If you’re tired of American divisiveness and the political gridlock here at home, let this film take you on a short visit to Lebanon, and I promise you’ll return with a smile on your face. While I won’t give away the ending, knowing that the drama ends well is one very good reason to see it.
As far as insults go, the one that starts all the trouble isn’t all that bad by American standards. Lebanon, however, is a small country with a refugee problem. And when a Palestinian worker/refugee insults a Christian small business owner on his home turf, tempers quickly escalate.
Yasser is the foreman of a construction crew charged with fixing the buildings in the Beirut neighborhood where Tony lives with his pregnant wife. A broken drain pipe on Tony’s rooftop terrace is spewing water onto passersby below, and Yasser knocks on Tony’s door and politely tells him he needs to fix the pipe. Tony tells him to get lost. Yasser fixes it anyway. A furious Tony smashes the pipe to pieces. “F-ing prick,” Yasser yells at him.
In a sensible world, here’s where this insult should fizzle out. Tony’s pretty wife talks some sense into him, makes him a nice meal, whatever. He realizes he overreacted. No such luck. Tony wants an apology and goes to see Yasser’s boss. Yasser, who thinks Tony’s the jerk, is not easily persuaded. Eventually the boss takes him to Tony’s car repair garage to apologize, but Yasser is put off by a broadcast Tony is listening to: a fired-up Christian politician complaining about all the Palestinians in Lebanon. The two men argue and this time it’s Tony who hurls an insult at Yasser, “I wish Ariel Sharon had wiped you all out.” Sharon, being the former Prime Minister of Israel, and you, meaning the Palestinians. Ouch! Yasser never delivers his apology; instead he punches Tony in the gut.
So. It seems we’ve arrived at the crux of the simmering hostility between Tony and Yasser. Tony resents all the Palestinian refugees living in his city, and Yasser resents being resented. There’s got to be something deeper driving all this anger, right?
Southern Lebanon borders Israel. Given all the decades of fighting between the Israelis and the Palestinians, it’s no surprise that so many Palestinians have fled to Lebanon, where they make up about 10 percent of the population. Lebanon has allowed them to stay but won’t let them own property, get government healthcare or attend public school. The jobs these refugees are allowed to apply for are limited. Almost half of them live in overcrowded camps. But far worse things have happened to them in their “borrowed” country, many during a 15-year civil war that began in 1975. And what of the Lebanese people? The Christians (~40%), the Sunni-Muslims (~27%) and the Shia-Muslims (~27%) have suffered plenty, too. In large part, that’s because Lebanon has been caught up in or affected by all the power plays by their neighbors in the Middle East.
In the film, the two men end up in court. Their lawyers each have their own political agendas. The media stir things up. Angry protesters–Christians and Muslims–march through the streets of Beirut. As the case winds its way to a conclusion, you feel this can’t possibly end well. But I’ve told you it does end well, just not how. This isn’t a true story, except for the parts that show us some of the atrocities men like Tony and Yasser have lived through. But the ending feels real. Even after people have been gravely wronged or hurt, most of them retain their humanity. There’s humanity in Tony and Yasser, and in the two lawyers each trying to win their case, and in the judges who decide the outcome.
Some days, when politicians are making no sense and the world seems like it might combust, the humanity of ordinary people is enough to make me smile.