ISSUE #1 THE IMAGINED, AUTUMN 2012
REVIEWS AND CRITIQUE
Theatre Beyrouth by Hanane Hajj Ali

Theatre Beyrouth
(Beirut Theatre)
by Hanane Hajj Ali
Amers Editions, 240 pp., $17.00 (paper) 

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In Hanane Hajj Ali’s Theatre Beyrouth (2010), the author conveys how the theatre in the Lebanese capital’s Ain Mreisse neighborhood did more than merely mirror the transformations of the city, in all its contradictions and during its occasional moments of conflict. This theatre, established in the 1960s, was the first venue dedicated exclusively to theatre production and the first space in Lebanon designed specifically for that purpose. Over the course of four decades, Theatre Beyrouth witnessed the birth pangs of the most significant theatrical experiments that would come to characterize and distinguish contemporary Lebanese theatre.

Theatre Beyrouth delves into the main historical phases of the venue and into the nuances of Beirut during three eras: “the time when [the city] blossomed as a bridge between diverse cultures, as a ground of experimentation aiming at the renewal of Arabic cultural forms and as an oasis of freedom for Arab artists and intellectuals; the time of destructive affliction [of the Lebanese civil war] which tore apart the ties that had once held the city tightly together; and the time of the city’s stumbling resurgence, which so often seems to falter as it stirs up violence – both latent and evident – and as obstacles, often created by the resurgence itself, so often obstruct its path,” as Ahmad Beydoun writes in the book’s introduction.

Since its establishment in 1965, Theatre Beyrouth has provided a home for artistic experiments expressing the gamut of public sentiment and opinion. It has maneuvered between classical theatrical performance and radical theatre to cultural projects that interlink performing arts with artistic movements in Beirut. Various movements and experimental trends have interacted with one another in the theatre. A dynamic sense of cooperation and solidarity has characterized the relationships between diverse Theatre Beyrouth projects.

The site where the theatre stands was originally an auto repair shop in a building owned by the Arslan Sinno estate. It was first renovated to become a neighborhood movie theatre, the Hilton Cinema, and then a cinema club in the early sixties. Artists and the owners from the Sinno family worked together to transform the space into a dedicated theatre venue and strived to take into account the needs of performing arts practitioners in the design and construction of the facility.

At first, Theatre Beyrouth timidly engaged with its neighborhood. The theatre and the street each had their boundaries, and in the early years, the theatre was oriented towards a somewhat elite audience. The neighborhood and the theatre kept their distance from one another. With time, and due to the theatre’s activities and the engagement of the artists with popular political issues, the theatre broke down this rigid barrier, at first by way of individual relationships and then, in the aftermath of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, by way of protest, which began to flood from the street to the stage.

The author identifies two events that exemplified this intimate relationship between public life and the stage. The first event was Nasser’s resignation following the disaster of 1967. During the resignation, a group of shocked actors rushed from the stage to join crowds gathering in the street, and then huddled in a nearby shop to listen to Nasser’s speech over the radio. The second event was the bombing of the Beirut airport by the Israeli Air Force in December 1969, when the sound of the bombs forced the audience out of the theatre and into the street to join demonstrations.

The most remarkable event of this kind, recounted in another section of the book, was the theatre’s production of the play Majdaloun (1969), about an eponymous fictional village that sits on the southern border of Lebanon. This performance serves as a key example of the transformations and interactions between the socio-cultural sphere and the space of the theater. In Majdaloun, the weapons of the armed Palestinian freedom fighters, or the fedayeen, were shown for the first time on the stage. The performance stirred up a controversy with the censors. This rendition of the armed struggle of the Palestinians cannot be considered in isolation from the war in Lebanon at that time. The performance was staged the same year that Lebanese law sanctioned the arming of the Palestinian resistance in the Cairo Agreement of 1969, which led to the transformation of southern Lebanon into “Fatah Land,” as the area came to be known in Arabic.

In an interview conducted by Hajj Ali with Lebanese architects Rana Haddad and Bayar Hajj Boutrus, we read that “there were three set designers that shaped the space of Theatre Beyrouth during the civil war: political parties, Ashoura celebrations, and Hakawati (Storyteller) Theatre.” At the start of the war, Said Sinno, one of the original owners of the theatre, decided to move the theatre to a more secure location, to Niqash in East Beirut, and to abandon the connection with the Ain Mreisse property in the West.  The neighborhood surrounding the theatre had undergone major demographic changes. Many people had left Beirut while those fleeing the violence were gathering in new areas. The militias controlled the neighborhoods, and autonomous security forces held power.

