Screaming in a Theater: Notes on Attaining Freedom

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“If you love the God of Islam, I go!” shouted a man in the back of the theater hall in angry, broken English, “If you defend the prophet of Islam, I go!” He repeated this over and over again until he left. Between every sentence, he put on a piece of clothing: a sweater, another sweater, a jacket, a scarf, a wool hat and gloves, to help him cope with the cold world outside. As he performed his spectacle, almost everyone else in the hall was asking him to leave, “Go!” and as he repeated his threatening statement, no one had time for it, “Go out already!”

I was in Berlin last week, and attended the world premier of “Queen of the Desert,” Werner Herzog’s new film about Gertrude Bell, the not so well-known traveler, writer, archaeologist, explorer, cartographer, and political attaché for the British Empire at the dawn of the twentieth century. This female Lawrence of Arabia, who, according to the film, befriended and “understood” the Bedouins of the Arab desert like no other Westerner, drew the lines delineating the geopolitical borders of Arab countries previously mandated by the British.

I am not familiar with Gertrude Bell’s story — so, the objectivity of the narrative and the possible dramatization of events aside — the film is beautiful. It is not the kind of work that portrays the typical dichotomy of the ignorant Arabs and the intelligent colonizers. To the contrary, the film, through Bell’s character, allows for a quite powerful and respectful channelling of the Arab voice. Bell’s character — played by Nicole Kidman, who was attending the premier — cites the prophet’s words in one of the scenes, and does so in a way that does not conform to the boring mainstream narrative about terrorism the world is now accustomed to. Nevertheless, a man in the back couldn’t take it.

He stood up, turned around and screamed at the director and the cast of the film and left. Funny how art can stir people up, and this film in particular could bother a Western audience pacified by a homogenous mainstream media agenda. It’s quite understandable. It was even surprising for me, an Arab who is used to the sound of Islamic calls to prayer five times a day back home, to hear Adhans in every other scene, in this film filled with Hollywood A-listers. And I must admit it tickled me to see Nicole Kidman cite the words of the prophet in a dialogue that is not intended to mock him.

I’m not a believer, but it’s refreshing to see another side of the story spoken by a Western mouth. Yet, just when you thought freedom of speech, opinion and diversity were concepts to be idolized and lived by, especially after everyone and their grandmothers became Charlie last month, a man couldn’t take the screenplay. The film is interesting because it pinpoints the ambiguity of freedom today.

It’s a film about the cesarean births of post-colonial Arab states that are now being burned to ashes for a new, manufactured map of a “more suitable” Arab world. With its content, the film emphasizes a past, and insinuates a present, of Arab subordination and dependency on the “other” for existence. It approaches the notion of freedom as a tool to create a sovereign identity — a tool the Arabs are not allowed to own or use.

This makes the undying polemic of attaining freedom even more vivid. If we are to call freedom a tool, then it’s not one that is given. It’s not a gift. Freedom is a tool that is learned and earned. It is taken, and, as Arabs, we are yet unable to take it. The beautiful thing about freedom is that it’s not a grand scheme. It’s not a big bubble or a large umbrella making everyone under it “free.” To the contrary, the act of constructing and sustaining a protective, comfortable umbrella is in itself the act of freedom.

It is not static. You are not free if you live in a free, democratic society. That man who screamed in the theater in free Berlin is not a free man. His speech is not free. To threaten those around you, interrupt them and make them uncomfortable is not an enactment of freedom. The man was free to leave if he wanted to, but he chose to create disturbance. Little does he know that his performance is very similar to the extremists he so dearly hates. Like them, he creates tension. Unlike him, freedom is the opposite of tension. It is the creation of comfort.

As we watch our Arab world crumble, I think it’s crucial for us to know that we will not be able to steer our destinies where we want them to go without establishing, each at their own pace, our own free states. Free states are manifestations of free people. Free states will not be reached via our political leaders meeting on round tables, but rather us meeting on sidewalks, and each allowing the other full control, full comfort and full capacity to be whoever they want to be, all the while expecting the same treatment from them.

Raafat Majzoub is an architect, author and artist living in Beirut


Freedom of speech is the freedom to speak one's mind without constraint. This may or may not generate "comfort." Safe, comfortable views require no protection; no one (including benevolent dictators) would oppose such views.

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