Nidal Al-Ashqar: A theatre of war
Having fled the south during Israel's brutal war on Lebanon, many found a most unlikely shelter immediately on arriving in Beirut -- in Nidal Al-Ashqar's Masrah Al-Madina.
Interview by Amira Howeidy
At her five-star hotel, overlooking the Nile, Lebanese director, actress and writer Nidal Al-Ashqar sits casually on the uncomfortably small café chair. It is Saturday at noon and, notwithstanding the dazzle of the sun, autumn is in the air. Al-Ashqar is impeccably made-up, her hair perfect, but she insists she is extremely exhausted: Cairo is but her latest stop on an ongoing quest for fundraising on behalf of Masrah Al-Madina (The City Theatre), one of Beirut's best known, most active venues. Shut since Israel launched its month-long war on Lebanon, on 13 June -- in the course of which it literally destroyed half the country -- the theatre will reopen in a matter of days. It had been rocking Beirut with Tistifil Meryl Streep (To hell with Meryl Streep), a sociopolitical comedy based on Rashid Al-Daif's eponymous novel, but once it resumes its activities, on 29 November, Masrah Al-Madina will tell a different story; following the war, after all, the madina it is named for is no longer the same place.
So the war is over -- for now -- and the theatre is back to track, the nidal (Arabic for struggle) resumed. Having raised funds during the war, Al-Ashqar says, it is her theatre's turn now. This is very, very important, she insists, because unless people like her worked hard at fundraising, there would no be no theatre in Lebanon -- a country in which, unlike Arab neighbours, there is no state support for the arts. Lebanese theatre has always depended on individual efforts supported by civil society. And Al-Ashqar is one such -- iconic -- individual, her theatre working to support as well as to host performances.
"It's exhausting and expensive to run a theatre, because it involves continuous fund- raising. To tell you the truth, I'd rather direct and act, but where? I need a theatre."
Which is why she founded her own, with the help of the late Lebanese premier Rafik Al-Hariri, whose private construction company renovated and re-constructed an old but beautiful cinema called Clemenceau, giving birth to post-Civil War Beirut's famous Masrah in 1993. The inauguration over, fundraising kept the theatre going for 10 years -- until the contract with the owners of Clemenceau expired in 2004, prompting Al-Ashqar to start the nidal all over again. "I really had no clue where to start again or where to get the money to do that." For months she scoured old performance venues, of which the war-ridden city offers many, until she finally settled on the old Cinema Saroulla on the central thoroughfare of Al-Hamra -- the theatre's current location. "Right away I fell for this beautiful place, originally built in the 1960s. Back then the architecture was much richer in detail, with columns and ornaments. I thought I'd protect the project by setting up a non-profit organisation with a board of trustees." Opening on 16 March 2005, it cost over $400,000 and, instead of support -- surprisingly for Al-Ashqar, who never stops marvelling at the official indifference towards the theatre movement in Lebanon -- the government had only trouble to offer. "People have this imaginary notion of Lebanon as a truly free and independent society. This isn't true. The Securité Général read everything that goes on stage or television. There is a lot of censorship in Lebanon. I fight for my scripts, trying to explain things to them." And she often has a lot of explaining to do.
Tistifil Meryl Streep, for example, is about virginity and sexuality in Lebanon, reflecting Al-Daif's "very modern, very cruel and very real" work. The book was dramatised with the help of Mohamed Al-Qassemi, a friend as well as a writer. Starring Eli Karam and Rana Alamedin and directed by Al-Ashqar, it was a big hit. But the "explaining" proved so complicated, Al-Ashqar got security officials to come and watch the play instead. "I want people to be free to express whatever they want to. And people in Lebanon want to express sexuality and politics. The latter is very difficult, especially now. Which is why there are lots of plays based on rejection, saying no to the sociopolitical situation. Young artists talk about sexuality because there is something else they can't talk about. And when they do deal with sexuality, the security stops them or tampers with their scripts. We are fighting to survive, fighting to get money, fighting for out subjects -- and I tell you, it's exhausting." Which is why she found it heart warming when, the night before this conversation, a group of friends including jewel designer Azza Fahmy, the owners of the Wadi Food oil groves and Qassem Ali, the general director of the Palestinian Ramattan News Agency sponsored a fundraising dinner for the Masrah: "it bolsters the spirit to see how much people here love Lebanon and how much they care about the theatre. It means a lot that the Lebanese should have a theatre to go to, a place where they can feel human, listening to music, meditating, dreaming, engaging in philosophical discussions and arguing over social issues." Yet this is not quite what the place was in the course of the last war, when the theatre turned into an equally valuable if very different place.
