let’s say you have two women friends. let’s say, for no good reason at all, that their names are Rana and Ghada.
you’re sitting between the two of them in the back row of a beirut cinema, watching the sam peckinpah classic “cross of iron” (1977). it’s about the final weeks in the life of a german soldier [james coburn] during the red army’s second world war rout of the wehrmacht.
it might seem an odd choice for this evening’s entertainment. it’s the evening of the first day of the ceasefire between hizbullah and the israeli army, a night of irritable calm after a month of scourging air strikes and inconclusive ground action – still continuing in a minor key – in south Lebanon.
it might seem an odd choice, but it’s not.
you met Ghada one evening a few years ago and immediately dismissed her as an easily-excitable backpacker – an impression reinforced by her odd tendency to jump up and down in her Birkenstock sandals when enthused. she later took a job at the same rag as you and revealed herself a fine linguist, an intelligent and dedicated political activist, and a preternatural organiser.
Rana is a dancer by preference, a film-lover by passion, and a fundraiser by vocation. as you follow politics and divert yourself writing about cinema, you met her professionally – quite natural as she’s a member of a politically minded film collective. being suspicious by nature, it took some time to resign yourself to the fact that she regarded you as a friend, and not just a useful promotional asset.
Ghada’s not a beirut native but she’s become wedded to the place in a manner you’ve witnessed before. she fell in with a good crowd of like-minded, fun-loving leftists and so quickly sunk a more varied root structure here than the average american expat, say, those who basically work and pal around with other foreigners then go back home when their time’s up.
it’s hardly unusual that in the process of sinking her roots into beirut, Ghada met a guy – let’s call him Ramzi. Somewhat more eccentric – at least amongst your circle of friends – was their decision to get married and so forth. that hasn’t happened just yet for reasons of life.
Ghada left beirut to continue her studies for a year or so. then after a spell of pennilessness, during which time Ramzi was doing his obligatory military service, she landed a job as an administrator at one of the several UN agencies that squatted here before the warplanes came back. seemingly settled into a good gig, the nuptials were further delayed because Ramzi got a scholarship to do some graduate work in europe.
Rana is inexplicably single. the occupants of an alien spacecraft – monitoring her movements from orbit – might assume that she simply has no time for anything but the dozen projects she’s simultaneously scheming at. the week before the Israelis launched their 2006 attack, Rana’s most-recent project had come to fruition.
she opened a cinema that runs non-commercial movies, something that lebanese filmmakers and film-lovers have been talking about – but doing little to accomplish – since before you washed up here.
it’s one of the eccentricities of beirut, and the middle east generally, that you can watch all manner of american schlock but seeing film from anyplace else in the world, including the middle east, is ghettoised within the confines of dvd rental and the odd film festival.
this nicely reflects the general state of the lebanese cultural condition, which involves people getting dolled up to go out to events – festivals, gallery openings, concerts and such. beirutis aren’t accustomed to reliable institutions like a good art-house cinema. beirutis aren’t accustomed to reliable institutions, period.
Rana’s unpretentious about the whole thing. she said she was tired of being able to go to any city in europe and see any film she could imagine – but unable to enjoy the same normalcy in her home town. she said she just wanted to provide a bit of choice.
“what’s on tonight, Rana?” you’d been itching for the comfort of a darkened cinema for a couple of weeks now but been too busy to do anything about it.
“Luis Buñuel,” she’d replied. “‘l’âge d’or’ (1930).”
spanish surrealism. just what the doctor ordered.
“it’s Buñuel tonight at Rana’s” you’d sms-ed Ghada. “?”
a few hours later the phone rang. “it’s not Buñuel tonight,” Rana said apologetically, “i was supposed to screen ‘cross of iron’ last night but we cancelled because it was unsafe. so i’m gonna screen it tonight instead. is that alright?”
“Peckinpah?” your head immediately filled with memories of a skit from monty python’s flying circus. called “Salad Days”, it’s their imagining a Peckinpah treatment of a light-hearted georgian picnic. the panama hats and stripped jackets, accessorised by glasses of champagne and lemonade, are gathered around a piano, singing.
the gaiety is reduced to chaos in short order. the piano player loses his hands when the keyboard lid crashes down on them. the other revellers are reduced to screaming paroxysms of agony by various means – impaled on one unlikely implement or another, gouts of blood shooting forth, geyser-like. for reasons now obscure to you, you always found the skit immensely funny.
“cool,” you’d said. “i haven’t seen Peckinpah in years.”
you didn’t bother informing Ghada about the change. though unlikely to be a Pekinpah fan, you reasoned she probably wouldn’t mind the programme change – just because seeing a film, any film, would be far closer to her pre-war routine than her normal life these days.
banned from doing proper work since the conflict began, Ghada’s been busying herself with refugee relief for the last month. she went about it with the matter-of-fact enthusiasm you’ve come to associate with the inveterate left – which, in its various factions, leapt into the vacuum left by an irresponsible state when displaced people began camping in beirut’s public gardens.
though Ghada’s social life hasn’t exactly withered on the vine, you get the impression she does some things with certain people less – if only because your circle of friends is deeply infiltrated by hacks who’ve spent little of the last month doing anything not connected to working or getting pissed.
