Hanane Hajj-Ali: Breaking barriers
O sisterhood, where art thou?
"I am a Muslim woman who wears the veil and I am proud of my heritage," proclaims Hanane Hajj-Ali, as she adjusts the headscarf that is wrapped around, not over, her head.
Actress, writer and educator Hanane Hajj-Ali was born in Baabda, Lebanon. In 1994, after a spectacular performance of Mudhakarat Ayyub, (Job's Memoirs) -- a play directed by her husband Roger Assaf -- in Paris, she was described by the French media as an impossible amalgam of the Virgin Mary and Marilyn Monroe.
The fresh-faced Hanane, however, remains a child at heart. She is like a little girl let loose in the wardrobe of ideas. Her face lights up, headscarf falling awry, as she tells the story of her grandmother and mentor.
"I am perhaps, more than anything else, the product of my grandmother, Fatma, a veiled beauty from South Lebanon who at the age of 14, and to the outrage and chagrin of her family and the entire village, married the man she loved. She refused to marry her cousin as her parents, uncles and aunts expected. She was a poet, a dancer and a singer. And she did all this in the shadow of war."
Fatma's story was documented in the play The Days of the Tents.
Hanane fixes me with a gaze that has the playful poise of a Mona Lisa.
The wartime theatre of Al-Hakawati (Storyteller) Theatre Company, which she and her husband founded, invited audiences to look into the abyss and smile. It still does.
The tales speak of individuals whose lives have been shattered and torn apart by war. "But the very dynamics that led to war in the mid-1970s are still at work today," she cautions.
That may well be but, Hanane is keen to point out, the sun shines through the darkness of war.
She loves bold colours. On the day we meet her cheery pistachio scarf is juxtaposed with a sombre black outfit.
She smiles and poses for the camera, clutching her green headcover. She quickly adjusts it -- it is her identity, she says emphatically. It is an identity with which she seems to have few, if any, problems. She describes herself in no uncertain terms. "As a theatre actress I was taught that to be a good actress I would have to put aside my own identity and assume the identity of the character I play. And an actress is an artist, not a woman with a bad reputation."
She is acutely aware of the intertwined histories of differing belief systems, creeds and ideologies.
"I was exposed early in life to different cultures, to people from diverse social and religious backgrounds. Today I am comfortable with the differences I see among people I work with. I spot the differences."
She lets out a raucous chuckle.
"I am by nature attracted to the other, to those different from me. I am acutely conscious of the differences, but I am always searching for the other."
Hanane's trademark is emotional directness. Her performance in Lucy, the Vertical Woman was a raw and wildly atavistic rendition of the ancestral ape- woman. She walked on all fours in one instance, beat her chest, made horrendous beastly noises. Lucy explodes into life as Hanane tears across the stage, a strangely powerful beast.
After the interval she suddenly switched gears to something far more intimate. Concentrating on crusty, witty commentary, she seemed to enjoy the ironic charades. The show, performed at Al-Hanager Theatre, Cairo Opera House, was a sell-out.
In Al-Sanaye Park Hanane played the part of a Shia woman from South Lebanon who is badly treated by her husband. "The hijab doesn't stop a woman from loving, living her own life, having feelings and strong emotions and being a woman."
In offering personal reminisces Hanane always stresses the links with her stage career. Amina, the sensual role in Al-Sanaye Park, touched a raw nerve. "At first I was hesitant to play the part," she says. But she relented in the end.
As a founding member of Al-Halawati Theatre Company Hanane claims descent from a rich tradition "that is now only seen as a reflection in two deforming mirrors -- the West's and that of religious fanaticism."
The revolutionary fervour of the late 1960s and early 1970s shaped Hanane's thinking and charted the course of her early career. And her background is complex and unconventional enough to shake up the assumptions even of contemporary bohemian Western audiences.
Hanane is a Shia Muslim who fell hopelessly in love with a Maronite Christian, 17 years her senior, who was already married with a daughter. Not only was he of the wrong age and religion, he was stigmatised by her conservative family as an actor. Worse, he encouraged her to act, too.
