“The Insult:” Ziad Doueiri’s Film of Selective Memory

Still from “The Insult.”

In his latest film, Ziad Doueiri, a Lebanese film director, tackles an emotional and sensitive topic that has been avoided for the most part by most stakeholders: The rather acute enmity of the Christian Right Wing Lebanese political establishment toward the Palestinians and the Palestinian presence in Lebanon.

Mr. Doueiri, a Maronite Christian, addressed this topic in  “The Insult” an Oscar nominated film that has its share of facile symbolisms and tropes.

The Palestinian presence in Lebanon is the direct consequence of the establishment of Israel in historic Palestine in 1948 after the violent expulsion of most of its inhabitant from their homes and lands by the Jewish militias. Palestinian refugees camps were established in the West Bank and Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. Over the years these supposedly temporary tented camps became permanent with haphazard and densely built homes and buildings, as the permanence of their displacement and dispossession over the years became a reality.

Since independence in 1943 Lebanon has been a sectarian confessional state and society where political power has been divided among feudal-based Christian and Muslim sects initially put in place by the French colonialists following the Sykes-Picot agreement that divided the Middle East. Lebanon was carved out of “Greater Syria” to ensure a Christians Maronite majority country based on the 1934 census. No other census was conducted since as the Christians know they are not in the majority any longer and having a census would create demand to change the political system. Since independence Lebanon’s president is always a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of the parliament a Shia Muslim. The ministers and deputies are distributed according to the same formula of the 1930s census even though serious demographic changes have occurred since, primarily the increase of Sunnis but especially the Shia Muslims.

This “balance” of power has been a precarious one, and Lebanon suffered a number of sectarian civil wars or crisis both from power jockeying and assassinations as well as a direct result from the Lebanese people being pulled apart by the greater Middle East geopolitical issues such as Nasser’s Pan-Arabism, Israel’s interference and aggressions, Western plans such as the Baghdad Pact of 1955 , a pro-USA cold war alliance etc.  The Lebanese people as whole were never able or could not have the chance or capability to effectively address the problematics of a sectarian Political System and society with the many contradictions (similar to some issues posed by considering whether Israel is a Jewish state or a democratic one).

Even the multitudes of the supposedly secular political parties on the left and right did not escape sectarian origins and memberships.  In fact most of the Lebanese left allied with the Palestinians because of the latters power, and would turn against them when the opportunity arose.  The topic is complex, and I will not fault Doueiri in not addressing most of these issues in his film, because it is impossible to do so. Suffice to say that the Palestinians refugees’ status in Lebanon changed dramatically following the war between King Hussein’s Jordan’s army and the Palestinian armed resistance, that started in June 1970 and formally ended in July 1971 with the transferring of the Palestinian Resistance movement en toto to Lebanon.

The Palestinian Resistance movement led by Fatah and other the smaller organization like the PFLP were almost completely a Nationalist secular and not a religiously based movement of liberation. The leader of the PFLP was a Christian physician, George Habash. Fatah was a nationalist movement while the PFLP was a Marxist inspired one.

By relocating to Lebanon, the Palestinian movement found itself quickly embroiled in the swamp of the Lebanese confessional sectarian environment.

Before the arrival of the Palestinian armed resistance in 1971, the Palestinians refugees living in the several camps of Lebanon were miserable, poor, and powerless. They were treated as second class people especially by the Christian Lebanese who were by then the elites and controlled the all intrusive Secret Services. The abuse was heavy handed. Palestinians were not allowed to work or live outside the camps. Arrests and detentions were very common. Therefore, the arrival of the powerful Palestinian “Fedayeen” was a turning point.  Not only the Lebanese Security and army were not allowed anymore to enter, arrest and abuse Palestinians at will as before, but the Palestinians extended their power outside the camps with both soft and harsh power as “their allies in the Lebanese left coalition“ joined forces to limit and pushback on the power of the Christian rightwing militias. This power rebalancing, though secular in name caused severe alarm and resentments among Christian leadership and populace. During this period, Lebanon, and Beirut in particular enjoyed a cultural and political renaissance not seen before or ever since. For the first time in any Arab country genuine secular political expressions and newspapers of all persuasions flourished.

Newspapers, books publishing and freedom of expression thrived.  Beirut became a cultural center of unparalled output and attracted political and intellectual refugees from all over the Arab world. The Palestinians presence both allowed and protected this environment. The Palestinian cause thrived and became more well known Serious Palestinian think tanks and a national archives were established. Arab dictators and Monarchs were not happy to say the least and vigorously plotted to change the status as was Israel. During this period, many prominent western artists and literary figures most notably Vanessa Redgrave and Jean Genet whose support and fascination with the Palestinian cause was rooted in its universal appeal for justice and the esthetics of the Palestinian resistance movement.

The Christian Lebanese under their different warlords increased their militarization. Israel supported them with arms, finances and intelligence. These forces became more powerful and in 1975 inevitably clashed with the leftist militias and the Palestinian forces. Soon enough a line of demarcation in Beirut occurred splitting the city between an Eastern Christian one and a Western leftist secular one with a no man’s land in between. That was the beginning of the Lebanese civil war that lasted until 1990.

