Saturday, December 17, 2011

I’ve been procrastinating writing a “last” blog entry for Lebanon, because there’s no sense of completion or end; no neat little verbal bow to tie on to the last three months before packing it solidly away into “experiences past.”

We wrote a play based on the ex-fighters’ reflections, ideas, and experiences (check). Mike’s taking it forward to be performed by a pilot group of High School students for the April 13 war commemoration activities (check). I left with an enormous sense of gratitude and respect, and the desire to come back for future collaborations with my amazing friends and project partners here (check). But…nothing feels finished.

When I talk about the last three months, I keep returning to the story of Abu Ali at Khiam. Every day, he returns to the museum and tells the story of his time there. Every day, he tells the story of the 5 years he spent living under traumatic conditions. Every day, he stoops and reaches and twists his ageing body into the stress positions that have marked him since his imprisonment, as if exorcising his trauma through this repeated verbal / physical ritual.

There are stories that the ex-fighters returned to again and again and again. Stories I heard them tell four or five times between our rehearsals and causal meetings and conferences and documentary videos. A young boy snipered on a mission. A priest who granted preemptive forgiveness for killing the enemy. A detested sheik who paid continued visits to a child’s home, demanding more silence than the boy was capable of.

It is not the stories themselves that carry the most power, I am realizing. It is the continued act of telling them. A healing? A shedding? A molting? A ritual. A repeated return to a moment in time. A processing, and perhaps a gradual letting go.

These stories will be told again and again. Abu Ali will continue to spend his days at Khiam. I don’t think it’s entirely accurate to think of any of these actions as a means to an end, because there isn’t necessarily an end in sight. None of these men are waiting around for the day when they, or even the country, will be fully “healed.” They are simply engaged in the process of healing. Perhaps that’s as close to healed as we ever get.

Photo Credit: (c) Bilal Kabalan

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The protests in Tahrir Square have been the hot topic in Lebanon since last week; in the Choucair household this was compounded by the fact that Sabine was in Cairo, and meant to be giving a clown workshop, when the demonstrations broke out. Her current facebook page is a bit like a sociological debate on the value of art in a revolutionary society. A couple of days they actually held clown improv. sessions before and/or after hitting the streets in their “high tech clown noses” (read: gas masks). Other days this was impossible. Finally Sabine put her foot down and canceled the classes, to the dismay of many of her students I’m sure. For the workshop to have value, there needed to be consistent attendance, something that was impossible in this context.

Back home in Beirut, I was having a similar debate with an Egyptian friend, Mohammed, a filmmaker doing a year-long plastic arts course here in Lebanon. His struggle was that he felt “useless, like a coward” staying in Beirut when all of his friends were protesting in Tahrir. His classmates here were worried that if he went to Cairo, he’d never come back, wasting the opportunity to graduate from his course. I was (and have been) feeling a bit saturated with the topic of war and conflict, which gave me an impish audacity to speak recklessly on what was clearly a sensitive subject. “You’re a filmmaker right? Take your camera and make something creative to bring back here and show.” Mohammed said he was against this, against “using” a real and difficult situation to fuel his art. I told him I saw it the other way around: he’d be doing something tangible—spreading awareness in Lebanon and worldwide instead of sacrificing his artistic future to add one more body to the pile of protesters. Another friend joined in: “Protesting is only one way to help Egypt. Egypt needs thinkers, needs artists. If you throw away your opportunities here…” She trailed off. Mohammed redoubled with a point about how in certain situations, engaging the mind wasn’t enough. One had to engage the body. I’m a physical theatre artist, I’m all about engaging the body, so I know what Mohammed was getting at…but like I said, I was feeling impish. I laid into him with a Socratic line of questioning: “What does it mean to engage the body?” “Is showing up enough?” “What if they use violence against you, do you use it back?” “If you don’t use violence back, are you just sacrificing yourself to prove your courage and commitment?” “If you don’t fight back, does anything change?” “If you do fight back, is that tantamount to choosing war as the only option?” “Is there a smarter way to fight, beyond simply ‘engaging’ your body by showing up?” “Is there another way to engage it, in other more effective actions?”

Gandhi and MLK might be rolling in their graves at this point. I’m not sure I have any answers, but I do know that many in my generation struggle with the efficacy of protests in general…I think of the G8 rallies and how similar they looked to this “brand new” Occupy Wall Street movement. I think of the millions who marched against war on my birthday in 2003, and wonder how much change that day concretely manifested. I think of the stories that the ex-fighters have been telling me about their pre-war experiences, and I am chilled and thrilled by their incredible description of the rallies, the protests, the marches they took part in; the tremendous potential energy of a common cause. But it’s just that—potential energy. Whether or not we gather it is almost besides the point; consciously—and creatively—figuring out what to do with it is the bigger and more difficult question.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Friday kicks off a 3-day conference hosted by the Lebanese American University entitled: Healing the Wounds of History: Addressing the Roots of Violence. I am here primarily to see Ziad, Moheiddine, and Assaad speak about their experiences during and after the war; but am curious to see what the rest of the conference will bring. I’m particularly interested to see how last week’s clash between opposing political groups on LAU’s campus is going to be incorporated into the day’s program. If ever there was a context for exploring where theory meets practice, it seems, this would be it.


The clashes are succinctly but sufficiently addressed in the keynote speech, but not mentioned thereafter. While some impulsive and intuitive part of me is disappointed that there hasn’t been a drastic and responsive reworking of the conference planning, the rest of me understands that this conference was organized months ago, and that its function is to be forward-thinking and global, not immediate and reactive. Perhaps artists have a hard time with suppressing that little impulsive voice, I muse, because we spend so much of our energy listening for it—intuitive response forms the heart of creativity.

I’m not the best at absorbing academic speeches. Most of the time the polysyllabic words kind of wash over me in a general marinade which I seep in, without really catching all of the facts and figures. What I come away with is more often an emotional sense of the thing than a practical and applicable point. But once in a while you get a zinger—someone whose ideas are at once familiar enough to engage you and new enough to excite you. Reina Sarkis is my zinger. A psychoanalyst doing a doctorate on Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, Reina spends her fifteen minutes talking about human compulsive behavior in response to trauma, and how this manifests and is enacted on a larger scale by entire communities and societies who have suffered the trauma of war.

