"The Insult": An Important Window into Other Cultural Conflicts
Issue   |   Wed, 03/21/2018 - 00:07

I never thought I would hear Arabic in Amherst Cinema.

This past weekend, I went to a screening of “The Insult,” which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Directed by Ziad Doueiri, it depicts the complicated and rich history of Lebanon through a particularly sensitive court case between a Lebanese nationalist, Tony, and a Palestinian refugee, Yasser. Yasser is a foreman of a construction crew that was renovating part of Tony’s building when a bit of water splashes over him from Tony’s apartment terrace. Yasser asks for an apology without avail, and harsh words are exchanged. It becomes apparent to the viewer that both men are stubborn and value dignity more than common sense. Following this simple interaction, a larger conflict arises from the fact that Tony hates Yasser — only because he is Palestinian.

Palestinian refugees have been living in Lebanon for about 69 years, after losing their homes in turmoil. They now make up 10 percent of the population. Most are not able to own property, can rarely obtain citizenship and are restricted from working in most fields. Yasser is no exception to this. He lives in St. Eli refugee camp and is regularly treated as a second-class citizen. In the film, he cries out to his wife following the simple interaction, saying, “Palestinians are the n****** of the Arab world,” albeit in the incorrect translation. Tony demands an apology after Yasser’s cuss.

As a result, Yasser’s boss brings him to Tony’s automobile garage, where Yasser hears one of Bachir Gemayel’s nationalist speeches on Tony’s TV. (This Christian militia leader demanded the expulsion of Palestinians from Lebanon, claiming they were robbing the country and making it destitute.) Suddenly, Tony becomes enraged. In his anger, he exclaims, “I wish Ariel Sharon had wiped you all out.” Yasser loses his cool and punches Tony, breaking two of his ribs. Thus, a silly incident turns into a politically-charged courtroom drama.

In the court, arguments about freedom of speech, premeditated assaults and national divisions arise. “The Insult” slowly transitions from scenes of the earlier incident to shots akin to what happened during the civil war. The case becomes larger than itself, pitting Lebanese against Palestinian. As an Egyptian, I did not know the extent of this divide, and it was revealing to me how little I knew about many other neighbouring countries. It prompted me to read more about this tragic history, particularly about the old wounds from the civil war.

Lebanon’s civil war ended in 1990, but no one ever spoke about the atrocities that happened. It became “eib,” roughly translated as “shameful,” to bring up the past. For that reason, there are generations of people who continue to live with the trauma of seeing murder and much more. In fact, Tony’s lawyer, Wajdi Wehbe, argues that the civil war is what fostered his client’s hatred of Palestinians. In his opinion, international aid is poured into social programs for Palestinians, refugee camps are built to house them and psychosocial care is provided free of charge. Where were all these resources following the civil war? Were people expected to forgive and forget? The lawyer shows a clip of Tony’s childhood home in Lebanon, which was ravaged during the civil war and was where thousands of people were murdered in cold blood by a militia comprised of Lebanese and Palestinian individuals. The memory seems etched into Tony’s mind, who rises swiftly to stop the viewing. Healing from trauma is a nuanced process — and in the case of Tony, it never even began.

One interesting argument from the courtroom that I want to make prominent, in an attempt to understand its meaning and gravity, is that “no one has a monopoly on suffering.” I asked a friend what she thought about the sentence, and she thought that it was just talk — that there was no truth in it. I thought to myself that everyone’s suffering is valid, but time is a component often forgotten. A single trauma can take hold of countless generations if unaddressed. Perhaps the more important questions are how can we exercise our limited empathy during moments of suffering, and how and when can we excuse and forgive someone?

“The Insult” tells a story that wrestles with itself. In the courtroom, an argument meets its counter, and the divide between Palestinians and Lebanese becomes a tool to highlight atrocities of the past. Repressed wounds are addressed, and the captivating banter invites one to research Lebanon’s history. Perhaps the lesson gleaned is that prejudiced behavior doesn’t ever come out of nowhere. Viewers will question where they align themselves and may feel themselves being educated throughout, and that’s a force for good. More importantly, they will certainly leave with unanswered questions about the state of the Middle East and the current tragic refugee crisis. If you want to know the ruling of the supreme court, I would highly recommend watching the film instead of using Google Search. I didn’t feel like I wasted a second of my time.