Amid a Suffocating Struggle, Beirut’s Art Breathes Life Into a City

Despite economic and political crises, the creative mind is alive and well in the Lebanese capital, producing cutting-edge work while questioning authority

Amid a Suffocating Struggle, Beirut’s Art Breathes Life Into a City
A recent concert at the Metro Al Madina theater in Beirut, Lebanon. (Anwar Amro/AFP via Getty Images)

As the lights come up in Beirut’s Metro Al Madina theater, a man and a woman walk toward the center of the stage.

“I stand among the audience,” the man reads. “Beirut is the theater and the play. The show is catastrophic. I am in tears.”

These are words written by the actor himself, Roger Assaf, an 82-year-old Lebanese theater director and actor, about his beloved city, the Lebanese capital. The woman next to him is Hanane Hajj Ali, his partner in life, theater and loving Beirut.

Together with the 34-year-old director and choreographer Ali Chahrour, they put on “Iza Hawa,” a two-hour dance-based performance that follows the couple’s relationship to the city that they have never left, even during the brutal 15-year civil war between 1975 and 1990, using minimal words and expressive dances inspired by local culture. It feels like a love letter to Beirut — or perhaps a farewell.

“Iza Hawa” has a dual translation. It can mean both “if one loves” and “if one falls.” Chahrour plays on this double meaning throughout the play, as it follows the lives of the two actors, who embody the rise and fall of the city through their experiences of both the glory of its artistic heyday and the dark times of the civil war.

“The wrinkles on their faces draw the streets and maps of the city, its frustrations and memories,” Chahrour writes in introducing the play.

It is fitting that the show took place at Al Madina, one of the first theaters to open in Beirut’s Hamra neighborhood, hosting performances from Lebanon and across the Arab world. The audience spanned all ages and backgrounds, and each of them appreciated the history of the protagonists’ work in Lebanon’s theater scene.

Even though the show has a melancholic message about the death of the city, Chahrour introduces nuances to show hints of resurrection. The fact that such a show is happening is a solid sign that cities don’t die. But Chahrour is bitter about this reality.

“The audience is shrinking. Although we have introduced free tickets for those who can’t afford attending, we still can’t reach the wider audience, the students, the young, the poor,” Chahrour told New Lines. “Maybe we can secure a free entrance, but we can’t help with transport for people to come and see for themselves.”

Ali’s previous works frequently questioned politics and power in Lebanon through telling simple real-life stories of love and loss. One of his pieces explored the stories of young men who went to fight in Syria with Hezbollah, using his own Shiite background to infuse the story with traditional rituals and symbols. Another tackled the subject of preventing loss through love, depicting a mother who succeeds in preventing her son from going to his death in Syria, again using traditional dance, music and rituals to tell a more universal story.

Unlike many in Lebanon who decided to leave the country in the past few years, Chahrour continues to fight to make distinguished art in Lebanon — art that can travel the world, as he once did, performing in various European and American theaters. But today, he wonders whether he will be able to continue.

I walked out of the theater filled with hope yet also confused and amazed at the same time. Amazed at the energy of people like Chahrour, Assaf, Ali and the whole team behind the production, who keep working in spite of the economic situation, as well as those in the audience who are still attending and supporting the independent art scene, just a few meters away from the Central Bank, which many blame for the economic collapse that evaporated people’s savings. I am amazed that, in spite of everything, Lebanese artists are still fighting to create art that puts more questions than answers onstage.

It makes me think about my own relationship to Lebanon — one that started in 2015, when I decided to leave my base in London to start a new life in Beirut, as close as it was possible to be to my home in Syria. That year, thousands of Syrians crossed the Mediterranean trying to reach Europe, but I had already left Syria two years before, escaping the war, imagining that it was temporary. It never occurred to me that years would pass, and my home would become more and more distant to me. I always thought Beirut would be a temporary base before I headed back home.

At the time, Beirut felt like the perfect destination, not only because of its proximity to Damascus and the similarity in culture and geography, but also its familiarity. Growing up, I saw how many Syrians considered it a place to experience culture, freedom and connection to the world — to breathe, in a way.