After nearly fading out entirely due to neglect, Theatre Beyrouth soon became a venue organized in line with the exigencies of life under the divergent, semi-autonomous political entities. The space came under the sway of neighborhood councils, whose members included young men enlisted in the militias. Thus, the theatre came to serve the interests of the neighborhood’s civil politics and the demands of political parties. During this period, people would give lectures, hold celebrations, make speeches, and hold forums and debates in the theatre. These functions were eventually banned with the rise of the Syrian Armed Forces as a dominant military power in the country. From the mid-eighties onwards, the Syrian forces were in fact based in a building next door to the theatre.

But the war years also witnessed waves of nostalgia that sought to revive pre-war theatre. During this period, Roger Assaf, an icon of Lebanese theatre, was accused of aligning theatre to partisan politics for his work with Hakawati in the late 1970s. These accusations became particularly pointed after he converted to Islam and declared his support for the Amal Movement, a political organization, in its resistance against the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon in his film The Battle (1984).

According to Hajj Ali, who happens to be Assaf’s wife, the decline of the Hakawati experiment correlated with the decline of the civil state and the gradual descent of the Lebanese war from the “state of revolution” to militia infighting. With this change, Theatre Beyrouth transformed from a pluralist space that was part of the broader “city in revolt” into a closed environment, a weak and powerless space cowed by the “new strongmen,” the political militias that had seized power through arms.

But the war was not only destructive. In fact, the war inspired a great number of experiments, many of them continuing today. Though the war represented a major break that left its heirs feeling numb and stunned, it nevertheless spurred artists – particularly of the post-war generation – to look into their past and present, to stir up memory, and to undertake probing research. The war spurred a reexamination of truths taken for granted and a new questioning of the function of art – its means, tools, and discourse.

The war was accompanied by a war of memories, and after the war, the theatre witnessed a diverse yet convergent array of cultural projects. Through experimental initiatives by groups such as Funun (Arts) and then later Shams (Sun), the theatre enhanced its reputation as an independent and alternative cultural space. Yet the resurgence of the city was a faltering effort. In the late nineties, the theatre still suffered the threats of military-political pressures, particularly when it announced that it would host a number of Jewish intellectuals for an event commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the 1948 Nakba, the loss of Palestine.

Hajj Ali maintains that, although the crises which afflicted Beirut tore the city apart and pushed it toward atrophy and destruction, in times of both war and peace, the attempts to “mend” the space of Beyrouth Theatre and to extend the theatre beyond the stage and the doors of the venue have indicated a renewed force of cooperation between theatrical practice and the audience. This process signifies a mending or activation of the dynamic between art and politics, between theatre and society, and between theatre and the city. In that regard, the mandatory closings and suspensions of activity of the theatre indicate not a withdrawal or demise but rather its function and role in the life of the city.

The circumstances in which the theatre is embedded seem to be volatile, as the space resides in a region of continuous transformation. Nothing in Theatre Beyrouth’s environment remains static, and this theatre participates in the incessantly changing state of the city of Beirut as a whole. The theatre stands as a witness to the accumulation of cultures, lifestyles, buildings, and memories. It is bordered by the old mosque, the statue of Abd Al Nasser erected during the war, political graffiti of the Amal Movement, grand hotels, Bayt Al Harafi Al Lubnani (merchants of the country’s most renowned artisans), the American University of Beirut, and McDonald’s.

The latest phenomenon to beset the theatre’s neighborhood is the proliferation of enormous towers overlooking the corniche, or coastal road. The buildings have become models of pompous monstrosity that dwarf the seaside and hide Beirut from the sea. The pursuit of real estate profit has threatened the existence of the theatre itself: the owners had resolved to demolish the space at the end of 2011, but interventions by activists, including Hajj Ali, and a subsequent legal decree have staved off demolition, at least temporarily.

The theater today sits beneath Dreams Tower, a beacon of cement arrogance on the corniche, a public open space that, in a way, is cordoned off due to the civil unrest between Beirut neighborhoods since 2005. As this circumstance persists, Lebanese theatre practitioners acknowledge that their audiences are diminishing and seeking other artforms to sustain their ambitions and dreams.

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ABOUT AUTHOR
Mohammad Houjeiry is a Lebanese writer, journalist, and the author of Manamat Haifa (Haifa’s Dreams) (Dar Al Nahda) and of the forthcoming books Al Raqs Al Sharqi wa Al Siyassah (Belly Dancing and Politics) and Saam Beirut (Beirut Boredom) (Saqi).
MORE BY THIS AUTHOR
Manamat Haifa (Haifa’s Dreams)
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Theater in Lebanon: Production, Reception, and Confessionalism by Tarek Salloukh
"Theater and Radical Politics in Beirut, Cairo, and Alexandria: 1860 – 1914" by Illham Khuri-Makdisi
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Front cover of Theatre Beyrouth (Amers Editions).
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