The Tongue is a Fire

All it takes is one sentence, one insult, and (as St. James puts it) see how great a forest is set on fire by a little flame. A typical fire doubles in size nearly every 60 seconds (or less). All of a sudden, what was a minor interpersonal dispute engulfs everyone, and the consequences are quickly beyond one’s control.

In The Insult (2017; streaming on Kanopy), two men find out just how fast the fire of their disagreement spreads when the tinder is dry and abundant. Tony (Adel Karam) is a Lebanese Christian who owns a mechanic’s shop in Beirut, and Yasser (Kamel El Basha) is a Palestinian refugee working as a foreman in Tony’s neighborhood. Tony and his wife, Shirine (Rita Hayek), are about to have their first child. Already the situation is fraught with expectation and uncertainty, without introducing cultural or national elements.

But the first place we see Tony is at a political rally for the Lebanese Christian Party, and in his shop he has anti-Palestinian political speeches playing on the TV. When Yasser, tasked with making sure the houses and apartments in the area are up to code, gets wet from water dripping from an open pipe on Tony’s balcony, Yasser tells him that they need to look at it, but Tony refuses. So Yasser and his men install a new pipe on the wall, which Tony then destroys with a hammer. That leads to the insult of the title, but it is actually the first in a series of insults which escalate the situation.

Both men are proud and stubborn, ready to receive every word from the other as a personal, or political, insult. This is a form of identity politics, but it is different from the Western sort, where we pick and choose the pieces of various identities and use them to construct our own. In the Middle East (and, I suspect, in most of the world for most of its history), your identity is given to you by your parents, by where you grew up, by your religion, and by historical enmities. You cannot—or at least not easily—escape that given identity.

It is one thing when it is words and a dispute between two individuals. But then the fire starts to spread: to the wives, the boss, the landlord, the representative from Parliament, the Christians and Palestinian Muslims in Beirut, and the President of Lebanon (who in real life is by convention a Maronite Christian). The fire burns the cover off the pasts of both Tony and Yasser. The entire movie, in fact, is an illustration of not heeding the Proverb: “Do not go hastily to court; For what will you do in the end, When your neighbor has put you to shame?” (25:8, NKJV). Although the consequence doesn’t follow in the movie, Jesus’ exhortation in Luke 12:58 is a continuation of the Proverb: “When you go with your adversary to the magistrate, make every effort along the way to settle with him, lest he drag you to the judge, the judge deliver you to the officer, and the officer throw you into prison” (NKJV). 

Everyone around Tony and Yasser know their places and play their parts. You fill the role you’ve been given, regardless of the consequences. You know your friends and you know your enemies. The courtroom is divided down the middle, half Palestinian for Yasser, and half Christian for Tony. At the appropriate times, you show your disgust, react to offenses given, and cry out against injustices—at least, injustices shown to your guy.

In those ways and more, The Insult seems especially relevant these days. Someone on your side says something, you have to yell agreement. Someone on their side says something, you have to prove your loyalty by how vehemently you disagree. A different issue comes up, everyone switches sides and plays out the script over and over, and nothing ever changes or improves. You can’t compromise with them. And they’ve brought it all on themselves, so you’re justified in your stubborn, dug-in position.

As the trial comes to an end, both Tony and Yasser realize that “justice” will not come that way, not for past slights, and not for present disputes. The wider and further the fire spreads, the less likely it is that anything ever changes. The only approach that may end differently is if two people, as two individuals—without disregarding all that has made them what they are—talk to each other about their disagreement. It seems banal to suggest people talk to each other, especially when there’s so many words being flung back and forth all the time. But social media is not, in the majority of cases, talking to a person. It is flinging opinions into the void, because these are not real places. We see avatars and read profiles, but we do not often know these people, or even that they are people.

But there is no alternative to two individuals talking to each other, if we don’t want the fire to spread. To swallow pride and stubbornness is to swallow the fire and extinguish it. Or we can hold on to our assumptions about individuals based on experiences with groups, spit out verbal sparks, and the fire doubles every 60 seconds, on social media, cable talk shows, and via so-called journalism.

In The Insult, the match is lit in the tinder box itself, full of the fuel of religion, politics, nationality, and  history. By the end, the half-smiles on the faces of Tony and Yasser may—perhaps—indicate that they have put out the flames threatening to consume them and their families and their city. Who knows? Stranger friendships have been formed.