Theatre in places such as Beirut can be rehearsal space for revolution

As demands for change in the region continue, so does the need for performance as a forum for protest, according to a new book by Eyad Houssami. Jennifer Jajeh reports from Beirut.

Eyad Houssami, Theatre Director and Founder of Masrah Ensemble, performing in the Doomed by Hope Theatre Series in Mansion, Beirut, Lebanon.
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Doomed by Hope
Eyad Houssami
Pluto Press

In October, Beirut-based Masrah Ensemble, an organisation dedicated to encouraging theatre on the Arab stage, invited me to participate in its International Theatre Series celebrating the publication of Doomed by Hope: Essays on Arab Theatre. The invitation arrived a day before the central Beirut car bombing that injured more than 80 people and claimed eight lives, including a prominent anti-Syrian intelligence official. News of the bombing prompted conjecture about Lebanon being pulled into the ongoing violence in neighbouring Syria. Meanwhile, my friends and family expressed concern about my plan to travel to a city that seemed on the verge of unrest. Many said I should decline the invitation.

But aren't we always surrounded by violence as Arabs? Isn't the threat of war, incursions, clashes and clampdowns always imminent? Growing up in the United States, news reports of violence and bloodshed were a common sight in my household. We were always under attack, or so it seemed, and the parade of these endless images only reinforced that feeling.

Acquaintances in Europe asked if I'd be safe. The Beirut in the minds of those cautioning me probably looks a lot like the one depicted in the current season of Homeland, the US television series: a city full of angry crowds chanting anti-American slogans and shadowy bearded militiamen roaming the streets with assault rifles. Indeed, this fictionalised version so offended Lebanese officials that the tourism minister threatened to sue Twentieth Century Fox for damages due to such gross misrepresentation of their capital city.

No, I told them firmly, I was headed to another Beirut; a city that in my mind and the common Arab imagination was considered the most modern, open and liberal of the Arab world. Parties - not sectarian violence - spilt onto the streets of this Beirut. I readily accepted the invitation to perform and packed my bags.

Doomed by Hope: Essays on Arab Theatre begins by visiting the work of Syrian playwright Saadallah Wannous and his commitment to theatre as a place to reflect upon sociopolitical and historical circumstances and national identities, a place to call forth the possibilities of a new communal self-identity shaped by active civic engagement and individual empowerment. The book, published in both English and Arabic, takes Wannous' work as a foundational point of departure to examine a wide swathe of contemporary Arab theatre, with essays from practitioners and academics highlighting specific and contextualised performance and theatre movements in Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine, Kuwait, Yemen and the diaspora.

The resurgence of interest in Wannous' political works now, 15 years after his death, seems no small coincidence. As demands for dignity, transparency and regime change continue to sweep the region, Wannous' plays and writings seem to not only have foreshadowed the growing calls for reform but also point the way for ordinary citizens to create an open and democratic dialogue using theatre as the space to begin that conversation.

Reflecting on how authoritarian regimes and their figureheads become the tools of popular oppression, stripping citizens not only of rights, but also of the possibility for constructing narratives about their past and their future goals, Wannous created a map for enacting change not just onstage, but urged those to eventually move the dialogue to the streets. The theatre is seen as a rehearsal space for individuals to move from being spectators to active participants.

But can theatre be a way forward in these times? Does it contain the power to call one to action and aid communities and nations in crafting a more democratised society?

From the classrooms of West Bank universities to the theatre movements that were precursors to the youth movements in Yemen in 2011 leading to the reclamation of public spaces for protests and growing dialogue, the answer seems to suggest such potential.

Several essays examine the growing documentary theatre movements stemming from Tahrir Square protests, asserting the performances not only provide a shared account of the experiences witnessed, but also serve to viscerally connect the larger community who were unwilling or unable to protest in the streets to the unfolding events. These works came from both theatre practitioners and amateurs with the intent of encouraging new waves of activism while creating a shared sense of belonging and of an Egyptian identity associated with courage and empowerment.

Another essay by Margaret Litvin outlines the growing interest in Arab-themed performance in post 9-11 America and the opportunities it affords Arab artists to present increasingly nuanced and specific work. Arguing that although the demand for exchange opens up the possibility of Orientalising or commodifying Arab culture, it has also been seized as a space for Arab artists to wrest back control of their own narratives in front of increasingly larger audiences.

Zeina Daccache discusses her boredom with the incestuous theatre scene in Beirut that seemed to be about artists performing only for themselves and her move to take the work to the average person in society, producing theatre in Lebanese recovery centres and prisons. Her goal: to build a bridge between those creating theatre on the inside of the prison walls with an outside population that is normally removed and ill informed, creating a communal experience that is not out of reach for prisoners. She recounts the difficulties she faced creating the work in Beirut and the advocacy she and the prisoners did for the implementation of a reduced sentence law through their theatre activities. She asserts that even she felt ready to give up - after being ground down by successive layers of bureaucracy - the inmates insisted that theatre gave them hope where there was none.

The phrase "Doomed by Hope" came from a speech Wannous gave for World Theatre Day in 1996 lamenting the deplorable state of theatre and the individual at the hands of globalisation. Despite great economic and technological advances, culture and theatre seemed to benefit the least and even regress, he asserted. Yet the phrase also reflects his commitment to holding fast and investing in the power of theatre to steer us towards better self-identification and articulation. Aptly reflecting the state many practitioners in the Arab world find themselves in when making theatre that moves, motivates, engages and empowers in inhospitable climates, Doomed by Hope, and the corresponding ongoing International Theatre Series seeks to provide a way forward, a call of engagement and responsibility on the part of individuals in building their own societies in the image of what they aspire to, as opposed to what's been forced upon them.

Which brings me back to the question of which Beirut I ended up in when I arrived to participate in this theatre series. The Homeland version or my idealised one? The answer is a hybrid of the two popular imaginings. Cafes and bars line the streets, filled to capacity with ultra-hip young Lebanese dressed in the latest French designs. There is a spirit of openness unlike other Arab capitals and women move freely, dressed as they please, without fear of harassment. The ever-present azure blue of the water meets the stunning sky lines, Ottoman architecture lends a sense of wonder, and abandoned mansions are turned into new art spaces where ideas are debated and reconfigured. But in this Beirut, city parks are closed and outdoor public space is limited to commercial spaces, namely shops and restaurants, which are inaccessible to many. Class lines are heavily pronounced, making it nearly impossible to get a sense of the lives of many of the city's inhabitants. In this Beirut, the electricity cuts out for three hours a day a day, internet service comes and goes, and hot water is often a luxury. This serious lack of infrastructure, coupled with crippling city traffic, makes daily activities arduous, especially on any sort of deadline.

The inhabitants of this Beirut say, "Take it easy, there isn't much we can do about things, it's not so bad after all". And I understand, with all of these internal challenges, why the beautiful distractions of the city and this go-with-the-flow attitude are so readily embraced by those citizens who have the privilege of adopting them. But I can't help but feel Masrah Ensemble has set itself an arduous task basing its operations in this Beirut. Or maybe it makes perfect sense, that this Beirut needs theatre most of all.

Jennifer Jajeh is a writer, performer and independent filmmaker from San Francisco. She is currently in her fifth year of touring her one-woman show, I Heart Hamas: And Other Things I'm Afraid to Tell You.