On the Road in Lebanon

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

Quickly, though, the easy sense of commonality comes unglued as the students mull over the itinerary—and their resemblance to their NYU counterparts breaks down completely. They wonder: Can an American radical aesthetic be transferred whole to the Middle East? Does the LT really share the students' politics? And how could they, since there are significant differences of opinion among the students themselves—who are leftist, not quite Communist, vaguely liberal, environmentalist, apolitical. (They are also Sunni, Shi'ite, Maronite, Druse, Palestinian—facts they haven't bothered to learn about each other before.) Why does the LT think they should do a play about the death penalty in Khiam? Do they even know what Khiam is? The students demand the first of what turn out to be daily group political discussions.

For 90 minutes, they explain the horror of Khiam, where fighters against the Israeli occupation, as well as their relatives and neighbors, were detained and tortured, mostly by troops in the South Lebanon Army, Israel's proxy militia. The LT doesn't argue, but suggests they prepare Not in My Name for Tripoli, and develop a separate piece for Khiam. The students turn to debating the harder question: What, then, ought they say in Khiam?

"We shouldn't just say, 'They suffered and then they were liberated.' Everybody knows that. We have to say the next thing." "We should show how badly the prisoners are being treated now. They were celebrated as heroes and then forgotten." "Are we talking about a human cause or just a Lebanese cause? Shouldn't we object to all torture?" "No. Not a general humanistic message—but not the opposite, either. Our people have been treated like animals and we can't disconnect ourselves from what is happening in Palestine. We have to keep it specific." "We should imagine and express what the prisoners who died there never had a chance to say." "We should try to understand why the traitors tortured their own people."

Co-artistic director Hanon Reznikov takes notes, drawing out themes around which small groups will develop short scenes. They'll rehearse Not in My Name in the first half of the day, and work on the new piece in the second.

The students are stunned—and fired up. "The Living Theater was so open and willing to learn from us," says 22-year-old Saseen Kawzally, in his perpetual posture—pitched forward to make a point. "This is so significant. The West is usually patronizing to the Arab world. Yet here was a famous theatrical group from America actually treating us as equals. This should be a model."

But Kawzally is one of the students who are strangely absent from rehearsal two days later—a day before the performance scheduled for Tripoli. Indeed, about a third of the group just hasn't shown up. Turns out they had spent the entire day—and the full night before—continuing to debate the project and its political significance. The next day they come to rehearsal with a prepared statement explaining why they can't carry on: The LT's pacifism has become more and more clear, and the centrality of nonviolence to Not in My Name makes it impossible for them to perform it with conviction. They don't want to be misunderstood as not supporting the resistance in the south, which had used violence to drive Israel out.

So some lines are reassigned, some staging reblocked, and Not in My Name goes on in the park with a smaller cast. Some 700 people gather for the performance, which calls for an end to the cycle of vengeance through song, tableau, movement, and declamation—the first street theater ever presented in Tripoli. Though the municipality unplugs the sound system as soon as they understand what the message is, the show is a tremendous success, with spectators staying to discuss the issue with the performers. The following week, the students present Not in My Name in Beirut in collaboration with Lebanon's Movement for People's Rights, which has been staging protests against capital punishment and lobbying in Parliament all year. A few days later, Parliament actually revokes the death penalty.

In the meantime, the LT bids farewell to the non-pacifist students, with warm thanks and respect, and returns to preparations for Khiam. They understand very well the problem of associating with ideologies one can't fully abide. Indeed, they hold their own passionate meeting when they learn they have to be declared kosher by Hizbullah.

"Are we being hosted by murderers?" "Are we legitimizing them?" "They don't need us to legitimize them. They've got a dozen seats in Parliament and are totally accepted in the Arab world." "We went to Milosevic's Belgrade. I'll go and say 'peace' anywhere." "As a German I just don't want to be linked to a regime that wants to destroy the Jewish state." "But it's OK to be linked to a regime that destroys the Bosnian Muslims?" "You know, very few of the people who ever invited us anywhere were pacifist-anarchists."

The students who stay with the project are more inspired than ever. "Hearing Judith Malina say there must always be some people in the world offering a utopian message of nonviolence, even among people defending against occupation, even if it sounds naive, has helped me see my purpose exactly," says willowy Aurelia Sfeir, 25. That conviction, so central to the last rehearsals that precede the trip to Khiam, returns to the margins as the group leaves the cozy courtyard of the Beit el Fann and heads south. As the van winds past Sidon through Hizbullah territory, billboards advertising face cream or house paint begin to share the roadside with giant, colorful portraits of "martyrs" of the resistance. At Khiam, a small cage holds effigies of the Israeli soldiers kidnapped last year by Hizbullah.

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