On January 4th 1976, the Christian forces started the siege of Tel Zaatar, a Palestinian Refugee camp on the periphery of East Beirut (a large number of its residents were Christian Palestinians), and laid siege on a smaller shantytown within Eastern Beirut such as Karantina .  On January 18th The Christian militias entered the Karantina shantytown and killed approximately 1500 civilians. And cleansed the area of non-Christians.  Two days later on January 20th the leftist forces coalition (Sunnis, Druze and Palestinians fighters) entered the Lebanese coastal town of Damour south of Beirut and killed most of the inhabitant that could not escape, about 582 civilians. The bloody civil war escalated from there.

Ziad Doueiri’s film tried to tackle the complex issues of the Palestinian Christian existence in Lebanon. (Some spoiler alert ensues below).

The first half of the film was engaging and was able to successfully humanize both the main protagonists, Lebanese Christian (Tony Hanna played by Adel Karam) and the Palestinian (Yasser Salameh played by Kamel El Basha). Both protagonists’ acting was superb. The film successfully portrays the hotheadedness of Tony who symbolized both the legacy of the Christian rightwing militias and his inability to let go of his hatred to Yasser Salameh, a conscientious and capable engineer working illegally as the foreman of a company contracted to do repairs and improvements in a Christian quarter of Beirut. Tony provokes Yasser when he willfully had water from his balcony pour over Yasser below. In response Yasser immediately orders the repairs of the offending and illegal water pipe sticking out of the balcony. Upon discovering that Yasser repaired the pipe Tony, in a fit of rage destroyed the repairs, which caused a verbal confrontation between them where Yasser told him you are a  “Ars“ which in Arabic means a pimp and possibly also “pimping one’s wife”. The subtitles translate it as “prick” which is incorrect.

Words like these are very common and liberally peppered in the unusually vulgar and colorful Lebanese spoken colloquial especially by males who use very vulgar sexual expressions liberally. So it is quite surprising that the film uses a common vulgar word as the focal point of the film, therefore the English title of the film “The Insult”. (In Arabic, the film is titled Court Case  #23).

Things escalate from there as Tony demands an apology otherwise he will sue him. The complicated illegal and weak status of Yasser did not help, and his boss demands of him to apologize. Yasser has a hard time accepting this demand, but his wife, who happened to be a Christian Lebanese, urges him to do so.

In the end the boss drives Yasser to apologize. We find Tony -in his mechanic shop- with the TV on blaring loud a speech by Bashir Gemayel, the military leader of the Lebanese Forces during the early 1980s, the heir and son of Pierre Gemayel the founder of the Phalange Party inspired by the Mussolini Fascist brown shirts. Bashir Gemayel is seen on the shop’s TV speaking to a large flag waving crowd in very inflammatory and accusatory words against the Palestinian presence in Lebanon. Even after almost 40 years, listening to the virulent speech is very jarring and does cause uneasy feelings. As he hears the speech emanating from the TV Yasser hesitates to come further to apologize to such an obviously anti-Palestinian hothead. The boss nudges him again to apologize and he does step forward, conflicted, with an outstretched hand, but Tony, attacks him verbally again and says:  “I wished that (Ariel) Sharon wiped you all out”. In a fit of anger Yasser lands a strong punch onto Tony ribs and leaves.

The consequences pile on quickly, including some well written dialogue between Tony’s pregnant wife and her hothead husband. That initial uttered vulgarity turns into a courtroom drama where the Palestinian Lebanese conflict is played out by invoking the recent civil war . The court room drama is a bit forced and feels almost comedic in its twists and turns if it weren’t a serious and painful subject to all.

A critical discovery was that Tony was a survivor –at age 6- of the Damour Massacre against Christian Civilians.  The film, intentionally does not mention the larger massacre that occurred just 2 days before in the Karentina Shanty town that massacred three times the civilians on the hands of the Christian militias.  Similarly the film does not mention, even in passing, why the Palestinians refugees’ camps are in Lebanon. Most glaringly is that the film does not attempt to explain why the utterance of Tony which provoked Yasser to punch and break Tony’s ribs when he told him that he wished Sharon the infamous Israeli general have wiped the Palestinians off the map. As if the fact that Sharon was just another one of the many Israeli generals the Palestinians suffered from rather than being uniquely associated with so many particularly heinous atrocities committed over his infamous career, including the invasion of Lebanon in 1982 with tens of thousand civilian victims both Palestinians and Lebanese, the destruction of cities and towns including West Beirut, as well as his open support to the Right-wing Christian militias and politicians to take over Lebanon, the same political party that Tony Hanna is a member of. This omission is one example of several that Duieri and his co-screen writer Joelle Touma (his former Lebanese Christian wife) studiously chose to wash the hands of anything relating Israel or its actions in the Lebanese mess, the deaths and the civil war. While it is commendable and actually poignant that the film manages to portray the Lebanese and Palestinian characters as humans with some depth, with strong passions and legitimate resentments, the cause of the resentments and the origin of the issues are studiously omitted especially when it came to the role of Israel which gets an active historical white-wash, and I dare say a certificate of innocence. An act that is an insult to the facts, the Palestinians and the Lebanese. In addition, toward the end of the film, there is a significant dialogue about the inexcusability of the perpetual victimhood of the Palestinians because the Lebanese were victims as well and other Arabs and other parts of the world have suffered as well if not even more, so why are we and the world is always talking about Palestinians as victims? This line of thinking falls right dead center in the talking points of the Israeli Hasbara or propaganda machine to diminish the Palestinians’ sufferings, and claiming that the Palestinians cause is now old and passé”. This argumentation is also currently popular among the Arab Gulf population where their Monarchs and Israel are making overt inroads in co-operations at many levels, economic, military and strategic which among other actions, undermines the successful BDS movement.  Doueiri’s obsession for ignoring Israel’s role is jarring and appears quite forced because it is a deliberate and obvious strategic political position.  At one point he even without a good filmic reason, points the fingers at the Palestinians, including borrowing the famously celebrated phrase by pro-Israel supporters first uttered by Abba Eban in the 1970s that the “Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity”. He openly uses the Israeli propaganda playbook to undermine the rights and moral capital of the Palestinians who are living under the longest occupation in modern history.

