“Arresting Dress: Cross-Dressing, Law, and Fascination in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco” by Clare Sears— The Law and Cross-dressing

arresting dress

Sears, Clare. “Arresting Dress: Cross-Dressing, Law, and Fascination in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco”, (Perverse Modernities: A Series Edited by Jack Halberstam and Lisa Lowe), Duke University Press, 2014.

The Law

Amos Lassen

Many of us are aware that in 1863, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors passed a law that criminalized appearing in public in “a dress not belonging to his or her sex.” It was adopted as part of a broader anti-indecency campaign, the cross-dressing law became a useful and flexible tool for policing multiple gender transgressions and by the end of the century there had been over one hundred arrests. Other U.S. cities (some forty) passed similar laws during this time, yet we know little about their emergence, operations, or effects. The book contains archival material that looks at anti-cross-dressing laws that were handed down in municipal courts and codebooks, newspaper scandals, the theater of vaudeville, freak and side-show performances and other venues and shows that “the law did not simply police normative gender but actively produced it by creating new definitions of gender normality and abnormality.”

We also get the story of those who dared defy the law and spoke out when they were sentenced and spoke about variations of gender and various gender possibilities.

Author Clare Sears offers a fresh look into how individuals targeted by cross-dressing law manipulated gender boundary logics to make public claims or evade unwelcome scrutiny. The volume is written clearly, extensively documented, and intelligently and vigorously argued as it explores how policing gender conformity has had quite far-reaching impacts.

The subtitle is bit misleading in that this book looks at more than San Francisco and contains many large ideas about various places and what is considered the norm and we get generative and the disciplinary function of the law as well as the historical “transience of gender categories as well as the persistence of transgendering practices”. Sears connects the exclusion of gender non-conformers “from the public sphere with similar exclusions of raced and disabled bodies.

“BODY LANGUAGE”— Getting Carried Away

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“Body Language”

 Getting Carried Away 

 “We’ve all been there before. As you enter the club, there’s something in the air tonight. You feel open; ready for whatever. A sexy stranger catches your eye. Next, you’re grinding with him on the dance floor, your hands exploring his body for the first time.

‘You get a little carried away. Maybe you drink a little too much. Your lips lock and you don’t care who sees. You lose yourself in the pulsing music under the flashing neon lights. What began as an ordinary night out turns into a wild ride full of uninhibited fun and unforgettable sex, from what you can remember.

Filmed at the legendary Rich’s night club in San Diego, Helix Studios presents “Body Language”, our ode to getting lost in the moment.”

It is about the rush and the pulse, but it also (perhaps inadvertently) makes a few interesting points about the more hedonistic end of gay culture.

“HATUFIM” (“PRISONERS OF WAR)— The Inspiration for “Homeland”

prisoners of war dvd poster

“Hatufim”(“Prisoners of War”)

The Inspiration for “Homeland”

Amos Lassen

After 17 years in captivity, Israeli soldiers Nimrode Klein and Uri Zach return home to the country that made them national icons. They work to overcome the trauma of torture and captivity while settling back into their interrupted family lives. Both are bothered heavily by the fact that the third member of the trio who were captured, Amiel Ben Horin did not come home with them. However, what many think is his corpse did return. Meanwhile, the military psychiatrist assigned to them finds discrepancies in the soldiers’ testimonies, and launches an investigation to discover what they are hiding.

This is the acclaimed Israeli drama series that was the inspiration for the American series, “Homeland” and we can now see all of the episodes of episodes the first and second season on seven DVDs that including behind the scenes interviews and scenes that were edited down. Writer/director Gideon Raff and cast conclude more than two months of intense photographs all over the country.

“Prisoners of War” is really a drama more than a thriller. It is about the trials and tribulations of family, friends and the prisoners themselves. The main theme throughout is guilt— every character has done something, to a more or lesser degree, wrong. Some try to make amends but for others amends are an impossibility. A lot of the characters have something to hide but, as they struggle under the strain, they only end up making things worse for themselves and those around them. There is tension from the very beginning and I found that just as I thought I knew what was coming, I really did not.

