Places

March 20th, 2013

I just watched the movie Argo. I hadn’t watched a Hollywood movie in quite some time. Partly because I don’t live in the U.S. where celebrity status and movie news is always tickling the senses – on morning radio, in grocery store lanes, TV ads, magazines lying around my mom’s hair salon. Sure, Hollywood movies show in Beirut, and I can have the local pirate burn me any movie I want for less than a few bucks. But Hollywood stays far from my mind in these parts. I don’t know who is the new it-actor (though I just recently found out how wildly popular Lena Dunham has become, but that’s because I read a fun essay by her in New York Magazine) and the last holly movies I saw in the theater that I remember are Ted and Les Miserables. Ted, hilarious; Les Miserables, not. However, I did not find out about the making of Ted or how the surly bear actually managed to speak. Nor did I find out how long it took Anne Hathaway to train her voice or how she felt about her ratty haircut. (Oh look, I just found an article about that.) I no longer have this constant access to celebrity do’s and don’t’s in Beirut. It’s relieving. I think we are all vulnerable to desiring their fame and beauty and lifestyle, even if just a teensy, weensy bit. Even if our favorite place in the world to go is our couch.

Although I like my occasional Hollywood movie or tabloid trash, I am bitter with Hollywood. Not only because it’s gross to see how people like to imitate all things celebrity, but also it’s this message that everything will be fine and it will be fine in a very feel-good way. Whenever a scene includes a score by Philip Glass or a symphonic crescendo and someone running toward a forest or a lover, I get pissed off. The message is too often, “You will go through conflict, but prevail in the end. All of it will be behind you. You’ll be fine.” (And the conflict is romantic.) As if the end result is completely divorced from any pain and suffering along the way. You can overcome the worst and start anew. And even if you don’t overcome, and you die, let’s say, you will be a hero. And that seeps into our heads and sticks.

A friend recently watched the film Habibi in Massachusetts, which is about a couple in Palestine who couldn’t be together due to the usual suspects – religion, family, politics. The film squeezes your heart. You may leave feeling depressed, heavy. After the showing, a woman was found addressing her students and expressing how she “believes in the youth” and that things aren’t really like that over there. She was an Iraqi woman who was apparently apologizing for this representation of a place that is close to home and too often “misunderstood.” It’s true that many Arab movies are rarely optimistic. But there’s a reason for that. Shit ain’t Hollywood over here. Nor is it anywhere. Currently in Beirut is the Arab film festival, Ayam Beirut, which I attended last week and watched a series of shorts. None of them made me feel good in the end. And that seeps into our heads and sticks as much as you’d like to wash it away.

So, Argo. I bit my nails through it and rooted for the Americans not to get their fingernails pulled out of their skin. And I was relieved when they made it into and out of the Iranian airspace. The movie is based on a true story, so I won’t complain that it ended fine. Though, I will complain that it ended with a huge hug and an American flag waving in the background. I stayed alert to any of the usual ethnocentric and racist additives, and although I don’t know Iran now or in 1979, it was something that there weren’t any sympathetic Iranian characters in the movie except for a young maid, who covered and risked her life for the Americans who were hiding in the Canadian ambassador’s house. And another guy who escorted them into town. Other than the helpers, the Iranians looked like a bunch of dimwitted brutes. But that’s not what I want to focus on. It was the young maid in the end that made me sad. She escaped, but into Iraq, where tons of others gathered around to cross the border, looking desperate and chaotic. I was left thinking, why is the Middle East like this? Why are people always clamoring at borders to escape from one horrible condition to another less horrible condition? The Americans found their way out of Iranian airspace and were suddenly free, leaving underneath them a mess of fear of torture and streets teeming with angry people. And on the other hand, leaving a place that they had a hand in affecting, in bringing to the breaking point. Then I remembered it was a Hollywood movie. Then I remembered Syria and Egypt and Libya and Bahrain and Tunisia and Iraq and Palestine and Lebanon.

An ex-student walked up to me today and told me how her authoritarian teddy-bear dad is encouraging her to apply to graduate school in the U.S., just 4 years after dragging her to Beirut from Detroit against her will. “Things are getting hot here, honey.” And she was elated. She looked at me and said, “I can’t believe that you stay here. You like it though, huh?” I said to her that it’s not just a place; there are relationships and roots and life. I thought, why are we so scared to face unrest?

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