A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

a multi-faceted look at the middle east, and the middle west

democracy, Lebanese-style

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on February 7, 2009

Sorry for today’s posting, which is just a newspaper article. I’ve been on the go all day, and now must embark on a late-afternoon clean-a-thon before a friend comes over for pre-dinner tea.

Robert Worth has an article about Charbel Khalil and Duma Kratia in today’s New York Times. Its a bit heavy on the old Basmat Al Watan story, and misses some other contextual nuances, but its still a good read. And I learned something new: I never realized that Khalil is an Aouni. Go figure🙂

EVERY weekday, Lebanon’s large and fractious cast of politicians appears on television in news conferences and speeches. And every night at 7:45 they appear all over again — only this time as rubber puppets who sing, dance and babble their way through the day’s news.

The wizard behind this nightly transformation is Charbel Khalil, a small, round-faced and very brave man of 41. His new show, “Democracy,” which first went on the air in September, is the latest in a career-long series of comedic broadsides aimed at the vanities of Lebanese politics and society.

It is not an easy profession. Mr. Khalil has been threatened more times than he can count, briefly driven into exile and forced to sit waiting for hours in the offices of offended Syrian commanders. Three years ago, after he dared to mock Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, angry young men burned tires and blocked the road to the Beirut airport, and Lebanon’s cabinet anxiously ordered the show off the air for two weeks.

Mr. Khalil shrugs it off. “We are completely free here compared with other Arab countries,” he said, sitting at a desk in his cozy, wood-paneled studio office just north of Beirut. “Nothing is forbidden for satire except the president of the republic.”

Then he adds, with faint embarrassment, “and the army. And the judges, and religious leaders. And the presidents and kings of ‘sister and neighborly countries.’ ” All these are specifically protected from public ridicule under Lebanon’s media law, he says.

Still, that leaves scores of public figures and the leaders of Lebanon’s many political parties, who appear frequently in “Democracy” and in Mr. Khalil’s signature comedy sketch show, “Basmat Watan,” which translates as “The Smile of the Nation.”

Mr. Khalil began writing for “Basmat Watan” in 1995, and earned his reputation by mocking the Syrians, who occupied Lebanon at that time. People were amazed at what he got away with, and the show was a huge hit.

“We faced problems with the Syrians, but never physical,” Mr. Khalil recalled. Once, he ran a sketch about how the Syrians never dared to respond to Israeli air raids. The Syrian president at the time, Hafez al-Assad, saw the episode and was furious. After receiving a warning, Mr. Khalil fled to Canada, but returned in a few weeks and resumed the show.

“It was an occupation — I felt I should tell people to resist,” Mr. Khalil said.

Another frequent target on the show in the early years was Rafik Hariri, the former prime minister, who was assassinated in 2005. A billionaire and a dominating presence on the Lebanese political scene, Mr. Hariri so disliked being mocked that he briefly tried to get “Basmat Watan” taken off the air, and was dissuaded only by the president at the time, Elias Hrawi, Mr. Khalil said.

But no one here can stand outside of Lebanese politics, or at least not for long. Now that the Syrians are gone, Mr. Khalil has taken sides, as he readily admits. He favors Michel Aoun, the Christian leader and former general who forged a controversial alliance with Hezbollah three years ago. Some Lebanese say that the show has suffered in recent years and that Mr. Khalil’s well-known politics make him less interesting.

He counters that he still mocks everyone — he even has a puppet of himself, which makes regular appearances on “Democracy.” Mr. Aoun and Hezbollah’s Parliament leaders are regularly ridiculed on both of his shows, but noticeably less than their rivals in the Western-allied political bloc. “I criticize them more because they are the majority in Parliament,” Mr. Khalil said of the establishment politicians. “If they lose, I will criticize the other side more.”

Although direct political satire is virtually impossible in most of the Arab world, the impulse has long thrived in more oblique and private forms. “Basmat Watan” draws on the live comedy and song performances known as chansonières, which started in Beirut theaters in the early 1960s and continue today. For centuries before that, villagers here would gather to sing “zajal” — an indigenous form of poetry that is partly improvisatory, a kind of ancient Levantine rap.

THE actors in “Basmat Watan” often break into zajals, which by tradition often include satire and plays on words. The name “Basmat Watan” is itself a play on words, with the sounds meaning both “The Smile of the Nation” and “But the Nation Died.”

On a recent afternoon, Mr. Khalil was in the studio recording an episode of “Democracy” with Jean Bou-Gedeon, an actor who has been his main collaborator and best friend for more than 20 years. They were standing under a big microphone doing the audio track for an interview about Hezbollah’s various pretexts for refusing to relinquish its weapons, one of the most volatile issues in the Middle East.

“Our national defense strategy is based on three points,” Mr. Bou-Gedeon said in Arabic, his face twisting into a dour grimace as he imitated the voice of Muhammad Raad, a Hezbollah legislator.

“Please, tell us about them,” Mr. Khalil said brightly, playing himself.

“First, yada yada yada yada yada yada our weapons,” Mr. Bou-Gedeon said, in an Arabic impression of nonsense verbiage. “Second, blah blah blah blah our weapons blah blah blah. Third, yada weapons yada yada yada yada weapons.”

“Excellent!” Mr. Khalil said. “So your national defense strategy is first, your weapons, second, your weapons, and third, your weapons?”

It is funnier if you live here.

Mr. Bou-Gedeon, a youthful 43-year-old with a thick mop of dark hair, was the actor who played Mr. Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, in the notorious 2006 episode.

“I remember that night,” Mr. Bou-Gedeon recalled. “A friend of mine in the military called me and said: ‘Are you at home? Don’t go anywhere!’ People were saying they wanted to get the writer and actor. A lot of soldiers came up and surrounded my house.”

In his dressing room, Mr. Bou-Gedeon has photographs of all the major Lebanese political leaders to help him get into character, along with an impressively diverse rack of wigs. At a visitor’s request, he does a dead-on impression of Mr. Nasrallah, complete with hand gestures. He follows it up with a famous theater director and a mincing Lebanese woman on spike heels.

MR. KHALIL and Mr. Bou-Gedeon write the material for both “Democracy” and “Basmat Watan,” along with a third principal, Claude Khalil, and some other ensemble members. It is mostly light pastiche, nowhere near as sophisticated or hard-hitting as “Saturday Night Live” or “The Daily Show,” as Charbel Khalil and his partner readily concede. They do not have the writers or the actors for that. The same is true of the comedy shows on two or three other Lebanese networks, which are mostly inspired by “Basmat Watan,” by far the longest-running show of its kind.

Mr. Bou-Gedeon becomes grim when asked about the role of comedy, and dramatic art in general, in Lebanon. Only shallow work is possible, he said, because the Lebanese are always trying to escape themselves.

“Shakespeare said, ‘Show a mirror to the people,’ ” he said. “But people do not want to see themselves here. They want an image that is false, not the truth.”

Mr. Khalil, who cites Woody Allen and Mel Brooks as two of his chief influences, concedes that satire is not a very powerful weapon in a country where politics is still largely a matter of feudal allegiance. But he seems willing to settle for making people laugh.

“When we first started, all this was new, and people resisted it,” he said. “But I discovered that people here are not so different from Europe and the United States. They accept political satire.”

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