By Keith Henderson
I’ve been watching the Lebanese Netflix production Al Hayba, the fictional name of a small town in the Bekaa valley. The series features Alia, a young, attractive Canadian widow, of Lebanese descent, who returns with her ten-year-old son, Joe, and the body of her husband (dead by natural causes), in order to bury him with his prominent and very traditional family. The story is one of return, of deep-seated cultural division between western, Canadian values and over a thousand years of Arab tribalism and clannishness, best personified by the elderly matriarch queen of Alia’s husband’s family, Em Jabal, ailing, sharp-tongued, cane-bearing, wrinkled, probably the most convincing performance of the entire series. The contrast between the old lady’s black drapery and her daughter-in-law’s precious, body-fitting jeans with just the right tears in just the right places, couldn’t be starker.
This Canadian is used to the gradual victory of tolerant, western liberal values in a Netflix production over medieval tribal violence and obscurantism. Not in Al Hayba. Each of thirty episodes (and that’s only season one) peels away the onion skin of Alia’s naturalized Canadian-ness. What’s left is, to my mind, total victory for local values, best articulated in Em Jabal’s oft-repeated phrase, “What’s right is right.” I know absolutely no Arabic, but I intuit that the sentence loses much in translation. The word I think I hear (transliterated) is “shyh,” and “shyh” strikes me as much more than the English word “right.” It suggests right, proper, even sanctified, by tradition and by ancestral, family norm. “Right” is modern and recent. “Shyh” goes back centuries, if not millennia.
But “shyh” has very little to do with “right” (or rights) as Canadians would understand the words. “Shyh” means little Joe must learn to call himself by his Arabic name, Jabal, and so, symbolically, reclaim his lineage and his heritage. “Shyh” means little Joe stays in Lebanon, even if his mother Alia might wish them to return to Canada. Therefore “shyh” means kidnapping little boys is just fine, as long as it furthers clannish family unity, as black draped Em Jabal interprets it. “Shyh” means learning how to protect yourself and your business in a dangerous neighborhood, so “shyh” means learning how to use guns and how not to be afraid to kill. Little Joe prefers playing soccer. Little Jabal must be taught how to shoot birds. “Shyh” and guns seem to go together. Semi-automatics are ubiquitous in this Bekaa valley town. They get carried everywhere, in every huge black American-made SUV. They’re shot off in celebration at weddings, in mourning at funerals, against enemies in lawless vendetta and retribution.
At first Alia is disgusted and outraged by what her husband’s family has done, stolen her child and imprisoned him in their smuggling redoubt sanctuary, a beautiful Mediterranean mountain home filled with stone and wood and fine furniture. Little Jabal doesn’t mind. He’s found an extended family he’s never had, plays in open spaces protected by among others, his armed uncle Sakhar whose gun he mistakes for a toy and, to his mother’s horror, accidently triggers in a bedroom. Alia seems desperate to leave. She temporarily abandons her son to seek refuge in Beirut and to organize Joe’s rescue with the help of the Canadian embassy. But she runs out of money. Her brother-in-law, divorced, putative head of the family, Jabal al-Sheik Jabal, has her constantly watched and aided by his corrupt Lebanese cronies, has her credit cards blocked and her lawyer intimidated. He also impounds little Jabal’s passport. The black-draped matriarch has already made Alia’s choices abundantly clear. Before her daughter-in-law left for Beirut, in a scene worthy of the middle ages, Em Jabal tossed a white shawl at Alia’s feet. She was free to leave (but not with her son.) If she stayed, she would have to marry her brother-in-law. One or the other. That too, it seems, is “shyh.”