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The two POWs that come home are shocked by the changes they encounter off the plane, with the feeling being mutual from their respective loved ones. Nimrode, runs headlong back into everyday life, trying to ignore his troubles from the past seventeen years as a captive. He, his wife and children must play happy families, despite the fact his teenage son hasn’t met him before. Amiel’s, the prisoner who didn’t make it, sister Yael, must struggle with the fact the brother she thought was alive is now dead, and can only seem to do this by seeing visions of him around the house. Uri’s wife didn’t wait around like Nimrode’s. She married his brother and had a son.

However, it is not all gloomy. There is humor found in the series that helps the series from becoming too dark and depressing. The situations are made all the more human for it and I was drawn into the situations with a lot more emotion than if everything just kept getting worse and everyone remained sad and unable to deal with the new realities that they found.

A basic set entraps two or more people as they must talk through their differences. All the characters have friction with each other and the realism plays out through the revealing of motives and the reasons behind their decisions. The actors are all good and there are no show off performances. Everyone does their best in developing their characters; meaning already good writing is helped along.

Each character is at times unlikeable. It is through flashbacks and back stories that we understand why they do what they do. Mostly everyone has three dimensions, no character is more important than another. There isn’t the traditional protagonist-antagonist relationship besides the occasional interjection from Haim Cohen, the psychiatrist interviewing the soldiers, who in his quest to find the truth behind the suspicious prisoners’ behavior, is perhaps the only character we do not totally understand until later.

Because of this focus on characters and relationships, the series moves at a slow pace. Tension builds, both in Cohen’s pursuit and the prisoner’s struggle with everyday life. The way the characters are balanced against each other is one of the finest aspects of the series. It flows from one character to another, even if they have no relation to each other. We want to find out what happens to everyone. What will happen with Uri and his ex-wife? Will Nimrode be able to survive trying to live out his pre-war dreams? Will Amiel’s dogs get walked each and everyday?

There are some aspects to the plot that we see coming and this, for me, is the only minus of the series. Some elements are a mystery, though. We’re introduced to Ilan who helps the prisoners get back on their feet. But his concentration falls fully on Yael after a few episodes. We’re supposed to see him as selfless and commendable, but really he’s too busy getting busy with Yael to help out the guys who have been prisoners of war for the past seventeen years and the character who’s supposed to be most sympathetic is, actually, the least sympathetic of all.

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The scenes that jump back to the imprisonment of the three soldiers work well and are realistic enough (These flashbacks are gradually extended, slowly revealing important plot points or character motivations and it is constantly a fresh approach to telling the story. We all get turned around at the end and realize that the series is more about real emotion and situations than chases and stark reveals. The tension that’s most built up is a psychological one within the prisoners. The slow pace benefits the series that it takes its time and slowly shows the audience every intricacy of a character as opposed to going too quickly at first and leaving nothing for the ending.

The family and friends’ relationships and responses feel as real as the torture scenes. The series is a gripping, moving character based drama, examining a situation that most of us cannot begin to imagine the reality of, yet it somehow manages to be relatable. What this series has “Homeland” does not is heart.

While ‘Hatufim’ is definitely worth being judged on its own merits, it probably will, for some time, always be compared to the US series that was based on this Israeli original but ‘Hatufim’ doesn’t have to shy away from the comparison. In fact, I think it is the superior show of the two. Whereas ‘Homeland’ is clearly in the same vein as other US shows and boosts a fast pace, twists and turns and lots of action, ‘Hatufim’ is much more of a psychological thriller. On the surface much less happens than does in ‘Homeland’, but ‘Hatufim’ involves a lot more subtleties as well as realism and character study.

One petty note—because I am fluent in Hebrew I found, several times  that the subtitles were not true translations and they often bothered me. This was also the first time that I have seen the name “Nimrode” spelled with a final “e” which makes it rhyme with toad when in reality it rhymes with sod. But that is minor and a personal quibble.

“Adaptation” by Melinda Little Lo— A Young Adult Novel

adaptation

Lo, Malinda Little. “Adaptation”, Brown and Company, 2012.

