Thursday, January 21, 2016

"Bennesbeh Laboukra Chou?" A wake-up call by Ziad Rahbani

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'Bennesbeh Laboukra Chou?' Ziad Rahbani’s masterpiece is out today. I guess it’ll be success. Who wouldn’t want to finally see the play we’ve all listen to for so long? So long in fact most of us know every line by heart.

We thought it was never shot on film. We were told Ziad Rahbani didn’t want it to be. For artistic integrity, they used to say, a play belongs on stage not on film. Still, rumors of existing footage were heard every once in a while. Connoisseurs used to whisper that this footage existed but was destroyed during the war, only leaving the audio recording we all know. Others argued that they existed but were hidden by Ziad.

Today, this footage will be on a big screen near you. Remarkably put together, 'Bennesbel Laboukra Chou?' is now a film in its own right. And we can finally see the play the way it was actually performed in Beirut 35 years ago.

But beyond the finally! factor, beyond the utter pleasure of seeing Zakaria, Souraya, Reda and the others, beyond laughing at the usual "et pourquoi pas ya Soraya" and "vous voulez de la neige", beyond the sheer joy of watching the great Joseph Sakr sing 'esma3 ya Reda', '3ayche wa7da balak' and 'Bosta' – Ziad dancing on 'Bosta' is in itself worth the movie ticket – beyond all that, there’s something important we all need to do.

After leaving the cinema, after reminiscing on how we used to listen to it under the bombs, after praising the effort of producer Eli Khoury and his M-media team for the amazing restoration job, after debating the cultural and historical value of such an effort, after regretting that Ziad Rahbani no longer writes plays, we all should think of the story this film tells us, and how that story could have been written today.

Zakaria and his wife Souraya work in a bar in Beirut. This job is the only thing that keeps them from falling back into absolute poverty. But the cost of living is high in Lebanon and for the couple to be able to live a somewhat decent life and give a proper education to their son, Soraya has to prostitute herself with the bar’s wealthiest clients.

Zakaria is not happy about it, to say the least. He knows he has no other choice but to look the other way. “Poverty is frightening, he says, when you’re in it you don’t see it, but when you get out of it you realize how frightening it is, and I don’t want to go back to it.”

When he tries to ask for a raise, his boss, Monsieur Antoine, always gives the same excuse: “el balad ma bye7mol”, the country can’t afford it – isn’t it exactly what we are told when we ask to increase the country’s minimum wage? Isn’t it what your boss tells you when you dare ask for a little more money? “El balad ma bye7mol”…

A rich Sheikh from some Gulf country visits the bar. Obviously, all rush to his every need, hoping to profit from him somehow. Even the idealist poet starts talking business while Souraya is asked to dance for him – sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

The Sheikh is building a new hotel and Zakaria is offered a well-paid job there. The only solution he has to make a decent living is to leave his family and go work in the Gulf – reminds you of anything? Isn’t the choice we are all given, be penniless in Lebanon or go earn a living in Saudi Arabia, Qatar or the UAE?

But Zakaria doesn’t want to leave. He doesn’t accept the lie that the country can’t afford its own people. “Mine 2al el balad ma bye7mol? He screams, ma baddé rou7 3al Khaleej!” – who said the country can’t afford it? I don’t want to go to the Gulf!

In a pointless act of revolt, Zakaria ends up stabbing a customer who wants to enjoy his wife’s charms for a couple of hours. He is arrested and thrown in jail. And as the curtain falls, life carries on as if nothing happened.

I believe this film should be our wake-up call. A wake-up call for change, for every one of us to stand up for his or her rights, be it at our place of work or in the country at large. A wake-up call for the existing wealth to be fairly shared by all and no longer be the sole propriety of a selfish few. A wake-up call for a better, fairer Lebanon. A wake-up call to never allow again the curtain to fall as if nothing happened.

So bennesbeh laboukra chou? Sawra? Et pourquoi pas ya Souraya.

© Claude El Khal, 2016

ALSO READ: "History of Lebanon by Ziad Rahbani"