in Beirut opens as artists try to again make city capital of Arab
from Knight-Ridder Newspapers -1/4/1995; Sipress, Alan )
The lights went
out on Masrah Beirut theatre not so long ago. The government's electricity
department, struggling to undo the damage of more than 15 years
of war, overhauled the electrical current supplied to this seafront
quarter of West Beirut, switching over from 110 volts to 220 volts.
No one bothered to warn the theater. Thousands of dollars in equipment
was damaged. But for the crew, bent on returning artistic enlightenment
to what once claimed to be the center of Arab culture, it didn't
take long to turn the spotlight on again.
The opening of Masrah Beirut is a landmark for Lebanon. It is one
more sign that this country is finally shaking off the civil war,
that it is girding itself to compete again for the mantle of the
capital of Arab culture.
``To rebuild this city as a center for intellectual life is the
biggest battle we have to fight. But I'm optimistic,'' said Elias
Khouri, the theater's artistic director and editor of the cultural
supplement for the country's leading newspaper, An-Nahar.
When the lights last went out on Beirut's drama scene, they stayed
out for about 18 years. Before the outbreak of civil war in 1975,
Beirut had been an oasis of cultural liberalism amid a desert of
Middle East repression. Poets, playwrights and political dissidents
came to Beirut to publish. It was the one city where books could
be issued free of censorship.
The precursor of Masrah Beirut, in particular, ushered in a new
era of modern, experimental drama in the Middle East. That theater
closed 20 years ago amid the political turbulence that presaged
The theater's immediate neighborhood was rocked by some of the fiercest
fighting as rival militias bombarded each other's positions in the
nearby luxury hotels and nightclubs. The thunder of shelling replaced
that of applause. Many artists and intellectuals went abroad. Audiences
stayed home. Until Khouri and four friends reopened Masrah Beirut
on a shoestring two years ago, the only serious productions were
performed in the cultural centers of foreign embassies.
An entire generation of young Beirutis knew little of drama except
school plays and western videos.
``To the students, Masrah Beirut is the greatest thing that ever
happened in this day and age,'' said Aliya Khalidi, Khouri's assistant
and a drama professor. ``These people are still fresh and need enlightenment.''
The 229-seat theater began with an empty building, a few stage lights
and a lot of youthful exuberance. It was designed to foster an awareness
of culture from across the Arab world as well as socially critical
Lebanese drama, free from what many artists see as the heavy hand
of the government.
Masrah Beirut is already in its third season of presenting Lebanese
and other Arab plays, films and poetry. But it's still grappling
with the legacy of war. Nor is just that the electricity is unpredictable
and the telephones, vital for booking foreign troupes, are equally
moody. Many Beirutis remain wary of venturing out onto the town,
especially those residents of East Beirut who haven't visited the
west side for almost two decades.
The lobby, which doubles as an art and photo gallery, has been elegantly
refurbished with marble floors and oriental arches. But outside
the front doors, nearby buildings are still pocked from gunfire.
A mammoth portrait of Ayatollah Khomeini glares from across the
street, a sign of the radical Islamic politics that sprung up during
the civil war. And the checkpoint up the block is manned by Syrian
soldiers, who have come to dominate Lebanese politics.
The war's excesses have left an indelible mark on the circle of
intellectuals who gravitate to Masrah Beirut. Many of the theater's
productions reflect the experiences of war or refract the country's
current situation through a lens cut by years of conflict.
The theater's charge is not to dwell only on the war but, Khalidi
said, ``I don't think it escapes any of us.'' For Khouri, life on
the edge removed the fear of experimenting in his own writing.
``For me it was a tough experience but it taught me that writing
is a big adventure,'' he said. ``When you are in a society without
limits, where the distinction between life and death does not exist,
where you experiment every day, your adventure becomes more profound.''
As Khouri expounded recently over a small table in the lobby, the
clank and clatter of his play, ``Memoirs of Job,'' tumbled out of
the theater. The production was in its last night of rehearsals
before a short, return run after a month on the stage in Paris.
Performed on a bare-bones set, the production recounts the actual
tales of three women whose family members were kidnapped during
the war. The old man Job, or Ayyoub as he is known in Arabic, collects
their accounts. But the real story he writes is that of Beirut,
an entire city held hostage by the machinations of domestic and
international forces, including the United States.
When Khouri first brought ``Memoirs of Job'' to the stage last year,
friends told him it would be a bust, that people wanted to forget
the war. Vaudeville was what audiences craved, critics predicted.
``To our astonishment, it was the first time we had a full house
for three (straight) months,'' he said. ``People want to see. People
want to know.''
People lingered in the theater after the final curtain, debating
with each other. Some, he said, came back a second and third time.
``It was fantastic. It was unbelievable,'' Khouri said. ``I've never
witnessed anything like that in the history of Lebanese theater.''
This is, however, a new era for Lebanese theater. And it may not
all be good. Peace in Lebanon is paid for with increased influence
for the Syrians, Saudis and allies of Iran. Censorship, for the
first time, has become an issue that writers and artists must confront.
Topics of politics, religion and God have become targets for the
censor's scissors. Plays must be sent to the police for review,
though sometimes the scripts submitted happen to leave out bits
that appear on the director's working version. So too, films may
be smuggled into the country.
``The important thing here is to create an independent intellectual
atmosphere,'' Khouri said. ``We are trying to defend freedom. It's
very difficult to defend freedom in this part of the world where
everything is against freedom.''
COPYRIGHT 1995 Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service
This material is published under license from the publisher through
the Gale Group, Farmington Hills, Michigan. All inquiries regarding
rights should be directed to the Gale Group.
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