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  • Ghenwa Hayek (a1)

I propose that careful reading of films and film coverage provides a new research avenue for scholars interested in the social and cultural history of the 1950s and the 1960s in Lebanon. Looking specifically at the manner in which George Nasser's 1957 film Ila Ayn? (Where To?) embraces and modifies the generic conventions of neorealist melodrama to articulate anxieties over the effects of emigration on Lebanon, this article explores the manner in which contemporaneous cultural critics used the film to, in turn, express their dismay at migration from Lebanon. Reading the film closely for the affects it contains and for those it produced in its readers, I argue that this technique, attendant to both sides of this dynamic, affords us new insights into the manner in which cinema produced during Lebanon's golden period interacted with and complicated the dominant cultural narratives of that era.

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Author's note: Many thanks to Zafer Henri Azar for his help securing a copy of Ila Ayn? a few years before its rerelease, and to Abboudi Abou Jaoudé for some of the primary sources. Boundless gratitude for the many people who patiently read and generously critiqued the multiple versions of this essay: my Franke Institute for the Humanities Fellows cohort (2016–17), summer writing group stalwarts Darryl Li and Sarah Fredericks, Orit Bashkin, and, last but not least, Nada Moumtaz and Hiba Bou Akar, perennial allies in writing and much else.

1 For example, the cultural supplement of al-Nahar, the leading Arabic-language daily newspaper of the period, did not have a dedicated cinema section well into the late 1960s.

2 Kamran Rastegar explores the relationship between cinema and social trauma in a variety of postcolonial Arab contexts, arguing that cinema is a productive area for working out traumas; Rastegar, Kamran, Surviving Images: Cinema, War, and Cultural Memory in the Middle East (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).

3 Most of this important work has focused on Egypt. See Armbrust, Walter, Mass Mediations New Approaches to Popular Culture in the Middle East and Beyond (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 2000); Fahmy, Ziad, Ordinary Egyptians: Creating the Modern Nation through Popular Culture (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2011); Abu-Lughod, Lila, Dramas of Nationhood: The Politics of Television in Egypt (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005); and Gordon, Joel, Revolutionary Melodrama: Popular Film and Civic Identity in Nasser's Egypt (Chicago: University of Chicago Middle East Center, 2002). For a rare non-Egypt viewpoint, see Thompson, Elizabeth, “Scarlett O’Hara in Damascus,” in Globalizing American Studies, ed. Edwards, Brian T. and Gaonkar, Dilip P. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 184208.

4 For more, see Ziad Abu Rish, “Conflict and Institution-Building in Lebanon, 1946–1955” (PhD diss., University of California Los Angeles, 2014); Attie, Caroline Camille, Struggle in the Levant: Lebanon in the 1950s (London: I.B.Tauris, 2004); and Gates, Carolyn, The Merchant Republic of Lebanon: Rise of an Open Economy (London: I.B.Tauris, 1998).

5 Abu Rish, “Conflict,” introduction.

6 For reasons of scope, I do not go beyond the national culture in this essay, but of course, this argument can extend to a larger regional or even global scale. For more on the role of the parafilmic archive in reconstructing nonextant cinema, see Field, Allyson Nadia, Uplift Cinema: The Emergence of African American Film and the Possibility of Black Modernity (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2015).

7 Zaccak, Hady, Le Cinéma Libanais: Itinéraire D′un Cinéma Vers L′inconnu: 1929–1996 (Beirut: Dar al-Mashriq, 1997), 2339.

8 The French title of the film is Vers L'Inconnu (Towards the Unknown). When citing the film, I transliterate from Lebanese dialect.

9 Both Le Jour and al-Nahar cite it as a promising start to a nascent industry. Fuʾad Matar, “Ila Ayn … Tajriba Fanniyya Najiḥa,” al-Nahar, 24 January 1958, issue 6789; Dawalibi, “Un début prometteur: Ila Ayn, premier film libanais de long métrage,” Le Jour, 23 January 1958.

10 I use this terminology and its theoretical and cultural framework from Bourdieu, Pierre, The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993).

11 Hady Zaccak lists five feature films made in Lebanon before Ila Ayn? Hady Zaccak, Le Cinéma Libanais. For an overview, see Shafik, Viola, Arab Cinema History and Cultural Identity (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1998); Leaman, Oliver, Companion Encyclopedia of Middle Eastern and North African Film (London: Routledge, 2001); Afif J. Arabi, “The History of Lebanese Cinema 1929–1979: An Analytical Study of the Evolution and the Development of Lebanese Cinema” (PhD diss., Ohio State University, 1996); and ʿAris, Ibrahim, al-Sinima wa-l-Mujtamaʿ fi-l-Watan al-ʿArabi: al-Qamus al-Naqdi li-l-Aflam (Beirut: Markaz Dirasat al-Wahda al-ʿArabiyya, 2015).

