Film Ameriki Tawil: A portrait of Lebanon’s post-war society
Beirut - During a brief pause in fighting between Lebanon’s warring factions, Christian and Muslim Lebanese filled Beirut’s iconic Piccadilly Theatre for the 1980 debut of Ziad Rahbani’s play Film Ameriki Tawil (A Long American Film). Thirty-six years later, a younger audience — one that has not experienced a bitter civil war — is flocking to cinemas for the release of a digital recording of the production.
Between these two generations, a lot may have changed but the wider resonance of Rahbani’s timeless vision has not.
Film Ameriki Tawil, commonly regarded as Rahbani’s most acclaimed play, is not governed by a plot per se. Instead, it offers a fluid reflection on the anxiety, absurdity, and confusion that abound in a psychiatric hospital in Beirut’s mainly Muslim Western section during the 1975-90 civil war. The events centre on the lives of eight patients, who, when taken together, offer a relevant and enduring portrait of Lebanon’s post-war society.
Rashid, a young war-time militiaman — a character played by Rahbani — is an archetype of the aggressive and manic neighbourhood strongman often found stirring up trouble. In contrast, Abu Layla and Omar are cool-headed patients admitted for marijuana addiction. They represent an escapist ethos centred on the belief that intoxication is necessary considering the trials and tribulations of Lebanese life: Be it a civil war, sectarianism or total state failure.
These two sets of characters — the strongman and the stoners — reflect two salient ways of adapting to the country’s chaos.
Edouard, the “Christian character” who feels compelled to ask every person he meets about their religion, suffers from an acute fear that Muslims are seeking to drive out Lebanon’s Christians. Tragically, this character is not a relic of the past but echoes a contemporary discourse that became particularly salient during Lebanon’s presidential elections. Christian leaders have maintained the argument that the presidential vacuum, which lasted for nearly 30 months, constituted a deliberate threat to Christians in Lebanon, where the post of president of the republic is allocated to a Maronite Christian.
Abed al-Amir, a former professor of logic, is obsessed with unearthing the mu’amara — conspiracy — against Lebanon. He is determined to write a book outlining the contours of this “foreign plot” but finds himself lacking a concrete starting point.
In this respect, he resembles many of the country’s politicians, media pundits and academics who put forward pseudo-scientific conspiracy theories to explain the extraordinary. In the contemporary theatre of mu’amara, one can recall claims that Israel is behind Lebanon’s illegal internet networks and speculation that Qatar and Washington were responsible for mass protests that broke out in the summer of 2015.
On the other hand, Nizar, a leftist intellectual and a member of the Lebanese National Movement, openly admits that the complex and opaque world of Lebanese politics is no longer amenable to analysis. He frustratingly concedes that, despite his advanced intellectual capabilities, nothing makes sense anymore.
Taken together, Nizar and Abed al-Amir offer a portrait of two different, yet equally impotent, ways of dealing with Lebanese politics, both of which are resonant today.
When considering these aspects of the play’s characters, it becomes clear that the psychiatric hospital is a metaphor for a pathological post-war Lebanon. As for the patients, they are an allegory for society at large — one that is plagued with many afflictions.
An enduring theme that runs throughout the production is that the patients never recover despite continuous modifications and adjustments to their treatment. When their condition threatens to affect the hospital’s medical staff members, who begin to display the symptoms they are supposed to cure, the head physician opts for electroshock therapy. Even that does not work.
The yell released by Rashid at the end of the play is a final statement concerning the futility of treatment. It echoes the notion that nothing has truly improved. Thirty-six years later, Rashid’s scream has maintained its symbolic force as an abrupt wake-up call for anyone who thought that the residents of Lebanon were making progress.