Riding on a Cloud, by Rabih Mroué

Ng Yi-Sheng

June 26, 2016

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Let’s be real here: this show is not a bag of puppies. It’s slow, with meager action and maybe zero plot, and a delayed reveal for anyone walking into the show blind—i.e. the fact that the sole actor, Yasser Mroué, is half-paralysed and partially aphasic due to the fact that he was shot by a sniper in the head at the age of 17.

(I’m particularly sensitive to these shortcomings on weekend nights, when I bring my boyfriend to shows. He fell asleep on occasion, and I don’t even blame him.)

We don’t immediately recognise Yasser as disabled, because his handicaps are subtle. He stands tall—taller than his older brother, the director Rabih Mroué—and he speaks clearly in Arabic. It took me a while to realise he was only using his left hand to change the DVDs for the live video feed. And somehow I didn’t pick up his uneven gait when he first stepped on stage.

The truth is, he’s largely overcome his disabilities. He shows us (via video projection) his old kindergarten report card from 1973, when he was four years old, and then mentions that he ended up having to repeat kindergarten in 1987 as a 17 year-old.

This means that he’s got had 13 years shaved off his mental life. But that contrast is a little less noticeable now that he’s 47. And it’s not a linear regression, anyhow: what got damaged wasn’t just his ability to process language, but also his recognition of images: how he became unable to recognise people’s faces in photographs, and also associate the image of a photograph of a pen with an actual pen.

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This is how he got into art-making: with the encouragement of his doctor, he began making short little videos so as to learn this association. And we see these throughout the show. They’re not the rudimentary found-footage things I was expecting from the summary: they’re dreamlike collages that wouldn’t be out-of-place in a contemporary art museum. Close-ups of him playing the piano with the five workable fingers he has; his misidentification of a series of flashcard photos; a paper silhouette of the portrait of Lenin superimposed on his own face.

Also video documentation of his visit to the spot where a sniper lay in wait to shoot him, trying to see the world from his almost-murderer’s point of view. They say the criminal returns to the scene of the crime, but what if the criminal’s disappeared, Yasser says.

And all that is moving, really. It’s the old adage of how art can be used to recover oneself after trauma. And a parallel to the narrative of how Lebanon itself has striven to recover after its Civil War (1975-1990).

(I’m reminded of how I found a English textbook in Singapore, back in the 1990s, which had a chapter on conquerors, and beside Genghis Khan they had a rando hejabi called Madam Halimah, who had had a stroke and had conquered herself to recover, and how I thought that was lame as balls but now I’m thinking, well, it’s not like it isn’t true, is it?)

But all that’s thrown awry by the final scene where a projection of a dialogue between Yasser and Rabih pops up on screen, where Yasser asks Rabih if he can be a part of one of his plays, and Rabih says why not your own story, and Yasser says but my story’s boring, there are thousands of stories just like it in Lebanon, and Rabih says yeah it’s boring, but let’s change all these details about it and do it anyway, just like I do with all my work…

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And then they come out and play the guitar together, Rabih serving as Yasser’s right hand, and half of you thinks awww brotherly love and the other half thinks all you are mothereffing artists liars.

So I don’t know how much of what Yasser told is true. Did he make up how that he’s now happily married to a wonderful woman? Or how he had a one-night tryst with a Russian nurse when he went for surgery in Moscow? Is he faking his whole injury? (I don’t think so…)

And how did this show play in Lebanon, where what appears to us as an exotic trauma is a common experience? Where everyone’s got a relative like Yasser who’s survived the war? Or didn’t survive, at that—the Mroués are a family of intellectuals, their grandfather a religious scholar-turned-Communist (hence his assassination on the same day Yasser was wounded); hence Yasser’s ability to make reference to the busts of Lenin, Tchaikovsky and Mayakovsky; hence his recital of the poems of Mahmoud Darwish

He’s an outsider artist, but still part of the elite through family connections. He ain’t the subaltern; that’s why he gets to speak.

And of course he is in a way being puppeteered by his loving brother—he even complains, mid-show, about having made over 100 videos between 1990 and 2010, and only being allowed to show a selection of them to us in this performance.

So do we recover from trauma? Or do we just fake it till we make it?

(This is relevant to my present condition, because the show was so frustrating that me and my boyfriend got into a... I dunno, a thing, while we were walking to the MRT station. Ugh. Riding on a Cloud has its profundities, but it is not appropriate for date night. )

UPDATE: Oh, and I just found out one of the fictional bits is that he made all those videos. Nope, it was Rabih who made them. Someone's pants have been on fire for a long, long time. 

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  • 2016