A weekend in which many people spent their time watching an Israeli-Palestinian war unfold on television might not be the most auspicious time to open a new play, but when the work in question is by one of Lebanon’s masters of postwar black comedy, there is always the potential for success.
Wall-to-wall television coverage of Yasser Arafat’s impending final hour in his bunker provided an eerie backdrop to seeing such a play, given that the play’s protagonist is intent on garnering as much attention (and funding) as he can by promoting his own suicide, live on prime-time television, after waking up one day to find that he has no personality; it’s been stolen (read: squandered in the country’s postwar malaise).
The title of Yahya Jaber’s play Yalli … Khiliq, ‘Iliq makes this clear enough, but it is difficult to render into an English phrase that rhymes like the original; one try might be “whoever slides out of the womb is doomed.”
Jaber’s specialty as essayist, poet and playwright is the average Lebanese Joe’s postwar identity crisis, and the painful paradoxes that vex the Arab world today. In the world of Yalli … Khiliq, ‘Iliq, US-made Uncle Ben’s Rice is thrown during celebrations to welcome a former Israeli-held detainee home, and the protagonist Youssef, played by Jaber, is an actor who can only find work dubbing his voice on foreign-made productions, hence the loss of identity.
Youssef is trying to come to grips with a world in which growing up poor meant one’s single set of clothes got tighter and shot through with holes during the successive washings of an entire school year; today, ripped jeans and the ultra-tight look are in fashion. Apparently, then, mom was decades ahead of her time when she oversaw how you dressed back in the old days.
What makes Lebanon vital, the cacophony of competing identities, is portrayed as a fault line, and people argue over whether they prefer kaak or croissants, use “sa’idi” or “sabaho” as a greeting, go to school at Les Freres or al-Maqassed, and even whether “Lubnan” is a masculine or feminine noun in Arabic.
But pointing out Lebanon’s paradoxes is a fairly easy task, and what makes the play enjoyable is its directing, which Jaber undertook a full 6 years after writing and directing his big hit Smile, You’re Lebanese.
His current work moves along at a good pace because the never-ending arguments between Youssef and his long-suffering wife, played by Aida Sabra, are sandwiched between flashback after flashback, such as a World War I-era south Lebanon village, the obligatory Sunday drive to visit relatives you don’t like, a bar in Kaslik in which you can drink and pour out your troubles, or a local restaurant, where you’re sure to be gouged.
Perhaps the most vicious barbs are saved for the treatment of a former detainee, who is either exploited or ignored by the media, politicians, the public and the organizers of the rally where he is supposed to be “feted.” There are no exemptions from paying the electricity fees during his years in detention, since after all, the Jiyye power station provided the jolts that were used to torture him.
But the lively black comedy and quick pacing keep the play from getting bogged down in depressing reminders of modern-day frustration, and the only two other actors Sabra and Khaled Sayyed are fantastic as they do quick-change after quick-change to run through a hilarious variety of characters.
In Jaber’s world, the Lebanese cannot escape being concerned about the situation in Palestine and Iraq but have to realize that “everything is marketing,” proved by the observation that when the civil war broke out, the first place the militias attacked were the downtown souqs.
Yalli … Khiliq, ‘Iliq plays Wednesday to Sunday at the Russian Cultural Center in Verdun. For more information, call 01/790-212 or 03/248-492