Doueiri told an interviewer that the inspiration for the film came to him after he accidentally splashed some water on a Palestinian neighbor, who upon complaining he told him he wished that Sharon wiped them (Palestinian) all out. He later apologized.

In an interview with the Jewish magazine the Forward his true current positions towards the Palestinians and Israel are clearly stated: Israel to him is not an issue, but merely a detail. That he is an agenda against the BDS movement stating that “my fight is with the BDS”, belittling Ken Loach and Roger Waters.

Why did Doueiri white washes Israel and makes Israel a mere bystander, a detail? That is a valid question. There were ample opportunities not to be selective, and not to whitewash Israel’s role from the Middle East mess.

Doueiri tries to portray himself as a gadfly, a provocateur. A previous film titled “the Attack” released in 2012 was partly shot in Israel with Israeli actors and support crew thus, ignoring or in defiance the growing Boycott, Divestment  and Sanctions (BDS) movement. The BDS movement is the single most important nonviolent movement that has Israel and its supporters very worried about. Doueiri has taken it as his role to destroy it.

Guess who will produce this upcoming film?

The main producer and distributor of the “Insult” are is the Cohen Media Group, Its CEO is billionaire Charles S. Cohen, a practicing conservative Jew known for being a very strong supporter Israel and its policies and was given several awards by Israel for his financial support.

It seems that Doueiri took a calculated position in placing his eggs in the pro-Israel basket, hoping that this will help advance his career. It seems that the “dividends” are significant, first by securing the Cohen Media Group powerful distribution ability, and its clout in Hollywood.  It may also significantly increase its chances for securing an Oscar for best foreign film which I predict it will win (and not primarily for its artistic value).

It is interesting to note that the Palestinian protagonist’s name is Yasser Salameh. The most famous Yasser, of course is Yasser Arafat who at the time of the protagonist birth was not remotely known and it was relatively rare name to be given, until Arafat became a famous leader. This is a facile cliché among others scattered in the film. More significantly -in my opinion- is the choice of the Palestinian protagonist’s last name: “Salameh”. Doueiri and his co-screen writer intentionally used this last name because an important Palestinian lived in Lebanon during the Seventies had Salameh as a last name: he was a high-ranking intelligence officer in the PLO, and head of security for Arafat. He was known to be an imposing and handsome man with many connections and was a popular character in Beirut’s socio-political and nightlife. This man’s full name was Ali Hassan Salameh, a son of a Famous rich Palestinian who died resisting the Jewish militias during the establishment of Israel 1948. Perhaps the most important fact about Ali Hassan Salameh from a specifically Christian Right wing Lebanese position but also Lebanese in general is that he married in 1979 (during the civil war) one of the most famous and beautiful Lebanese Women ever, a Christian. She was the former Miss Universe, Georgina Rizk who was crowned in 1971.  She was the pride and joy of Lebanon, especially the Christians who saw her as evidence of their modernity and sophistication among other imagined  “European” attributes. The Lebanese generally but more vehemently the Christians considered her marriage to a Palestinian a most outrageous insult and provocation possible by the Palestinians onto the Lebanese.  An unforgivable act of transgression.  Doueiri is deliberate in his symbolic choice of the name. In the film, Yasser’s wife is also a Lebanese Christian who loves and supports him all the way but the fact of her being a Christian adds nothing to the actual film dramatic development except reminding the knowledgeable of the original “insult” of decades ago.  While Doueiri seemed to try to be even handed between the Palestinians and the Lebanese Christians, he seems not to have forgiven Salameh and the Palestinians this act of transgression, an insult still raw and never forgotten, let alone forgiven.   Doueiri is the simplistic opportunistic hothead clearly unmasked in this semi-autobiographical film.

Aftim Saba is a US-based physician of Palestinian heritage.