Connais-moi toi-même

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Connais-moi toi-même: Guerres, humour et franbaniaiseries by Samy Khayath

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I never thought a Lebanese humorist would write a book, and for sure, I never assumed the book would be that good! The reason is I come from a generation that did not really know the likes of Samy Khayath and am stuck with subpar humorists, people who are so cheap on the stage, I wonder if they ever acquired some form of education or learning.

As it happens these days, the non-traditional book-finding procedure, somebody posted a link to a youtube video of Samy Khayath, and I went through his channel, and found a video of him signing his book in Beirut, two years ago. Luckily, there remained one or two copies in our bookstores and I was lucky to have one on that same afternoon.

Samy Khayath is part of a generation that has probably vanished from Lebanon. Francophile to the last bit, his pre-war representations demonstrated a love and a command of French that was equally appreciated by a large audience of Lebanese theater-goers, as high as around 30,000 spectators during the civil war! These days, one is lucky to stumble upon a play in French in some forgotten something-turned-theater in one of the quarters of Beirut where residents still hopelessly cling to that language.

Samy’s book was a joy to read. Written in a very literary French -some words gave me a hard time with a couple of dictionaries, yet boosted my Scrabble-playing skills- frequently in sentences that seem never to end, therefore, giving the reader the physical sensation of catching his own breath. Probably as a collateral damage, some of these figures of speech when directed towards himself bordered on vanity and self-grandeur, as in when he refers to himself as one invested with some religious mission to make people laugh.

I would understand why someone of his caliber would repeatedly employ such imagery. For one thing, here is a guy who never tired over a career of 40 years to remain faithful to his audience in being present yearly on the stage and making them (intelligently) laugh all throughout the years of war, with no support safe the loyal attendance of his spectators. For another, before the war and even after it, no explicit recognition came from the Lebanese state as a reward for his career, no serious prize of the sort exists in this country, no books or journals or reviews on Lebanese theater. I suppose the only recognition one gets is from the reviews of some newspapers or magazines in the cultural section.

Samy Khayath was famous for his physical energy on the stage, for making pranks on the audience itself whereby the play would halt because of some on-stage quarrel between the actors, or some fake props’ incident, for his special effects and magical tricks which mesmerized the audience at that time, for his parody songs boldly caricaturing Lebanese and world political figures, for his attention to details in designing brochures and advertisements for his plays, and last but not least, for his clever puns, and example of which, I reproduce at the end of this post (unfortunately in French, and I do not dare translate it for fear of massacring it).

I should have imagined that such an acclaim should be everlasting, alas, if things do not come to an end, they radically change. The Lebanese society itself following the hemorrhage of a good portion of the population towards other countries changed, the entertainment scene obeyed other rules, francophone adherence no longer commanded such attraction on the population, and this invariably reflected on the increasingly shorter-run spectacles, and smaller audiences attending Samy’s plays. The decline in the interest showed by the spectators towards his plays is one that is so transparently laid out in the book that I couldn’t but feel sadness towards the book’s main character. Nevertheless, I was much in respect for him, painting himself in such a light in his glorious days yet faithfully able to describe this anti-climax with such clarity.

In the absence of any moral or legal guiding principle, several of his sketches have been plagiarized, or have served as “inspiration” for other comedians or writers, and I could not retain my shock at some of the sketches or puns that I see everyday reproduced quite liberally on Lebanese television, not the least of which being his sketch about our first names that people automatically use to categorize their holder into a religion, religious sect and even a certain locality.

For my part, I was astonished with how much cultural life strived in this country during its darkest hours. That people should drive under shells to attend a 2-hour play is a remarkable will for survival. Similarly, I admire the drive and commitment that the actors and the technical staff displayed in making every written script a reality. I was surprised by our own level of education, which had to be of some respectable level to appreciate the subtle jokes and cultural references Samy always made, in French nonetheless! I also admired the courage and support assumed by Christian orders in offering Samy the theater and the logistics he requested, at a time when, supposedly, the  Christian part of the country suffered under a reputation of isolationism, imperialism and backwards-thinking.

I will be looking over that book again, something I never do for non-fiction books; but the writing, probably because it is autobiographical, has such a literary force that I would recommend it, even to non-Lebanese who delight in experiencing the refined beauty of the French language.

As promised, I faithfully, reproduce the witty pun of the title Samy Khayath chose for his play, “Salam…use”

(note: at the time of the play, a time of great discordance in the country, the Prime Minister of Lebnese was Saeb Salam, Salam meaning peace)