Reina’s talk is exciting because she assumes the parallel relationship between microcosm and macrocosm (by looking at patterns of individual psychology and applying them to understanding collective psychology), an assumption that a lot of my own thinking is based on. Recently, as I’ve read and learned more about psychology and trauma, I’ve come to understand the importance of storytelling in constructing a coherent narrative out of our experiences in order to build our sense of who we are and what we want. Experiences don’t happen for us in isolation, they happen to us in the context of a larger story, an arbitrary grouping of events that we have decided to give a specific significance to by placing them in relation to one another. These stories have builds and outcomes that allow us to see how our experiences have shaped us into new people with new expectations or characteristics or traits or desires. These stories are enormously powerful, because they determine how we feel and what we do next. And WE create them; in this way, we create ourselves.

Ever since my psychedelic teenage years, I’ve reflexively drawn connections between individuals and collectives, so of course all of my learning re: personal narrative has had me thinking about my career choice, and examining the role and responsibilities of theatre artists (as well as novelists, filmmakers, and all other storytellers) in constructing cultural narratives. Up until now I’ve seen our work as a conscious but somewhat organic process, giving quite a lot of trust over to that “intuitive” creative voice; putting impulse in the driver’s seat, if you will.

Reina says something that snaps me awake: “Following trauma, we engage in compulsive behavior, often recreating the traumatic event in an attempt to change the outcome. On an individual level we see this as people reconstruct the traumatic event again and again in their own lives and relationships. At a societal level we see this through politics, media, and in the arts…” Reina reminds us that coming to the same situation with the exact same tools we had at the point of trauma, with nothing new to add, and expecting a different outcome is literally pathological. Cycling through old stories. Reenacting the past. Compulsive. Impulsive. Hearing Reina’s talk, I gain a new appreciation for the premium that is put on originality in the arts—at writing new and original narratives, if you will. I also am forced to take a second look at my blind trust in “the creative impulse.” Impulses come from many places, not all of them transformative or even constructive.

I ran through my idea for a narrative structure of the writing piece with Sabine, and her response to my proposed ending was that it was cheesy. Cheesy means “overdone,” which to an artist spells unoriginality, so Sabine’s frank guidance had already forced me to look beyond the immediate and obvious. But Reina has just taught me why this search for new stories is so important.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Getting on With Life (Lebanon)

Some of Sabine’s filmmaker friends are using the apartment to shoot a comedy pilot, so I’ve been hiding out in whichever room isn’t being filmed in, alongside all of the excess equipment, snacks, and techies on cigarette breaks.

At about 7pm, two of the boys come in with tequila shots to celebrate getting through most of the day. I bust out the peanut puffs. We’re in proper chillax mode.

I’ve been between books and my computer, trying to understand the roots of Tuesday’s clash between LAU students that left 8 people injured—4 badly enough to be taken to hospital. Here’s a potentially more “neutral” site’s version of the same story (I think of all my pre-blog musings that never got published, and feel for these poor “NOW Lebanon” guys with their self-imposed brevity).

These 20-year-olds are just two years on from the 18-year-olds we’re writing a play for. These are the small sparks of the otherwise “cold” war that Assaad keeps referring to. Our other collaborator has canceled his appointments this week to go to LAU personally to be involved with follow-up. All of a sudden Traboulsi’s history book doesn’t seem so dry; apparently I just needed some immediacy to engage.

Syria is key. The so-called Cedar Revolution in the wake of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s assassination in 2005 ultimately led to the end of Syria’s official military presence in Lebanon (although arguably they still have considerable unofficial influence via Hezbollah). The withdrawal and its aftermath effectively bisected the Lebanese political landscape into what has been coined the “March 8” and “March 14” coalitions. To speak quite broadly (for more nuance you’ll have to hit Wikipedia), The March 14 Parties are pro-Hariri and anti- the current Syrian regime, while Hezbollah-led March 8 is largely in support of it.

The kids who clashed were Amal (March 8) and Future Movement (March 14). My question in all of this is: “If Syria’s regime topples, or if the situation disintegrates into full-blown civil war (which, depending on your definition, it might already have done), what are the potential repercussions in Lebanon?”

It’s a strange question to be asking from my desk at Sabine’s high-rise flat, sipping my beer as the one-man cast of the comedy serial flits by me in heavy makeup and drag. The Guardian says that 3 anti-Syrian activists have been abducted outside of Beirut, allegedly by Syrian Embassy officials based in Lebanon. But I had to go hunting to find that information, and this is the first I’ve heard of it.

Wissam, the production company general manager, comes back with the bowl of peanut munchies and tells me I have to help finish them because he’s the only one snacking. I ask him if what’s happening in Syria is going to affect Lebanon. “Affect? Of course. But there’s no way of knowing how.” He explains that clashes like these are not uncommon at Universities, notably in the context of campus elections. While talk of political parties is technically banned from the parlance of campus elections, students still run—and vote—along national party lines. This surprises me; I try to imagine equivalent campaigns at my own University in the States: “Vote Wendy Smith - Wellesley College Republican Candidate.” No, it’s just too bizarre.

But, again: immediacy. Politics have immediate and possibly dangerous effects here, which might make strongly self-identifying along party lines something that happens younger and more often. At our last writing rehearsal I learned that a lot of families (“most”) still own guns, as there were no official disarmament procedures put in place after the war: “Some parties still have their artillery.”

On the other hand, there’s also a mind-tricking distance. I’ve been glued to my computer while in the other room the director calls “Speed” and “Action,” and the show, quite literally, goes on. Is Wissam worried about Syria? He smiles. “You know in 2006 when the war was happening in Beirut, people were going out clubbing in the mountains. There are problems everywhere, all the time. For a year and half we lived without a government. Any other country, can you imagine if they had no government? But we just kept living. We’re used to getting on with life.”

I laugh and shake my head. He holds the bowl out to me. “Peanut puff?’

Monday, October 31, 2011

Glued Pages (Lebanon)

There’s a collage of images gathering in my head. It has something to do with history, and with books.

History books, lets start there: a month after purchasing it, I’m still only fifty-odd pages into A History of Modern Lebanon. The words seem to spill off the page and bounce off of my eyes, never making it anywhere near my brain. Ottoman, qa’im maqamiya, muqata ‘ji, Druze-Ottoman, Druze-Christian, overlord, clash, sharecropping… I skip ahead a century past the 1920s. Turkey, Syria, depression, annexation, Francophile, great depression, general strike… place names and concepts I recognize. I’m still having a hard time absorbing it, but it’s easier.

