Bridg­ing Arab iden­tity

Mah­bas pro­poses Le­banese-syr­ian rec­on­cil­i­a­tions through hu­mor

The McGill Daily - - Contents - Krys­ten Kru­lik Cul­ture Writer

Soli­taire ( Mah­bas), screened at Cin­ema du Parc as part of this year’s Fes­ti­val du Monde Arabe de Mon­tréal, boasted a vi­va­cious cast, an ea­ger crowd, and roar­ing laughter from the au­di­ence that re­sounded through­out the en­tire the­atre. Two sold- out screen­ings across the Fes­ti­val re­vealed the hunger of the Mon­treal com­mu­nity for Mid­dle- Eastern rep­re­sen­ta­tion. Not a sin­gle U. S. army uni­form made its way across the screen; rather, this film fea­tured a global un­der­stand­ing of re­gional is­sues. More rich than the solely Western view­point char­ac­ter­ized by heavy U. S. mil­i­tary pres­ence as a form of diplo­matic me­di­a­tion, Soli­taire of­fers an Arab per­spec­tive on Le­banese- Syr­ian re­la­tions that is both Arab and global. From its com­mence­ment, Soli­taire demon­strated that this is a film for us and by us to be shared with the world.

Directed by So­phie Boutros, Soli­taire touches upon the in­tri­ca­cies of the terse re­la­tions be­tween Le­banon and Syria in the ten years fol­low­ing Syria’s of­fi­cial recog­ni­tion of the sovereignty of Le­banon. Soli­taire laments love, loss, mis­con­cep­tion, and mend­ing through the eyes of the main char­ac­ter, Therese (Ju­lia Kas­sar), who is the ma­tri­arch of a Le­banese fam­ily mourn­ing the death of her brother at the hands of a Syr­ian bomb twenty years prior. When Therese’s daugh­ter, Ghada (Ser­ena Chami), re­turns home to her vil­lage in Le­banon with her Syr­ian suitor, Samer (Jaber Jokhadar), the shock of Therese’s life­time en­sues. A po­lit­i­cal com­men­tary on the clas­sic “meet the fam­ily” week­end, Soli­taire mea­sur­ably tack­les con­tem­po­rary Le­banese- Syr­ian re­la­tions that bur­row as far back as French coloni­sa­tion.

Work­ing against the of­ten hap­haz­ard group­ing of all things Arab, Soli­taire tack­les re­gional speci­fici­ties usu­ally washed over in North Amer­i­can dis­cus­sions of what it is to be Arab. The di­rec­tor uses hu­mor as a for­mal tech­nique to dis­cuss Syria’s com­plex in­flu­ence on Le­banese pol­i­tics, span­ning from the con­clu­sion of the Le­banese Civil War in 1990 to Syria’s with­drawal dur­ing the 2005 Cedar Rev­o­lu­tion. The movie even touches upon events of the last decade since Syria’s 2008 recog­ni­tion of Le­banese sovereignty. The com­plex­i­ties of Le­banese- Syr­ian re­la­tions are in­dis­putable, es­pe­cially fol­low­ing the re­cent in­flux of Syr­ian refugees in Le­banon and the re­sult­ing cur­fews placed on them there, like in the city Rmeish. Small mu­nic­i­pal moves like these have spread through­out Le­banon and widely re­flect Le­banese dis­dain for their Syr­ian neigh­bors. politi­ciza­tion of these his­to­ries, Soli­taire works to iden­tify and ne­go­ti­ate these re­gional ten­sions. By im­ple­ment­ing comedic el­e­ments, Soli­taire is able to open dis­cus­sion, over­dra­ma­tize, and then poke fun at oth­er­wise highly sen­si­tive po­lit­i­cal con­ver­sa­tions. Rather than shy­ing away from con­tro­ver­sial Le­banese- Syr­ian re­la­tions, the film car­i­ca­tures poignant stereo­types of both Arab groups. Hu­mour thus me­di­ates what is usu­ally a dif­fi­cult but nec­es­sary con­ver­sa­tion, but it does so care­fully with hu­man­ity, un­der­stand­ing, and self-re­flec­tion. Hu­mour is thereby an act of hu­man­ity — open­ing topics oth­er­wise too di­vi­sive to en­gage with.