En ce-temps-là, il n’y avait pas de place pour l’analyse lucide et sereine de évènements. Seule l’histoire dira qui avait raison et qui avait tort. En ce temps-là, j’étais toujours habité par mon rôle de témoin de son époque. En ce temps-là, il me tardait de raconter de façon vivante tout ce que mon pays a connu comme rebondissements au cours de cette année. Je me mets de suite à écrire un nouveau spectacle. Inspiré par l’atmosphère politique ambiante, je lui donne pour nom “Salam…use”. D’une part, le président du Conseil, fort de la légitimité populaire et institutionnelle qui l’a consacré, “use” de son autorité pour gérer le pays, d’autre part, il me semble, à moi humoriste, que par sa superbe et son goût accentué du panache, “ça l’amuse”. En fait, j’ai adopté ce titre définitif lorsque je me suis assuré de la situation stable de Saeb Salam. Auparavant, lorsque ce dernier avait entamé la procédure de formation du cabinet et que tout semblait facile pour lui, le titre de mon show était “Salam…beau” avec la permission de Flaubert. Mais lorsqu’il échoua dans cette première tentative, cela devait: “Salam…aigri”. Puis des scandales éclatèrent et je change à nouveau la dénomination en “Salam…aux roses” qui prend sa double signification si on fait la liaison en prononçant ainsi le titre: “Salam morose”. Mais Saeb bey a pu faire taire ses détracteurs et ce fut “Salam…mate”, avec un clin d’oeil au salut oriental “salamâtt” qui peut avoir une connotation péjorative de taquinerie dans le genre “à bon entendeur salut!” Enfin, tout s’est tassé pour le grand manitou de la République et “Salam…use” s’est imposé. Il n’empêche que la hantise d’une chute du cabinet me tracassait. Si une situation aussi grave survenait, j’aurais recours à un accent aigu et le titre sera: “Salam…usé”, un jeu de mot qui conserve toute sa saveur dans les deux sens du terme. Mais tout s’est bien passé et le nom définitif fut adopté. Je l’annonce à mes amis et à la presse en signalant que je me suis tiré d’une situation bien “salambiquée”.

Is Paul Auster worth your time?

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Review of Paul Auster’s Brooklyn Follies

This is my second Auster, the first was “Travels in the Scriptorium”Both works I have “read” as audiobooks while taking interminable journeys around the country. The journeys themselves were less taxing than the books.
The reason I checked both is because of -and I’m not ashamed to admit it- the publicity this guy gets!

“The Brooklyn Follies”, written in the first person narrative form, is about an ex-insurance salesman, Nathan Wood, well into his 60s, who survives cancer and returns back to his native Brooklyn (Auster’s perpetual home). Does this return symbolize or mean anything? No. Do we get to feel Brooklyn? No.

Serendipity brings him in contact with his nephew; a would-have-been brilliant author / critic, had it not been for… Well we don’t really know. Tom Glass, Nathan Wood’s nephew (and yes, Nathan/Auster does mention this brilliant pun), foregoes his writing ambition for the “safe” job of a cab-driver.
Gradually, characters inhabit the story, effacing any potential interest it might spur, besides it being a family-reunion fiction.

It feels tedious, and possibly boring, to give an account of what happens along, but I can safely say that, in comparison with third-degree storytellers, no other writer I know of uses this “magical wand” so frequently, and liberally, to make things happen and work like Auster does: Love develops, people are reunited, oppressed freed, money distributed to those in-need, people cured… So much, that at the end of the story, I am impatiently waiting for: “And they lived happily ever after”

In all fairness, real life is real life; monotonous, uneventful, duplicate acquaintances tending towards normality… and it is about this ever-flow with its stubborn perturbations, here and there, that Auster writes. But he could have done it with style, with some depth, with something original, something different, than the everyday banter we engage in.

Throughout the book, a couple of stories are told about Poe, Thoreau, and Kafka, though they feel to me as”Did you know?” blurbs.

To the post’s question, my answer is No! This will definitely be my last Auster; there are other contemporary writers out there, some certainly in Brooklyn, who better deserve our time and support.