Ghada bounces into the cinema two seconds before the film starts.
“hi!” she laughs, assessing the empty cinema.
“it’s not Buñuel,” you gesture to the screen. “it’s Peckinpah.”
“Peckinpah?” the enthusiasm on her face collapses into distaste.
“having trouble finding a seat? the back row,” Rana gestures graciously, “is most comfortable.”
thanks to late-night television, “cross of iron” must have been visited upon all north americans at some time or another but you don’t recall ever seeing it. it’s immediately obvious why it’s been programmed, though.
the opening credits’ newsreel footage of smiling patriotic german faces c.1944, played out against a soundtrack of children singing nursery rhymes, is all too evocative of the propaganda footage spawned by this present conflict.
repeated images of fictional shelling, themes of patriotism and party loyalty, humanity and inhumanity, are all redolent of contemporary realities.
the bad acting is highly evocative of the rogues’ gallery of politicians and so-called statesmen who have perpetrated this evil month and allowed it to continue for so long.
you have occasion to glance over at Rana and Ghada at various points of the evening. Ghada’s face is a shifting landscape of amusement and bemusement. Rana’s is knotted in a grimace for most of the proceedings – she didn’t programme this particular film.
Coburn erupts into his incongruous – evidently improvised – laugh. the film ends.
Ghada leaps to her feet and makes for the surface. it seems Ramzi’s been trying to reach her for some time. you wait for Rana to collect the dvd from the projection room – it’s hard to lay hands on proper films when you’re in the midst of an ongoing, month-long siege.
“i don’t know how much longer i can do this,” Rana says. “i can’t get any movies. i’m running out of mazout [diesel, for the generator that keeps the electricity going through spells of rationing]. running out of money –”
when her cinema’s opening event – a week of films from cannes – was disrupted by the war, Rana shut for a couple of days. within a few days the madina theatre, the space that houses her cinema, had transformed itself into a refugee-relief centre where ngos and artists have been running programmes for displaced kids and their parents.
Rana reopened the cinema to screen her original programme, augmented now by morning and afternoon programmes for kids and teenagers. she’s been continuing with these and working with some local filmmakers to screen thematically relevant dvds – thus “cross of iron”.
for those aliens observing Rana’s travails from orbit, she’s already demonstrated remarkable resilience over the last month. Rana herself is more sceptical.
“i don’t know if what i’m doing has any value or not,” she said a couple of weeks into the war. “i’m screening films but no one’s coming except a few of the displaced people staying in the theatre. the people who’d usually come are either glued to their televisions or getting drunk someplace.
“a group of muhajiba [veiled, and therefore devout muslim] girls staying here wanted to come to one of the european films we were screening the other night.
“i explained to them that they'd probably see some things they were uncomfortable with – sexual intimacy and so forth. they insisted they wanted to come in. i don’t blame them. i’m sure they’re bored senseless.
“so the movie starts. they sit through it for the first half hour. then one girl’s father comes in, sees what’s on the screen and yells at her to come with him. so all the girls get up and leave.”
you’re standing outside the cinema now. Ghada is nowhere to be seen.
“can i drop you?” Rana invites. “come on. look, the needle is still above the ‘E’!”
when you reach the old airport road, the main artery connecting dahiyyeh to northern beirut, you encounter an ad hoc celebration. cars and mopeds are driving up and down the autostrada, horns blowing, all bearing flags of hizbullah and amal – the country’s two shi‘a political groups. it’s like the evening of a brazilian world cup victory, but with different flags.
“i can’t believe they’re celebrating,” Rana grips the steering wheel more tightly and curses under her breath. “what have we won? the country is in ruins. over 1000 people have been killed. the israelis are still in our country. i wish someone would tell me what we won. i want to celebrate too.”
standing on the terrace of the Qasqas flat with a beer and a fag, you survey the dark spaces of the ruined dahiyyeh.
you’re mapping out the chapter of the book you will never write about this conflict. the chapter struggles with how such a tiny country can generate such a breadth of experience – ranging from utter deprivation to hyper-privilege – and the disparate opinions that this range of experience generates.
born into a family of leftist intellectuals, Rana is hardly to be counted amongst lebanon’s privileged classes. she’s simply a middle class beiruti who wants to make her country more like other places she’s lived.
aside from the million people displaced by israel’s bombing campaign, it’s people like Rana and Ghada who are most torn by this conflict. hizbullah doesn’t speak to them in any way, but the issues of social justice that the party has taken as its own – at the centre of which is the injustice of Palestine – do. the very rich who are indifferent to issues of social justice feel no such ambivalence.
the phone rings.
“hi,” says Ghada. “sorry about the disappearing act. Ramzi’s a bit freaked out because they announced that the new recruits are being deployed in south lebanon.”
the deployment of Lebanese troops in the south alongside a strong european force, is one of the preconditions of the israeli withdrawal from lebanese soil. “i thought they were deploying veterans.”
“nobody knows anything for sure. the defence ministry announced the new recruits are going down. that means Ramzi’s going down. now some cabinet ministers are kicking up a stink. so they made the call before they know for sure.”
“blows? if Ramzi can’t finish graduate school because of this it’ll be a disaster for him.”