I’m at the opening of a hip underground theatre-bar in Hamra. Movie seats line the walls and the brightly lit room is all aluminum furniture and pastel highlights. Disco. A new friend is telling me about her high school history class. “Every teacher has to deal with this question: what happened after? Because the national curriculum-the officially recognized history book-stops after independence in 1943. Every teacher deals with the questions differently. Or not at all.” Later I am speaking with an actor about theatre in Lebanon. We exhaust the subject, and I do that awkward thing where I look around and comment on how nice the décor is. “Yeah,” the actor replies, “we always have this certain nostalgia for the 70s.” It never occurred to me that war would freeze time in this way, erasing any fashion trends between 1975 and 1990. But of course. I guess if you’re looking for bread to buy and hiding in a bomb shelter, you won’t be too fussed about getting the right ripped flannel to achieve that perfect “grunge” look.

Somehow this comment about the 70s paints a clearer picture of the years that followed than anything I’ve read in a history book so far.

Driving to the first rehearsal, Mike tells me of the day he discovered glue on a student’s English reader. “That’s too bad,” he said, “did you spill it?” She shook her head, “They come like this when we get them,” she explained. Mike was puzzled. A section of the book was intentionally glued shut? “Or cut out,” another student offered helpfully, showing how in his reader, those pages were missing altogether. The other students pulled out their readers to show him. All glued or cut. “What are those pages?” Mike asked, “Does anyone have a reader that doesn’t have the pages cut?”

Something Fateh said when we met at the UNHCR my first week here keeps sliding through my thoughts: “…people here are turning the pages of history without reading them…”

At the rehearsal, one of the ex-fighters is talking about a military operation he took part in to rescue a friend who was bleeding to death on the side of the road, mutilated at a checkpoint. The boys (Mike and Charbel—who I’m already starting to think of as “my boys,”) are rapt, and the status has suddenly flip-flopped as we’ve gone from a room of “workshop facilitators” and “participants” to a room of streetwise storytellers and attentive young listeners. There is something happening here that I hadn’t anticipated. The “intergenerational transmission of memory” isn’t something that we’ll arrive at later when the team takes the piece on to tour to high schools. It’s something that is happening here, now.

I was right about Elias Khoury’s Yalo, it was a fantastic, fast read. So many quotable passages, here’s just one of them:

The truth is that Yalo covered himself in night because he didn't feel safe. When the war ended, it left a great gap in his life. The war shut up shop and the fighters' vague fear began. The war had been like a barricade behind which they had hidden. When the barricade fell, each one of us felt naked. The most difficult thing that can happen to a person is to find himself stark naked the way God made him. This is something Mme Randa taught me. The lady would take off her clothes when her lust began fluttering its wings in her eyes. She would stand naked in front of the mirror and look at her brown skin that sparkled with lust. And when he'd finished, she'd cover herself with the quilt and refuse to get out of bed until Yalo left the room, because she was embarrassed by her nakedness. And we, sir, were like Mme Randa: when the war had finished, we felt embarrassed by our nakedness and went looking for something to cover us up.

Another quote, this one from Hadi Zaccak, director of the Lebanese documentary A History Lesson: “Amnesia leaves us making a civil war every 15 to 20 years. This is our history.”

Write. Read. Turn. Page. Skip. Book. Cut. Novel. Script. Glue. Write. The collage isn’t getting any clearer.

I think of the ex-fighters and what it means for them to write this play. Talk about brave.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Semantics (Lebanon)

Every day I’m reminded how tiny and interconnected Beirut is. Sabine just happens to know both of the guys whose CVs fit the bill, so she calls them over to her flat, saving me the taxi rides to and from some arbitrary café. Sabouny has a huge workshop space that takes up half of the apartment, which we’ll use to rehearse…if I let her continue to play secretary, I muse, I’ll never leave this flat again.

I meet Charbel first, and am immediately comforted by his attraction to specificity, to details. He adds some of his own questions to the more philosophical ones that Assaad and I drew up last week: “We want to ask what daily life was like. What did they eat, and how? During the war, everyone ate tuna in cans…” He mimes pulling the lid off of a tuna tin, his shoulders automatically hunching, giving a sense of how precious this small imaginary feast would have been.

Later that evening Mike comes by. His credentials are perfect for facilitating rehearsals—he’s on track to do a PHD in expressive arts therapy and social engagement, which is basically shorthand for guiding non-artists through processing things creatively, and applying the creative product to a larger social context. Now I’ve never considered our process—-or any creative process—-therapeutic for its own sake; obviously by creating we are growing and changing as people, no doubt, but something about centralizing that process as a main objective makes me pull back, and always has. So I harp on the “social engagement” aspect and Mike agrees that, yes, we are working as a team to bring a product to Lebanese High School students; we are not doing this primarily so that we “grow as people and process the war.” I know I am being a bit pedantic to insist on this, but for some reason the point of focus is critical. We are a collaborative team, working together towards a goal that is external to us. All of the other stuff (our own personal journeys yada yada) will happen, but somehow I think it will happen most effectively if we keep our own focus on the audience; as will (obviously) the actual social change. Once Mike has nodded agreement enough times for me to feel safe that we’re on the same page, we’re freed up to start speaking practically. We talk about different writing and mime exercises to generate movement sequences and text. I realize that share an enormous repertoire of identical techniques that are just named differently. What I call “introducing a random provocation,” he calls “de-centering”; what I call “warming up” he calls “engaging the body”; and (I realize, as the conversation goes on), what he calls “expressive arts therapy,” I call “devising.” We’re good to go.

I posted the call for one artist, and now I’m in a bind. Charbel is a writer, and from the hour I spent with him, I really trust his ability to probe, listen, and craft. Mike is going to be stellar at steering a process that generates the most and best material with the ex-fighters. Product and process. An impossible choice--you need both. I call and ask how they’d feel about splitting the stipend for expenses. They’re both fine with it, and we have a dream team.