Habemus Papam

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Habemus Papam, latin for “We have a Pope” is Nanni Moretti’s last work and my first encounter with his.
It opens on an atmosphere of expectation appropriately registered in the grandeur of wide-angles. With this kind of movies the frame of discussion is delicate, not because the subject matter is inaccessible, but because of the context it carries, and all the symbolism it is laden with, tinting each person’s perspective in significantly varying manners.
Having said that, the scene that follows the procession of the marching cardinals admonishing, to a succession of saints’ names, to “pray for us”is quite funny and disturbing to me. I hope the comical part is universally shared, though it is the apparent futility of such recitals, that presages the succeeding events.
This extended scene of the cardinals in procession to the Conclave to elect the Pope is splendidly cinematographic; it is one of those techniques that perfectly befits movies. To assist to this “Saint X, pray for us”for one minute,  and then as an alternating echo fading in and out over a journalist’s commentary for around 4 minutes, is captivating and I hope would not elicit a “fhemna” or “uff” from my fellow compadres. I love such long, focused, sequences (wish I knew the technical term); though they do appear extended, in fact they feel compact, for they carry a lot; those static images compel us to think and ask questions in a matter of minutes, that, in a novel for instance, would require hundreds of pages and digressions, and so, I hope to see more of them in current films.
As anyone who was brought up in the Christian faith or in a Christian environment, at one point, we have certainly asked ourselves the purpose of such repetitions. For the annoyingly inquisitive, I am almost certain, such questions induce some skepticism. There are quite a few esoteric numbers in the Christian faith: 3, for obvious reasons, 5 (on average) the number of times one must repeat “Our Father” and “Ave Maria”after repenting, 7, the number of Churches one must visit on the Thursday of the Holy Week, 9, the Neuvaine, and, last, 10 times reciting “Ave Maria” for one part of the Rosary (imagine that a full one will require 50 “Ave Maria”!).
What adds humor to this scene, though it could pass unnoticed, is when the orator recites: “All the saints and the prophets”and the procession to echo in unison: “pray for us”and then the saints’ names are recited again! This is typical in a Catholic or a Catholic-affiliated mass or ceremony.
This persistence in prayer bothers me; it is a material ritualization of an abstraction. It solidifies a parasitic relation between an earthly institution and its mortal members; and I insist on this term, mortal, for the Church, in turning the faithfuls to parroting machinists, cares only about their mortal facet.
Why would a faithful incessantly, monotonously, and meaninglessly recite to a Creator whom the Church teaches is all ears and love for His creation? Why would a faithful invoke so many mediators, when the faithful has an open line with the Creator?
Should a Christian, or more precisely, a Catholic, go back to the Source, the Scriptures, one need only pray “Our Father”and that is it. It is clearly stated.
This interminable repetitiveness from a mass of people to the cries of an orator confirms a cultural colonialism Christendom is responsible of; it clearly reflects the pagan infiltrations to the Christian prayers, turned rituals, that helped spread the new religion, increase its base, establish a hierarchy, thereby metamorphosing what should have been a metaphysical religion into an earthly institution.  As such, it is not without intent that the opening scenes of the film unfold to a succession of wide-angle shots of the Vatican and the Conclave.
To conclude, I go back to the movie, to which I’m grateful for this digression in thought, without it being restricted to the initiated, “Habemus Papam” has its own twists,  is rich in symbolism (I think of the elected Pope in the train), does not take the cheap turn of parody or irony, and delivers a powerful message, accentuated, in my opinion, before the end credits.

Beirut Hotel and Language

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It’s intensive work to start a new post, but I suppose it won’t be my only one, so I will start with a local movie that generated quite the buzz online, Beyrouth Hotel directed by Danielle Arbid.

The movie was banned in this country, for political reasons or moral ones, no one is quite certain, and this ban overexcited people who saved the screening date, when it was announced that the French-Dutch channel ARTE will be showing it.

Seconds after the movie was over, it got heavily bashed online from intellectuals, to pseudo-directors, to plain ordinary people (myself included), so much apparently, that the director herself had to clarify that the polarization created by the ban, was the reason people felt disappointed with this movie. I can relate to the reasons behind much of the criticism; maybe people felt 2 hours of their time were lost, others by the free promotion a mediocre movie received, and still others discussed the plot, the portrayal of the main female character (Zoha), or the political insinuations.

All this is fine, but what surprised me were the comments I read which made fun of the Zoha’s dialect and language. Since she expresses herself in French with her lover, and given that she is a singer at hotel bar and comes from an average Beiruti background, realistically it makes sense that, most definitely, she has an accent, cannot instinctively enunciate, and fails with basic grammar rules. Instead of taking this part of her character as a well-spotted attention from the director, the online Lebanese community, grabs it as another opportunity to bash.

In my opinion, this focus on language, has nothing to do with the movie, but it says a lot about our mentality. It feels as if, with so much self-criticism that we daily produce, with this constant questioning that we have of our value as Lebanese, of our contribution to progress, the frequent comparison we draw against other countries (always skewed to the negative on our side), what remains is our solid “education”; an education whose strength lies with the three languages that we are taught, and which we “fluently” (at least that’s how every Lebanese CV shows it) express. Most probably a remnant of pre-war Lebanon, our command of a foreign language (namely French) represented an additional border separating people in this country; in other words, it conferred them superiority over non-speakers.

The sad sight one is confronted with is of those francophone Lebanese who, faced by a growing usage of English, virtually everywhere, commit the most ridiculous and tragically comic language blunders… One has to sign-in to Facebook to indulge in the most unintelligible writing. Yet, quite strangely, I find that wherever I find myself, someone is emailing me pictures of spelling mistakes of funny signs in Syria, or Saudi Arabia or Egypt; I, incessantly, listen to people making fun of a foreign worker mispronouncing some brand’s name, when a minute later that same person, in this ridiculous jumbling of tongues that we so proudly “manage”, utters something absolutely unintelligible that I am forced to ask, what do you mean? In a popular satirical social show on TV, Ma fi Metlo, one skit is called Mr. Loughat, and people find it quite funny! I do hope they are sharp enough to realize this show makes fun of each and everyone of them (myself included).

I do not intend my first post to be patronizing, God knows this post, and this blog, will be riddled with English mistakes, but I do hope that we humble ourselves and accept our shortcomings. Even if this last, seemingly fortified, bastion where we are holding ground is struck, I do hope that we consider it no more than a warning bell.

Perhaps my angle on Hotel Beirut has nothing to do with the movie itself, or maybe it does; it certainly is quite a narrow angle, and one that is most probably better developed in other movies, but at least it provided me with something to think about.

Why the movie was banned