result is a steady brain-drain of the country's best talent, and a workforce labouring under intentionally depreciated salaries. Remittances, the lungs through which abnormal consumerist practices have been hitherto financed, are also decreasing, as immigrant populations assume more expensive lifestyles in their host countries, oil prices drop, and the geopolitics of the region continue to affect economic opportunities.

Leaving in pursuit of a better life, so stubbornly resisted by Zakaria with devastating consequences for his family, remains the default choice for many Lebanese, now as it was some four decades ago.

Rahbani's tragicomic play powerfully reminds us that Lebanon's post-war rentier political economy belongs to a bygone era and, much like the pre-war model, is unsustainable.

The country can no longer hinge its economic fortunes on being the region's only services hub. Other states have surpassed Lebanon's professional, technological, and infrastructural capabilities, while the country sinks into deeper and deeper levels of everyday lawlessness.

Yet, much like the customers in Rahbani's play who continued their lives as if nothing had happened, Lebanon's post-war political economic elite continue to hold the country and its people hostage to an economic model and political system that one day, like Zakaria, will snap.

And by then it may be too late to pick up the pieces and start rebuilding all over again.

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.