Ap­par­ent through the boom­ing laughter of the Cin­ema du Parc au­di­ence, Soli­taire’s stereo­types rang true, es­pe­cially to the Arab au­di­ence. Prey­ing on these car­i­ca­tures of Le­banese- Syr­ian dis­crim­i­na­tion re­vealed an in­fa­mous dual edged sword — the tragedy of such ri­val­ries, as well as the re­lat­able ab­sur­dity. Hear­ing only one word of Sabah Fakhri’s tenor voice on the ra­dio, Therese point­edly si­lences the de­vice. She does so out of dis­dain for the famed Syr­ian singer, but this ac­tion re­flects Therese’s si­lenc­ing of the Syr­ian pop­u­la­tion at large — a si­lenc­ing and ha­tred she re­peats through­out the movie. Therese’s fear of the past and the tu­mul­tuous po­lit­i­cal his­tory be­tween the two states serves to in­form a di­ver­gent fu­ture — un­til Ghada’s en­gage­ment. Thus, it is Ghada’s re­turn that serves as a bru­tal up­heaval of Therese’s warped val­ues con­cern­ing who is the true Other in Le­banese so­ci­ety. — it reaches be­yond the screen to in­fuse in view­ers a sense of aware­ness. Hu­mour is there­fore part re­flec­tion and part mit­i­ga­tion through­out the en­tirety of Soli­taire, al­low­ing for two con­ver­sa­tions to be ini­ti­ated: one be­tween Syr­i­ans and Le­banese, the other be­tween au­di­ence mem­bers and stereo­types. Stereo­types are poignantly laid out for all to see, such as quick jabs made on- screen that high­light ten­sions be­tween Syr­ian refugees in Therese’s vil­lage. In these Le­banese and Syr­ian car­i­ca­tures, room for topics such as fa­mil­ial bonds, women’s spa­ces, in­ter­gen­er­a­tional trau­mas, in­fi­delity, and love are also made ap­par­ent. Rather than por­tray­ing an ex­otic life set wholly against a back­drop of hate and con­flict, these his­to­ries tran­scend their out­landish, comedic car­i­ca­tures.

Hu­mour ne­go­ti­ates dif­fer­ent Arab iden­ti­ties, and opens a chan­nel through which two in­de­pen­dent states with in­ter­twined his­to­ries are able to con­verse. Soli­taire is a Le­banese- Syr­ian story broad­casted to the world not as an­other stereo­typ­i­cal one, but rather as a film that un­der­scores the im­por­tance of look­ing be­yond dif­fer­ence. If even the most car­i­cat­u­ral Le­banese fam­ily can find peace with the Other — the Syr­ian — why can’t other Le­banese peo­ple?

Un­doubt­edly, the Le­banese-Syr­ian con­flict is more than a mar­riage pro­posal, more than a fam­ily’s tragedy, more than the chaotic din­ner meal around which the film re­volves. Rather, it is a com­plex, liv­ing, breath­ing ta­pes­try of the his­to­ries of two peo­ples who have fallen vic­tim to bi­ases as sim­ple as dif­fer­ences in ac­cent. Most im­por­tantly, Soli­taire is as hu­man as the laughter it gen­er­ates. Laughter opens a con­ver­sa­tion far be­yond the scope of the Western gaze.

While most dis­cus­sions in the Western con­text imag­ine the Arab world as a threat to North Amer­i­can peace and sovereignty, Soli­taire chal­lenges these con­cep­tions. De­spite de­picted ho­mo­gene­ity and eter­nal tur­moil, the Mid­dle East is some­thing more than the lo­cal 2am Bous­tan run, or the de­bates around the Is­lam­o­pho­bic Bill 62. Rather than solely view­ing the Arab world in light of shisha lounges and Is­lamist ter­ror­ism, Soli­taire gives room for view­ers to for­mu­late a nu­anced take on the re­gional pol­i­tics of the Mid­dle East.

Work­ing against the of­ten hap­haz­ard group­ings of all things Arab, Soli­taire tack­les re­gional speci­fici­ties usu­ally washed over in North Amer­i­can dis­cus­sions of what it is to be Arab.

De­spite what Western view­ers of­ten per­ceive as an im­plicit

The com­plex­i­ties of Le­banese-Syr­ian re­la­tions are in­dis­putable, es­pe­cially fol­low­ing the re­cent in­flux of Syr­ian refugees in Le­banon and the re­sult­ing cur­fews placed on Syr­ian refugees in Le­banon.

Sim­i­larly, Soli­taire plays the role of Ghada to the au­di­ence

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