Watching Borat in Beirut

Watching Borat in Beirut


le it’s not surprising that Lebanese have sought refuge in cinema
from the country’s sectarian tensions, it does seem strange that many
of them are going to see a movie about, at least in part, sectarian
tension in the United States. When it opened on Thanksgiving, Borat:
Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of
Kazakhstan was the third most watched movie in Lebanon, trailing only such blockbuster fare as Casino Royale.

The fact that a movie satirizing anti-Semitism opened around the same time that Hizballah launched a campaign of protests to bring down the Lebanese government is surely mere coincidence, and

not evidence of a subtle Hollywood-Jewish plot to undermine the Islamist group’s anti-Israel agenda. Nevertheless, it remains remarkable that Borat played in Lebanon at all.

When Georges Hadadd, the head of Empire cinema, one of the largest
distributors in the Middle East, decided to buy the rights to
distribute Borat, half his staff thought he was crazy. “And not for
reasons you might expect,” he said from his office above the company
theaters in a Beirut shopping mall. “Not because of all the Jewish

The risk was less political than it was commercial: Would anyone get
the joke in a movie that casts a British comedian as a reporter from
Central Asia on a road trip across America to marry Baywatch star
Pamela Anderson Or more to the point, would a region known for its
piety tolerate, let alone patronize, a movie that shows the jiggling
hindquarters of a prostitute in hot pants riding a mechanical bull,
or, in another scene, two guys rolling around naked at a mortgage
brokers’ conference “I don’t want to call Borat an ‘art’ film,”
said Haddad. “But it is a special film that requires special
handling. Watching two men rolling around naked is not acceptable in
our culture. Two women Maybe.”

Haddad decided right away that Borat was not ready for prime time in
most of the Middle East, in part because it portrays Kazakhstan as a
country rife with incest, rape and disco dancing. “Many of these
countries, especially in the Gulf, have economic ties to Khazakstan,
and the idea of turning a poor Muslim country into something
ridiculous would be insulting. They are not going to understand that
that’s being exaggerated to make people laugh.”

Instead, Empire distributed the movie only in Haddad’s native
Lebanon, arguably the most sophisticated media market in the Middle
East, where many are familiar with the TV work of Borat’s creator,
Sasha Baron Cohen. But audience sensibility wasn’t the only obstacle
in Borat’s path: Movies in Lebanon are tightly monitored by a
censorship board attached to the General Security Directorate, the
country’s most powerful intelligence institution. The board has
traditionally banned or censored movies that contain anything that
might be construed as Israeli propaganda, anything sexually explicit,
and anything that might incite or insult any one of Lebanon’s 17
different recognized religious sects.

One would have thought that the spectacle of Borat cavorting in fishnet
underwear or speaking in tongues at a Pentecostal prayer meeting, a
rodeo cowboy equating Arabs and Muslims with suicide bombers, or
Borat’s attempt to buy a handgun suitable for Jew-killing, would have
tripped the censors’ sensors. But Borat has gone almost the length of its commercial run without public outcry — and, as far as I could tell,

without a single cut from the original. In a random sampling,
Lebanese audiences laughed at the same moments as did those in New
York, though film critics at a special preview arranged for the
Lebanese press were surprised to learn that there was anti-Semitism
in America. “In the Middle East, all we know is that America and
Israel are always together,” said one.

One explanation for Borat’s smooth ride in Lebanon may be that the
country’s intelligence services aren’t what they used to be. The
former head of General Security, Jamil Sayed is currently in prison under suspicion for
involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister
Rafik Hariri. And since the Syrian withdrawal, local audiences have seen such racy fare as Brokeback Mountain and
Munich, Stephen Spielberg’s drama about Israel’s campaign to avenge
athletes slain by Palestinian terrorists at the 1976 Olympics. Lebanese cinema-goers are also now more likely to see the spicy bits usually excised from R-rated fare.

It may be tempting to read Borat’s unmolested season on Lebanese
screens as a sign of progress of the post-Syrian era towards a more
tolerant, liberal society. But it could just as likely be the high
water mark in a Weimar-like interregnum before the forces of reaction
and intolerance reassert themselves. Outside of the theaters,
Lebanese society is in the midst of a sense of humor failure. When a
Lebanese television comedy show poked fun at Hizballah leader Hassan
Nasrallah last year, his followers rioted, cutting off the road from
Beirut airport. And with Hizballah firmly ensconced in central
Beirut, no one dares laugh at the Sheik now.

Instead, Borat’s equal-opportunity offensiveness is on par with so
much else that the U.S. exports to the Middle East — it represents
freedom without responsibility. As one Lebanese film critic said
after seeing the movie: “The real message of Borat is that America is
ridiculous.” But people in the Middle East don’t need to go to the
movies to learn that.