Culture  Bridging Arab identities

Mahbas proposes Lebanese-Syrian reconciliations through humor

Solitaire (Mahbas), screened at Cinema du Parc as part of this year’s Festival du Monde Arabe de Montréal, boasted a vivacious cast, an eager crowd, and roaring laughs from the audience loud enough to quake the theatre. Two sold out screenings across the Festival du Monde Arabe de Montréal revealed the hunger of the Montreal community for Middle-Eastern representation. Not a single U.S. army uniform made its way across the screen; rather, this film featured a global understanding of regional issues. More rich that the solely Western viewpoint characterized by heavy U.S. military presences as a form of diplomatic mediation, Solitaire offers an Arab perspective on Lebanese-Syrian relations that is both Arab and global. From its commencement, Solitaire demonstrated that this is a film for us and by us to be shared with the world.

Directed by Sophie Boutros, Solitaire touches upon the intricacies of the terse relations between Lebanon and Syria in the ten years following Syria’s official recognition of the sovereignty of Lebanon. Solitaire laments love, loss, misconception, and mending through the eyes of the main character, Therese (Julia Kassar), who is the matriarch of a Lebanese family mourning the death of her brother at the hands of a Syrian bomb twenty years prior. When Therese’s daughter, Ghada (Serena Chami), returns home to her village in Lebanon with her Syrian suitor, Samer (Jaber Jokhadar), the shock of Therese’s lifetime ensues. A political commentary on the classic “meet the family” weekend, Solitaire measurably tackles contemporary Lebanese-Syrian relations that burrow as far back as French colonisation.

Working against the often haphazard groupings of all things Arab, Solitaire tackles regional specificities usually washed over in North American discussions of what it is to be Arab. The director uses humor as a formal technique to discuss Syria’s complex influence on Lebanese politics, beginning with the conclusion of the Lebanese Civil War in 1990 until Syria’s withdrawal during the 2005 Cedar Revolution. The movie even touches upon events of the last decade since Syria’s 2008 recognition of Lebanese sovereignty. The complexities of Lebanese-Syrian relations are indisputable, especially following the recent influx of Syrian refugees in Lebanon and the resulting curfews placed on Syrian refugees in Lebanon prohibiting them from leaving their homes between sunset and sunrise, like in the city Rmeish. Small municipal moves like these have spread throughout Lebanon and widely reflect a Lebanese disdain for their Syrian neighbors.

Despite what Western viewers often perceive as an implicit politicization of these histories, Solitaire works to identify and negotiate these regional tensions. By implementing comedic elements, Solitaire is able to open discussion, overdramatize, and then poke fun at otherwise highly-sensitive political conversations. Rather than shying away from controversial Lebanese-Syrian relations, the film caricatures poignant stereotypes of both Arab groups. Humour thus mediates what is usually a difficult but necessary conversation, but does so carefully with humanity, understanding, and self-reflection. Humour is a thereby an act of humanity — opening topics otherwise too divisive to engage with.

Apparent through the booming laughter of the Cinema du Parc audience, Solitaire’s stereotypes rang true, especially to the Arab audience. Preying on these caricatures of Lebanese-Syrian discrimination revealed an infamous dual edged sword — the tragedy of such rivalries, as well as the relatable absurdity. After only one word of Sabah Fakhri’s tenor voice on the radio, Therese pointedly silences the device. She does so out of disdain for the famed Syrian singer, but this action also reveals Therese’s silencing of the Syrian population at large — a silencing and hatred she repeats throughout the movie. Therese’s fear of the past and the tumultuous political history between the two states serves to inform a diverged future — until Ghada’s engagement. Thus, it is Ghada’s return that serves as a brutal upheaval of Therese’s warped values regarding who is the true Other in Lebanese society.

Similarly, Solitaire plays the role of Ghada to the audience — it reaches beyond the screen to infuse in viewers a sense of awareness. Humour is therefore part reflection and part mitigation throughout the entirety of Solitaire, allowing for two conversations to be initiated: that between Syrians and Lebanese, and audience member and stereotypes. Stereotypes are poignantly laid out for all to see, such as quick jabs made on-screen that highlight tensions between Syrian refugees in Therese’s village. In these Lebanese and Syrian caricatures, room for topics such as familial bonds, women’s spaces, intergenerational traumas, infidelity, and love are also made apparent. Rather than portraying an exotic life set wholly in hate and conflict, these histories rise greater than their outlandish, comedic caricatures.  

Humour negotiates differing Arab identities, and opens a channel through which two independent states with intertwined histories, are able to converse. Solitaire is a Lebanese-Syrian story broadcasted to the world not as another stereotypical one, but rather as a film that underscores the importance of understanding beyond difference. If even the the most caricatural Lebanese family can find peace with the Other — the Syrian — why can’t other Lebanese?

Undoubtedly, the Lebanese-Syrian conflict is more than a marriage proposal, more than a family’s tragedy, more than the chaotic dinner meal around which the film revolves. Rather, it is a complex, living, breathing tapestry of the histories of two people, which have fallen victim to biases as simple as differences in accent. Most importantly, Solitaire is as human as the laughs it generates. Laughter, in its light, human nature, opens a conversation far beyond the setting of the Western gaze.

While most discussions occurring within the McGill bubble revolve around the Arab world as a threat to North American peace and sovereignty, Solitaire challenges these conceptions. Despite depicted homogeneity and eternal turmoil, the Middle East is something more than the local 2am Boustan run, or the debates around Islamophobic Bill 62. Rather than solely viewing the Arab world in relation to shisha lounges and islamist terrorism, Solitaire gives room for viewers to formulate a nuanced take on the regional politics of the Middle East.