Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Syrian comic as politician

Guest post by Middle East publisher F. Najia

It was almost 34 years ago, in August 1977. A comedian, I reasoned, should feel at home in Middle East politics. So I turned to my then heroine reporter Jumana Nuwayri at Monday Morning, the English-language weekly magazine I founded in Beirut in 1972. I asked her to talk Middle East politics with Duraid Lahham.

Duraid, better known to his fans as “Ghawwar At-Tawshi,” is a Syrian actor whose television programs, plays and movies have had millions of Arabs in stitches for several decades.

“Am I involved in politics?” he told Jumana, now Mrs. Aref Yafi. “Who in the Arab world isn’t? There was a time when anybody could say ‘I don’t talk politics.’ These days, if you don’t talk politics, you don’t talk. You’re fed politics for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It’s drilled into your ears 24 hours a day.”

He himself, he confided, is an amateur politician, interested in observing the political antics of the nation and the region. Finding out what is going on, he noted, requires a great deal of skill and talent.

“Because everything in the Middle East happens behind closed doors. The politicians meet and come out declaring, ‘It was a constructive meeting.’ I wish they would just once come out and say, ‘It was a miserable failure.’”

What, Jumana asked him, does he think happens in those secret discussions?

“Who knows? They may arrive at the momentous decision to construct a road leading to the home of one of the politicians in the meeting and come out to tell the world that they had probed ‘issues of national destiny.’”

1977 cartoon of Duraid Lahham by M.Kahil
Democracy in the (1977) Arab world, Duraid said, is being slowly transformed into a series of slogans.

“Maybe that is true all over the world. Democracy has become a block of shares in the stock market. It dips when a strong chief of state takes over and revives when a weak one comes along. The strong leaders take a nation by the scruff of the neck and become the Alpha and the Omega of the state, turning democracy into a shelf ornament. When a weak leader comes along who is unable to impose his dictates, democracy flourishes.”

The Arab race is an impossible one, Duraid thought.

“I think it was Churchill who said the Arabs are unwilling to let anyone rule them, and unable to rule themselves. Look at us. If  two Arab states disagree on something, both of them become ‘traitors’ in each other’s eyes and statements. The smallest disagreement, and we are at each other’s throats.

“In England, you have two major parties – Labor and the Conservatives. When Labor is in power, the Conservatives are not slammed in jail. They work through a staid opposition. This sort of thing is unthinkable in the Arab countries. When an Arab party takes over, it sends all the other parties to jail, freezing three quarters of the country’s potential.”

The Arab world, he told Jumana, “is passing through a dangerous stage.”

He said: “Do you ever remember a time when the Arab world was not ‘passing through a dangerous phase’? I don’t. The Arab infant opens his eyes to an Arab world whose leaders warn the population that the region is going through a ‘delicate stage.’ The phase stays delicate as the infant goes to school, marries, and gets children who open their eyes to a continuing ‘dangerous phase.’ From the dawn of Arab history to the days of Arab oil, delicate stages have hounded us.”

This endless chain of “dangerous phases” is due, in part, to the collective Arab temper, which makes the Arab people go for their guns at the slightest provocation, Duraid said.

“And have you noticed how skillfully we use those guns against each other? I’ll never know why our arms skills suddenly disappear when our weapons are aimed at our enemies.”

The “dangerous phases,” he added, are also due to the fact that “everything we have we get from somebody else.”

“Strip an Arab man down to his skin, and you will find everything he wears was made abroad. The food he eats is imported. His car is made abroad. Nothing he uses is made by him, which makes him totally dependent and his country totally vulnerable. It is written (I don’t know who wrote it), ‘Woe to the nation that eats what it does not harvest and wears what it does not make.’ If that’s true, we’re in hot water.”

We are also in hot water because if we don’t have enemies to fight with, we fight with each other. “I find myself in the awkward position of asking the Almighty for problems,” he wailed. “Give us something to worry about, O Lord, so that we may not claw at each other’s faces.”

It is also noteworthy, Duraid said, that the Arabs rarely do anything wrong. If something goes wrong, it’s the fault of “the imperialists.”

“Poor imperialists. They’re blamed for everything that happens. If the electricity goes off, the imperialists did it. If the water supply is cut, the imperialists did it. If the imperialists did anything to us, it was only because our attitudes begged them to do it…

“Maybe our leaders look beyond our borders to discourage us from looking within them. Build up the other guy’s headaches, and maybe your headache will seem less painful. The fact that we’re a pretty gullible people makes the plan work. The Arabs are quick to applaud and quick to curse.”

Jumana asked him to describe the (1977) Arab nation.

He said: “You’re asking the impossible. Ask me to describe anything recognizable, and I will describe it. A statue with a head and hands and arms and legs, yes. But here you’re asking me to describe a statue that has a frying pan for a head, buckets for hands and tyres for feet. It defies description. It has no recognizable form to which you or I can relate. It never has had form.

“Take a good look at us. We’ve always had the rulers and the ruled – never the citizens and the responsible authorities… And Arab officials are lovable creatures. Even the junior official is so adored he has a couple of guards at his door. It’s a touching sight, although I haven’t decided yet whether the guards are there to protect him from the people or the people from him…

“In some countries, a man goes into politics to sacrifice his health and wealth for his people. In most Arab countries, a man goes into politics when he can’t make it in any other field. You don’t need a degree to become a politician, you see. All you need is an active tongue…

“In the Arab world, the politician gains. In other countries, he loses. In those countries, politics costs the politician a lot in terms of health and income. In our countries, a man goes into politics in a small car and ends up in a luxurious limousine; he starts out with one apartment, and ends up with 10 villas.”

How did he describe 1977 Lebanon?

“It would be unfair to describe it now (during the civil war). All I can say is that I love this country. It has always been a safety valve for me. In the old days, when I thought I was about to burst, I came (from Syria) to Lebanon, cussed my fill and went back home relieved. Lebanon is every Arab’s sweetheart, and for each Arab, it has a different attraction… Me, I like it for all its attractions.”

His answers were swift and confident.

Duraid Lahham obviously felt at home in Middle East politics. He is, after all, a comedian.