Despite the political divide over the Syrian government’s presence in Lebanon for nearly 30 years, which caused huge anger in Lebanon, the country remained a popular destination for many Syrians. Mostly, people visited to see family members who were strewn between the two countries.

But as I arrived in Lebanon, watching the war in my home country from across the border, something started simmering around me. People’s anger against their inefficient government started boiling up with the garbage crisis in 2015, pushing many to take to the streets, coupled with a political deadlock that left the country with no president for nearly two years. Then the banking crisis brought about an economic meltdown.

Since then, I started living a “deja vu” situation in Lebanon. First, protests — though these were nothing compared with witnessing the violent reaction of the government against protesters in Syria. Then, a financial crisis, job losses, the closure of businesses, power cuts and, slowly, a wave of people, both Syrians and Lebanese, leaving the country — everyone trying to establish a new life somewhere safer that offered opportunities for young and old, professionals and those starting out. The pandemic and lockdown only added salt to the wound. Then came the 2020 port explosion, a crisis upon a crisis.

But soon after, a strange sense of revival started to fill the air. Lebanese tirelessly find ways to survive. Perhaps the arts sector was one of the most affected, requiring relentless efforts by the community here to keep going, just like many other sectors in Lebanon.

The regular power cuts have turned the capital into a ghost town over the past two years. Hamra Street used to be one of the most vibrant streets of the city. It is famous for its cinemas, theaters and cafes, where Beirut’s artists and intellectuals meet, sip coffee and discuss the politics and culture of the city and the Arab world.

Today, Hamra Street, like others in the city, is mainly lit by car lights driving by, or those few shops that can afford fuel fees to turn on generators. Many restaurants and cafes have closed, and lavish shops have started to sell secondhand clothing instead. Beirut, once referred to as the Paris of the Middle East, is living through one of its darkest times ever: economic collapse, financial crisis, a government that is widely seen as corrupt and inefficient and is blamed for every problem the Lebanese are going through.

But amid the bleak reality, there is a surprisingly bright side. People have unexpectedly adjusted to a situation in free-fall. Even though the Lebanese pound has lost nearly 90% of its value against the dollar, plunging the majority of Lebanese into poverty, restaurants, cafes, bars and even hotels are almost fully booked most of the year. One reason is that the successful Lebanese diaspora is helping the economy by transferring cash to support families back home, to the tune of nearly $7 billion every year. At the same time, corrupt officials and rich businessmen, who built their wealth using connections to the ruling classes, are spending it in a country where the middle class has almost vanished.

Beirut is also known for its vibrant nightlife, with music halls and nightclubs filled with Arabs and foreigners dancing late into the night. Perhaps the Lebanese have learned from their 15-year civil war that they should embrace every moment and continue celebrating life. Dance floors and nightclubs are filled up, especially on weekends.

Particularly popular are modern rap performers, both Lebanese artists and those from across the Arab world. One, Bu Nasser Touffar, a popular young Lebanese rapper, performs lyrics that criticize all authorities, including those in his own Shiite community, challenging the dominant political narrative on controversial issues such as Hezbollah’s involvement in the war in Syria.

In recent years, a new form has also become increasingly popular: stand-up comedy. Young Lebanese comedians have taken to the stage with acerbic humor that knows no boundaries, sometimes naming and shaming politicians. Some even dare to mock Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah. With cynical wit, the comedians criticize racism, corruption and sectarianism in their own society.

This is something that always amazed me about Beirut, having lived almost all my life in Damascus, a city ruled by dictatorship and manned by relentless censorship. Beirut, for me and for many Syrians, has always been the city of freedom, openness and exposure to the world.

As much as Lebanon is sliding into a political void, struggling with corruption and ruled mostly by warlords of the civil war era, and as much as Hezbollah is seen as sabotaging the state and censoring some of its critics, Lebanon still enjoys freedom of expression in comparison with countries in the Middle East and North Africa — even in these dark times. And this is something to be celebrated.

“I am not alive, yet not dead,” says Roger Assaf at the end of “Iza Hawa.” Just like the city of Beirut: neither fully alive nor dead.

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