Beirut’s hilarious traffic culture as vehicle for satire

BEIRUT: If we had to list the annoying things about living in Lebanon, traffic would likely be among the top three. Car owners and patrons of the city’s semipublic transit system alike have been trapped in monstrous traffic jams where honking, screaming and complaining echo through the fume-infused atmosphere.

Theater director Josyane Boulos is not unlike many of her countrymen in having found herself many times becalmed, watching as her fellow motorists appear to go mad.

Then in 1996, after much participant observation, she realized that people’s way of driving reveals a lot about their personalities. This was the inspiration for “Carton Rouge” (Red Card), a piece she published in Femme magazine.

After a decade of chronicling what she calls her “ironical and satirical statements on our society,” Boulos decided to use her “Carton Rouge” as the basis of a new play. “3aj2et Seyr,” (Traffic), as it’s called, opened at Monnot Theater Thursday evening.

“3aj2et Seyr” tells the story of three passengers whose lives become intertwined while their car is stuck in traffic.

As the play begins, Yasmina (Boulos) is driving Lysa (Karen Nohra) to her class at the university. She does so at the behest of their mutual acquaintance Chadi (Tino Karam), who is Yasmina’s lover and the boss of Lysa’s mother.

The stage design effectively draws the audience into the action. The vehicle in which Yasmina and Lysa drive is a composite, with the steering wheel descending from above and the doors rolled on stage by Karam and Nohra.

Once stuck in traffic, Lysa and Yasmina scrutinize the different types of drivers they see around hem. The older woman advises the younger one not to marry someone like this “jaghal” – the kind of man who doesn’t know how to drive with both hands on the wheel, who whistles and flirts with every woman that moves.

As Yasmina sees it, neither should Lysa marry the type of man who drives at a snail’s pace – since it seems this betrays something about his performance in bed.

Heavy traffic also provides an occasion for the two women to discover more about one another – a dialogue accompanied by the soundtrack of horn honking and video projections of traffic.

Karam’s “Chadi” is a sort of meat puppet for the various types of men that a woman will find in Beirut. He’s the womanizing jaghal, the street vendor, the man who routinely abuses the rules of the road while shouting at everyone else’s infringements. He’s the man who addresses women as though they were slabs of meat while imagining himself irresistible.

Each time Karam entered the stage during Thursday evening’s show, the audience laughed. His physical appearance isn’t clownish, but his body language is extremely explicit, his facial expressions and vocal intonations so closely echoing the Beirut street that the incongruity itself was funny.

His depiction of a street vendor trying to sell rubbish to Lysa and Yasmina – Tupperware, chewing gum, cheap perfume – is particularly hilarious.

The play becomes even more appealing due to an unexpected 11th-hour plot twist concerning Yasmina and Chadi’s future.

Boulos’ goal isn’t merely to mock Lebanese driving habits. She also wanted to highlight clashes among the generations. Yasmina is a 40-year old woman, “on her way to tante-ism,” Boulos explained – referring to the Franco-Lebanese term “tante” (aunt), which refers to gregarious women of a certain age.

Yasmina, Boulos said, “is hysterical with an enormous, kind heart.” Boulos’ character is nicely foiled by Lysa’s university student and Chadi’s supremely (and unjustifiably) self-confident masculinity.

Her original idea, Boulos explained, was to write the piece as stand-up comedy. She quickly realized it would have more impact if it were staged as a more realistic theatrical comedy.

French comedian Clement Vieu, the play’s stage director, was charged with infusing the decor with life. Vieu was part of the cast of “Online” – Boulos’ previous play, which takes up the importance of social media in Lebanon and its impact on society – and he’s returned to Lebanon several times since.

For the benefit of skeptics wondering about why a French actor largely innocent of Arabic was being employed as the stage director of “3aj2et Seyr,” he said he worked mainly on voice tones, body language and the decor. Language isn’t a barrier in this labor.

As a foreigner, Boulos remarked, Vieu probably “noticed things that we, locals, don’t notice.”

“[Traffic] is a hostile and aggressive environment which will have consequences on the characters’ behavior,” Vieu said, noting that, as the stage director, he decided to augment the onstage action with visual projections of Beirut’s notorious traffic jams.

Boulos and Vieu want to depict the image drivers represent while in their traffic. People imagine they are invisible in their cars, she observed. Since it’s their personal environment, they assume they can do and say whatever they want, forgetting that windows are not opaque.

“We think we are allowed to do anything in the car,” Boulos observed, “because we think nobody sees us.”

“3aj2et Seyr” will be staged at Monnot Theater until May 19. The show is in Arabic with French subtitles for Thursday and Sunday performances. For more information, please call 01-202-422. Tickets also available at Librairie Antoine.





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