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Sergio: or the wretched of Lebanon, Iraq and East Timor

The cataract of memories fell unbidden when I watched Netflix’s Sergio, a biopic dramatizing key events in the life of the United Nations diplomat Sérgio Vieira de Mello, particularly his last three posts as the UN administrator of East Timor, then as Geneva-based UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and finally as the Secretary-General’s special representative in Iraq. The film’s depictions of bombed cities, tense United Nations negotiations, and scenes spoken in Portuguese awakened long dormant memories of the war between Israel and Lebanon in July 2006. I was in my early twenties and intent on crossing the Lebanese-Syrian border. My ultimate destination was Portugal, where I had enrolled in an English as a Second Language teacher training program before the war started.

As an immigrant from the Middle East, whenever I watch a Hollywood movie set in the Global South I anticipate the reduction of the East into a set of stereotypes in direct opposition to the West. Where the Western self is rational, mature, civilised, the Oriental other is irrational, childlike, savage. It is the story that the US has chosen to tell itself about its past, present, and future; the many tragedies of settler colonialism, slavery, racial capitalism and imperialist invasions become merely incidental to the country’s grand narrative of progress. Even with these expectations, Sergio’s racial and cultural insensitivities staggered me, transporting me to a different time and a different country. The movie spoke a visual language I did not know even though it was set in my world; a language that co-opted the voice of Indigeneous people to narrate stories about war and peace.

The year was 2006. Tensions along the Israeli-Lebanese border were daily occurrences. But that July, Lebanon endured a catastrophic war. Hezbullah had started the crisis by capturing two Israeli soldiers to exchange for Lebanese detainees in Israeli prisons. Israel’s retaliation was ruthlessly disproportionate: it blockaded Lebanon’s air and sea, demolished its infrastructure and flattened its factories and power plants. Hundreds of civilian lives were lost, buried under the rubble of bombed schools, mosques and hospitals. Israel even blocked humanitarian aid from reaching the Lebanese people and deliberately shelled a UN post, killing four observers. According to Human Rights Watch, the vast majority of the 1,109 Lebanese deaths in the conflict were civilians. The toll in Israel included 43 civilians and 12 Israel Defense Forces soldiers. Kofi Annan, then UN Secretary General, issued countless ceasefire addresses to the Security Council. Almost a month later, the war ended and a peace plan followed. A multinational peacekeeping mission expanded the mandate of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), stationed along the Israeli-Lebanese border since the late 70s.

These are all details easily found in journalistic accounts of the war. I am more concerned with the pain and suffering lodged behind the headlines. Who is responsible for narrating them? How do we convey their emotional weight and power? Are some war stories too devastating or too incomprehensible to be reclaimed?

A Lebanese Woman Stands in Ruins of Conflict [courtesy of UN Photos, Mark Garten]

I hired a taxi with savings from my job at a bookshop to take me to Damascus. With the 115 km-route between Beirut and Damascus already cut, I travelled in the opposite direction, towards the northern Syrian-Lebanese border. It was a dangerous journey along coastal roads, long detours, alternate routes and rugged mountains. The drive was full of silences. How I wish to speak into this silence now, to excavate the psychic landscape of my meandering thoughts. Occasionally, we passed ordinary people going about their ordinary lives. Most of the time, I was petrified, not certain if I would make it out of Lebanon alive. Twelve hours later, we reached Homs via the port city of Tartous. From Homs I took a bus to Damascus, where I stayed with a colleague of my mother’s, who taught at the University of Damascus. A few days after, I had crossed the Al-Abboudieh border, I learned that Israeli airstrikes killed eleven people and wounded many others there. Like me, they traversed across vast geographies of destruction and pain. I survived. They didn’t.