The next day I’m digesting my feelings about “art therapy” with Sabine. She says she gets where I’m coming from. “Everything is therapy. The question is, what kind of work do you need to do right now? Work on yourself, or work outside of yourself?” Both, in a way, will accomplish both. But having a clear point of focus can keep us from getting lost. I know I’m the kind of person who gets muddled and confused if I get too insular. I can feel it happening even now, as the narrowing of focus on this project has taken me out of offices and cafes and glued me to the internet liaising with banks and funders. I’ve been at my computer for days now and am getting a bit stir-crazy. I gotta get out of this apartment.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Excerpt, 'What it is Like to Go to War'

The following is an excerpt from Karl Marlantes' What it is Like to Go to War (highly recommended reading, thanks to Captain Jack for the tip). Marlantes is an American Combat Veteran who fought in Vietnam. This passage gives another perspective on "holy war," something I've been thinking about since my trip to Mleeta. Particularly interesting is Marlantes' suggestion that embracing a spiritual aspect to combat mentally prepares and protects soldiers from trauma, and helps with reintegration and return. This makes a lot of sense, as much of the work in psychology around trauma seems to have to do with constructing a personal narrative which gives meaning to our otherwise random suffering. In a way, it makes sense that the more painful the suffering, the more profound the meaning must be in order for us to accept and integrate the traumatic experience into our life story.

"Many will argue that there is nothing remotely spiritual in combat. Consider this. Mystical or religious experiences have four comon components: constant awareness of one's own inevitable death, total focus on the present moment, the valuing of other people's lives above one's own, and being part of a larger religious community such as the Sangha, ummah, or church. All four of these exist in combat. The big difference is that the mystic sees heaven and the warrior sees hell. Whether combat is the dark side of the same version, or only something equivalent in intensity, I simply don't know. I do know that at the age of fifteen I had a mystical experience that scared the hell out of me and both it and combat put me into a different relationship with ordinary life and eternity.

Most of us, including me, would prefer to think of a sacred space as some light-filled wonderous place where we can feel good and find a way to shore up our psyches against death. We don't want to think that something as ugly and brutal as combat could be involved in any way with the spiritual. However, would any practicing Christian say that Calvary Hill was not a sacred space? Witness the demons of Tibetan Buddhism, ritual torture practiced by certain Native American tribes, the darker side of voodoo, or the cruel martyrdom of saints of all religions. Ritual torture or martyrdom can be either meaningless and terrible suffering or a profound religious experience, depending upon what the sufferer brings to the situation. The horror remains the same.

Combat is precisely such a situation.

Our young warriors are raised in possibly the only culture on the planet that thinks death is an option. Given this, it is no surprise that not only they but many of their ostensible religious guides, like the chaplain with the booze, enter the temple of Mars unprepared. Not only is such comfort too often delusional; it tends to numb one to spiritual reality and growth. Far worse, it has serious psychological and behavioral consequences.

To avoid, or at least mitigate, these consequences, warriors have to be able to bring meaning to this chaotic experience, i.e., an understanding of their situation at a deeper level than proficiency in killing. It can help them get through combat with their sanity relatively intact. It can help them from doing more harm than they need to. It is also a critical component in their ability to adjust when they return home."

~ Karl Marlantes, What It is Like to Go to War, 2011

Monday, October 10, 2011

La Dernière Ligne (Lebanon)

“Au revior," I call as I hop out of the car, “Et, merci… il faut du temps pour…” I trail off and gesture vague circles with my hands. “Digérer.” Assaad finishes for me.

It’s true: after talking with Assaad I always have many thoughts to digest. His ideas are lucid and his direction clear. Often it feels like he has a deeper understanding of my own project than I do.

Let me rewind: that morning we meet with Roger Assaf, Artistic director of Dowar Shams, a theatre in Tayouneh, to get his thoughts and advice. I sit listening as Roger and Assaad chat about the fact that they have crossed paths once before (‘67? No, ‘66. Assaad took a course under Roger, maybe he remembers…). The whole meeting, this banter included, is conducted in French for my benefit.

Then Assaad and I stay in the foyer upstairs to keep discussing the project.

We have definitely 3, maybe 4 ex-combatants of different parties onboard. Our aim is to create a storytelling piece that addresses the young generation and can tour to schools. The 2 new participants both feel the same about the process—the writing they are excited to be on board for, the performing is a bit beyond their scope. Good, understandable. So the brief has changed a bit: the actors we’ll sort out later, our job now is to write. 22 schools have signed up to receive whatever we come up with. So now we simply get to work…

It is dawning on me that my biggest creative task at the moment is to figure out how I, a non-Arabic speaking foreigner, can best contribute my artistic expertise to the creation of a text-based storytelling piece in Lebanese, about Lebanon. I think of other projects I’ve done in similar contexts and realize they were entirely body-based. Sure I devised a show in a language I don’t speak, but what I was looking at was rhythm, relationship, physical dynamics. Bodies in the space. Right now our collaborators are telling Assaad that their comfort zone is in language, not in movement. I have to honor that. I have to start there.

Getting a Lebanese writer is crucial. I have two weeks to do that, and CVs are trickling in now so that's good. Many of these questions about process will be answered, together, then. But there is another enormously potent question that my friend Erin asked me about a year ago, that keeps cycling through my mind: “Ailin, you spend so much time worrying about what you want to do, but I think you should start asking yourself what you have to give. What do you have to offer? What is needed that you have the skills to provide?” The deep wisdom of this question has been slowly making itself clearer in the time since Erin asked it.

Assaad and I have questions too. We compile a list. I start simple: What do the participants want to communicate to the youth? What do the youth want to know?

You’d be surprised, Assaad tells me. They want hero stories. They want to know how many people you killed, and how. They are submerged in the logic of war. He re-frames my question in a better way: What do we want the youth to take home from this piece?

Then we start to talk about the rehearsal process, and Assaad’s questions pour out in a confident stream:

What was the atmosphere that preceded the war?

How did you self-identify before the war?

What was your foreign affiliation? Who did you want to be like?

Who were the enemy, or other?

When did you decide to politically or militarily associate yourself with a group?

What was the reaction of your parents?

What was the exact moment or incident that pushed you to take up arms?

As I scramble to write these down, I think to myself how funny it is that Assaad is always telling me: “In terms of the artistic side of things, that’s your realm, I have no idea…” His pointed provocations alone could fuel a three-play trilogy. He’s a wellspring of theatrical creativity, he just doesn’t know it yet.