Al-Ashqar was in Paris when the war broke out, and the Beirut airport being closed, she had to stay there. One day she received a phone call from the theatre telling her that people were knocking on the door asking to be let in -- families from South Lebanon, seeking shelter in Beirut. "They asked me what to do," she recounts. "And I said to open and let them in. We have plenty of space. For a little less than a month the theatre became home to 250 families, with 150 families sleeping over at night. But artists too were soon knocking, asking what they could do for the theatre. Following discussions over the phone, again, a series of workshops for the refugees' children, Dreams Under Fire, was launched. "It's a great feat, unprecedented anywhere in the world, that a theatre should contribute to civil society in this way." It was certainly the only theatre doing so in Lebanon. "The beauty of it was that it happened on the spur of the moment, without preparation or planning; and it really captured the mood of the Lebanese at this difficult time. The children would come in at 10am and stay till the evening. Through an ad-hoc SOS committee, they were provided with sandwiches, juice, paper and pencils as well as money. In the afternoon a cinema would be set up for screening Egyptian and European cartoons for their benefit."
Now it is all over, Al-Ashqar is ready for the post-war challenge of "staging" Lebanon Lebanon, published by the London- based Lebanese house Dar Al-Saqi and written by 70 well- known authors from all over the world, including Harold Pinter, John Le Carre, Adonis and Robert Fisk. "It is not a question of reading the texts; rather, creating a montage from the ideas that connect them -- to perform and sing on stage. It's a homage to Lebanon by all these fantastic writers, and I will be directing and acting in it." Al-Ashqar selected this book, she says, simply because it is about the war. "I want to give voice to an international response to the war in Lebanon. The piece will be in English, Arabic and French. And it is very poignant, all the more so because we have voices from all over the world trying to say something about Lebanon, trying to say something to Israel." Is the world ready to say something to Israel, though? "Yes, yes. Not everybody is with Israel, believe me... The Arab street is against Israel. And in Europe and the US they are fed up, they see Bush as himself the biggest terrorist." For better or worse, Lebanon continues to reel from the ripples of the war. In the meantime, Al-Ashqar quietly sips her espresso in the Nile- view café where we are still seated. Before I know it, however, she has turned into a political analyst angry with the polarisation of views currently dividing her country. She has switched from English to Arabic, too.
"Since independence and to this day, there hasn't been one Lebanese citizen who belongs to the single cause that is Lebanon. The state itself was built on sectarian bases, although the Lebanese constitution makes no reference to sectarianism -- which was introduced by the French and the British. Originally, this region was called Greater Syria, the Fertile Crescent. Enter Sykes Pico, however, and it is suddenly divided between France and Britain. As a result of this, the Arab entities gained a kind of pseudo- independence, thanks to the French and British -- a sick, sectarian independence in the case of Lebanon, one that continues to divide and kill the Lebanese today. Because it was decided that the Lebanese president should be a Christian Maronite, the speaker of the house a Shia and the prime minister a Sunni. After Lebanon's independence in the 1940s, Israel was planted to the south, in the heart of Palestine. Israel robbed the Palestinians of their country -- something unprecedented in history. Since then we've been in conflict, we've been resisting, we've been through civil war and we shall continue to resist, even though some people are surprised that we have a resistance at all. We've always had a resistance, since resisting the occupation in the 1930s we've had it. Why should we not have a resistance now?"
Whose side is Al-Ashqar on, though?
"I don't care what the Lebanese cabinet will look like. I have a feeling -- and I hope I'm wrong -- that this is leading to another civil war. Warlords can't make peace. There is no vision for constructing a civil Lebanon. [Today's players in Lebanon] are afraid that their roles will be taken away from them. To me it seems like a play in which all the actors did a bad job and, when told they failed miserably in this Shakespearean play so they are going to be replaced, they are protesting. How can you turn us into extras? We refuse. But you have to ask: how can a murderer liberate Lebanon? How can he turn into a democrat and defender of freedom and independence? This is nothing more than sectarianism."
Does this apply to the resistance as well? No, says Al-Ashqar.
Well, whose side is she on? "I take the side of any resistance against Israel. I support any person who fights Israel." In fact she "deeply" admires Hizbullah's leader Al-Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, she says, which is rather untypical for a Maronite. But she is already digressing again. "I'm not a Maronite. I'm an Arab. I consider us Muslims. Some of us believe in the Quran, others in the Bible. And there are those of us who believe in wisdom." Unfortunately, she goes on, this is a bad time for Arabs. "All we have are extremists. Where are those who believe in Arab unity?" she asks rhetorically. It is a time when men like Asad Al-Ashqar, the prominent Lebanese pan-Arab leader who happens to be Nidal's father, are sorely missed. "And I don't say that because I'm his daughter. But we need people like him who believe in civil governance now." At least there is Nasrallah, whom she would have preferred without a turban. "But what he's doing, turban or not, is truly heroic."
Photo courtesy of Ramattan