At first, I was wary in Damascus. Two years earlier, following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, Lebanon witnessed the largest opposition protests against Syria’s thirty-year military presence in the country. With the withdrawal of Syrian troups, the dynamic between the two neighbouring countries shifted. I was uncertain about the Syrians’ reception of their newly-autonomous neighbours, now flooding the borders as refugees. My fears were quickly quelled, however. My host’s generosity and compassion were a balm, epitomising the solidarity and hospitality Syria extended to its displaced guests. Sensing my low-grade state of shock, she proposed going to the public pool to relax. It was a women-only facility. Years before Hulu’s TV series Shrill popularized body-positive pool parties, this communal pool was a space where multigenerational women communed away from the patriarchal gaze. Some women wore veils, others bathing suits. Their children splashed around and blew bubbles while their mothers clung to the walls, chatting with relatives and friends. In this ritual of female solidarity, I felt a cultural and spiritual connection to my ancestors, who mothered themselves and each other in the Hammams. I did not know then that what I experienced was a feminist ritual of healing. Lazing under the Damascene sun, I broke down and wept for the first time during that journey. I wept for the people who died. I wept for my beloved Lebanon. I wept in hope and gratitude for my new lease on life.

***

In Sergio, director Greg Barker, who had previously made the HBO documentary of the same title, set out to dramatise the emotional charge pulsing through Vieira de Mello’s career. The dramatic adaptation starts with a documentary producer prompting a suave Vieira de Mello, played by Wagner Moura, to recount his thirty-four years as High Commissioner for Human Rights, listing the places he served: ‘Cambodia, Timor, Bosnia.’ Vieira de Mello finishes the sentence: ‘Lebanon, Rwanda… it [i.e. my story as peacekeeper] is supposed to be inspirational.’ Thus, the film’s tone is set. Inspirational. Hollywood is enamoured with this kind of conventional story, touting a fantasy of exceptionalism brought to the rest of the world by a white man, or a man closely aligned with the privileges of whiteness, like Vieira de Mello.

In this opening sentence, the film evokes the biggest myth of peacekeeping : one that cloaks political and military interventions in the language of goodwill, democracy, religious freedom, and open markets. If one knows anything about the kinds of campaigns listed off at the beginning of Sergio, it is that they were all mired in dispossession, degradation, and perpetual violence. There is nothing inspirational or triumphal about the reconstruction story of Lebanon after fifteen years of civil war.

I was born during one of the bloodiest episodes of the war, the year Vieira de Mello played a key role as a UN representative during Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. In September 1982, Israeli troops presided over the Sabra and Chatila massacre of Palestinians, mostly women and children, in alliance with Lebanese Christian militiamen. My father found it very difficult to talk about the war. I know he was involved in it, but I often wonder about what he did not tell us. After Vieira de Mello’s departure, in 1983, the violence and social breakdown would continue to rage for years. What the TV producer sees as ‘inspirational’ histories are gory events that swirled around my childhood, staining every memory with unfathomable pain and shame. While the 1989 Taif Accords required all factions to relinquish their weapons, it put in place a corrupt power-sharing system that hinges on nepotism, sectarianism and capitalist exploitation. 

After the list of ‘inspirational’ histories at the beginning, the narrative shifts to flashbacks of a woman telling Vieira de Mello that he can say no to ‘Bush, Kofi,’ referring to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and U.S. President George W Bush. This is an invitation-only event, and Vieira de Mello does not say no to the pull of Western partitioning of Iraq post-invasion and the removal of Saddam Hussein. Vieira de Mello reassures the concerned woman – we later realise she is his beloved Carolina Larriera, played by Ana de Armas – that his role of leading the mission as UN Special Representative for Iraq ‘will only last four months.’

In the years following the end of the civil war, the Economic and Social Commission for West Asia (ESCWA) headquarters relocated to downtown Beirut as a sign of optimism in Lebanon’s rehabilitation. In an open-concept glass building, the UN signalled transparency as its core mission in the region. With the advent of the United States’s agenda, however, the building was transformed into a heavily-fortified compound, cordoned off by cement barricades and barbed wire. The political scientist Karim Makdisi reads the physical transformation of the UN headquarters as a metaphor for the distrust the Arabs felt towards the United Nations as it became an active collaborator in the United States’s ‘war on terror’ in the aftermath of 9/11 attacks. Even though the majority of UN representatives, like the morally upright Sérgio Vieira de Mello, opposed the role played by the US and its allies in repartitioning the ‘new Middle East’ – a term introduced by US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice – they did not hold the sway necessary to change the course of occupation.

