On the Road in Lebanon

The Living Theater Meets the Legacy of Civil War and Israeli Occupation

 Lebanon—It starts with a rumble of breath, a yearning growl emitted straight from the bellies of a hundred strangers standing in a circle, arms round each other's shoulders. Soon they add voice to their exhalation, transforming the gravelly drone into a sustained, crescendoing note. Overtones kick in, and the people in the circle, heads tilted skyward, seem to exist as a product of the song itself, rather than the other way around. Gradually, they take the sound back, fading it down to a hum, a purr, a breath. They let go of each other and the circle wisps away.

The Living Theater has ended many performances over the last 50 years with this audience-inclusive ritual, which they call the Chord. But it's never been as intense as here on the grounds of the notorious Khiam prison in southern Lebanon. Until a year ago, when Israel abandoned its 22-year occupation of Lebanon, thousands were detained without trial in tiny, dank cells at Khiam, many of them tortured and raped. "In our village we could hear the screams from the prisoners," says a young woman from a few kilometers down the road. She has never heard of the Living Theater or the Off-Off-Broadway movement it helped forge in the 1950s and '60s, but she joins right in at the close of the performance piece the company has made especially for Khiam in a workshop with Lebanese theater students. The Chord, she says, "replaces the screams with the sound of liberation."

An observant Shi'ite Muslim, she didn't have to think twice about stepping into the Chord, because for the first time in its history, the LT formed two concentric circles: one for women and one for men. It's a concession the company makes to the censors from Hizbullah, the militant Shi'ite faction that controls southern Lebanon and oversees the former prison, now open as a museum. So Judith Malina, the 75-year-old codirector of the LT, chanted through the Chord with her arm around the local twentysomething woman, whose hair-covering hijab gives a square frame to her round face. And the woman embraced Malina, the American pacifist-anarchist, feminist bohemian. Who also happens to be a Jew.

There's nothing that isn't layered with complication and contradiction in the LT's three-week visit to Lebanon in June. In part, that's because there's nothing about Lebanon itself that isn't layered with complication and contradiction. A decade after the end of the brutal 15-year civil war that, along with the Israeli siege of Beirut, claimed nearly 200,000 lives and displaced two-thirds of its population of 4 million, Lebanon is frantically building a future on the rubble of its violent past. But with no war tribunal or truth and reconciliation process after the hostilities, the trauma seems to have become a taboo subject. The 40 Lebanese university students who take part in the LT workshop have to be pressed to talk about the way the war saturated their childhoods: One lived with her family in a parking garage to escape bombings, another saw Israeli soldiers storm into his home demanding his father. All lost relatives to shelling, sniper fire, or plain bad luck. "We're not so sensitive that we don't want to speak about the war," says Lynn Kodeih, 18, a double major in theater and French literature. "It's just that people don't know what to do with the memories. The Lebanese have not forgotten the war. It's worse: They have not understood it."

Theater, many of the students agree, offers a complex but direct, emotional way to break through the anxious factionalism and frozen feelings they fear might hurl the country back into a violent free-for-all. "Theater can speak to the revenge people have inside," says Bassem Breish, 22, who sports a Che Guevara button on his book bag and uses the logon "Brecht" for his e-mail account. "We are the new generation. We are the ones who have to make the peace, find the new way. Fuck war."

It's the kind of statement the Living Theater has repeatedly made throughout its long history as America's preeminent radical theater company. Founded in 1948 by Malina and the late Julian Beck, the LT played a prophetlike role in the burgeoning counterculture of the 1960s. If its revolutionary spirit is often dismissed in the U.S. these cynical days, the company's faith in theater's humanizing force and political efficacy is lapped up in places where there's still genuine hope for radical change.

The project begins in the stone courtyard of the Beit el Fann, the arts center of Tripoli, a northern city on the Mediterranean coast. Right away, the group starts twisting, stretching, and crawling through a wordless physical warm-up. With their pierced noses and Nike T-shirts, they could pass for students from NYU. They strike a quick affinity with the 12 LT members—Americans, Italians, Germans, and a Bulgarian.

The LT had been invited by Habibah Sheikh, a Lebanese American singer currently living in Beirut. Her plan is for the troupe to teach the students a range of movement, voice, and play-development exercises through rehearsing its anti-death-penalty piece, Not in My Name. They'll present it in a downtown park in Tripoli, then take it south to Khiam.

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