BEIRUT: “Wahsheh,” the new one-man show of playwright, actor, and director Rafic Ali Ahmad, is based on the life of a homeless man he often sees on Bliss Street. To a capacity house at Theatre Monnot, he presents himself as Abu Michel. That’s what people call him, he says, quickly adding that it isn’t important whether his name is “Mohammad, Georges, Semaan, Ali or Uthman.”

He may be homeless but Abu Michel isn’t intellectually impoverished, speaking French and English and being well versed in the work of Dostoevsky and Foucault – though perhaps not de Beauvoir or Lorde.

Ascribed to Abou Michel, Ali Ahmad’s monologue illustrates his views of Beirut and sectarianism, generational differences, public displays of piety and financial opportunism, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism (but not charity or civic duty), the sexual appetite of men in office and, most disappointingly, his own misogyny, which is expressed as comedy.

As is common among Lebanon’s thinly budgeted theatrical works, the stage design was underdeveloped.

Abu Michel articulates his arguments poetically and defends them with stories of everyday life he’s accumulated. Today’s rampant sectarianism was not born during the Civil War, he says, and scoffs at the romantic musings that before 1975 there had been national unity.

While calling the younger generation to action, he ridicules a youth that doesn’t read and wastes its time in nightclubs rather than uniting to break systems of oppression.

Abu Michel also introduces “the real estate hajj,” a powerful but hypocritical figure on the Lebanese cultural landscape. A man who imposes his authority via a pious façade, he drives a new car and is often heard to say, “This [comes to me] by the grace of God.”

The homeless man targets the hypocrisy of Muslims who flaunt a holier-than-thou attitude and furnish their mosques with silk, while Syrian children freeze to death.

The well-read Abu Michel could be referencing the writings of Cistercian monk Bernard de Clairvaux, one of the foremost preachers of his day, whose critique of his own society were written in 1125.

“Oh vanity of vanities, yet no more vain than insane!” the monk wrote. “The church is resplendent in her walls and wanting in her [poor]. She dresses her stones in gold and lets her sons go naked.”

Ali Ahmad seeks to subvert hypocritical men in power by undermining their gravitas.

We learn that military men, politicians, the real estate hajj and other powerful male figures seek the services of Afaf, the beautiful government courtesan. The litany of sensationalist sex scandal anecdote that ensues is reminiscent of a species of television talk show – at which Abu Michel condescending sneers at the start of the play.

For some, who regard it to be a citizen’s duty to criticize the actions of those in power, the monologue veers off course with this tabloid humor. Exposing and mocking the sexual practices of those deemed “abnormal” punches down at the marginal more than it punches up at the powerful.

Not only does it not challenge corrupt structures and practices, this attitude toward sexuality falls in line with the positions of the religious institutions Abu Michel criticizes.

Obviously Abu Michel’s mockery of men who derive pleasure from submitting to Afaf betrays old-fashioned patriarchal notions of “manhood.” That said, much of the Theatre Monnot audience evidently enjoyed the monologue’s derision of these powerful, but deviant, men.

One recurring theme in Wahsheh is “the woman.”

Aside from Afaf, there are, for Abu Michel, no good women. His monologue draws upon the figure of the femme fatale, a woman who destroys men with her seductive charms.

His misogyny stems from personal experience. He recounts how his wife started cheating on him after she bought a smart phone and began using social media. Then, she left him all alone, inconsolable, taking the children with her.

Abu Michel sees himself as a good guy, identifying with Richard Gere’s cuckold in Adrian Lyne’s 2002 film “Unfaithful.” Unable to comprehend how any woman could cheat on Gere’s character, he reasons that women always want more and are essentially cruel.

To support his claim, he references such historical fictions as Eve, Salome, and Zulaykha – who have been transformed into archetypal femmes fatales.

Like the fin-de-siècle work of painters like Gustave Moreau and Lovis Corinth, Abu Michel’s version of the biblical tale of Salome accentuates her seductive power.

He regards the cannibalistic practices of the female black widow spider to warrant mentioning as well.

Afaf may be the only woman Abu Michel respects because of her beauty, or her ability to bring powerful men to their knees at the snap of her fingers. Maybe he likes her because she caters to the desires of paying customers, without risk of obligation, complication or emotional risk.

By the end of “Wahsheh,” critically minded audience members may wonder whether Ali Ahmad is animating Lebanese misogyny in Abu Michel in order to criticize it, or whether the play is itself an artifact of misogynistic discourse.

Based on this performance, many audience members will laugh along with this line of humor, but not all.

Rafic Ali Ahmad’s “Wahsheh” is up at Theatre Monnot until Feb. 8. For more information call +961-1-421-870.

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27/01/2015