The Lebanese Rocket Society: Stuck in the Elevator of Dreams

by Noor Hoblos
08-12-2021

PRESSURE CLOTHING T-SHIRT

Getting stuck in an elevator is a right of passage for Lebanese people — a pesky heirloom that is passed through each generation, pleading us to take the stairs. A physical state of inertia imbues our relationship with movement; whether to the 10th floor, or the moon. This immobility is mirrored in our cinematic fantasies, leaving our contribution to science fiction almost non-existent

What does a technologically advanced future look like to a nation that can only keep the lights on for an hour a day? In their 2012 documentary The Lebanese Rocket Society, Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige endeavor to answer this question.

The month is August and you are on your tayta’s verandah discerning whether the droplets falling into your lap are from the hole in the roof, or your eyebrows. You see a little boy walk out of the dekan holding three hands worth of Tropicanas. What a splendid idea. Congregating all your cousins into an elevator built for half a human (and maybe a mouse), you rush to do the same thing. Three floors in, and the already-fickle light is off. The power is out and you’re stuck between the 8th and 7th floor. Em Rabih, the bawabi, has the key to the elevator — but she lives on the 14th floor. Two hours later, and no Tropicanas to show for it, the light is back on and you resume your journey to the dekan. Defeated, but still determined. 

While getting stuck in an elevator on your way to buy ice cream is not the most tragic tale to come out of Lebanon, the sense of immobility roused by a power outage is one that pervades the Lebanese psyche. Reliving the experience of the proverbial elevator, many Lebanese people remain enveloped in the trappings of a vehicle that promises to “elevate” them, but moving towards nothing. This vehicle, being the four walls of their own country. 

Fossilising the forgotten history of the first (and last) Lebanese space program run by professor Manoug Manougian and his students in the 1960s, the filmmakers recount the history of its short-lived glory.

The film begins with Hadjithomas and Joreige’s accidental rediscovery of the program through a postage stamp, and ends with a hypothetical, futuristic sequence, animating what Lebanon could have been had the Rocket Society survived. 

Hadjithomas and Joreige point to an important void within Lebanese cinema, one that leaves our science fiction genre barren. Much like our habitual experience with the immobile elevator, our relationship with an imagined future remains feeble, leaving our capacity to dream of an avant-garde Lebanon limited by a candle-lit reality. While Lebanon bears dreamers like Manoug Manougian, who cling firmly to their rose-coloured lenses while reaching for the moon, its corruption ultimately leaves them stuck between floors. The sensation of being stuck is emblematic of the limbo created by a dispirited nation. The idea of a utopian future with Lebanese children playing Barjees on Mars, although desirable, remains a fleeting dream that passes through our collective conscience — coming close to, but never pervading our cinematic fantasies of the future. 

An absence of science fiction within Lebanese cinema speaks to a greater internalisation of defeat. It is a testament of surrender to reality. This cavity within the film industry acts as a white flag acknowledging that a country with no electricity or diesel cannot afford to dream of space exploration or time travel, even if it wants to. 

Like Manoug Manougian’s Rocket Society, the ambitious reveries of Lebanon’s future remain buried within the collective conscience, leaving questions of what could have been and abandoning those of what still could be. Cinema is both a preservation of cultural memory, and a fantasy for the creation of idealistic pseudo-memories. An undeveloped science-fiction genre is more than a result of preferred taste, but is rather an ode to the boundaries we have placed on our dreams. When our capacity to desire is confiscated, reality only becomes more grim.