Bordello of Hope


The 1998 film West Beirut by Ziad Doueiri starts off with the West showing its superiority complex, through protagonist Tarek’s French teacher essentially demeaning Lebanon and its people, telling the students that France created their country and civilization. The civil war begins, and everyone has to adjust to their new life; Tarek’s school closes, his mom gets sent home from her job, and tensions are at an all time high. Tarek takes to running around town with his friend Omar, and the boys indulge in smoking, listening to music, and films to pass the time. They secretly film a beautiful woman, showcasing how rampant ignorance and misogyny are among teenage boys. Also displayed is men’s toxic masculinity, as Tarek runs out into the street in front of a car, and the two get into a screaming match and nearly a physical fight as well, each trying to act tough and threatening to the other. This masculinity is a product of socialization by society that teaches men that they need to be hardened and strong, and this pressure is especially intense during times of conflict, when men are expected to be the ones on the frontlines of the war but also the ones at home not letting their emotions or worries be visible.

The main women in the film each take on a different role and stereotype. Tarek’s mom is a lawyer, and is portrayed as the one who always has to be a tough killjoy; the one to cook and clean and be frustrated when everyone isn’t in order. One of their neighbors is portrayed as the one who has a permanent chip on her shoulder, taking any opportunity to yell at someone, always ready to fight and hurl out insults. Tarek and Omar, both Muslim, befriend May, a Christian girl, and she’s not given much personality beyond tagging along on the boys’ adventures. However, the fact that she’s Christian and the boys are Muslim, the groups fighting and being pitted against each other not only in battle but in everyday socialization too, speaks to the rationale of this polarization in the first place, and elite manipulation of this divide to further their war interests.

Despite the negative portrayals of these women, May does help get her and her friends through a dangerous area unharmed, and it’s shown how much Tarek’s mom cares about him. His mom and dad express affection freely and openly, which might sometimes be considered taboo given the time period of the mid 1970s. Tarek serves as some comedic relief, as he’s always joking in and making light of difficult situations, as is common among some Arab cultures. He makes references to popular American figures such as Paul Anka and Steve McQueen, showing the West’s worldwide cultural influence, specifically its soft power.

Signs of war such as bombs and guns loom around every corner, and one day, when Tarek and Omar are marching, gunfire begins, and while he’s hiding Tarek accidentally stumbles across a brothel owned by a woman named Oum Walid. She explains that she believe her people brought war to Lebanon, as one of her girls went to bed with two men of different religions. The polarization of Christianity and Islam plays a major role in the film, even though none of the characters are particularly zealous. The brothel can represent hope to Tarek, who struggles with the war around him, while also seeing everyone laughing and dancing and having a good time in a shared space. Tarek vulnerably opens up to Omar about his fears regarding the situation, and they both cry then embrace affectionately, showing that not all their masculinity is toxic.

In addition to religion, cultural identity plays a key role in the film as well. A man who sells food whom Tarek has befriended tells him, “If anyone asks about your religion, say you’re Lebanese.” Tarek’s dad has him recite a French play, exhibiting the importance that’s placed on literature, then negating the racism that his French teacher earlier spouted, by telling his son that he should be proud of his heritage because Europeans lived in caves while Arabs invented math and physics. Tarek replies by saying that he’s not Arab, he’s Lebanese. While his dad takes pride in being Arab, he’s especially connected to his country of Lebanon, consistently refusing his wife’s pleas to leave. The identities of religion, nationality, and cultural group all coexist and intermingle as the characters navigate the obstacles of warfare while trying to find their own way.




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