A Young Adult Novel

Amos Lassen

Something is happening to the birds of North America. Flocks hurl themselves into airplanes, causing at least a dozen to crash. Thousands of people die. There is fear of terrorism and the American government grounds all flights and millions are stranded. One such person who is stranded is Reese who is on a debate trip in Arizona with David who has a crush on her. On their way home to San Francisco as they were on a lonely highway, a bird flew into their headlights and the car flipped over. When the two travelers woke up, they were in a military hospital and when they came to a month later, the doctor will not tell them what happened or how have healed so miraculously. Reese and David are told that they have received experimental medical treatments and that they must sign confidentiality agreements before they can return to their families. Reese discovers that she heals incredibly quickly and that she has strange dreams and sensory experiences. Given the location of their crash, their friend from back home wonders if the two may have been treated at Area 51.

Things even became stranger when Reese got home to San Francisco—there is a police enforced curfew, teams collecting dead birds and she feels that she is being followed by a strange presence. She accidentally and unexpectedly runs into Amber Gray, a beautiful girl and she sees her search for the truth take a different direction and could possibly threaten to expose a vast global conspiracy that the government has worked for decades to keep secret. She realizes that she is falling in love with Amber. This lesbian relationship seems to come out of the blue for both Reese and for us, the readers. Amber’s significance is later revealed. Reese is not sure what it means that she is attracted to a girl but still yearning for David? Soon Reese and David find themselves caught in a web of conspiracies that shatter her world. As secrets of universal proportions are revealed, things get exciting and build up to a cliffhanger of an ending.

I really do not like science fiction and rarely read it but this book just so interesting that I had to read it. The story is intense, and fast-paced. I could not help myself but like Reese as she comes to terms with her feelings. The whole idea of the birds pulls us in, as does the idea of a conspiracy theory and a young adult novel, this is one of the best that I have read.

“JAFFA”— A Middle Eastern Romeo and Juliet

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“Jaffa”

A  Middle Eastern Romeo and Juliet

Amos Lassen

Reuven (Moni Moshonov) owns a garage in Jaffa and it is his family’s business. It is not a big moneymaker and the family struggles to make ends meet. All of the family members work alongside mechanics Toufik (Mahmud Shalaby) and his father Hassan (Hussein Yassin Mahajne). Mali, the family daughter, (Dana Ivgy) and Toufik are secret lovers and they plot a secret elopement to Cyprus, where they can legally marry. However, Mali’s lazy and obnoxious brother Meir (Roy Assaf) stirs things up and lays bare prejudices that tear the two families apart. Avoiding the usual clichés of the differences between Jews and Arabs, “Jaffa” is an honest and moving look at just how hard it is for love to conquer all

Mali and Toufik have been in love for years. As the two lovers are secretly making their wedding arrangements, tension builds between Meir and Toufik. Since the Arabs are good workers, Reuven offers them respect, though not so much that he’d ever approve of his daughter’s relationship with an Arab. Meir, a young man who is full of rage and is the family’s black sheep and whipping boy keen to exert any kind of power, is more open about his prejudices, and a heated fistfight with Toufik ends in Meir’s accidental death. Toufik is sent to jail and Mali who is pregnant with his child, ends the affair but has the baby, telling her parents the father is a married man best forgotten. Despite the outward show of grief, peace reigns in the Wolf household until, nine years later, Toufik gets out of the slammer, ignorant of the existence of his daughter, Shiran (Lily Ivgy).

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The film follows Mali Wolf as she carries on an illicit (and secret) relationship with a Palestinian mechanic named Toufik with their happiness inevitably threatened by the increasingly threatening actions of Mali’s hotheaded brother, Meir. Director Keren Yedaya has infused with a seriously deliberate pace that is, at the outset, compounded by her emphasis on grating characters, with Assaf’s over-the-top turn as Mali’s ill-tempered sibling often threatening to negate the film’s atmosphere of gritty authenticity because of his belligerency. The inclusion of several infuriating periphery figures including Mali’s aggressively unlikable mother (Ronit Elkabetz’s Osnat) seemingly to make even stronger proof that this film is going nowhere and is an obnoxious piece of work. Then comes a twist that cause the film to move in a different direction. It becomes a melodrama that falls flat. Things did improve in the second half but it is impossible to forget the first 45 minutes which are disastrous.

