‘Anxious in Beirut’: A surreal experience

‘Anxious in Beirut’: A surreal experience

Protesters gathered in Downtown Beirut on Oct. 17, 2022 to mark the third anniversary of the uprisings. (Credit: João Sousa/L'Orient Today)

Watching Zakaria Jaber's documentary, Anxious in Beirut (2023), which was recently awarded a Golden Goblet at Shanghai International Film Festival, was a surreal experience.

I spent much of the past six years studying postwar Lebanese cinema. I saw how the genre often saw itself as holding a mirror to society's ills, hauntings, and hypocrisies. It questioned the finality of the past, often showing it to be spilling into the present. The future was nowhere to be found.

As I was coming towards the end of my dissertation, I was informed that Anxious in Beirut was finally done. I was looking for a way to conclude an exploration of these ghosts of the past that I’ve become acquainted with over the years. These take the form of those forcibly disappeared during the 1975-90 civil wars and never heard from again, those scarred and maimed with wounds that never healed and those whose sense of the future was upended time and time again by a criminal ruling class that continues to dominate Lebanese politics to this day.

While I expected another film on the traumas of the past, I instead found one that opened up a number of questions about Lebanon’s future, questions that should concern anyone who cares about this small nation.

Although Anxious in Beirut starts off with the 2019 October uprising — a momentous, if unfinished, event in our recent past — I knew where the story was headed. This was no surprise as no one in Lebanon seems able to unsee or unhear the Aug. 4 explosion that took place at the port of Beirut in 2020, even those of us who weren’t there when it happened. I found myself anticipating that scene, wondering whether I was going to see that mushroom cloud effect or hear that terrible blast first. That moment was described by Lina Mounzer as the world breaking open, and I think it can be argued that it brought with it all these ghosts of the past who were once buried, erased, suppressed and forgotten but are now stubbornly co-existing with us in the present.

This destabilizing feeling of helplessness constantly transforming itself into anger, and back again, was mirrored throughout the documentary as we see the so-called “civil peace generation” — those of us born after the 1975-90 civil wars — coming to terms with the brutal reality of Lebanon. We soon understand how cruelly inadequate that term is to describe our generation, for peace is something we rarely, truly experienced.

If we managed to live through a period of time without some form of armed violence, it was experienced through the lens of an anticipation of renewed violence; in other words, that something, anything, was going to happen in the near or long-term future was almost a given, and that was never something to look forward to. The future was something to anticipate with a feeling of dread. I’m reminded of my teenage years post-2005, when periods of ‘peace’ were punctuated by car bombs serving as some kind of reminder that, no, Lebanon is not at peace.

That being said, Anxious in Beirut is not about that post-2005 reality when our parents’ generation effectively forced us to choose between March 8 and March 14, two morally bankrupt political camps. That world blew up when our capital’s port was destroyed through criminal negligence.

The banality of it all. The fact that something this careless and idiotic could actually happen exposed the entirety of the postwar status quo as a lie. We were told that the Civil War created “la ghalib, la maghloub” (“no victors, no vanquished”) — but the truth is that the victors were always those who got away with mass murder and mass torture in the ’70s and ’80s, and those who made money off of mass privatizations in the ’90s and since. The vanquished were the rest of us.

The October 2019 uprising initially changed that. We were too angry to feel vanquished. In those moments of togetherness grew a palpable euphoria that almost felt alchemical, capable of transforming nightmares into dreams. Unfortunately for all of us, 2020 hit and the crises of that year led to what journalist Lara Bitar called a state of evaporated euphoria. The end result of that emotional rollercoaster was exhaustion and anxiety, as the movie title makes clear.

Simultaneously, a palpable sense of fear and uncertainty looms over the younger, postwar generation. Paralyzed by the anticipation of violence and the constant threat of a return to a state of war, they bear the burden of not just their own trials and tribulations but also the unresolved traumas and ghosts of their elders’ past. In Anxious in Beirut, Jaber brings this tension to the forefront. His documentary captures the struggles of the postwar generation that was once seen as the beacon of hope for a brighter, more peaceful Lebanon and now faces an existential crisis — a reality steeped in stagnation, disillusionment and the remnants of wars they never fought.

I was taken aback by just how bleak Anxious in Beirut is. But, and perhaps paradoxically, this persuaded me that it can become part of our arsenal to build a better future. In its bleakness, in its categorical refusal to look for hope, the movie makes the case that no one is coming to save us, and that whatever social contract we thought we had with the state or with the familiar establishment institutions was never both-sided; indeed, it was always exploitative.

Our generation was given the choice of either leaving or trying to leave Lebanon behind, or enduring what feels like a slow death within the country. This unfortunate reality not only encapsulates personal narratives but also offers a stark and moving critique of Lebanon's socio-political landscape, a critique that has been a prevalent theme in Lebanese cinema over the past several decades.

Jaber’s documentary highlights an ironic twist. The older generation, once driven by bigger dreams during the wars, now find their aspirations shrunk in the face of postwar reality. Their shift in perspective, from hope to disillusionment, is perceived by the younger generation as an obstacle that stymies their aspirations to break free from the inherited legacy of past wars. But what is clear is that whatever method the older generations have used to cope with the traumas of Lebanon, it is undeniable that they too have experienced evaporated euphoria in their time. They exist now in some kind of stasis, too busy trying to be resilient to really live. This is something that the so-called postwar generation understands very well.

However, despite the darkness that pervades these narratives, I posit that there exists a ray of hope. The cyclical revisiting of past traumas and the apparent inability to break free from the chains of history may present a bleak picture, but Lebanese history itself offers a glimmer of optimism. This optimism stems from the unpredictability of history's cycle. The unexpected emergence of the Oct. 17, 2019 uprising in Lebanon came as a surprise to many. It shattered the wall of cynicism and our presuppositions about the future, laying bare the possibility that our grim projections for the future could be wrong. The Aug. 4 2020 explosion, in turn, further confirmed how unpredictable the future can be.

As Lebanon stands at the threshold of a new era, a crucial task lies ahead of us. We must reorient ourselves away from the rear-view mirror of history and invest instead in the collective imagination of a better future. This endeavor is not merely an intellectual or academic pursuit; it is a necessary project for the survival and prosperity of Lebanon, especially in the face of increasing authoritarianism, xenophobia and precarity in the country.

Anxious in Beirut holds a mirror to Lebanese society. Through his poignant and authentic representation of the postwar generation’s trials and tribulations, Jaber reflects a societal image that’s both troubling and enlightening. What we see is not particularly pretty, but moving beyond it requires coming to terms with what we see in that mirror.

Joey Ayoub is a writer, researcher, editor, activist and the host of "The Fire These Times" podcast. 

Watching Zakaria Jaber's documentary, Anxious in Beirut (2023), which was recently awarded a Golden Goblet at Shanghai International Film Festival, was a surreal experience. I spent much of the past six years studying postwar Lebanese cinema. I saw how the genre often saw itself as holding a mirror to society's ills, hauntings, and hypocrisies. It questioned the finality of the past, often...