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The Uncivil Servant: The Butterfly Effect in Lebanon

Mitchell Abidor
January 11, 2018
LEBANON is a land constantly tottering on the edge. Either it can’t choose a president, or it can’t have its capital’s garbage collected for months, or both. It is subject to the whims of its neighbors (like Syria or Iran) or even of nations at the other end of the Arab world (like Saudi Arabia).

There is, then, no surprise, no implausibility, in a Palestinian foreman’s repair of a broken gutter in a Christian’s apartment in Beirut leading to riots, death threats, and the rehearsing of decades-old grievances. Lebanon is a land of the political butterfly effect, as it is convincingly and uncompromisingly shown in Ziad Doueiri’s The Insult, opening at the Quad Cinema in New York City on January 12. The Insult, which is Lebanon’s nominee for the Academy Award, is a tale of historical hatreds maintained, and of a reconciliation that can at best be partial.

Yasser, played by Kamel El Basha, the foreman of a work crew in Fassouh, a Christian quarter of Beirut, is drenched by a gutter that spills water on him. When he mounts to the apartment to inform its owner, he is roughly dismissed. Yasser repairs the gutter anyway, the apartment owner destroys the repairs, an insult ensues, and long-simmering hatreds are unleashed.

Tony Hanna, the apartment owner, played with chilling rage by Adel Karam, is a fervent follower of Bashir Gemayel, a supporter of the Phalange and a man whose favorite form of entertainment seems to be videos of fiery anti-Palestinian speeches by the murdered Gemayel. Yasser is a Palestinian, a peaceful, decent man who just wants to go about his business, but he becomes the object of Tony’s hatred.

The spat over a spout results in further insults, a lawsuit, and an appeal trial that leads to the incitement of racial hatred, accusations of collaboration with the Israelis, and tire- and car-burnings, all growing with complete naturalness from a simple insult and a refusal to apologize.

The insult serves to reveal the national fissures within the Lebanese polity, even the political ones that divide families. Doueri handles it all deftly. As the camera, most often hand-held and wobbly -- as has become almost de rigueur (shades of the Dardenne brothers) -- follows the movements of the characters, the images are almost always in closeup or medium shot. For though this is a tale of a society, it is played out within the individual characters: Tony, the Palestinian-hating Christian who missed his chance to massacre Palestinians; Yasser, the Palestinian just man;, Shirine, Tony’s stunning wife, played by Rita Hayek, trying vainly to calm him down; and the lawyers for both parties, a father defending the cause of the Christians, and his daughter defending the Palestinians.

Doueri’s film is a deft, enthralling, disturbing portrait of a land enslaved by its recent past, of hatreds that can’t be uprooted.


Mitchell Abidor’s new book, May Made Me: An Oral History of the 1968 Uprising in France, will be published and on sale in February. His latest translation is Daniel Guérin’s For a Libertarian Communism. Two of his translations, about the Paris Commune and French anarchists of the 1890s, are available at our Pushcart.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.