“FRINGES”— Three Jewish styles of Contemporary Jewish identity

fringes

“FRINGES”

Three Jewish styles of Contemporary Jewish identity

Amos Lassen

 In “Fringes” we meet the founders and participants of the secular yeshivah in Jerusalem, Jewish farmers in rural Virginia and a Bratslav like rabbi and his wife in Montreal (who plan to make aliyah to Israel). We get to know and like the people in the film, all of whom represented non-mainstream positive attempts at creating a meaningful, contemporary, religious or spiritual Jewish identity.

Pablo Elliott who is a Jewish organic farmer who lives in rural Virginia realizes that sometimes his family’s Judaism looks as if “we’re making it up as we go along.” He further says that they do but that celebrations of Shabbat and community are full of sincerity and devotion. What he and his family are doing he explains is creating a live and that this has always gone on in Judaism. People like Pablo and his wife, and the others featured in the film, are living full, joyous and meaningful Jewish lives yet they are different from what many of us know what being Jewish is all about.

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Director Paula Weiman-Kelman says that her aim with this film was to show real life and not a reality television version of it. She gives us, in the beginning of the film, an image of three strands of challah being braided into one bread and this, we can say, is the theme of the film—three stories coming together to make a larger whole with each story having its own sweetness, desires and ideas of holiness.

The different segments of the film are framed by Jewish texts, usually brief quotes from traditional sources (plus some non-traditional sources), and the camera shifts between the goings on of two couples and a trio of friends working to build the Secular Yeshiva in Jerusalem. In addition to Pablo and his wife Esther, the other couple — Rabbi Leibush and Dena Hundert run Montreal’s Ghetto Shul, a cultural center, café and synagogue that all share one building. The people that we meet here are not involved with joining established institutions but making their own and expanding the “sukkat shalom” of the Jewish religion. While there are no ready answers about what they are doing and how they are doing it, there are lots of questions. These people have chosen to live Jewish lives and this choice provides a beautiful backdrop for sustaining a religion that keeps up with the modern age. The choices that they make are interesting and unexpected and we return here to the eternal question of not what is a Jew rather how some Jews live serious Jewish lives. The usual markers of secular/religious or Reform/Conservative/Orthodox etc. are not relevant here.

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We meet Esther Mandelbaum who was born in the former Soviet Union and who came to the U.S. when she was 10-years-old. She doesn’t remember the exact moment when she was told she was a Jew, but she always felt proud. For her, life was always on the fringes, whether she was a Jew in the Soviet Union, as an immigrant in America, and now as a Jewish farmer in Virginia. Her husband Pablo converted to Judaism before they got married, and she, whose Jewishness comes from her father, also formally converted. They’re an inspiring couple whose Judaism infuses everything they do. Not only are they very involved in their local (but not close-by) Jewish community; they are also connected to the larger Jewish food movement and the national organization, Hazon. They cook Shabbat meals with the produce they grow on Stony Lonesome Organic Farm, and they share what they reap with local people who buy shares, as part of Community Sponsored Agriculture cooperative. Some viewers might find it strange that after lighting Shabbat candles, Mandelbaum then lights the stove. Nonetheless, her passion for observance is seen in this simple act.

The young Israelis who organize the Secular Yeshiva reflect young people today who are at the point where they are wondering what they want out of life, and want to figure out how to connect the spiritual moments with their own traditions. Even as they declare themselves secular, they say God is part of their lives. They study together in the style of a traditional yeshiva, adding a modern and secular twist. Viewers see them doing the physical work of building, painting, filling bookcases, learning, dancing and singing. Nir Amit who is one of the founders says, “Human beings are more complex than simply Jewish or secular or religious. It’s not either or; it’s also this and this. Sometimes I’m all of them, even if it’s contradictory.”

