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Check out our February feature of folktales from the Qatari oral tradition.
from the June 2005 issue


The remarkable thing didn't happen within the half hour the audience spent waiting for the show to begin but, rather, in that short fleeting rupture of time during the show itself.

Last Tuesday wasn't any kind of a holiday, neither weekly nor official, just a regular day of the week. The film as well was one of those kinds of Arabic films that had multiplied over the years. Even the theater was like all those other run-of-the-mill theaters spread throughout Damascus . . . and even so, there was such a crowd that all of the seats were taken.

Getting myself there early, I sat in the first seat of the back row and kept myself busy waiting for the show to begin by people watching, trying to figure out what they do, guessing their relationships with each other: one woman reservedly holds the hand of her husband; three women-one of them wearing a head scarf-appear to be teachers; a high school student wearing her school uniform; a smart-looking young man in front of a group of pretty young girls; soldiers; two young men racing with sandwiches in hand; two students carrying their college books; a man and a woman from the countryside, as their clothes make patently clear; a man alone; then another man leisurely walking as if he were the manager or head of a company; an old man with a child, probably his grandson. A myriad of people illustrative of what one finds on any city street.

At seven o'clock exactly, the scheduled time of the film, all the commotion came to a head as latecomers rushed the usher so they could be seated before the lights went out. Meanwhile, I took out my glasses, wiping the lenses before putting them on, and settled into my seat ready to watch the film.

Except something happened in the first few minutes, lasting for a half hour or more, that wasn't expected at all.

Despite the fact that all the seats were filled, the theater remained lit, bright lights radiating from every corner. The curtain was still down and loose, while the audience's annoyance increased with every passing minute.

For sure, the scene was a bit strange at first. After a few minutes had passed I craned my head to look around and tried to figure out what this delay was all about when I saw all the other faces panning the scene like mine in search of the same thing. Some of the audience were looking with surprise at each other, others stared at the main door which was shut, or seemed to be standing looking up at those seated on the upper tier, who in turn, were staring back at them, hanging their heads down onto the hall in the hopes that they knew the inexplicable reasons.

After this the scene changed. Like a necklace, everyone in the theater was held together for a few minutes by his or her quest to know the reason for the delay. But finding themselves unable, the necklace came undone, and was replaced by a bunch of different reactions: some people headed off to the bathrooms to take care of their needs so they wouldn't need to during the film; others who had brought with them a magazine or newspaper became engrossed in reading them or flipping the pages. Two others started a discussion about the number of seats in the upper and lower tiers, while others preoccupied themselves by opening up their bags of peanuts and seeds. A circle was formed by the heads of some girls as they started to whisper with visible excitement, though one of them then pulled away in order to fix her makeup, hiding a small mirror in the palm of her hand. As for those who were annoyed by the wait and thought about inquiring into the unusual situation-like the guy sitting next to me-he not only turned toward his neighbor, who was more ignorant than he, but wonders about the reason, quietly whispering his question: "What's up? What's the story? Why all this delay?" As if he was afraid of being caught red-handed with this question.

This is what happened for what grew to be half an hour-meanwhile management, as is usually the case in most movie theaters, didn't send anyone up to the stage to apologize, or-even without apology-to announce the extraneous reasons for delaying the film. On the contrary, they sent the mouths of the concession stands who toured around the rows and seats, calling out with loud voices their goods as if it were halftime at a football game. And none of the audience showed any outward or verbal sign of dissatisfaction, no opposition or protest, as if they came here merely to relax under the cascades of intense light gushing out from every nook and cranny of the theater.

Out of the blue a bell rang and the lights went out. A central beam of light burst across the vast emptiness of the hall toward the screen which had been hidden behind the curtain. Some spectators rushed to their seats while all the commotion retracted, concealing itself within its makers and covering the place at the onset of the film with a particular and heavy silence-the kind that is loaded with the breaths and body heat that one can sense, but not see, from those who surround us.

Everything would have passed easily if it hadn't been for the moment of sudden darkness.

Toward the middle of the reel the film began to skip, jumping up and down until it finally came to a stop, at which point, right after the beam of light receded from the screen, an intense darkness engulfed the hall, blinding people to the point they could imagine they had slipped into the center of a huge whale.

It's difficult to define the amount of time spent in that darkness, a minute perhaps or just a few . . . except that the hall, in that rupture of pitch-black darkness, completely lost it. The audience exploded like time bombs, as if the people, bound together by the darkness in a closed space, were transformed instantaneously into something completely different from what they were before.

At first a frank curse clearly rang out, "What's going on, bastards!" Immediately followed by an equally forceful shout, "Your father's sister, douchebag!" Then came a cry from the front of the hall, "May God blind whoever cut the electricity!" A sonorous voice from the other side roared, "If only it were that the electricity is cut, that's nothing!" A fiery shout echoed, "It can cut you down as well!" Laughter burst out, surging back and forth in unison. At that rupture which appeared like a sea of time and darkness, commentaries, yells, unadulterated abuse, warnings, fake groans, names of body parts, whistles, loud shouts, calls for help . . . one can't in any way define them all except that they were, in their strength and spontaneity, erupting like lava from the burning depths of earth.

In a blink of an eye the lights flashed back on, infusing another feeling . . .

Other than the curious idle glances on some faces there was no trace of the source of the voices that had now disappeared. So the hall, with whomever was in it, seemed languid, self-possessed under the blaring beams of light, as if the exclamations and commentaries which had just exploded a few moments back were from genies unleashed from their bottles by the pitch-black darkness only to be corked just as quickly by the unexpected light.

This time the interlude wasn't long. No sooner had the theater darkened once again then a beam of light poured forth on to the screen and the film followed through completely to the end, at which time the curtain gently swung down covering the screen. The crowd got up to leave, some leaping over chairs, while others cut across the rows to the aisle, nudging each other out of the way, everyone crowded together in pursuit of finding the shortest route and the fastest means of getting out of the theater

Read more from the June 2005 issue
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