Question 8 is stated with the same matter-of-factness as the others: What was your journey from feeling fear, to feeling hatred, to enacting violence, to finally feeling nothing?

The question is “how did it happen for you, specifically.” But the trajectory is assumed. The trajectory is a fact.

I add, “And when did you start feeling again?” Assaad shakes his head, “Non, ça c’est la dernière ligne.” That’s the last last line. We’re not even close to getting to that question yet.

I understand why Assaad is such an inspiration. He knows exactly what he has to give. He sees his world and he sees the problems it faces and he sees very clearly how he fits into them. He’s also very trusting, and patient with me as I wrestle to define my own place in all of this. He knows we’re on a journey, and he knows I’ll get us there eventually.

At we reached the end of our meeting with Roger, Assaad looked to me and said in English, “What else, director?” I smiled to myself, wondering who was directing who.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

A Single Story (Lebanon)

If you asked me to articulate the driving principle behind this project, or indeed any of my work, I’d direct you to Chimamanda Adichie’s TED talk on the danger of a single story. If you have 15 spare minutes, check it out; if you don’t, then to rather clumsily sum up her point: the last thing I want to do as a storyteller is oversimplify reality and reinforce stereotypes.

Adichie says something smart about stereotypes: the problem is not that they’re false; the problem is that they’re incomplete. I find myself struggling with how to begin this next entry, because I’ve been grappling with a sensitive subject over the past few days, and I’m not entirely sure I’m going to be able to communicate my experiences—or even my thoughts—in a way that’s not dangerously incomplete.

The difficulty lies in providing context. There is no such thing as a fact that exists in isolation, devoid of context, but context is much more difficult to convey than a provocative and dramatic one-off event. My last three days have been punctuated by a couple of jarring events, but utterly steeped in the context that allows me to understand them. After spending so much time dissecting the impossibility of documenting whole truths, it’s funny to now find myself in a situation where I desperately wish I could.

A dear friend, let’s call him “Karim,” invites me to come and visit his home in the South. At first I’m under the impression that the primary purpose is business; I realize as the visit unfolds that Karim hasn’t brought me here to meet with anyone. He’s brought me here because there are things that he needs to share with me; things he needs me to see.

The South is beautiful. Winding dirt roads and craggy rocks are hemmed in by 360˚ of green mountains. I spend the night at Karim’s sister-in-law’s, who takes me in without hesitation despite the fact that we show up unannounced. I discover how much I’ve taken English and French for granted in Beirut, when I realize that here I can’t communicate even the most basic things—like how long I’ve been in Lebanon and whether or not I’m hungry—in Arabic. We resort to gestural interactions: I play with the kittens while Karim’s niece and her friend impishly sneak me hits of ‘waterpipe’ (shisha is apparently an Egyptian term), Karim occasionally looking up from the laptop to tut disapprovingly.

In the morning we have a few turkish coffees with my hostess and then hit the road. Our first stop is Mleeta, Hizbullah’s ‘Tourist Landmark of the Resistance.’ There is something absurdly cartoon-like about the whole layout, like a war-themed Disney Land, and I spend the morning wondering which tourists the architects had in mind when they conceived this place. Tourists from Beirut? Tourists from other parts of the Arab world? Not American tourists, surely…although I do get a giggle imagining buying my family some souvenir mugs emblazoned with Hassan Nasrallah’s emblematic cheery face.

In the first ten minutes or so of arriving, we are herded into a large cinema to watch an introductory video about the museum. Jarring event number one: the video. A bit of which someone has kindly posted on YouTube to save me the pages it would take to describe it. The reel was played a second time with English subtitles, but my first time through it was only Arabic, so if you don’t read Arabic and you just clicked on the link, then I had the exact same experience you just had, only in 120-decibel Dolby digital surround sound.

Now I’ve been back and forth with myself on whether or not to put this up here. The Roman Salute in particular made me take about a zillion steps backwards, and this is me we’re talking about—someone who loves Mark Thomas and reads Ilan Pappé. That said, I was prepared for hatred; hatred I’ve seen in a lot of forms. What was new and therefore a bigger shock to my system was the unabashed link between sacred spirituality and violent battle. When the battleground was described as the “link between earth and heaven,” a fuse got blown in my little American brain.

After some thought, I realized why. “Holy war” is not something you believe exists in reality when you are a politically progressive citizen of a country that is a militarily aggressive power. We're pretty convinced that our wars are being fought over oil or money or neo-colonialism or something else vague that really isn’t worth killing and dying for. So “Holy war” is a concept that exists only in the fantasies of left-leaning citizens of Western nations...but it does exist. The human instinct for holy war remains heavily imbedded in us—some distant cultural memory from a simpler more idealistic time perhaps—and we grow up understanding what the dynamics of such a war would be. An inhumane invader arrives. He commits atrocities on innocents. He wants to take something that is yours. He poses an immediate threat to your wellbeing and the wellbeing of everyone you love. It is a 2-dimensional situation: the enemy is attacking, and you are defending. Braveheart fights a holy war. Rob Roy fights a holy war. The Spartans in 300 fight a holy war. And because these are clear-cut uncomplicated fictions, we allow ourselves to get sucked into the marriage of violence and all that is holy. Carmina Burana bellows in the background as steel comes crashing down upon steel, and we feel morally safe believing in it, because we know it’s a simple fantasy, and we know that Russel Crowe isn’t a pawn of some medieval military-industrial complex. He’s just right. And the other guy is just evil.

Seeing this kind of over-simplistic Hollywood cinematography applied to the real world is something that makes us chuckle and cringe for fairly obvious reasons. And I think that if this Mleeta video were as baseless as, say, our invasion of Iraq in search of WMDs, then my reaction would be to not post it, not process it, not even really give it much space in my thoughts—I’d label it, store it, and move on. The problem is, having studied up on the history of this region, and having spent time with the people who have lived it, I have to admit to myself that the situation here—while still obviously complex—comes much closer to resembling those Hollywood war movies than any of our meddling American wars do. Especially from the perspective of these communities living in the South.