***

Once in Lisbon, I was a guest staying on borrowed time. My Lebanese passport was a liability, making it illegal for me to stay in the European Union after the expiration of my short Schengen visa. I needed to go back home. I became fluent in the vernacular of the Security Council. I learned about sanctions, vetoes and resolutions. I repeated the names of UN emissaries like a mantra. After twenty-six days, the hostilities ended. The new reality had a name: United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701. In Lisbon, an airline agent called with such excitement to relay the good news. She said I would return home, Oxalá.  Inch’Alla, I responded. God willing – words that travelled, like me, from Arabia to the Iberian Peninsula. Like these errant words, I, an errant daughter, would return home only to leave again.

***

Going back and forth in time, Sergio flashes back to East Timor, where Vieira de Mello helped transition East Timor for independence after it broke with Indonesia in the early 2000s. In East Timor, the former Portuguese colony, Vieira de Mello meets and falls in love with Carolina Larriera, an economist working for the United Nations. The film develops their illicit love affair against the backdrop of the paradisiacal former colony and its exoticised people. To be sure, the film’s representation of Indigenous characters tells a single story, which perpetuates real-life associations of Indigenity with violence and lust. Two Timorese characters have short speaking roles, but their function in the narrative is to catalyse the taboo love affair and bring about the completion of Sergio’s mission. For Vieira de Mello is married and has two grown children; he is twenty-three years Larriera’s senior; and he is her high-ranking boss.

The first interaction is with General Xanana Gusmão, the leader of the guerrilla rebels. It is a conversation loaded with the masculinist surge of the rebels; machine guns and military fatigues abound. Gusmão is a familiar stock character in the story of empire, a dangerous man marked by the ideology of armed confrontation – not only pointing to the destructive power of the natives, but also underlining the allegedly intrinsic cultural differences that justify Western intervention. In a spirit of noblesse oblige and righteous piety, Vieira de Mello’s peace mission hits an impasse.

The film has other racist tropes in its toolbox. Shortly after Vieira de Mello’s failed attempt to negotiate with Gusmão, the narrative ushers in an Indigenous woman – referred to only as Senhorinha, or little lady – who tells a mystical story of pain and forgiveness, enlightening an entranced Vieira de Mello. Similar to ‘the magical negro’ in films set in the United States, Senhorinha’s powers are used solely for the transformation and redemption of a white man. The polyglot Sérgio Vieira de Mello, speaking to the woman in formal Portuguese – the language of the coloniser – extracts Indigenous knowledge in the service of neo-imperialism, masked as benevolent peacemaking.

In her account of Vieira de Mello’s career,  former US ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power quotes a journalist who referred to him as a ‘cross between James Bond and Bobby Kennedy’ –  both charismatic white men; the first a fictional spy in the service of the British empire, the second a sainted figure of liberal American politics and inter-generational wealth and influence. The movie Sergio does not shy away from this depiction.

The sexual tension between Vieira de Mello and Larriera reaches a dramatic crescendo. Once again, their affair is set against the background presence of Indigenous others, and the characters kiss in the pouring rain. This is another popular racist trope, whereby white characters relay their transgressive sexuality through Indigeneity and blackness. In this peripheral, promiscuous, postcolonial ecology, their desire is given free rein. We are supposed to see this moment as an emotional release, but it only brings the film’s overall stigmatisation of Indigeneous people and landscapes into sharp relief.

***

In Lisbon, the director of the British school where I trained to teach ESL was a septuagenarian man who donned a three-piece suit in the middle of a scorching Portuguese summer.  Inviting me to his office, he asked to mine my experience of war and relay it to him. I was bristling in shock, numb with exhaustion, startled, but I spoke of the Madfoun bridge incident nonetheless. How my mother, sister and I nearly escaped death from an Israeli airstrike that hit and destroyed the main artery between Beirut and Northern Lebanon on which we were travelling. Peeling away the layers of the past few weeks, I told him about the spectacle of utter destruction. A country reduced to nothing. A people broken yet again. That single moment troubles me as much as any other of the entire sequence of events of that summer. There was such a sense of entitlement in this invitation to tell my story. That he had power to open that door for me. That his right to superimpose his personal narrative on my experience was assumed.

