A couple years back, I invited Paul Lauritzen—noted ethicist and author of the recent book, The Ethics of Interrogation: Professional Responsibility in an Age of Terror (2013)—to come over and watch “Under the Bombs” (2007) a Lebanese film made in the wake of the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon. When he heard the title, he said, “I’ll bring the Prozac.” (We would later collaborate on a course called “After 9/11,” a decade after the terrorist attacks, which exposed students to the post-9/11 world through literature, history, politics and art. Far more Prozac would be necessary for that semester-long excursion.)
The film tells the story of Zeina Nasrueddi, who returns to Lebanon when the month of bombing that constituted the 2006 Lebanon War ended, looking for her now-missing child Karim and sister Maha. Over the course of the film, a tenuous relationship grows between her, a modern Shiite woman of means, and the Christian taxi driver who conducts her all over the countryside in the search. Tony is a player, always on the make, trying to squeeze as much money and action from his passenger Zeina, who is beautiful and wealthy, but also distraught and disconnected—from Lebanon, from her family, and from herself. The film follows them on the journey from Beirut—the center of Lebanese urbanity and cosmopolitan life—to the South (where Hezbollah’s resistance to Israel is most strong)—from lead to lead, from hope to hope.
They discover that her sister Maha has been killed, the house destroyed, but her son has been taken away, the rumor is, by French journalists. Over the course of their journey, as the losses accumulate and the desperation of the country and Zeina become undeniable, Tony evolves from opportunist to real friend. Along the way, Zeina’s own internal changes are marked by her the transformation of her wardrobe from Western garb to hijab, hewing closer to the traditional society from which she has been alienated. She commiserates with other victims of bombings, and grows closer to the wider grief.
And now for the spoiler (avert your eyes): at the end, they learn that her son is being kept in a monastery, though he is said to be mute. When they finally meet, and it is not her son. He reports to her that her son is, in fact, “under the bombs.”
In the end, the film places a primacy on the violence itself, and Israel’s culpability in that violence, and not on character. One of the weaknesses of the film is that Zeina is not given much work to do, except to grieve. Zeina could have, for example, adopted the boy, or even pretended it was her son—to add a twist to the grief. Instead, it remained about the depredations of Israel.
The closing credits dedicate the film to the people of Lebanon. Along the way, though, is where the documentary evidence of the devastation wrought upon Lebanon—all the destroyed highways and bridges and homes, all the cluster bombs and loss upon loss—images that barely crested the bulwarks of American consciousness. Other than the two main characters, all the others were played by Lebanese playing themselves, essentially, bringing a powerful vérité to the story. The film takes us, literally and figuratively, where no films have. Director Philippe Aractingi apparently began filming less than two weeks after the bombing in 2006, and you sense that the wounds of everything are still very open.
And this is why protest art—art whose allegiances to the actual often come at the cost of its art—is still necessary, and sometimes a vital supplement both to the historical archive and to the history of art. It says: this happened, in the way that Herodotus—the father of history—begins: “I Herodotus of Halicarnassus here set down what the Greeks and Persians did so as to prevent these deeds from drifting into oblivion.” Though we think of protest as a sort of negation, the word protest, after all, comes from the Latin for “to testify before,” meaning a public witness.
When we consider the range of testifying poems in American literature, we are opened to the chronicles of voices unheard or lost to history, beginning with Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”:
Through me many long dumb voices,
Voices of the interminable generations of slaves,
Voices of prostitutes and of deformed persons,
Voices of the diseased and despairing, and of thieves and dwarfs,
Voices of cycles of preparation and accretion,
And of the threads that connect the stars—and of wombs, and of the fatherstuff,
And of the rights of them the others are down upon,
Of the trivial and flat and foolish and despised,
Of fog in the air and beetles rolling balls of dung.
Through me forbidden voices,
Voices of sexes and lusts…voices veiled and I remove the veil,
Voices indecent by me clarified and transfigured.
The notion of the poet as medium for the “long dumb voices” persists, amplified in the age of modernity. I’ve written elsewhere about the tradition of fact-founded and quasi-documentary poems, a vital stream that flows into protest art. When I read the visionary “The Book of the Dead” (1938), Muriel Rukeyser had me learn from the voices of a mother whose sons died from when their lungs collapsed from silica’s glassy powder. Reading “Staying Alive” (1972), I walked alongside Denise Levertov in her exploration of the internal and external convulsions of the anti-war movement. I learned the story of Norman Morrison, a Quaker pacifist who immolated himself, and absorbed the increasingly revolutionary tone of the movement against the war. As a poem, it feels overheated, too close to the conflagration of the times; and yet, it ambers many moments lost to the official narrative of the war, probing into what it felt like to be slowly losing one’s mind in the long battle against the Vietnam War. Reading Peter Dale Scott’s personal epic of political intrigue in the bloody war in Indonesia, Coming to Jakarta (1989) offers an unusually-implicated imperial history—with the pang and guilt of privilege. These long poems, arguably, are motivated by moral outrage—the fire that animates the heart of protest.
True art, in the end, does not utterly burn itself up in its own moral outrage—however righteous, however justified. It finds a way of slipping the chains of the factual and the actual, transformed by the artist’s imagination, allowing it to speak a truth that has no expiration date. Yet while “Under the Bombs” may not ultimately stand that test of “true art,” it nonetheless made me see for the first time the post-apocalyptic landscape of 2006 Lebanon, and hear the voices of people who saw their worlds crumble beneath the bombs, and allowed those people a space to give voice to what had happened to them, knowing that perhaps people like me would be thinking and talking about it years later, though the highways and bridges have been repaired by now, and the last vestiges of that war may remain only in the shape of bodily scars and unshared memories and the photos on walls of those still missing.
Philip Metres has written a number of books and chapbooks, most recently A Concordance of Leaves (Diode 2013), abu ghraib arias (Flying Guillotine 2011), winner of the 2012 Arab American Book Award in poetry, To See the Earth (Cleveland State 2008), and Behind the Lines: War Resistance Poetry on the American Homefront since 1941 (University of Iowa 2007). His work has appeared in Best American Poetry, and Inclined to Speak: Contemporary Arab American Poetry, and has garnered two NEA fellowships, the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, four Ohio Arts Council Grants, the Anne Halley Prize, the Arab American Book Award, and the Cleveland Arts Prize. He teaches literature and creative writing at John Carroll University in Cleveland, Ohio. See http://www.philipmetres.com and http://behindthelinespoetry.blogspot.com for more information.