The cornflake predicament
Cabaret Suad, Mohamed Soweid, Beirut: Dar al-Adab, 2004. pp189
Mohamed Soweid: film critic; television producer; documentary-cum- art video director; former Lebanese civil war combatant; third man in novelist Elias Khouri and filmmaker Yousri Nasrallah's collaboration on Bab Al-Shams, the by now famous large-scale production on the Palestinian struggle (the present book is duly dedicated to Elias wa Yousri ); and probably the contemporary Arab world's most committed movie buff.
Mohamed Soweid: arguably Lebanon's most passionate film historian, real life tending to constitute but a small part of his mental space -- which bubbles, instead, with the broadest range of references imaginable, from violence peculiar to Sam Peckenpa to lines of dialogue from Fassbinder's Fear Eats the Soul.
Mohamed Soweid: author of books, a relatively new role in which his potential as film historian emerges to the fullest. His first two volumes -- Al-Cinema Al-Mu'ajala: Aflam Al-Harb Al-Ahliya Al-Lubnaniya (Postponed Cinema: Films of the Lebanese Civil War) and Ya Fouadi: Sira Cinema'iya 'an Salat Beirut Al-Rahila (My Heart: Cinematic Biography of Beirut's Deseased Theatres) -- more or less openly perform a documentary function, however personal and eclectic the way in which they do so.
With the present explosion of a novel, Cabaret Suad, the urge to express fascination with the silver screen takes on a more complex function: autobiographical invention. A window onto militia warfare (episodes of which are set against classic film references), the book is particularly valuable in that it distils Soweid's firs-hand experience as an active agent of the war in Lebanon, providing an intensely personal account of its various stages from its outbreak in 1975 and through the 1982 Israeli invasion, to the post-war settlement of the early 1990s.
From a literary perspective, this is a thoroughly postmodern text, as busily self-referential as it is multilayered. Though a first-person narrative, even the identity of its narrator is subject to interpretation. The introduction it opens with is virtually indistinguishable in style and tone from the rest of the book. Yet it is supposedly written by the owner and editor of the manuscript it comprises, Wahid Sadeq. Wahid is to be distinguished from the said manuscript's narrator, Iyad Ayoub, the often unreliable voice that henceforward accompanies the reader; it is tempting to think that Wahid and Iyad are but one and the same person.
Wahid, an established writer whose pen name is Maytham Hosni, confesses that he published the manuscript in book form as if he had written it himself. Another confession: he went on to implicate his friend Iyad, who had been sufficiently trusting to hand him the manuscript in the first place, in a series of war-crime and high-treason scandals. This notion of two writers or unwilling collaborators is not picked up again until the epilogue, in which the present-day identity of Wahid is finally revealed. There the same switch in mode of address recurs, without any corresponding shift in style or tone.
Presented as a continuous exposition in four parts -- perhaps an excuse for the fact that Cabaret Suad is less readable than it might be -- the manuscript is entitled Malek essex. Literally "king of sex", this is a humorous, multipurpose image of virility, power and heroism, often followed by welcorneflex, i.e. "and cornflakes", to rhyme with essex in a way reminiscent of Cockney rhyming slang; in Arabic it is easier to pronounce the two word endings in the same way.
An expression used very widely in contemporary Beirut, malek essex as (self) appellation is both a sarcastic reference to a man's nonexistent amorous exploits and a roundabout term of endearment. Judging by the way he uses it, it may not be nonsensical to suggest that, as a multidimensional irony typical of his approach, malek essex reflects Soweid's own sense of self.
Likewise, insofar as it remains the primary medium for image generation, the cinema -- as physical and psychological experience, as epistemological pursuit, as methodological model -- provides Soweid with the ideal framework for his purpose. Which purpose is to divulge a contemporary Lebanese individual's existence: personal history against a backdrop of civil war.
The ultimate triumph of Cabaret Suad -- and this is perhaps, equally, its principal aesthetic fault -- is that, in a similar way to Henry Miller's Tropics, it respects no generic or technical boundaries. In the first section, one of a series of essays rejected by local publications, or so Wahid claims, Iyad moves from an account of his childhood fascination with flying -- he failed the IQ test necessary for training as a pilot in England -- to the image of Christopher Reeve falling off the back of his horse, i.e. the tragic incident that would paralyse Superman for life.
Through a stream-of-consciousness association, he moves onto his grief over Egyptian actress Suad Hosni, otherwise known as the Cinderella of the Arab screen, who died after falling out of a balcony in London in the summer of 2001. A point of departure, the death of Suad Hosni is a theme to which Iyad will constantly return, mixing a fan's shock and dismay with a cultural commentator's perceptiveness and, occasionally, a poet's admiration. Journalistic commentary on Hosni's death is juxtaposed with local topics; for example, illegal provincial settlements in the Beirut district of Al-Awza'i.
Soweid (or rather Iyad) is thus able to weave unrelated realities into a seamless sense of being in the world, specifically the world of information exchange and political news. The Egyptian Arabic imperative Matsibneesh ("Don't leave me"), pronounced by Suad Hosni in her last film, Ali Badrakhan's Al-Ra'i wal-Nissaa (The Sephard and the Women, 1991), becomes his excuse for an extended elegy. This in turn justifies reminiscences about Badrakhan's working methods and the atmosphere of Cinema Rivoli, where, Iyad says, he first saw Suad Hosni's celebrated film Khalli Balak men Zouzou, as well as a contemplation of the dreaded number nine, which recurs, conspiracy theory-like, in birth dates, ages, number of films acted in and even number of pages written.
But the section most reminiscent of Miller, "Les plaisirs démodé", is testimony to Soweid's relative lack of interest in the ins and outs of his own ego. Starting with a portrait of Iyad's father, it progresses through the events surrounding his childhood and adolescence in the neighbourhood of Corniche Al-Mazra'a, thus providing an opportunity to divulge the detail of lower middle-class Shi'a life, and moves onto his abortive love affair with a character named Donya, who is killed in the war.
Soweid's subversive use of canonical Arabic formulae in a framework that parodies the historical chronicle, the unlikely, at times almost surrealist, connections that he makes and the sardonicism with which he satirises an intimately familiar community all bring to mind, rather, the delightfully jarring rhythms of Palestinian novelist Emile Habibi's picaresque masterpiece Al-Mutasha'el (The Pessoptimist). Another novel that draws on personal experience, Al-Mutasha'el could be said to presage Arabic magic realism; it shares with Cabaret Suad both the unreliable narrator and the tendency to mix the personal with the historical.
Elsewhere -- in its tight lyrical constructions, which Soweid always manages to imbue with a Brechtian sense of detachment; in the character of Cecil, the Swiss journalist-spy-activist Iyad fails to have sex with; in the constant subtext of popular, not only cinematic but news footage imagery -- the novel summons up J G Ballard, too. Cabaret Suad reads like a complex, disturbing, absurd footnote to media and official discourse.
The novel turns out, in the end, to be named after a nightclub Wahid has now opened in Baghdad, which he has in turn named after the actress. Only at the very end does it transpire that Maytham Hosni is not only a plagiariser but a smooth-operating businessman, himself a war criminal, a money launderer and a pimp who has finally settled in post- Saddam Baghdad. His last gesture before departing from Beirut, in fact, was to put up signs bearing pictures of the actress with the promise, "See you on the banks of the Tigris"...