West Beirut depicts the trials and tribulations experienced by ordinary civilians during the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War in April 1975. The film begins with two feisty and self-confident teenage friends, Tarek and Omar, and their schoolmates filming and staring mesmerized and in awe of the aerial dogfight taking place directly above their heads. With this scene, one immediately understands that the war has not yet touched the boy’s lives, and that, as a result, they are able to view the battle in the sky with a sense of gleeful detachment. Indeed Director Ziad Doueiri comments that “During the first years of the civil war, despite the anxiety that I could see in my parents, I was incapable of feeling it myself. I wasn’t born with fear; I acquired it.” (www.barbican.org) Through the development of his young protagonist Tarek, Doueiri effectively captures the process of how a seemingly carefree, hormone-infested teenager comes to learn to fear, for the first time, for his family and his future in a time of war. But not even his witnessing of a massacre of a busload of civilians right outside his school nor the frantic scurry of he and the inhabitants of his entire apartment complex into a bomb shelter in the middle of the night can dim Tarek’s adolescent whimsy or his desire to locate a shop that will develop the super 8 movies he and Omar surreptitiously took of Omar’s Uncle Badeeh and the old man’s attractive new girlfriend. Nonetheless, Tarek learns gradually how the artificial division of Beirut into the Muslim West and Christian will interfere with this sense of gleeful indifference. He, Omar, and his new neighborhood friend May are prevented from entering into East Beirut from the Zeytuni District film in a scary encounter with a group of Muslim militiamen. Tarek is shunned and branded a traitor by his friend and neighbor Azouri for befriending May who wears a crucifix around her neck. Omar complains to Tarek how his suddenly pious father wants his son to start praying in the morning, attend Mosque every Friday, fast during Ramadan, study the Koran, and stop watching movies and listening to rock n’ roll. Meanwhile the stress of living amidst a war manages to strain Tarek’s parent’s relationship, with his mother consistently expressing her desire to leave the war-torn Lebanese capital in opposition to her husband’s determination to avoid the racism and overt discrimination which awaits them overseas by persisting in his native homeland. But the viewer does not truly witness the extent to which Tarek suffers until about three quarters of the way through the film when he proves himself willing to cross an open courtyard being targeted by sniper fire in the Zeytuni District with only a lightly colored bra to protect himself. He does this in order to reach the house of Beirut’s fabled Madame Oum Walid whom he naively believes can help to bring PLO leader Yasser Arafat and Lebanese Forces Militia Commander Bachir Gemayel together to meet and talk in her brothel in an effort to bring the war to an end. After she throws him out of her establishment, he is devastated. For the first time, he expresses fear, anxiety, and sadness in regards to the safety of his parents and his family’s economically precarious existence. To Omar he says, “Have you ever seen someone struck by disaster and you say, thank God it’s not me? Now I feel like I’m that person and everyone is saying, poor guy, thank god it’s not us.” At the very end, Tarek stands outside the living room in the middle of the night sobbing after listening to a conversation in which his father asks his mother whether or not they will stay together once the war is over. By this point, gleeful indifference has been fully replaced by piercing grief and apprehension of the future that lies ahead.
West Beirut is an incredibly human film. Its primary characters are not caricatures but human beings who experience the full range of human emotions and display a wide range of personalities. This is to be expected since Ziad Doueiri lived through the Lebanese Civil War as a young teenager. Nevertheless Doueiri does not shy away from making political statements. Resentment towards the French colonial legacy in Lebanon and Western imperialism in general is demonstrated both through Tarek’s disdain for his French education as well as his father’s expectations of discriminatory treatment the family will receive if it decides to flee Beirut. Also interestingly enough, when his father tells him that he is Arab, Tarek responds by claiming that he is not Arab but Lebanese and Phoenician. When his father asks him where he learned the term “Phoenician” he says that learned it in Arabic History class. Through this scene as well as the scene in which Tarek asks Omar “Who’s Kamal?” during their comical participation in the protest in remembrance of Kamal Jumblatt, Ziad Doueir conveys the lack of historical and political understanding as well as the confusion over ethnic and national identity on the part of young Tarek and on the part of the young Ziad Doueiri. Tarek has learned in his French school that he is Lebanese and Phoenician. Phoenicianism is a form of Lebanese nationalism which promulgates the idea that the Lebanese people are descended from the Phoenicians and therefore are not pure Arabs but rather are constituted of a mixture of both Phoenician heritage as well as other ethnic identities as a result of constant immigration to the region over the centuries. Phoenicianism stands in contrast to Arabism which promotes the idea that all the people of the Arab World make up one nation connected by a common heritage. Arabism is an anti-imperialist ideology while Phoenicianism is a form of Lebanese nationalism which seeks to celebrate the influence that foreign cultures have had on the Lebanese people. Distinctions and conflicts between Phoenicianism and Arabism also contain class and religious elements since it is the Christian middle class which identifies with Phonecianism while the Sunni Muslim lower class identifies with Arabism and its anti-imperalist ideology. Apart from making it blatantly obvious that Tarek is unaware of these labels, Doueri is trying to send another message here. He is conveying the fact that the Lebanese Civil War was not a religious conflict between Muslims and Christians, rather it was a class war. Prior to the outbreak of the war, Christians, despite their slim status as a numerical majority which quickly disappeared, controlled the government under the terms of the National Pact agreed upon at the time of independence. They used their power to keep the majority Muslim population poor and subjugated. Civil conflict is usually never about religion even if the opposing sides constitute distinct and separate religious identities. Rather conflict arises in response to the domination of one religious identity by another. The source of conflict is not inherent in differences between the content of the religions but rather in the unequal distribution of political power between or among different religious identities.