But here a major problem in motivation enters the film. Writers and directors have Alia convince herself she has no choice but to stay with her son. That means returning to Al Hayba according to the terms her mother-in-law has laid down. Yes. Alia, hitherto confident, self-assertive, westernized, filled with the liberal scruples one would come to expect, succumbs, implausibly, and abjectly agrees to marry her brother-in-law, an antediluvian gangster and murderer for whom she has never exhibited the slightest regard. She could have returned to Canada, resumed her well-paying managerial post, saved her money and organized a legal campaign to wrest her boy out the hands of kidnappers and arms smugglers. However, the idea never seems to occur to her. Marriage it is, so marriage it will be, complete with celebratory gunfire, as long as she and her little Joe can be together. For the matriarch’s benefit, unbeknownst to her, the erstwhile betrothed even agree to play act. They will share a bed, but will engage in no sex, an absurd game that persists for weeks if not months, as Alia’s distaste for the family and its values slowly ebbs and her usual dour looks for both matriarch and son are replaced – inexplicably – by smiles and acceptance. She learns how to shoot and listens indulgently every time Em Jabal raises the possibility (even the duty) of producing a new son for the family.
Alia’s is not the only story in Al Hayba of trading western feminism for servitude. Rima, a cousin, parallels her course. At first, she suffers the unwanted and overly-possessive attentions of Jabal al-Sheik Jabal’s brother, Sakher. In this town, one does not dismiss members of the ruling Jabal family lightly, however distasteful their behaviour. But Rima prefers fellow university students, whom Sakher routinely threatens. Obsessed, Sakher has her name tattooed on his arm, but the girl eventually plucks up enough courage to tell him she doesn’t want him following her around in his big black SUV and insisting on picking her up after class, that she cannot love him and never will, a declaration that edges Sakher, never the most stable of characters, toward suicide.
The worst occurs when (western-style) Rima opts for a one-night stand with a chance encounter in a Beirut bar. Her bedmate videos the event, blackmails her, and threatens to expose the entire night on the internet. Horrified by the prospect of such dishonour, Rima herself considers jumping out a window when she’s (conveniently) saved by a phone call from the very young man she jilted. When he learns what occurred, Sakher hunts the blackmailer down in his apartment, subjects him to a vicious game of Russian roulette, as he points a pistol loaded with a single bullet at his head, asks him questions about what went on that night, then pulls the trigger each time. After five attempts, the single bullet never fires. Tired of this game, he ties his victim up in some kind of flammable binding, pulls out his lighter, and quietly leaves the apartment while the man burns to death. “You killed him?” Rima asks when Sakher finds her. Knowing the answer changes everything. All of a sudden, he’s a hero. Could there be a better reason for love than “shyh”?
No, Al Hayba is not an ironic exposé of all that is wrong in Arab life. The Jabal family are celebrated, their actions ultimately exonerated. In the final scenes, “evil dogs” (a competing family) attack the compound when Jabal al-Sheik Jabal is at his weakest and hiding out “in the wilderness” with his brother Sakher, who’s been blinded in a car bomb attack. Back home, automatic weapons at the ready, the women of the compound fend off the attackers, an act which before her arrival in Lebanon, Alia would have found inconceivable. Later, the senior Jabal avenges all that has gone wrong by pulling his enemy out of a barber’s seat and shooting him in the town square in broad daylight. The last episode of season one ends with Rima tenderly attending to Sakher’s ruined eyes. “Do you remember what you used to call me?” she asks. “Rima,” he answers. “No. What else.” “My cousin,” he says. “No. More,” she replies. “My soul and my eye,” he finally admits. Alia enters the scene bearing the son her mother-in-law has always desired. “Do not worry. Everything will be fine,” her husband comforts her, repeating what he has always told her. Then he calls her his “Em Jabal.” The peeling of the onion, the jettisoning of western values is complete.
As a Canadian, I find it hard to be indifferent to this unfolding, these transformations. Al Hayba presents (and I would argue propounds) a set of principles most Canadians would find very disturbing. The series raises the oft-avoided question of a values test connected to immigration. Imagine Al Hayba, season 2. Life gets a little too dangerous, even for those inured to danger or, like Alia, recently affected by it. The Jabal family decides to move back to Canada. Now it’s not just little Joe and his mother. It’s Alia’s second husband, a gangster and murderer (though in Lebanon’s corrupt society, never convicted of anything). It’s the evil matriarch herself, convinced of her own honour and integrity. It’s Sakher, another murderer and his wife, even blinder than her husband. At issue is the whole questionable machinery of chain migration. Should Canada not ask a single question of such people? Would we want them living amongst us?
