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Honor, chivalry in Beirut’s Hay al-Lija
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DUBAI: “All you ever do is sit here on the street.” From off-frame, a young woman’s voice addresses around half a dozen young men reclining in plastic chairs. “Why?”

“What do you expect,” one of them replies. “Should we sit in a cafe with our laptops?”

“Why not get a job?”

The term “qabaday” (plural qabadayyat) may be unique to the Beirut experience. The phenomenon the qabaday represents, however, belongs to a species of urban politics common the world over.

For those who view him with derision and fear, the qabaday is a street thug who exists as a reminder that intimidation and criminality are never far away. More dispassionate observers recognize him as a creature of global politics – occupying a landscape in which the lines between party politics and popular mobilization, socio-economic marginality and business (legal and otherwise) are vague and mutable.

Politicians whose influence is drawn from a city’s popular quarters may rely on the street muscle of individual qabadayyat to defend their turf, or – if the political winds change direction – may give him up to the police.

Variations on the theme of qabaday have swaggered across the political landscape of any number of exotic locales – from prohibition-era Chicago and New York, to nationalist Shanghai, to post-Soviet St. Petersburg.

Since he occupies such a fascinating location in the loose fit between state and society, the qabaday (and his inner-city cousins worldwide) have featured in a wide range of cultural production, from anthropological studies to Hollywood movies.

Most recently the qabadayyat have been brought to life in Diala Kachmar’s “Guardians of Time Lost.” This feature-length documentary just had its world premiere in the docs competition of the Dubai International Film Festival, where it walked off with the Special Jury Prize.

An immersive doc of the classical school, it is the fruit of a three-year-long process in which Kachmar gained the trust of a circle of young men in the Beirut quarter of Hay al-Lija (Quarter of Refuge). It is one of those neighborhoods that attracted residents of south Lebanon displaced by Civil War and Israeli occupation.

Though the political affiliation of these young men is clear, the film is neither political reportage nor anthropological study. Mingling ambient shots of the quarter with interviews – both with her immediate subjects and some of the neighborhood’s older residents – Kachmar sets these men in their daily ambit, inquires about how they perceive themselves in the world and allows them to represent their lives in their own terms.

“Guardians” enters its subject via a combination of textual information and conversation.

Before it became home to the displaced, one fellow informs the camera, Hay al-Lija was called Hay al-Moulouk (Quarter of the Kings). The newcomers arrived for a range of reasons, the film explains, and they were not welcomed with open arms.

As for the qabadayyat, another fellow recalls, they became a feature in Beirut social and political life during the 1958 – when Lebanese supporters of Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser worked to dislodge then-President Camille Chamoun from office.

The film begins in earnest with an interview with a man of perhaps middle age. Kachmar asks how he would describe himself. He prefers to talk about how tough it is to make a living in Beirut. “Inside or outside, it’s all a prison,” he says. “At least in Roumieh [Prison] I could sell pills.”

The interview is busted up by a much younger man, who it seems doesn’t appreciate this line of discussion. The director steps from behind the camera, reminding the young man that she has permission to shoot this film.

It is the first of several occasions that one or another of the film’s subjects interrogates the filmmaker about what she’s up to.

In a subsequent scene, a character reassures one of his fellows that Kachmar’s crew don’t work for Lebanese television. They’re making a film that’s destined for audiences outside Lebanon, he says.

“It can’t be used against us.”

At another point, one of the young men asks whether the filmmaker intends to hand her footage over to the security apparatus.

“I used to be afraid to walk past this corner” where the young men usually sit, she explains. “Then I met some of you and decided to make a movie about you. If it gets any support, I’d like to use it to help you guys out.”

“If this is about curing us,” one of them interjects defiantly, “none of us needs a cure!”

Such exchanges underline two important features of “Guardians” and its subjects.

On one hand, the hostility these young men feel toward media representations (and therefore common perceptions) of them reflects the marginality of their existence. They may cast themselves as loyalists of one of the country’s principal politicians but they also represent themselves as habitués of Lebanon’s prisons and fugitives of justice.

On the other hand, theirs is a highly public, and therefore performative, existence. Kachmar, who began her career as an actress, remains quietly aware that these young men are perpetually performing and her camera always holds its gaze long enough to allow their human faces to bleed through the bluster.

Never is this more evident than in the brief coda that ends the film. One of Kachmar’s subjects has been imprisoned for some reason and the crew goes with his father to collect him from a prison in the northern city of Tripoli.

He emerges looking somewhat shaken. He describes how he was the only Shiite held in a cell along with 40-odd Salafis.

“Some of them were alright,” he recalls grimly, “but the others ... ‘Tell Sayyed Hasan [Nasrallah] we’re coming to Dahiyeh [Beirut’s southern suburbs],’ they’d tell me. ‘We’re gonna kill you all.’”

“Guardians” is an exploratory sketch of qabadayyat humanism, one that includes the frail human face of figures who would prefer to represent themselves in heroic terms.

“In Lebanon,” explains the young man who’s just emerged from a Tripoli prison, “a young man must have power and money to dazzle the world.

“We,” he gestures to himself and his comrades from Hay al-Lija, “we have power, but we never use it to harm people. This is how honor and chivalry issue from us.”

“This,” Kachmar replies, “is honor and chivalry?”

“‘The Pharoahs of Israel will drown under the flow of the Euphrates,’” he says, revisiting a verse recited earlier in the film, “And the river banks of the Nile will close upon them – ”

“Again?” Kachmar’s voice laughs from off-frame. “We’ve filmed this recitation five times now. Khalas!”

“Okay,” he shrugs. “Khalas.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 17, 2013, on page 16.
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