12 For more on these debates, see Anne Rutherford, “Introduction to the Special Issue on Cinematic Affect,” Cinefiles: A Scholarly Journal of Cinema Studies, accessed 10 February 2018,

13 Brinkema, Eugenie, The Forms of the Affects (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2014), 2641.

14 Khoury, Lucienne, Sadoul, in Georges, The Cinema in the Arab Countries (Beirut: Interarab Centre of Cinema & Television, 1966), 120.

15 Leaman, Companion, 376.

16 Reprinted in ʿAbboudi Abu Jaoudé, Hadha al-Masaʾ, 1929–1979 (Beirut: Dar al-Furat, 2015), 24.

17 Ibid.

18 Williams, Raymond, Marxism and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 132.

19 See, e.g., Khater, Akram, Inventing Home: Emigration, Gender, and the Middle Class in Lebanon 1870–1920 (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 2001).

20 For a detailed overview, see ʿAql, Jihad, al-Hijra al-Haditha min Lubnan wa-Taʿati al-Muʾassasat al-Rasmiyya wa-l-Ahliyya Maʿha, 1860–2000 (Beirut: Dar wa-Maktabat al-Turath al-Adabi, 2002).

21 Ibid.

22 Dance and theater troupes, zajal performers and musicians toured across the world, bringing Lebanese culture to diasporic communities. For a discussion of Fairouz's touring schedule, as one of the most successful examples, see Stone, Christopher Reed, Popular Culture and Nationalism in Lebanon: The Fairouz and Rahbani Nation (London: Routledge, 2008).

23 Stone, Popular, 74. Of course, the music of those shows and films resonated across the Arabic-speaking world. That said, many scholars suggest that the Rahbanis' work interpellates a Lebanese audience in a particular way.

24 Nasserist restrictions on cinema led many directors to leave during that period, contributing to a boom in Lebanese cinema production. See Shafik, Arab Cinema.

25 In 2017, Ila Ayn? was rereleased at Cannes and in Beirut. See Hovig Habashian, “Baʿd 60 ʿAman, Jurj Nasr Yaʿud ila Kan,” al-Akhbar, accessed 25 July 2017,

26 For more on politics of 1950s Lebanon, see Attie, Struggle; Gates, The Merchant Republic of Lebanon; and Traboulsi, Fawwaz, A History of Modern Lebanon (London: Pluto, 2007).

27 Al-ʿArusa, April 1957.

28 David Lawrence Livingston, “Sects and Cinema in Lebanon” (PhD diss., Columbia University, 2008), 202.

29 Livingston, “Sects and Cinema,” 202. Emigration statistics from ʿAql, al-Hijrah al-Haditha; and Ḥarfush, Nabil, al-Hudur al-Lubnani fi-l-ʿAlam (Jounieh, Lebanon: Matabiʿ al-Karim al-Haditha, 1974).

30 Williams, Marxism and Literature, 132.

31 Berlant, Lauren Gail, The Anatomy of National Fantasy: Hawthorne, Utopia, and Everyday Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991).

32 Ibid., 20; in Anatomy, Berlant is specifically interested in America's nascent literary culture. However, her observations are often used to discuss nascent national cinemas. See, e.g., Abel, Richard and Bertellini, Giorgio, eds, Early Cinema and the “National” (East Barnet, UK: John Libbey, 2008).

33 Berlant. Anatomy, 5.

34 See Stone, Popular; Traboulsi, Fawwaz, Masrah Fayrouz wa-l-Rahabina: al-Gharib wa-l-Kanz wa-l-Uʿjubah (Beirut: Riad el-Rayyes Books, 2005).

35 Stone, Popular, 142.

36 Ibid., 76, 74.

37 Berlant points out in Anatomy that many competing, sometimes contradictory national fantasies circulate simultaneously in the national consciousness.

38 See Attie, Struggle. for an overview of the Shamʿun personality cult of this era.

39 Hafez, Sabry, “The Quest for/Obsession with the National in Arabic Cinema, in Theorising National Cinema, ed. Vitali, Valentina and Willemen, Paul (London: BFI, 2006), 231.

The term “cognitive mapping” originates in human geography with Lynch, Kevin, The Image of the City (Cambridge, Mass.: Technology Press, 1960). See also Jameson, Frederic, “On Cognitive Mapping,” in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. Nelson, Cary and Grossberg, Lawrence (Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1988), 347–58.