Let me put it another way: Karim is intelligent, educated, and well-traveled. His business partner, “Zeina,” equally so. Both Karim and Zeina brought me to this place, to this video, because they have nothing to hide—they wanted me to see it. And they wanted me to see the context that created it. It is hugely tragic, Karim tells me, that children in Lebanon are brought here to learn about rockets and mortar instead of Mickey Mouse and Alice in Wonderland. But “when you have a bear on your back,” Karim explains, “you puff up your chest. You make yourself big.” Again and again Karim tells me that this place is “pure propaganda.” This leads to a misunderstanding that we later have to meet about to discuss and clarify. See, to me, “propaganda” is a dirty word. But Karim and Zeina have experienced things in their lifetimes that I have not; they have an urgent desire to protect future generations from going through what they went through, and to them, another invasion and occupation is a very real threat. A threat that very well might call for posturing and bravado and Hollywood montages to dramatic swells of choral music which celebrate the last generation of soldiers, while instilling hope and strength in the next one.

The two points that Karim keeps circling back to are the tragedy of this place, but also, its necessity. I am not in any position to guess about whether or not Lebanon is under a real threat of foreign invasion currently, but being the buffer between Iran and Israel in today’s political climate would certainly make me uneasy. And I suppose that regardless of what can be said of Hizbullah’s existence today, its origin as a resistance movement rooted in self-defense is indisputable; in the period of battle that this museum was built to commemorate (1982 - 2000) all fighting was on Lebanese soil. From the year I was born to the year that I graduated high school, Israeli troops occupied South Lebanon. “Occupation” means different things to different people. To Zeina it meant that as a child, her 10-year-old friend was murdered at a ‘routine’ checkpoint. To Karim it meant exile. I find myself wondering if I would believe in violent resistance enough to psychologically prepare my children for it if I had spent the first 18 years of my life living under a violent and unstable occupation. We pass an installation—a foxhole kitted out with weapons, the Koran, and speakers piping the sing-song prayers of former Hizbullah leader Abbas Al-Moussawi. I ask Karim what he thinks of the “holy” aspect of all of this and he shrugs. “Religion is something you use to charge people up when you have nothing else on your side. These guys are fighting huge tanks and the latest US-made artillery with Kalishnokovs. They need religion to give them that extra boost, because logic will tell them that they are on the losing side, that they will lose. They need something bigger than logic. They need faith.”

On our drive away from Mleeta we stop at Karim’s favorite fig tree and fill a massive paper bag with armfuls of the succulent fruit. I’ve been going back-and-forth with both Karim and Zeina about the problematic presentation of Hizbullah’s message, trying to explain to them that “holy war” to us is strange and scary, and intentionally propagandizing our own youth even more so, and that I don’t think any of my friends back home would be inclined to open their hearts to their cause if everything they knew of Hizbullah was gleaned from this museum. I find myself about to say something about an appeal to justice being the key to winning Western hearts and minds, and my words catch in my throat. I realize the cultural chauvinism underlying my assumption that trying to win the support of Western citizens would be in any way strategic or even useful. What are we going to do to protect their families? Start a facebook group?

Stop number two is the Khiam detention center museum, a shell of a building, mostly rubble since Israeli bombers razed it in 2006. A dusty missile casing from that operation lies scattered in pieces, on one of them is scrawled: “Made in the USA.” Khiam is a tiny village, and coming to this “museum” feels more like stopping in on an unknown landmark than visiting an official tourist site. We are the only visitors today. Here there is none of the slick Hollywood packaging of the first museum, nor is there any need for it. A large, droopy-eyed middle-aged man sees us approach and comes ambling over to us. Karim mutters under his breath, “Wow, he’s still here.”

The man, Abu Ali, has been giving tours at Khiam since his release from the prison in 2000. His descriptions have the air of a therapeutic exorcism; there is an intense matter-of-factness with which he carries out his demonstrations, slamming the cell doors and knocking on steel containment boxes with the same focus with which he bends his stiff old body into the various stress positions to illustrate the ways that he was tortured in his 4 years there. He shuts us into the 3’x3’ solitary confinement cell that he spent 5 months in, and bangs on the heavy steel the door from the outside, explaining that a guard would do this every hour or so to prevent him from sleeping. The sound is deafening. He shows us the airhole and explains that in the winter months water would drip down it so that you were standing or sitting in a 6” pool. Karim is translating all of this for me as Abu Ali continues in his quiet, straightforward tone, without a hint of self-pity or anger. Emotions don’t enter the tone, this is beyond all that. By hearing Abu Ali’s story, I am participating in some sort of daily ritualistic healing practice. We pass a rose bush, and our guide takes the time to carefully clip four of them, handing one to each of us with a smile before taking us to see the cells in Block A.

You’ve all read plenty about torture so I don’t need to do the shock-factor thing and detail everything Abu Ali lived and said. In any case, what was most moving was not the horrible tortures that he described, but rather the understated way in which he offered them up to us. The prison complex could have been entirely obliterated by the bombing and it wouldn’t have mattered—because Abu Ali is the Khiam detention centre museum. A tired, disconnected, bear of a man coming back each day to tell his story again. To place the bag over his own head, to point to the spots on his body where he was electrocuted, to crouch awkwardly down to show how and where his hands were tied to what. At one point he says this: “Far worse than the physical torture was the psychological torture. They tie you up and then bring your sister or your wife and they strip her naked and do things to her and make you watch.” He says one last thing in Arabic and then walks away, shaking his arm as if to be rid of the thought. I look to Karim who translates: “Mountains would not stand up to this.”

Jarring event number two: I realize that if someone did that to my mother, I would kill them. Then I realize what I just thought and amend it to “probably kill them.” Then I really mull it over and think, “actually probably not, but I can totally understand how someone would.” Then I consider the fact that my mom wouldn’t want me to kill for her, probably, but by then the whole thought process is too far removed from the initial emotional impulse to be anything other than cerebral white noise. The initial impulse lasted for maybe half a second. For half a second, I was a killer. Perhaps more importantly, for that half a second, the killing of this hypothetical torturer was tied to protecting what was sacred and holy and loved. If I had to choose a soundtrack to accompany the act, you can bet there’d be drums and a choir of sopranos.

But this thought seems small-minded, almost, in the face of what Abu Ali is doing here. This place feels so much more real than Mleeta because…because Khiam is lonely and hugely tragic. There is nothing cool about Khiam. There is definitely nothing cool about Abu Ali. He’s not hot shit. He’s not showing the bastards what-for. He’s just a very damaged man who is healing, slowly slowly, knowing full well that he’ll never heal completely. And I realize, after hours of debate and clarifying conversations, that the same tragedy is self-evident for Karim at Mleeta as well. Because he understands its cause, its effect, and its deep and unchangeable meaning about what South Lebanon is today as a direct result of its violent and imposed past. “For there to be mosquitoes, there has to be a swamp.”