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One of the special treats of the film is that each story features music—Pablo is a musician; the yeshiva students are joined by Israeli singer Berry Sakharof, and Rabbi Leibush Hundert is a jazz saxophonist. Dena Hundert has returned to Judaism and covers her hair. She wants a kind of life that is different from the way she grew up and this is what she is creating in her own home. Her husband, the rabbi, is a follower of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav and says that if he cannot find his own community, he creates one. As the Hunderts build their lives in Montreal, Israel is a pull and eventually they make plans to close the shul and make aliyah.

I feel fairly sure that if we met any of these three groups outside the lens of the film, we would be astonished at how they seemingly cope so well seesawing between tradition and a much wider world perspective on sex, lettuce and rock and roll. We will probably wonder how Leibish with his black beard, payot and ultra-Orthodox garb can run a music club with men and women mingling freely? How do Pablo and Esther live a satisfying traditional Jewish life so many miles from the nearest shul, and when they don’t sell their produce on Shabbat (the main market day for local organic farms)? What is a secular yeshiva whose study hall is populated with stacks of thick Talmuds were men and women study holy writings together? The film shows us the people here as part of the mosaic of modern Jewish life and that there are vibrant Jewish communities where pluralism and tolerance are the norm.

“PROTOCOLS OF ZION”— The Rise of the New Anti-Semitism

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“Protocols of Zion”

The Rise of the New  Anti-Semitism

Amos Lassen

After the terror attacks of September 11, there was a resurgence of anti-Semitism in America. It seems that some felt that the Jews were responsible for the terrorism. Once again these feelings were fed by the repeatedly debunked book libel, “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” and its disguised adaptations. Director Marc Levin goes on a journey to interview the promoters of this kind of hate in all its forms

Levin investigates slander in “Protocols of Zion”, a documentary that looks into the origins and contemporary influences of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” which was written in late-19th century Russia and later championed by Hitler. The book—condemned in the film as “the oldest recorded bigotry in history”—is a fancifully hateful tome that purports to be the transcribed minutes of a secret meeting between Jewish leaders in which they discuss their plans for world domination. Preposterous beyond belief, the volume (available at Wal-Mart, no less) nonetheless continues to be an international bestseller, a fact that Levin came to realize when he met an Egyptian cab driver in Manhattan who cited the book as proof that Jews had known about the World Trade Center attacks beforehand (and thus had successfully evacuated all other Jews from the buildings before they collapsed). Levin is a Jew whose ancestors faced severe prejudice after emigrating to the U.S. in the 1930s and he was motivated by this chance encounter to record his personal cinematic examination of anti-Semitism’s various strands, from the disgusting idiocy that he heard on the sidewalks adjacent to Ground Zero (highlighted by a man who slams not only Jewish NYC Mayor Bloomberg, but also “Jewliani” as well), to the cheesy Middle East TV-movies based on the original “Protocols” that depicts Christian children being murdered so their blood can be used for matzoh production, to the violent opinions of Palestinians living in America. By making his own on-the-scene inquiry the film’s unifying thread, Levin brings a personal intimacy to his subject even as it becomes clear that the multifaceted issue is just too unwieldy for a 93-minute documentary to properly handle. Furthermore, his clear-sighted arguments somewhat suffer from a profusion of scenes in which the director argues with random street-side strangers (some uninformed or just plain insane) about their outrageous beliefs. The film powerfully conveys the despicably fictitious ways in which scapegoats are manufactured, and the method by which irrational blame-games fuel mass intolerance. 

Levin uses himself as a character ala Michael Moore and he further personalizes the documentary by having his elderly father tag along. Levin is fearless in challenging a wide assortment of street corner agitators, newspaper editors, Nazi sympathizers, and talk-radio callers. Levin usually tries to speak from the left, but the more he invokes the power of a multinational, capitalist global system, the more his anti-Semites hear the word Jew. The filmmaker is utterly dumbfounded when it is explained to him that as Rupert Murdoch is a media mogul, he is necessarily Jewish.

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The film amply demonstrates that, as with any sort of racial-nationalist paranoia, anti-Semitism has very little to do with actual Jews and everything to do with imagined ones.

