Giving voice to Arab revolutions past

BEIRUT: When popular anti-regime demonstrations began in Tunis and Cairo in late 2010, some in Beirut were incredulous.

These Lebanese saw the mass mobilizations (later termed the Arab Spring) as echoes of Beirut’s 2005 protests against the Syrian presence in Lebanon – which saw the Syrian military withdraw and Lebanon’s governance remain as dysfunctional as ever. You wait, skeptics could be heard to sneer, they’ll have their revolution stolen from them just like we did.

Assessing the ruptured landscape of 21st-century Lebanon, it’s hard to imagine that Beirut was once one island in an archipelago of international militancy, wedded to the Palestinian revolution against Israeli occupation.

Since Lebanon and Palestine are now bywords for political cultures of co-optation, fragmentation and migration, it’s tempting to discard Beirut’s revolutionary history as the self-serving hyperbole of nostalgia.

Yet the city retains a place in the recollections of activists and militants from around the world operating in the late-20th century. These memories found some cinematic expression in the past year.

“Zanj Revolution” is among the films that does so. The visually engaging, intellectually challenging third feature of Algerian writer-director Tariq Teguia screened at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, having premiered at the Rome film festival in November.

Like a number of movies released from the Middle East and North Africa since 2011, “Zanj” is inspired, in part, by the wellspring of popular discontent that has shaken regimes throughout the region. Unlike most of these, Teguia’s story is not “about” any of these uprisings.

With a story set in Algeria, Lebanon and Iraq – none of which has experienced significant Spring-like demonstrations – “Zanj” is situated at a more distant, historically informed, remove.

Anyone with a nodding acquaintance of the region’s history will realize what Teguia is up to from the film’s opening sequence.

A figure emerges from a dust storm that’s blown up somewhere in southern Algeria. As he strides through a town’s abandoned streets, he’s pursued by young men who’ve covered their faces in kaffiyehs and the like.

Introducing himself as a reporter working for a paper in Algiers, he begins to question them about the demonstrations they’ve been conducting there. Gruff and confrontational, the masked men tell him they’re angry that, though the entire state runs on the petroleum pulled out of the ground in this region, all the oil industry jobs go to northerners.

“You want to give us a voice?” one of the young men asks from behind his headgear. “What do you think we are, Zanj?”

The journo’s name is Ibn Batutta (Fethi Ghares).

Ibn Battuta was the pen name of Abu Abdullah Muhammad Ibn Battuta. Of Berber heritage, like the filmmaker, the Tangiers-born 14th-century jurist is known in the West for his travel writing, recorded in a tome conventionally known as “Al-Rihla” (The Journey). It recounts his (for those days) extraordinary travels to the Iberian Peninsula, across the Maghreb, the Mashreq, East Africa, central Asia, south and Southeast Asia.

The Zanj were a caste of slaves, originally from sub-Saharan Africa, who in the late-8th and early-9th century rose up against the Abbasid Caliphate in what is now Iraq.

Bored with the interminable protests that mark southern Algeria, Battuta becomes obsessed with the story of the Zanj. He asks his editor Nacera to let him fly to Baghdad so he can research a story about sectarianism and the redrawing of the map of the Middle East.

Nacera forbids him to go to Baghdad, but – in one of this century’s more indulgent newspaper management decisions – tells him to go to Beirut instead.

“Beirut,” she says, “is the place where you can go to figure out what went wrong with the Arab nation.”

“All the Arab world, with all its contradictions, wrapped up in one city,” another colleague says of 20th-century Beirut. “We remained saddled with our questions in the end. ... To tell the truth, no one knew what Beirut was.”

In Beirut, Battuta looks up a historian named Jean-Pierre Khoury (an amused Fadi Abi Samra), the only contemporary academic who’s written a history of the Zanj. “They exist only in defeat,” Khoury tells him, “That’s their place in history, at least in the minds of those who wrote up the story.”

Later, he finds his way to his editor’s pal Malek, an antiquities dealer. He asks, not unreasonably, why an Algerian journalist is looking into a slave rebellion from 1200 years ago.

Like much of the dialogue in “Zanj,” Battuta’s response is impressionistic and poetic (especially for a hack), making no effort to sound realistic. Ultimately he admits what he’s looking for is a map for revolution.

“You want to give the Zanj a voice?” the antiquities dealer asks.

“Their existence has already been proven in Beirut,” Battuta says, “no?”

“Many things have been said about Beirut,” he replies. “You’re on the right track, though, coming to Beirut to find something that doesn’t exist.”

“Zanj Revolution” is among a handful of recent films that has taken up Beirut’s militant history. Another is “The Ugly One,” French filmmaker Eric Baudelaire’s feature film debut and second collaboration with 74-year-old radical Japanese filmmaker-cum-militant Masao Adachi.

Both films come on the heels of an earlier wave of features and docs devoted to lacerating treatments of the revolutionary late-20th century – a moment to which the filmmakers (“We were Communists” director Maher Abi Samra, for example) were once themselves devoted.

Shot entirely or partially in Beirut, Baudelaire and Teguia’s films are not propaganda movies supporting one now-irrelevant political party or another. They are post-partisan cinematic experiments seeking a visual and dramatic aesthetic for revolution – a notion that had been written-off as obsolescent until the financial crisis (and ancillary politics) compelled activists to take to the streets in the U.S., the Arab world, etc.

“Zanj Revolution” is Teguia’s third feature – following the Algeria-set “Rome Rather than You” (2006) and “Inland” (2008) – and easily his most ambitious. A characteristically low-budget work, “Zanj” also retains the filmmaker’s allusive approach to narrative.

“Zanj” is a much more migratory film – appropriate given the protagonist’s name is Ibn Battuta. He moves from the Sahara to Algiers to Beirut to Baghdad before the film’s done, and the camera periodically alights upon the Iraqi desert, Thessalonica and an urban wasteland masquerading as New York.

The story collects a range of auxiliary characters as it moves. The most sympathetic of these is Nahla (Diana Sabri), a Palestinian refugee whose parents knew Beirut in those bygone revolutionary days before relocating to Greece. For her part, Nahla wants to return to Beirut to contribute to her national cause – handing over a wad of euros to a Shatila politico before hooking up with Battuta.

Then there is the gaggle of unnamed Anglophone capitalists – incarnations of neoliberal, neoconservative evil – grown rich from the U.S. occupation of Iraq. For unexplained reasons, two representatives of this Anglo-American condominium (Sean Gullette and John W. Peake) travel to Beirut with a big bag of dollars for some dodgy business deal.

The Anglophones are the least-sympathetic characters and least convincing as well. These guys are needed to advance the plot – in one of the film’s most absurd scenes, they facilitate the final leg of Battuta’s rihla – but as they have relatively limited screen time, with every sentence they must declaim soliloquies of ruthless capitalism and Christian fundamentalism.

It’s one of those instances in which silence would better serve the film’s integrity.

Putting aside these and other shortcomings – the 136-minute run time, for example, will be grueling for Teguia neophytes – “Zanj” is an impressive thing.

In its narrative and thematic breadth, it is by far the most mature Arab film to emerge that takes its inspiration from the Arab Spring. This is no small thing.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 03, 2014, on page 16.




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