40 Hafez, “Quest.”

41 For more extensive definitions of these two terms, see Stone, Popular; and Hanssen, Jens, Fin De Siècle Beirut: The Making of an Ottoman Provincial Capital (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

42 El-Horr, Dima and Bergala, Alain, Mélancholie libanaise: le cinéma après la guerre civile (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2016), 39.

43 Ibid., 45. El Horr, citing Zaccak, here is discussing internal migration into the city, rather than outwards. See also Stone, Popular Culture; and Traboulsi, Masrah.

44 Dawalibi, “Début.”

45 Mitchell, W. J. T., Landscape and Power (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 2.

46 See Hafez, “Quest.”

47 Blandford, Steven, The Film Studies Dictionary, ed. Hillier, Jim and Keith, Barry Grant, Arnold Student Reference (London: Arnold, 2001), 86.

48 For more on the economy of silk and migration, see Fawaz, Leila Tarazi, Merchants and Migrants in Nineteenth-Century Beirut (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983). For more on the war of 1860, see Makdisi, Ussama, The Culture of Sectarianism: Community, History, and Violence in Nineteenth-Century Ottoman Lebanon (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 2000).

49 Derrida, Jacques, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International (New York: Routledge, 1994), xviiixix.

50 For more on the 1958 crisis, see Gendzier, Irene L., Notes from the Minefield: United States Intervention in Lebanon and the Middle East, 1945–1958 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997).

51 Cinematic neorealism is a film movement originating in postwar Italy that attempted to focus on real social problems and everyday life in both form and content. For more, see Roy, Armes, Patterns of Realism: A Study of Italian Neo-Realist Cinema (New Jersey: A.S. Barnes, 1971).

52 Marcantonio, Carla, Global Melodrama Nation, Body, and History in Contemporary Film (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 16. For a discussion of the family melodrama in Egyptian cinema, see Gordon, Joel, “The Slaps Felt around the World: Family and National Melodrama in Nasser's Egypt,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 39 (2007): 209–28.

53 I do not mean to suggest that women did not do farm work in Lebanon and were confined to the domestic sphere; of course they did, and of course they weren't. However, in the imaginary of the film, the mother's work outside the home is portrayed as a direct consequence of her husband's absence, and a further factor in her hard life.

54 Singer, Ben, Melodrama and Modernity: Early Sensational Cinema and Its Contexts, Film and Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001), 133. For a discussion of melodrama in Egyptian cinema, see Gordon, “Slaps.”

55 Marcantonio, Global Melodrama, 1–24.

56 Ibid., 2.

57 Despite justified critiques, this remains a useful definition; Jameson, Fredric, “Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism,” Social Text 15 (1986): 69.

58 Ahmad, Aijaz, “Jameson's Rhetoric of Otherness and the ‘National Allegory,’Social Text 17 (1987): 325; Larkin, Brian, “National Allegory,” Social Text 27 (2009): 165.

59 Al-ʿArusa, April 1957.

60 Fuʾad Matar, “Tajriba.”

61 Dawalibi, “Début.”

62 Ibid.

63 Al-ʿArusa, April 1957.

64 Al-ʿArusa, April 1957.

65 Balanced composition is when the image in the frame is symmetrical, or balanced (such as in shots when two people are speaking and each occupies roughly one half of the screen). See Bordwell, David and Thompson, Kristin, Film Art: An Introduction, 9th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2010).

66 Marcantonio, Global Melodrama, 12.

67 For a compelling reading of literary texts that attempt this, and of masculinity in the Arab world, see Aghacy, Samira, Masculine Identity in the Fiction of the Arab East since 1967 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009).

68 Derrida, Specters, xvii.

69 For more on melancholy in Lebanese cinema, see El-Horr and Bergala, Mélancholie libanaise. For more on melancholy in Lebanese postwar writing, see Seigneurie, Ken, Standing by the Ruins (New York: Fordham University Press, 2011).

70 Saint-Amour, Paul, Tense Future: Modernism, Total War, Encyclopedic Form (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

71 Arabi, “History,” 129.

72 Livingston, “Sect,” 225.

73 For an elaboration of this debate, see Livingston, “Sect”; Stone, Popular; and Traboulsi, Masrah.

74 The film's director of photography was Jean-Claude Roban, a Frenchman who worked with Barakat on both films he made with the Rahbanis; Zaccak, Cinéma, 68.

75 See Stone, Popular, 142.

76 Safar Barlik shattered the revenue and audience records of Bayyaʿ al-Khawatim; Arabi, “History,” 125–28.

77 The blue veil here is an interesting signifier, and perhaps an unusual one for a wedding veil. It underlines a link, often used in depictions of Fairouz—and carefully cultivated—between her and the Virgin Mary, symbolic mother of the nation; Stone, Popular.

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