Oh, but you would now be creating two classes of Canadian citizens, the more liberal-minded of us might argue. We can only have one class of Canadian citizenship. We can’t possibly start imposing such tests.
Really? First of all, Canada already has two classes of citizens. Certain institutions (like the federal government) can post signs in English and French with lettering of equal size. Try doing that if you’re a small businessman in Quebec. (Unless you’re a Canadian of Chinese origin and you’re posting in Chinese and French. Then the Chinese can be even larger. Three classes of citizens?) Or try sending your kid to an English school in Quebec if you’re a Canadian citizen originally from Lebanon.
Secondly, what’s wrong with asking people who want to come here whether their beliefs and attitudes can easily assimilate with our own? We’re under no obligation to them. Perhaps we’d like to screen them, make sure we’re getting the best, not the worst.
But they’ll lie, is the most frequent retort. All you’ll get is what they know you want to hear. And so? Let them lie. And if in the future, in court cases or otherwise, their documented dishonesty comes into play, so should their citizenship. Public lying in such serious situations as requesting citizenship or landed immigrant status should always bear consequences. The worst policy is never to ask.
A pivotal scene in Alia’s systematic de-westernization occurs toward the end of season one. Having ingratiated herself with the family and its matriarch, Alia manages to escape to Beirut with her boy, armed with a newly minted Canadian passport. Aware of her escape, her husband tries to organize his corrupt Lebanese airport cronies to place little Joe on a no-fly list. He needn’t have bothered. At the last moment, Alia gets cold feet and aborts the escape. After her return to the family home, her husband tells her he could have made big trouble for her at the airport. Alia responds that her boy’s Canadian passport would have made even bigger trouble for him. The only explanation we ever get for why she fails to return to Canada occurs in a brief conversation with her sister-in-law, Mona. “Why didn’t you leave?” Mona asks. “You don’t really belong here.” “I couldn’t,” Alia answers after a pause. That’s all she says. So, we can conclude, her staying in Lebanon is not something that bears logical scrutiny. It’s a feeling in the heart, large, strong, irrational.
Unavoidable is the thought that, however inarticulately, Alia has made a conscious choice. What exactly she has chosen is worthy of examination. Alia has chosen oligarchy, where one man, who happens to be her second husband, rules as judge, jury, and executioner. “Master,” he is frequently called, for whose sake it is a toady’s privilege to serve and even to be imprisoned (as occurs in the film), unless “Master” is violently supplanted, of course. Attached to such oligarchy is the complete subversion of the rule of law and the utter corruption of public life. In such a system, public services are sketchy a best, local wars simmer like lava pits beneath the surface of national life, and order is enforced by gang beatings. No economy can flourish in such a system of money laundering and tax avoidance. Political assassinations are routine and civil war can explode at any moment, as it did in Lebanon in 2006, when 40,000 Lebanese with Canadian passports, many of whom hadn’t been in Canada for years, insisted that the government immediately send ships to evacuate them. Incredibly, Canada did. Most of these Lebanese returned after a month or so to pick up where they’d left off.
The irony of Alia’s perverse Lebanese metamorphosis is instructive. She chooses a degraded system but retains her Canadian papers. Who knows when they might become useful again? She turns her back on Canada and its values, ceases to contribute anything to the country, but keeps her citizenship of convenience, her bolt-hole second country just in case her questionable choices don’t quite work out for her. In the end, it’s hard to have any respect for her, for Al Hayba, for the extended Jabal clan, but even harder to respect a country, Canada, that lacks the moral fortitude to revoke a passport.
Keith Henderson has published five novels with DC Books, The Restoration (1992), The Beekeeper (1990), The Roof Walkers (2013), Acqua Sacra (2016), and Sasquatch and the Green Sash (2018), political essays from when he was Quebec correspondent for the Financial Post (Staying Canadian, 1997), as well as a prize-winning book of short stories (The Pagan Nuptials of Julia, 2006). He led a small provincial political party in Quebec during the separatist referendum of 1995 and championed Anglo language rights and the strategy of partitioning Quebec if ever Quebec partitioned Canada. He has taught Canadian Literature for many years.