Film Ameriki Tawil: A portrait of Lebanon’s post-war society

November 13, 2016
A poster of the digital production.

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.