In no time, however, she saw that her destiny was shaped with his.
Hanane's beginnings as an actress are the fairy- tale stuff of dreams. A love story with a happy ending. "The larger-than-life Roger Assaf promised me that the sky was the limit and did everything he said."
Today they remain happily married with four children, all teenagers, two girls and two boys.
"Roger named the two eldest -- Zeinab and Ali -- characteristically Muslim names. I named the two younger ones -- Mariam and Youssef -- two names that are associated with both Christianity and Islam."
Despite occasionally losing the thread of her thoughts her conversation picks up whenever it concerns her life with Roger Assaf. Her first theatrical love affair was with Roger, her husband and mentor.
Her life appears to move along a single continuum. At one end there is an unconventional wife and mother. At the other there is a veiled actress who is notoriously fastidious about the parts she will play. She immerses herself in her work but savours precious moments with family and friends.
She trained as an actress at the Tish School in New York and also studied at the San Diego State University drama department. Her background, then, appears privileged. And certainly her career path seems to have been blessed. Yet underneath it all, she insists, was a deep yearning to do something very different. Her father wanted her to be doctor and she duly enrolled at the Lebanese University in Beirut. But her heart was not really in medicine. She only studied for her father's sake.
Hanane's father was a security officer whose job entailed him moving around the country during her youth. Her experience, therefore, unlike that of most Lebanese, was not limited to a particular region or confessional area. She learned the habits, rituals and accents of Lebanon's disparate ethnic and religious groups which, she says, provided a good training ground for her future career as an actress.
Hanane has no sisters. The only girl among four siblings she says that she was Tom-boyish from the start. She was, however, her father's favourite.
"I am very much like my dad. I am headstrong like my dad," Hanane explains.
She was introduced to the theatre early.
"I was nine years old when I went to see a play. It was an unforgettable experience. I went with my uncle and his then fiancée," Hanane muses. She left the theatre and vowed one day that she, too, would be an actress.
Even though her father adored poetry and her mother singing no one in the family was a professional artist. Yet, as a family they enjoyed poetry recitals, singing matinees of Um Kalthoum, Farid Al-Atrash and Fairuz. "My dad always had extra tickets because of his job and my mother never missed a show. She loved the theatre.
"My oldest brother, Essam, went to France to study and I begged dad to let me join him." As a woman her father would not ordinarily have let her travel unaccompanied but with her brother already there the situation was different.
Essam Hajj-Ali, an accomplished musician, paved the way for Hanane to pursue her acting career.
"He is also a professor of philosophy. He read philosophy at school essentially to please our father," Hanane says.
Awaiting her in France was a whole new world. In the aftermath of the 1968 student revolt Paris was buzzing with creativity. It was there that she met the rising stars who were soon to become dominant in Lebanese film and theatre -- Marcel Khalifa, Tawfiq Faroukh and Botrous Rohana. She was introduced to musicians, poets, artists, and was quickly accepted as part of their scene.
Taking part in dress rehearsals honed her powerful voice and stage presence and she caught the attention of a number of theatre directors. The turning point came when she was asked to act in a play about a traditional Lebanese wedding. Symbolically this fell on 22 November, Lebanese Independence Day. The director was looking for somebody who could play the part of both the bride's and groom's mothers. While watching a dress rehearsal Hanane noticed the script did not follow the traditional Lebanese wedding format. She pointed this out to the director, giving her own rendition of what should actually be taking place. He was impressed.
"I was a little shy, but the director encouraged me and said that I had an exceptional voice for the theatre. He offered me the part and I accepted."
And then it dawned on her that this was what she had been looking for all along. She has never looked back.
"My art, my persona and identity are deeply- rooted in the South," Hanane says. "I can drop my Beirut accent and whatever else you want -- except for my veil," she laughs.
"My family is from South Lebanon and so the southern accent, which is very similar to Palestinian, or Galilean, to be precise, comes easily to me."
"I was not really raised in the South, it was my grandmother who maintained the link. She lived in Beirut but her heart was in the South."
When she decided to be an actress and her father disapproved. "It was the first time that he actually hit me," she remembers.