There are a couple of prison guards’ uniforms in the room that houses the model of what Khiam Prison looked like before 2006. Abu Ali points to them and smiles for the second time today. “We use them as rags. To clean.” he says. The smile is shy, and this symbol feels more like a move towards peace and healing than this morning’s military display of bravado. On the other hand, if it weren’t for Hizbullah’s military strength, Abu Ali might still be in Khiam prison today.

Explaining Hizbullah’s place in Lebanese society is not something anyone can do in a paragraph. The one thing that’s fairly unanimous is a respect for their defense of the South and success in expelling the occupying forces in 2000.

I’m still sure I believe in peace above all else, but I also know that if I was living in South Lebanon, I’d probably sleep sounder at night knowing that Hizbullah existed. I’m realizing that a lot of my peaceful principles rely quite heavily on an assumption of the fundamental goodness of other human beings, and human institutions by extension. Being a pacifist is a privilege afforded to me by the safe conditions under which I have consistently lived. I don’t think that my rules are bad, I just don’t know that they’re universally applicable. I doubt they’d stand up under the weight of Abu Ali’s life.

Last stop is Fatima’s gate, along the Lebanese-Israeli border. For those of you who are faithful Return-Blog followers, an earlier question is answered: there is totally a long row of child-sized purple-and-yellow gym equipment dotting the Lebanese side of the fence. Karim can’t read the plaques on the machines because they’re in Farci, meaning that the design and construction of this stretch of recreational devices must have originated in Iran. Somehow, in the context of all of the rest of it, this provocative display is more sad than angering. I don’t think anyone would allow their own children to be used to wage psychological or physical war if they believed that an alternative was viable.

There are so many more things to say or debate or highlight or concede, but this entry is way (way) too long as it is. Having sent this text to a dozen friends, absorbed pages of insightful response, had hours of discussions, been challenged as possibly “biased” and “Western” and “pro-Hezbolla” and “anti-Muslim” and “anti-Israel” and received a slew of other contradicting critiques, all I can do is stop at some point and offer up this one imperfect but carefully considered story, and trust you all to keep seeking out more.

photo of Abu Ali ©2008 Alice Fordham, Now Lebanon

Monday, September 26, 2011

Storm (Lebanon)

When it rains in Beirut, it pours. Water smashing against windows, deafening thunderclaps, roaring tin-roof-cacophony…real act-of-God stuff. It’s been storming sporadically all week; each time it does I feel indescribably small, and for some reason this is thrilling. My limbs go soft and I pad around the house aimlessly, grinning like a toddler.

I’ve been hanging out with photographers, and I think it’s affected the way I communicate. Overwhelmed by the impossibility of relaying what I’m living here, I anchor myself in snapshots—carefully cropped moments—hoping that in these still frames, some movement will come through.

I’ve earmarked so many of these moments to come back to, once I’ve collected enough pieces to map a coherent narrative. But it’s not happening, because my days—like this place—are contradictory and fractured; and as I wait for it all to tie together I can feel that my meticulously stored images are slipping away, fading.

Bilal is crouched down snapping pictures of Nour’s face through her veil. He shifts and dodges like a boxer, while commanding her to lift and lower and turn and what-have-you. Nour giggles and follows his instructions while nonchalantly reading my future in my coffee grounds. She is the picture of a modern woman being pictured as a traditional woman. I am confused by everything, even my own attempt to describe this moment. I find myself wishing I had brought my camera to take this picture of Bilal taking this picture of Nour.


Assaad Chaftari meets me on the bottom floor of the Haptuur Mall. He is softspoken and handles everything he touches—his spoon, his coffee cup, the bite-size cupcakes that he pushes towards me—with shaky tenderness. If you google him you’ll learn that he is a past LF intelligence officer and current peace activist. If you sit with him for three hours, you’ll learn that he can’t eat sugar, he has a grown son, and he advocates spending half and hour at the start of each day in quiet reflection—“And if you’re very busy and stressed, a full hour. This time is your compass.” Assad wants to gather a small and balanced team of ex-fighters together to make a play that can tour to schools. Thrilled, I e-mail him a proposal the next day, and he thanks me and asks for some time to digest. I’ve already incorporated his half hour of quiet into my daily routine, so the waiting just feels like the next logical lesson. I soften around the edges as the I settle into my third week in Lebanon; pushing less, and listening perhaps a bit more.

Fateh Azzam greets me with a warmth that manages to fill out his massive air-conditioned office at the UNHCR. He smirks a bit at the mention of a “well-balanced team of creators.” “Growing up in the Palestinian camps, I was subjected to a lot of these cross-border initiatives where we all create together and we all learn that we’re the same. These programs don’t work. We know we’re the same, we know we want the same things. So your play can’t end with that, like it’s a new discovery. You have to start there. Start with: we know we all are the same, and we all want peace, so why can’t we get it?” He talks about the corruption within the parties; the mafia-family structure of the confessional system; the impossibility of social advancement without self-identifying along political-religious lines; and the ease with which leaders can break up unified social movements by prodding old wounds and stirring up heat between different religious groups. Yesterday’s meeting stoked my idealism; today’s reminds me to stay savvy. Hearts and minds.

Beirut is small; you run into your friend, he buys you a coffee, then leaves you with his friend, who takes you to the next place. This is how I end up in the office of Reuters International, deep in conversation with chief photographer Jamal. He shows me his pictures of the border with Israel. There are tanks on the Israeli side of the fence, and a children’s playground on the Lebanese side. A boy plays intently on an orange structure, apparently unaware of his own symbolic significance. The message is powerful, a kind of defiant pacifism.

I learn that there is no nationally-recognized history curriculum, and that each community either teaches their own version of events post-1946, or doesn’t teach them at all. This strikes me as an incredible theme for a high school touring piece. I drop a quick note to Assaad, and then sink back into waiting.

Religions begin to expand their definitions to include languages, mannerisms, city blocks, surnames. I feel like a child being taught gender. Things that are obvious to everyone else are just starting to creep into my understanding. Blue is for boys. French is for Christians. Girls play with dolls. Muslims drink jallab. These are things too obvious for anyone to bother saying out loud.

