Sleeping with the Enemy: Arab Doctors Struggling with Personal and Professional Dilemmas

A review of “The Attack” and “The Last Man” showing at the “Discover Arab cinema”- British Film Institute- London 2014

“The Attack”, National Film Theatre (‘NFT’) London 23rd and 25th February 2014

“The Last Man”, NFT London 3rd and 8th March


London is expanding its cinematic and cultural horizons and the British Film Institute (BFI) is showing the best of Arab cinema in a year-long season


Two Lebanese films screening at the event explore the current political and social upheaval in the Middle East and its impact on doctors.


The first film “The Attack”, directed by Ziad Doueiri is a sensitively-told doctor story mixing several genres: a political thriller, a character study and a romantic love story. Using a compelling narrative, including flash backs, we are introduced to Dr Amin Jaafari (Ali Suliman) a renowned Arab surgeon who is given the highest accolade of a career achievement by the Israeli government – the first time such an honour is bestowed upon a Palestinian surgeon. Socially, he is happily married to a beautiful wife Siham (Reymonde Amsellem). His peaceful life style is shattered when he is called to identify the remains of his wife Siham who was killed in a bomb-suicide attack in Tel Aviv. To make matters worse, the Israeli police suspect that his dead wife was the actual bomber. Traumatised and shocked, Dr Amin is brutally questioned by the Israeli police about the motivations of his wife. He cannot believe that his loving wife could have done such an atrocious deed. In his quest for the truth, Dr Amin travels to the Palestinian city of Nablus to find an explanation, and this brings him in contact with several religious and political figures whose motivations are far from clear.  As a doctor upholding the sanctity of human life and condemning all acts of intentional murder; he realises that he was “sleeping with the enemy” – his own wife.

The second film “The Last Man” directed by Ghassan Salhab” deals with another successful doctor struggling with a different type of enemy: his own psychopathic and criminal tendencies. At the beginning of the film Dr Khalil (Carlos Chahine) is a caring doctor, popular amongst his patients and friends who enjoys diving. The political background of the doctor’s story is closely observed with daily bombs and torture of civilians in Lebanon and Palestine by the Israeli state. Still life goes on in Beirut with loud music blasting away from the clubs that Dr Khalil frequently visits at night. Alongside this volatile external environment, Dr Khalil is slowly changing into a repulsive character who engages in sexual relationships with the mother of one of his patients. The narrative gets more bizarre and disturbing when he becomes a nocturnal creature living off the blood of innocent victims who he preys on from the streets of Beirut. Trying to resist his “vampire” urges for human blood, Dr Khalil still has insight into his own “criminal tendencies”; as a doctor he should be saving lives, not taking them away to feed his nocturnal addiction. On some level, the film can be seen as a study of “obsession, addiction, a moral and psychological decline” of a successful professional who is troubled by his own demons.

Raising several ethical questions, both films suggest that doctors are the products of existing turbulent times and conflict. Ghassan Salhab (director of “The Last Man”) describes his main character Dr Khalil as a “mutant ghost of the city” born out of the social and political disorder in Beirut.

Both films are a timely reminder that the society and media are experiencing a significant shift in their views of the “doctor” as a flawed human being as well as a professional: the “personal and professional boundaries” in doctors’ lives can be blurred resulting in ethical and moral dilemma at a universal manner. Doctors can not remain “oblivious bystanders” in their countries’ changing social and political demography, and if they do they end up losing their identity and closest members of their family such as Dr Jaafari in “The Attack”. Dr Jaafari’s was ambitious to reach the highest academic and professional recognition amongst his peers, but in the process of doing so he alienated himself from his wife and family. His trip back to Nablus proved to him how much he was unwelcomed in his own mother’s house because he made peace with the Israeli establishment.

Recent media attention has focused on doctors in Arab countries such as Egypt, Tunisia and Syria where some doctors collaborated with the oppressive regimes in torturing political opponents. Supporting a dictatorship in such crimes against humanity also violates the basic principles of medicine where a doctor’s primary role is to “never do harm to anyone” as worded in the “Hippocrates Oath”. On a global level, the situation is not all “doom and gloom” as there are several shining examples of altruistic doctors such as those from “Medicins sans Frontieres” who work in disaster areas such as the Philippines. How some doctors choose to be in either group is “food for thought”.

These two films portray doctors as fallible human beings living with their “enemies”. The “enemy” may be external such as a government or family, as in “The attack”, but, more disturbingly, in other situations such as in “The Last Man” the ultimate “enemy” may be a doctor’s own “internal demons”.

Correspondence: Dr Khalid Ali, senior lecturer in Geriatrics at Brighton and Sussex Medical School

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