- Pretty Liar: Television, Language, and Gender in Wartime Lebanon by Natalie Khazaal
Natalie Khazaal’s Pretty Liar is a thoroughly well-researched monograph on television, language, and gender during Lebanon’s 1975–90 civil war. The book surveys both news and entertainment formats and their respective interaction with the audience during the 15-year conflict.
Khazaal begins her book with an extensive introduction surveying the history of Lebanese TV and reiterating the call for a “radical rehistoricizing” of Arab media research (p. 11). Khazaal’s study certainly responds to this call as she traces both the development and recession of Lebanese television during the civil war.
The book then moves on to discuss what Khazaal terms the “peace bubble” or the “tacit ban or lag in reporting the ongoing conflict” (p. 26). Indeed, the national broadcaster Télé Liban (TL), which was formed after the state bailed out and merged two struggling commercial broadcasters in 1977, would sanitize the coverage of news and strive to euphemize the escalating situation on the ground. One of the examples she provides relates to TL’s deafening silence on what is generally regarded as the official start of the civil war. On April 13, 1975, and following a skirmish earlier that day, the Kataeb (sometimes referred to as the Lebanese Phalanges), a right-wing Maronite Christian militia, ambushed a bus carrying Palestinian refugees, killing 27. For a book that discusses language, however, it was somewhat confounding that the author would borrow the euphemism “the bus incident” and use it throughout.
Another remarkable example of this peace bubble is described in the opening lines of the book, which refers to TL’s live broadcast of the 1982 FIFA World Cup, a week after Israel’s infamous and disastrous invasion of Lebanon began. This peace [End Page 498] bubble, argues Khazaal, would effectively cost TV, and the national broadcaster in particular, its legitimacy and allow other media to fill this gap—be it radio, which the author mentions in passing, or a pirate militia-owned TV station, LBC, that would launch years later. These historical snippets—as well as the literary sources, memoirs, song lyrics, and cartoons that are included—enrich the book.
The second part of the book addresses the competition for audiences between the national broadcaster TL and its competitor LBC, and the role of language in this race. While TL maintained the use of formal, if sometimes imperfect, Fusha (Modern Standard Arabic) in news, LBC chose to mix the Lebanese ‘Ammiyya (colloquial Arabic) with Fusha, simplified Fusha, or at times exclusively use the more intimate ‘Ammiya, therefore reaching a wider audience. Khazaal then moves to address yet another theme, which relates to gender and patriarchy through the lens of the “comedy mini-genre.” Based on her analysis of five fictional series relating to language acquisition and education, she concludes that while TL was protective of patriarchal structures, LBC was more progressive in their portrayal of women. While this may have well been the case in the series she analyses, it is worth noting that LBC has also been infamous for its “ostentatiously liberal” approach, as Marwan Kraidy subtly characterized this station’s “signature” commodification of women’s bodies since its launch in 1985.1
As one would notice from the summary above, the breadth of this book with its tripartite pitch is an admirable undertaking, one that, however, sometimes obfuscates the crux of the work. There are a number of lengthy digressions that, while interesting, further cloud the ultimate aim of the book and weaken the link between the different sections and themes covered. For instance, Chapter 4, which carries the name of LBC no less, does not adequately expand on the station’s trajectory and its attempts to seek legitimacy—a topic discussed by the author of this review elsewhere.2 Instead, the chapter begins with an extensive and detailed description of the Lebanese Forces militia, which launched the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation (LBC) and its sources of revenue. This could have easily been shortened or confined...