But processing the untidy emotional charge of my story required too much energy from this sophisticated man, steeped in British mores of constraint. Unable to shed his detachment, or dissatisfied with my inability to tell a cohesive story, he moved on to talk about his own glorious and glorified memories as a teacher in Iraq. Dismissing people’s ugly feelings is a quiet, subtle art. To him, I was a prop in a grand narrative, where he was the main character. If I could, I would go back in time and tell my terrified, brittle self: you do not owe this man your story. If I could, I would travel through the ether and tell the fictional Senhorinha: Hollywood does not have a right to your story of loss and forgiveness.

***

An earlier scene in Sergio takes us to Baghdad in 2003, where we get all the familiar, reductive elements of a movie set in the Middle East. Baghdad is a city in shambles, high-tech boots on the ground, airstrikes and a violent population flooding the sanded streets. In a tired Orientalist trope, the Iraqis appear to be capable of expressing only one emotion: anger. They do not speak. They are huddled masses without subjectivity, without memory. They exist outside of time. Arriving at the UN headquarters, Vieira de Mello is disappointed that the Iraqis are not more welcoming. It is an odd reaction: is he so naive as to believe, after almost thirty-five years of service as a peacemaker, that his presence would be welcomed with open arms? Instead of gratitude for the American brand of freedom they had just been delivered, the Iraqis are irrational, stoked by ancient hatreds, and prone to kill each other without Western oversight. A colleague tells Vieira de Mello: ‘This is Baghdad, Sérgio, not Saint-Tropez.’ This lets us know that we are in a rogue beyond, diametrically opposed to the playground for the region’s former colonisers, the French Riviera.

A UN official tells Sérgio: “This is Baghdad, Sérgio, not Saint-Tropez” in the movie Sergio. (Netflix)

To grasp the articulation of disdain in this statement is to understand what Frantz Fanon meant when he wrote, in The Wretched of The Earth, that the ‘colonial world is a world cut in two.’ In the Orientalist framework of George Bush, Tony Blair and the UN, which this film depends on, the postcolonial world continues to be that of the ‘savage’ other – here, violent Arabs – who needs the help of the superior, rational West. This contact zone is not a space of nuance, of in-betweenness. This is occupation.

Once on my back and forth trips between Lebanon and Portugal, I sat next to a Portuguese UN unit discharged from their mission in the mostly rural and poor area of Southern Lebanon. Destitution and neglect marked this region. Of course, the Portuguese soldiers were enraptured with the glory of release, the stupor of going home. But there was an air of derision in their jubilation – a sense of liberation that comes from leaving a hopeless, wretched place. They mocked. They laughed. They cursed. When I finally spoke to my seatmate in Portuguese, he was visibly surprised that I knew his language. He tried to walk back the slurs I must have heard, and told me: ‘é diferente’ – it is different. This is how we have been scripted. Different, wretched, somewhat inhuman. It is a script I know well. The deeper I reflected on this episode, the more I realised that these men understood themselves not just as peacebuilders, but as agents with power over the native population. I wondered what gave them an air of superiority, even though they were on a mission to keep the peace.

Talk
Talk
Talk
Talk
Talk
Talk
Trouble

Talk
Talk
Talk
Talk
Talk
Talk
Nothing

So go Naomi Shihab Nye’s ‘Peace Talks,’ fourteen words, fourteen lines that speak directly to the anger and despair that I find myself feeling as I reflect on these memories from that summer. It is a bare, raw riff on nothingness. I dwell on the sense it gives off of a people in a besieged land about to be buried under the suffocating weight of peace talks. Language of Peace. Language in Trouble. Language as Nothing.

