Artscape: Poets of Protest

Yehia Jaber: Laughter is My Exit

The former fighter journeys across Lebanon to explain why he now battles for change with nothing but words.

Editor’s note: The film was originally broadcast in 2012. 

Yehia Jaber fought with the communists during Lebanon’s long civil war. He is now one of the country’s most acclaimed poets, celebrated for the bitter, comedic work he often performs like stand-up comedy.

He takes us on a journey across Lebanon, and into his past, to explain why this former fighter now battles for change with nothing but words.

FILMMAKER’S VIEW: Anger, pain and creativity

By Roxana Vilk

There is something very enticing about filming poets. Here are these characters, reflective and questioning by nature, living through a truly historic time of change in the Middle East.

Yehia Jaber is a well-loved and very funny Lebanese poet. Back in June 2011, when I first met him, it was his laughter that immediately drew me in: it is warm, infectious, and cannot help but gather you up in its path.

With his shock of white hair and a cigarette constantly perched precariously on his lip, he is everything you imagine a poet to be, questioning society and politics around him, and spot on with his sharp, funny observations of life.

I immediately warmed to his poems, which are both incredibly funny and deeply emotional. I knew in my gut we had to make a film together.

Lebanon’s history is complicated. The country has been ravaged by so many wars, and Yehia with his own complex past seemed like the perfect quirky character to guide us. “In this comedy that is Lebanon,” as he sees it, “we are always re-building and re-war-ing.”

He grew up in a Shia family, with a strict father who invested his money into building mosques. Yehia rebelled against his father’s beliefs to become a communist fighter during the civil war and the consequent invasion by Israel. It was the horror and disillusionment of his fighting years that finally led him to pick up his pen.

“Now this violence inside me, it will be by words, because there is no blood. Perhaps this is now my play yard to fight by words,” he says.

On January 12, 2012 I arrived in Beirut with Ian Dodds, the director of photography. We had exactly 10 days to shoot the film. We were greeted with huge thunderstorms and relentless rain which immediately threw our schedule out the window, as filming anything outside became nearly impossible.

The plan had been to head south with Yehia on a road trip, towards Israel – to film his old battlefields, visit the small village where he grew up, and find his parents’ graves. Instead, the rain meant we had to start in Beirut, in his flat. From his balcony, we could see the exact spot where the civil war began in April 1975, and his many colourful stories of Beirut during the war tumbled out.

Even with permission and an excellent fixer, Sara Moussa, filming in Beirut is unpredictable. Two minutes into filming from inside the car, through the narrow streets of the Burg Barajneh district in the south of the city, two men saw us filming and started pointing and gesticulating wildly.

Thirty seconds later, Sara got a call on her phone: “This is Hezbollah media centre. We know you have permission to film, but the atmosphere has changed. Something is happening here for the next 48 hours, and you need to get out of this area fast and now!”

Yehia reversed the car out, and we drove in tense silence for 10 minutes. Suddenly heading south on a road trip, despite the rain, seemed like a much better option than continuing filming in Beirut. So the next day, we headed out of the city.

The urban sprawl and madness of Beirut gives way to the calm turquoise sea, palm trees, and fruit groves of the south.

“I know this highway so well. We drove it up, fleeing as refugees, when Israel invaded the south. Then, as civil war escalated in Beirut, we took this highway back down south again,” said Yehia and laughed: “I’ve been travelling up and down this road all my life.”

He told me a heartbreaking story of how his mother came to Beirut during the war for cancer treatment, and how she died in hospital in Beirut. Yehia then had to spend a week taking her body to and from the Israeli checkpoint, trying to get permission to bury her back in her village in the south.

I got a glimpse of the raw anger and pain that fuels much of Yehia’s writing and creativity. Over the next week, he took us on an incredibly personal and moving journey to his village, to the battlefields, and finally back to Beirut.

About the series:

Poets of Protest reflects the poet’s view of the change sweeping the Middle East and North Africa through its intimate profiles of six contemporary writers as they struggle to lead, to interpret and to inspire.

Poetry lives and breathes in the Middle East as in few other places.

In a region long dominated by authoritarian regimes, poetry is the medium for expressing people’s hopes, dreams and frustrations. Poets became historians, journalists, entertainers – and even revolutionaries.