Why Did You Stay? On Maroun Bagdadi’s Landmark Film Little Wars
The author reflects on his own connection to a 1982 film about Lebanon’s civil war that continues to resonate today.
Mar 17, 2021
The first time we see Nabil Srour, the war photographer, chronic liar, and part-time drug dealer affectionately known as Abou el Nobol, he is running across sniper fire in Beirut to get American journalist Mitch Dubin “the shot he needs.” Nabil (played by Nabil Ismaïl) is one of three main characters in Little Wars (1982), by Lebanese filmmaker Maroun Bagdadi (currently available for streaming on Netflix). Bagdadi is perhaps Lebanon’s best-known director, a cinematic chronicler of the nation’s debilitating civil war (1975–1990) who committed himself to the subject in all of his five features. In effect, Bagdadi’s filmic project was the war. He sought to represent it over and over again, as a series of small and big wars, and to highlight the absurdities of life under it.
Little Wars screened in the “Un Certain Regard” section of the 1982 Cannes film festival, which highlights innovative film styles, and was mostly shot with an American crew—including cinematographer Edward Lachman—provided by the American director Francis Ford Coppola, for whom Bagdadi had worked years earlier. The plot of the film revolves around a love triangle. Soraya (Soraya Khoury, Bagdadi’s wife) is a bourgeois Christian living in West Beirut—“their turf,” as her uncle says, referring to the Muslim majority on this side of the Green Line—who is in a relationship with Talal (Roger Hawa). Talal, a scion of an old Feudal Lebanese family, is forced to leave Beirut for the Beqaa Valley after his father is kidnapped, returning home to a mother who implores him to “forget about Beirut and its rotten atmosphere,” and take up his responsibilities as a family patriarch.
The answer to this is complicated. Like Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s anticolonial classic Memories of Underdevelopment (1968), Little Wars begins at an airport. Soraya is saying goodbye to her father, who is leaving Lebanon for France. She will be pressed on the issue of staying throughout the film: by her doctor (“Tell me, why did you stay in Beirut?”); by her best friend Joyce (“I’m going to miss you, come with me!”); by Talal’s friend (“And you, why are you staying?”). Soraya, for her part, replies, “So what, are all the ones staying heroes?”
The twin concepts of “staying” and “leaving” are common tropes of post–civil war cinema, but in Bagdadi’s view, those who leave don’t ever come back, which creates a fissure between the leaver and the left behind, between life on one side and (in this case) Beirut on the other. Bagdadi’s views here are perhaps informed by his personal history. In Beirut Oh Beirut (1975), his intimate first feature, Bagdadi used his characters to showcase his own political evolution, from the complacency of the French-educated Lebanese-Christian upper classes to a more revolutionary spirit. Rejecting his past, he moved to West Beirut from East Beirut, and directed a flurry of documentaries about the war—among them his films about the South, The South Is Well, Assure Us (1976), The Steadfast Majority (1976), and We Are All for the Homeland (1979). But later, Bagdadi’s politics re-aligned more closely to power, and he found himself spurned by his old radical colleagues. In the mid-1980s he left for France, where he continued making films from “exile.”,
In a recent review of the film for the New Yorker, Richard Brody writes that Little Wars’s “only element of hope is in the title card at the beginning—the claim, and the wish, that it’s a film not of the present but of the past.” But like a ruin, this film is the present, it is Beirut today, it will always be Beirut. Attempts to circumscribe traumas as “past” implicitly suggest a clean slate upon which a future can be built, detracting from the material urgency of that present. We shouldn’t be afraid of that catastrophic present; it’s where lives are lived. And it’s also why people stay.
Kaleem Hawa has written about art, film, and literature for the New York Review of Books, The Nation, Times Literary Supplement, and other publications.
 Roy Armes, Roots of the New Arab Film (Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2018).
 Lina Khatib, “Violence and masculinity in Maroun Baghdadi's Lebanese war films,” Critical Arts (Volume 21, Issue 1, 2007), 68-85.
 Abdo Wazen, “War as Subject for Cinema,” al-Hayat, December 15, 1993.
 There, his projects became decidedly more mainstream, with the most famous being the Jury Prize–winning Out of Life (1991). That film, which depicted in lurid detail the kidnapping of a French photojournalist accused by Hezbollah of being a spy, was inspired by the 1987 kidnapping of Roger Auque as part of the Lebanese hostage crises that spanned much of the civil war. But if its intent was to highlight the senseless violence inflicted on an innocent during the war, the film aged poorly; in 2014, an ailing Auque would pen a deathbed autobiography mea culpa, titled In Secret Service to the Republic, in which he admits to having been a spy for the Mossad and CIA after all.
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