There is one sequence when Levin travels to Hollywood, trying to gather prominent Hollywood Jews for a round-table discussion of anti-Semitism and the film “The Passion Of The Christ”. Levin’s film has a noble aim: He wants to explore the enduring popularity of “The Protocol Of The Elders Of Zion”, a seminal, transparently fictitious anti-Semitic document ostensibly recording the minutes of a meeting of Jews plotting world domination, and its relationship with the conspiracy theory that Jews and/or Israel were somehow responsible for 9/11.

Intriguingly, Levin sees that there are powerful forces controlling the world semi-covertly and that they’re powerful multinational corporations and tycoons like Rupert Murdoch, not scheming Jews. Levin tries to spark a dialogue about the nature of anti-Semitism, and he succeeds in sparking a dialogue, but the agitated emotions and hot air on both sides add disappointingly little to the debate. Sometimes the best of intentions just aren’t enough.

There are more than a few moments in the film when we fear for Marc Levin’s life. Levin stands toe-to-toe with his ideological enemies, but he also remains lucid and calm enough to converse rationally with frenzied street preachers, enraged Islamists and neo-Nazi skinheads. With this admirable cool, Levin probes further into the minds of hateful ignoramuses than most any of us would be comfortable to go. The resulting product, while often fascinating, isn’t pretty.

After watching this documentary we ask ourselves whether anti-Semitism is really as rampant as the film infers. There are countless fringe ideologies in America that have enough practitioners to fill a 90-minute documentary, but Levin does not do enough to demonstrate how rampant or deep-rooted the problem may actually be. Still, with a long, global history of discrimination against Jews, and the rising influence of Islamic extremism around the world, this film may well be a warning that needs heeding.

On the DVD there are a couple of deleted scenes, which mostly consist of excised interviews. There is also a Q and A session that Levin participated in with an audience after one of the film’s screenings. Levin is an arresting speaker, and he draws you in while expounding on his interactions with outspoken bigots and sharing his thoughts on possible solutions to Anti-Semitism’s rising threat. For anyone with concerns or interests in the subject matter, this film is not going to be comforting, but, as Levin implores his film’s audience, it may inspire you to counter the hate and ignorance by doing good.

“THE MORNING AFTER”— There’s Something About Harry

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“The Morning After”

There’s Something About Harry

Amos Lassen

The Morning After a drunken night out Harry’s (Joshua Berg) world is turned upside down when as he awakens to discover a naked man, Thom (Luke Striffler), in his bed. stunned and confused he tries to make sense of his repressed desires. In an attempt to re-assert his heterosexuality he revisits an old lover, Lucy (Juliet Lundholm), but finds little comfort from the encounter. Harry is left to make a decision: to follow his set path and return to his doting girlfriend Jess (Jane Alice), or attempt to understand his own wants and desires…..

“WHITE RABBIT”— Bullying

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“White Rabbit”

Bullying

Amos Lassen

Harlon Mackey (Nick Krause) has had tormenting visions ever since his father, an alcoholic (Sam Trammell) forced him to kill an innocent rabbit while hunting as a boy. Now that Harlon is a bullied high school teen, his undiagnosed mental illness is getting worse. He hear voices, and his imagination encourages him to do violent things. But then he meets Julie (Britt Robertson), a rebellious young girl, moves to town and befriends Harlon. However, when she betrays him, the rabbit along with other imaginary comic book characters taunt him into committing one final act of revenge. The line between reality and Harlon’s imagination begin to grow cloudy.

The film deals with a relevant topic—it seems whenever we listen to the news there is a story about bullying and how it caused someone to snap. While this is a strong film about a delicate subject, it provides a way for us to talk about the subject and its terrible effects.

Harlon has one friend in the whole world, Steve (Ryan Lee), and his only two pleasures are shooting at targets with his rifle and losing himself in comic books. When something goes wrong with Julie, he is pushed him over the edge, leading him to do the unthinkable. The movie carefully looks at the nature vs. nurture debate. We are with Harlon as he sets out on his journey of self-discovery, where the outcome is as shocking as it is inevitable. We try to understand just how it got to what it did.