Hanane fled the family home and took shelter in her grandmother's house. Her father was outraged that his daughter left the family home but, explains Hanane, "my grandmother didn't tell him where I was."
"My family felt that an actress was a sinful, fallen woman. It was my grandmother who explained that love of art and self-expression is not iniquitous."
Friends and family tricked her father into watching Hanane's debut on stage. They told him it was an evening of poetry recitals. He complained that he had broken his leg and it was in plaster but eventually they prevailed and he sat in the front row. When Hanane appeared on stage her father tried to leave but couldn't. He was incapacitated and forced to watch the entire play at the end of which he was convinced that his daughter had made the right decision.
South Lebanon, Hanane reckons, is the geographical extension of Palestine. Until relatively recently, she remembers, Haifa and not Beirut was the metropolitan centre of South Lebanon. Beirut emerged relatively recently.
The Lebanese Civil War provided much of the background to Hanane's early years.
"I seem always to have wanted to be an actress," she says. "As a child I loved to watch films and imagine myself up there on the screen."
But a star pupil, at the age of 16 she was enrolled in medical school by her father. While she hated the subject, at that age she could not go against her father's wishes.
"There was so much that I didn't know. To my mind, medicine was restrictive. I suggested to my father that I could study biology instead of medicine, to which he thankfully agreed."
At this point Hanane was terribly confused. She initially chose chemistry for her first year at university only to change to biology at the start of the second.
Tens-of-thousands of university students were demonstrating, with some of the protests ending in violence. They made a strong impression on the young Hanane.
"I felt that life was like a sponge and that I was absorbing everything."
Conflicting currents and contradictory emotions were welling up inside her.
"I felt I was about to explode."
It was the eruption of the Lebanese Civil War that changed everything. "The 1973 political crisis was a slap in the face," she explains. "One crisis led to another but in the midst of the madness and confusion things began to fall into place."
As the war worsened it seemed that her vocation might be nipped in the bud.
"I felt politically immature. I felt desperately inadequate. I wanted to understand the world that was falling apart around me, before it was too late. I wanted to express the strong emotions I felt within."
It was at this point that the opportunity arose for Hanane to leave Lebanon for France. "I felt dispirited and powerless. I asked myself: 'What can I do?' And the answer came sooner than I expected."
The war was ripping the fabric of Lebanese society apart. The artificially assembled nation entered a downward spiral of violence and sectarian strife. By the mid-1970s Lebanon had become a deeply fractured country. It was the exact moment that Hanane's acting career took off, even as the bombs were falling on Beirut.
"While the war began as a revolutionary dream it soon degenerated into a nightmare," she says.
It was the war, though, that in many ways propelled her towards the goals she had set herself.
Between 1986 and 1996 she worked with young actors and actresses, teaching and learning from her students. In 1997 she co-founded, with her husband, the Cultural Cooperative for Youth in Theatre and Culture, better known by its Arabic acronym SHAMS, or (Sun). "SHAMS aims at providing young artists from disenfranchised and underprivileged groups -- such as Palestinians and Shia Muslim Lebanese -- with a forum in which to find self-expression, exposure and training," she says.
Though basically a stage actress Hanane has flirted occasionally with the cinema. Her first film, Return to Haifa, was shot in 1981. "I was still a student at the time. I was naïve and inexperienced," she remembers of her cinematic debut.
"I was young, 22 years old and I played the part of a woman who leaves her son. She forgets him in Israel and he grows up into an Israeli soldier." She says no more.
The discussion suddenly veers on to the subject of child-rearing.
"It is their right to choose whether to wear the veil. If my daughter wants to veil so be it."
She doesn't like to impose her will on her children.
"I myself wore a mini-skirt in the 1970s. My dad didn't approve but I wore it all the same."
"We lived in Cairo as a family a few years back. I brought my family with me while I was working. Zeinab decided to wear a veil in Egypt. But when we went back to Beirut people thought that we were monsters to veil our 10-year old daughter."
In the secular and artistic circles of Lebanon the social pressure on her daughter to unveil was intense.
Hanane let her be.