Zerrt sie an den Haaren!

Man with a full head of hair and beard photgraphed against the skyline of Beirut
Hussein Kaouk, who plays the popular character Ali Alaouiye, is one half of the comedy duo (image: Ali Lamaa)

Zwei libanesische Komiker wagen es, sich in einem Film über fast alles lustig zu machen. Dafür setzt es Morddrohungen.

Von Lena Bopp

Is there anything to laugh about in the Dahieh? You might assume not, given everything we know about the district south of Beirut where Hezbollah reigns. But what do we really know? People who don't live in the closely monitored community, with checkpoints and cameras on every street corner, generally know very little about it, and people who do tend to give little away. But those who do speak up, like Hussein Kaouk and Mohammad Dayekh, soon become well-known beyond the Dahieh's borders. 

The two young men are Lebanese stand-up comedians, screenwriters, film-makers and actors, best known for the character Ali Alaouiye – created by the pair and played by Hussein Kaouk – a fictional rascal, funny, cunning, opportunistic, a man who's game for a laugh, but also up for spot of gun-running if necessary. And sometimes it is necessary, because life in the Dahieh is not easy. Their sketches, mainly seen on TikTok and on TV, make the kinds of jokes about life in the Dahieh that no one else could get away with, especially not those from outside the district. 

Beating grenades with slippers

In one sketch, Ali Alaouiye talks about the Lebanon war in the summer of 2006. An Israeli grenade landed in his backyard, he explains, but it didn't explode. A few men gathered around it and an old man beat the grenade with his slipper, shouting, "Down with Israel!" The Israeli president probably didn't sleep a wink that night, Ali Alaouyié reflects off-screen. "What do we do?" he must have thought, "People in the Dahieh are beating our grenades with slippers!"

These kinds of jokes have brought Hussein Kaouk and Mohammad Dayekh a popularity not devoid of risks, and their popularity only grew when their first film made it into cinemas. The film, Hardabashtwas publicised across the city on huge billboards, primarily gaining attention because it provided a glimpse into a world which was normally hidden from view. 

The movie was not filmed in the Dahieh. It would have been "too complicated", explains Mohammed Dayekh, responsible for the screenplay and direction. The crew ducked into nearby Ouzai, a beautiful seaside location which, years ago, underwent a beautification campaign which saw its low, flat houses painted in different colours and covered with murals by graffiti artists from across the world, making the district look like a colourful seaside village on the approach into the nearby airport. 

Noisy film crew threatened with guns

The film zooms right into Ouzai and reveals a microcosm governed by its own rules, which are soon cast aside when necessary. Loyalty is another luxury. Mohammad Dayekh is convinced that it would have been impossible for filmmakers from another region of Lebanon, even a Christian one, to film in Ouzai. His film crew certainly had their difficulties: one man living nearby fired his gun into the air to drive the noisy film team out and could only be placated with electricity from their generators, which he promptly sold on to the Ethiopian maid in his building.

The team paid off curious onlookers who had been arriving in such great numbers that filming soon became practically impossible. And to earn their respect and prove himself to be one of the locals, Mohammad Dayekh mostly filmed topless. "The film is fictional, told within a documentary framework," he says. The camera captures much of this framing: a slaughtered sheep, children playing with a chicken, the eternal mifas that meander along narrow, unpaved paths.

The film features two brothers, drug dealers played by Hussein Kaouk – unmistakeable thanks to his afro and full beard – and one of Mohammad Dayekh's brothers, who does a good job of his first on-screen role, an opportunity thrown up by the film's limited budget. One night, the pair accidentally throw their attractive neighbour's husband off the roof. Their attempts to cover up their blunder set events in motion which soon snowball out of their control and see the viewer struggling to keep track.

But this is forgiveable because the film's boldness manifests much more in its details: in the woman who kills the sheikh, along with his religious authority; in the slogans from the 2019 revolution which ring out across the streets of Ouzai; in depictions of everyday life amid the awfulness of the district ruled by Hezbollah and their allies; in the Christian policeman who kills his colleague and disguises his crime to look like it was done by Shia crooks. 

Several levels of fanaticism

From the perspectives of the individual microcosms which make up Lebanese society, this film offers plenty of scandalous takes ripe for criticism. Yet the country's censorship authority only took issue with scenes featuring a policeman smoking. They did not cut the scenes and the film continued to be shown in cinemas. 

Reactions ranged from disapproval to a spirit of appreciation. Some in the Shia middle classes did not look fondly on the way poverty was presented in their quarters, Mohammad Dayekh explains. "Other people, particularly religious fanatics, felt attacked as soon as you even said the word 'Shia'". Others praised the pair for having the courage to voice things they themselves would not dare to say. 

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The two comedians have often done just that in their shaping their character Ali Alaouiye. In one sketch, for example, Alaouiye speaks openly about the fact that Shias also took part in the protests of autumn 2019, when broad swathes of the Lebanese population took to the streets to protest against corruption and sectarianism – an admission that puts him in such danger that he spends the whole time looking around anxiously to check no one is filming him. 

On one occasion, however, the pair went too far: a sketch broadcast on TV in September 2021 voiced clear criticism of Hezbollah and provoked an upswell of outrage accompanied by death threats. One such threat inspired the name of the play the pair are currently working on: Drag them by the hair!

But would it be possible to create a character like Ali Alaouiye with whom all Lebanese people could identify, a character slaving away on a side that's not the denominational fractured edge of society?  Mohammed Dayekh doesn't need long to think about it. "It would be impossible. In Lebanon, the first thing anyone asks if where you come from." 

He himself is not happy with how readily Ali Alaouiyé is perceived as Shia and how little he is seen as just another young man on the street, struggling to get by. But everything, he says, is about denomination, even the stage, and not every actor can play every role. And most people go to the cinema with a certain perspective. There are "several levels of fanaticism", Mohammed Dayekh says. "A fanaticism within the Shia community, a fanaticism towards the poor – and also this contempt on the part of Christians." 

They would only watch the film, Dayekh believes, because it is supposed to be about the riff-raff living in conditions they themselves are spared. "But there's poverty across the whole country," says Dayekh's partner Hussein Kaouk. But ending those feelings of shame towards these people would call for the breaking of yet another taboo.


Lena Bopp

© Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 2023


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