Like the Portuguese soldiers and the British man from my journey, Hollywood is incapable of seeing the Global South through any lens beyond that of incompleteness and, by doing so, it perpetuates the violence – racial, gendered, epistemological, and material – of Orientalism. Netflix’s Sergio is just one of countless contemporary films and TV series, like Beirut and Homeland, fetishising American imperialism, refusing to acknowledge that its audience is not only of European descent – that minorities watch these films, too, and will push back against insidious romanticisation of war. I do not want to hear about ‘inspirational’ men doing the dirty work of racial capitalism. I do not want to watch films that deny my humanity and assume that viewers like me will not see through this propaganda. Perhaps the biggest revelation from this seismic jolt of memory has been that I cannot rely on others to encompass the multiplicity of stories of being, becoming and belonging in the world that I want to tell. I am here and ready to tell these stories.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Dr Mira Assaf Kafantaris is a Senior Lecturer in the English Department at the Ohio State University. Her current research focuses on royal marriage, foreign queens, and the discourse of race in the early modern period. Her work has appeared in The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Ben Jonson, The Palgrave Handbook of Shakespeare’s Queens, The Rambling, The Conversation, Synapsis, and Medium-Equity.

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Comments

  1. It seems most of the basis of this text is founded under the assumptiom Sergio is portuguese, when in fact he’s Brazilian FYI

  2. Mira, your first-hand experience in the Middle East has shaped who you are, as our own experience in watching the carnage there from afar has shaped who we are. Nobody should diminish any part of our history or individuality. I admire and respect your courage in sharing your experience, and rest assured that your feelings and views are shared by other folks from the Middle East. Unfortunately, these are not the American views — which explains Overland’s endnote that the magazine publishes “ideas and voices often excluded from other places.” If it was not for Overland, the world may have never read such refreshing prose as the following:

    “In this ritual of female solidarity, I felt a cultural and spiritual connection to my ancestors, who mothered themselves and each other in the Hammams. I did not know then that what I experienced was a feminist ritual of healing. Lazing under the Damascene sun, I broke down and wept for the first time during that journey. I wept for the people who died. I wept for my beloved Lebanon. I wept in hope and gratitude for my new lease on life.”

    “Peeling away the layers of the past few weeks, I told him about the spectacle of utter destruction. A country reduced to nothing. A people broken yet again. That single moment troubles me as much as any other of the entire sequence of events of that summer. There was such a sense of entitlement in this invitation to tell my story. That he had power to open that door for me. That his right to superimpose his personal narrative on my experience was assumed … Dismissing people’s ugly feelings is a quiet, subtle art. To him, I was a prop in a grand narrative, where he was the main character. If I could, I would go back in time and tell my terrified, brittle self: you do not owe this man your story. If I could, I would travel through the ether and tell the fictional Senhorinha: Hollywood does not have a right to your story of loss and forgiveness.”

    “Perhaps the biggest revelation from this seismic jolt of memory has been that I cannot rely on others to encompass the multiplicity of stories of being, becoming and belonging in the world that I want to tell. I am here and ready to tell these stories.”

    Keep them coming, Mira. Thank you.

  3. As a historian, I read this with interest. It is a story of grievance, anger, and resentment. Written to illuminate “Hollywood’s” systemic racism. But, as a former actor, writer, and director, it leaps over many obstacles to the narrative: how movies get funded and made. What is the movie you wish to see? Have you thought of making it? I haven’t seen “Sergio” but I would imagine the director and writer would ask for some balance. It appears they value his contributions to world peace and tell a story that, however offensive you may find the “tropes” you witnessed, wanted to elevate a man who contributed to the betterment of mankind. It would be helpful to point out mainstream films you find accurate in portrayals of the region. Are there any? As to this man having the “power” to get you to tell your story, which troubled you so – did you also not have the power to decline his inquiry? Are you an aspiring screenwriter? Playwright? I would hope to see you put your education to work writing the movies you wish to see, then try to get them made, against all odds, as all writers face. I would suggest that experience would encourage you to view such a movie with a bit more restraint. Most critics are failed screenwriters and/or playwrights. Criticism is easy. Getting a movie like this made would, based on experience, be extremely difficult. Learn about that world first, then, take your shots.

    • The idea that in order to criticise a film one needs to have made one first is preposterous and at Overland we will continue to encourage people to write critically about film and any other art form without fear of being regarded as failed practitioners of said art.

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