Theater archives

On the Road in Lebanon


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.

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.

When the group arrives, Hizbullah insists on seeing a run-through—and 200 spectators gather to watch. Hizbullah’s gray-suited apparatchik has just one demand: The women need to be careful when they lift their hands because their shirts hike up and their midriffs show.

There are some arresting images in the piece. A prisoner, stiff, carried overhead by pallbearers, lists the ordinary things of life that pass through her mind: mother, poem, thirsty, kibbeh. A man’s hands are bound, then his legs, then his face, as he rhythmically vows, “I will resist.” The truth is, though, that the piece doesn’t really say much more than “They suffered and were liberated.”

The students—including some who had left over the ideological difference but came to see the performance—launch into a spirited debate on the ride back north. “It’s too direct. Even naive.” “No, it touches the heart. You shouldn’t be so over-intellectual. This is theater.” “Those women from the village were crying. I think it really meant something to them.” The van trundles toward Beirut, carrying the LT’s legacy with it.