Nick Krause is excellent as Harlon and with a character like this he could have been easily overplayed but Krause keeps it all in check. His main job seems to involve us as we are to make a decision as to who he is and Krause does not lead us one way or the other—he keeps everything neutral. We watch him change from a quiet kid into a nightmare. He won the Best Actor award at the Boston Film Festival for his portrayal of Harlon (with Best Supporting Actor going to Sam Trammell and Best Supporting Actress to Britt Robertson).

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Darrell is a character we can occasionally sympathize with but his early and poor judgment makes us want to blame him for all that Harlon had to suffer. But it is here that any more information about the plot would ruin anyone’s viewing experience. This is one of those films that lend itself to thinking, “What if”?

When we are first introduced to Harlon, we meet a young boy who doesn’t really have the best father figure in Darrell (Sam Trammell). Darrell is the type who would call his own son a pussy, amongst other terms. But thankfully Harlon has best friend Steve (Ryan Lee), and eventually has something going on with Julie (Britt Robertson). But as circumstances lead to both leaving his side, and the comics Harlon loves being taken away by his dad, all means of relief leave. Thus making it seem only the voice of the White Rabbit (Todd Mclaren) can talk Harlon out of doing something drastic.

What really makes this a must-see is the way it builds to the end. We can easily understand why it ends the way it does because we have been with it as things happen. *Spoiler alert*. We see how everything adds up so the finale is not surprising although it is devastating.

“The Penguin’s Song” by Hassan Daoud— Exile and Loneliness

the penguin's song

Daoud, Hassan. ”The Penguin’s Song”, Translated by Marilyn Booth, City Lights, 2014.

Exile and Hopelessness

Amos Lassen

War is chaos and when war almost destroys Beirut, those who lived in the Old City are pushed to the margins of the country and forced to live on the surrounding hills near the city. It seems as if they will stay forever and wait. The dream of returning to their old homes becomes eternal it seems as the war does not yet have an end.

The penguin of the title is a physically deformed young man who lives with his aging mother and father in one of the “temporary” buildings. His father spends his days on the balcony of their apartment, looking at the far-off city and pining for his lost way of life. Mother and father both find their purpose each day in worrying about the future for their son, while he spends his time in an erotic fantasy world, centered on a young woman who lives in the apartment below. Penguin’s family is poor and suffering a family crisis because of displacement and the young man himself struggles with his isolation and his sexual longings and desires. We read of the fall of a city, the death of a father and of two women who continuously walk on the same road.

This beautiful and lyrically written book is a parable about exile, loss and the pessimism of hope. On these three issues, Jews and Arabs are very much alike so it is surprising that they have not been able to get along. It is an elegy about loneliness and separation of people living with ghosts of the past and unfulfilled hopes and desires. We really get the feeling of isolation that the family feels and we understand that it is due to the Lebanese civil war. . Daoud’s evocation of history becomes very real because he has actually lived it. His characters struggle to survive and this is what puts them into a sort of purgatory where they are well aware of the displacement and dehumanization that often comes with war.

It is how these people cope with war and its aftermath that makes this such a compelling read and anyone who has ever been forced into some kind of Diaspora will quickly identify with what Daoud has written. Penguin is the protagonist living in his suffocating world. He is a kind of everyman representative of those who have experienced what he has. The novel was actually written in Arabic and it has taken sixteen years to get a translation of it in English and even though my Arabic is not as it was once, I am certainly aware of the beauty of this translation byMarilyn Booth.

“Sixteen years after appearing in Daoud’s native Lebanon, this elegiac novel has finally arrived in English. The language is recursive and written in dense sentences by a damaged narrator. It looks at a lost time in much the same way that Marcel Proust did in “Remembrance of Things Past” and I doubt there is any compliment that can surpass being compared to the great French author.

When first published, this was voted “The Best Arabic Novel of the Year.” We see how one is able to live out an entire life in the dream of returning to another. This is a difficult read but the rewards are great. It is a novel as much about the dreary loneliness of daily life as it is about the Lebanese civil war and its aftermath. It is paced slowly and we feel “the horror of war, the pain of isolation, the longing of unfulfilled desire, and the power of the printed word.”