Revolutionary Sarcasm in the Works of Ziad Rahbani during the Lebanese Civil War

By Jeremy Randall
Submitted to Session P4948 (Arab Leftist Intellectuals as (re)Active Agents in times of Change, 2017 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries; Cultural Studies; Music; Pop Culture; Theater;
LCD Projector with Audio Patch or Speakers;
The Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) is often understood as a fiercely sectarian war. This recurrent trope has appeared in academic, literary, intellectual, and artistic productions. It renders sectarianism as a hegemonic force that subsumes all other discussions and potential readings of history and being. Thus, the multifaceted Lebanese Civil War becomes a story of unending sectarianism. Yet, a subset of Lebanese leftists during the war sought to challenge the dominant discourse of sectarianism and in doing so confronted the linear narrative of Lebanese history. They argued that injustice, inequality, and inequity in various manifestations created and maintained the conflict. Through incisive analysis, poignant writings, and humor they would show how socioeconomic issues were reduced to sectarian logics that elided the complexities of the nation-state, communities, and peoples. To demonstrate that some Lebanese rejected facile sectarian framings of their subjectivities and histories, I examine the works of Lebanese playwright and musician Ziad Rahbani (b. 1956) as he challenged the centrality of sectarianism to the Lebanese national narrative. Rahbani relied upon sarcastic music and dialogue to transmit leftist understandings of socioeconomic injustices that could raise awareness of other potential interpretations of the self, community, and nation.

My paper explores how Rahbani’s sarcasm brought to the forefront the role of injustice in shaping Lebanese people and communities. Rahbani mocked communitarian analyses of injustice as reductionist. Rather, he located them within a wider network of inequalities. Rahbani allows for a reading of the Lebanese Civil War and sectarianism as contingencies resulting from the spatiotemporal experiences of the 1970s and 1980s. Therefore, there is no teleological trajectory for the war’s collapse into sectarian politics. Instead, I argue that Rahbani’s theater and music translate socioeconomic inequality into the experiential through humor, which thereby makes it possible to understand how experiences of injustice formulate subjectivities. Through incorporating themes of inequity into theater and music, Rahbani’s sarcasm makes accessible complicated leftist discourse on inequality to the masses. In doing so, this paper explores how Rahbani’s works allow for a reading of how subjectivities resist linear temporalization and sectarian modeling, while providing insight into historical contingencies of identity in a time of crisis.