A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

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

“When the midnight camel leaves for Tripoli…”: Bing Crosby’s “The Road to Lebanon”

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on November 23, 2009

Inspired by QN’s recent musical turn (“it took five minutes,” he claimed when I spoke with him yesterday. “Much less time than researching and writing another analysis for the blog.”), I thought I’d share another musical gem with all of you: The Road to Lebanon, a bizarrely enticing 1958 television special. Think “movie of the week” meets “vaudeville”, with a splash of camels and some belly dancing.

The entire production is viewable online at Retrovision, which describes the show as follows:

A rare, television-produced “road” picture which most fans don’t know about. Bing Crosby is scouting locations in Beirut to do another road picture – without his [usual] partner, Bob Hope! When he runs into Danny Thomas, who is judging a local beauty contest, Bing and Danny are kidnapped by a sheik who is out to punish Thomas because one of his ancestors committed the sin of getting a nose job. Many musical numbers, live camels and even Bob Hope himself add to the fun in this TV rarity.

The twist here, of course, is that Danny Thomas was Lebanese – and spoke Arabic. He plays all the male Arab characters, including Ali-Ali-Oxen-Free, the sheikh who seeks to put him to death because Danny’s emigrant ancestor supposedly got a nose job after arriving in the United States. While the story itself is beyond light, and the stereotypes are rife (the title of this post is taken from the opening song), the Arabic is hysterical. Clearly, he and the producers anticipated at least some Arabic-speakers among the viewers, and cared enough about them as an audience to give them a good laugh.

Let me give you an example.

While wandering through the desert (I know: its not Lebanon. But in the story, its a desert) to escape the sheikh, Danny tries to plead his case before an unsympathetic armed guard. “Amil maarouf,” he starts. “Bt7ibb la7m bi-tanjara, kibbe nayyeh, ou baba ghannoush?” The guard nods, grinning, and turns away.

“What did you say?” Crosby asks. “I don’t know,” Danny replies. “I either said, ‘Take me to your leader’ or ‘someone’s taking a bath in the water hole’.”

But he did know, and so would any Arabic speaker watching, and so will you.

Happy watching!

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