A new friend expresses distrust of an old one, which throws me. On the surface his reasons seem personal. I pry, gently. Hezbollah and Hariri are mentioned, and the distrust starts to look more and more political at its core. For some reason this comforts me enormously.

I am at TEDx Beirut. While Sabine is clowning around (literally—she’s a “theatrical volunteer”), I’m making small talk with a girl from Mad Skillz, a social media advocacy group. Our conversation works its way to South Lebanon. She mentions the playground at the border. “It’s a gym,” she says, “for training children.” The message is powerful, a kind of defiant future threat.

I read Sabine that last paragraph, and she makes a face like she’s eaten a lemon. “Where is this park?” she demands. I nod agreement to her implicit protest and go back to my computer. Google yields nothing about a “gym for training children.” I do find quite a lot about a public picnic area built in Maroun ar-Ras, which was an area of massive devastation in the wake of 2006. Atop a hill in this park flies the flag of Iran, the country that bankrolled the project. Is this pure propaganda or a generous gift to local families? Is it peaceful or aggressive? Both. Neither. Every story in Lebanon has at least two sides, and each of those sides has countless versions.

Assad sends his reply. Regarding funding, he has this to say: “A bank, or Foundation Georges Frem (not political) could sponsor. We do not want any political color at any level.”

Mahmoud Natout is the last TED speaker of the morning. He positions himself halfway offstage and talks about his reluctance to engage in sound-bite media. “TED talks are supposed to be talks that spin heads. If I can spin your head one way in ten minutes, then someone else could just as easily spin it the other way the next ten. If I can change your life in just ten minutes, then I am seriously concerned” He’s my second favorite speaker of the morning. My first-favorite said this: “Conflict is data. Don’t jump to diffuse it, you might pass up a valuable opportunity to learn something.”

Sabine notes that after just two weeks the way I talk about the war has changed. I hunker down and speak in fast, hushed tones. Everyone here either does that, she says, or speaks deliberately loudly, forcing their opinions on everyone within earshot. It’s too big, I tell her. It’s too big to figure out or approach right. No matter what I do… “you’ll fuck it up,” she states, finishing my sentence for me. “No matter what you do, you’ll have people who love you and people who hate you and you will fuck it up.” “I know, of course I will” I say, getting the same toddler-grin that I get in a thunderstorm. “It’s just way too big to understand.”

Photo credits: Bilal Kabalan, Bilal Kabalan, Jamal Saidi, Unknown, Unknown

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Little Things (Lebanon)

My first week here I slid quite happily into Sabine’s daily rhythm of walking down the street to her parents’ for dinner, spending weekends at their 2nd house in the mountains, and nipping downstairs to her sister Cynthia’s apartment for coffee in the morning or a bite around lunchtime. When Sabibi left for Jordan, I expected to step back into a more solitary routine, as my direct link to the family was temporary severed, but to the contrary the hospitality only grew more generous and insistent.

Sabine’s mum calls me every day, at the same time, like clockwork. The clock she follows doesn’t correspond to the hour of the day so much as the time that’s past since I last ate (usually, it’s in the 5-10 minutes after I’ve unthinkingly scarfed a bread-and-yogurt wrap between calls and emails upstairs). Our pattern has taken on the air of a small but important daily ritual. The phone rings. My stuffed stomach chides me as I sigh and pick up:
- Ammiiiiiraaa!”
- “Ailin, where are you?’
- “I’m just upstairs.”
- “Ok. Come and eat.”
- “Oh no, I’ve just eaten!”
- “You’re not coming?”
- “Um, I’m not hungry…but I’ll come for a coffee.”
- “Ok, Y’alla, bye.”

I actually think the eating beforehand is a subconscious strategy on my part to communicate that I’m going over there for more than just the food. I carry an enormous affection for the Choucair clan, due in large part, I think, to the similarities between Sabine’s family and my mother’s family in Japan, with whom I spent every summer of my childhood. I struggle to express this affection, however, and this bit is due to the differences. In Japan expressing love is very easy, you just do chores. Here all of the chores are done by Rahima and Hannah—the live-in maids—who are constantly shooing me away from the sink, incredulous laughter dancing in their eyes. So instead of doing the dishes, I just hang out. I play with Mada and Georges, Sabine’s adorable Niece and Nephew (ages 7 and 3), whose fluency in French actually allows for more nuanced and adult discussions than those that I am able to have with their grandparents. I sit beside Naoum, the content, quiet patriarch, and watch the news in Arabic, entertaining myself by trying to recognize the letters of the backwards lilting script as it scrolls across the screen. I ramble about my various projects to Cynthia who—despite her years as a documentarian and her deep knowledge of the complexity of subjects I treat so simply—nods and listens and politely refrains from correcting me.

On Saturday Amira took me shopping to her favorite secret hotspots—a new department store (the kind that is already advertising 50%-off sales within the first week of opening), followed by a tucked-away “All American” store which, she bragged in whispers, was chock-full of US good at US prices—the import taxes magically evaporating under the mysterious dealings of Hezbollah.

The funniest things will melt your heart. For me, it was watching Sabine’s mother picking her way through these stores for deals, like an intense and curious squirrel, reminding me so much of my own mom on her shopping trips in Japan. “What’s this?” She asks, holding up a pair of BBQ prongs. “It’s for barbecues; for picking up meat.” I explain. “Ah very good,” she states, checking the price despite the fact that cooking outside to be in the sun is a totally foreign concept in this country, where people take every opportunity to hide in the shade, “and not expensive!” After a second of thought, she puts it back. We do this for literally an hour and a half, each passing minute making me simultaneously more bored and irritated, and more totally in love with her.

I find myself thinking about 2006, trying to imagine what that year was like for Sabine. I was in London with her that summer, when she received the news that the war had kicked off, and that her ticket home was unredeemable as the airport had been bombed. That whole month Sabine was stuck in London with us, and I am realizing now that I will never know what she was going through, not ever. It is incomprehensible to me to imagine my baby nephew and niece and sister and parents in a far away country in mortal peril at the hands of other human beings. It is not because I lack compassion or imagination. It is because war is utterly senseless, it has no place in people’s lives, least of all in the sacred and vulnerable space of one’s family. I think of all of the images of war that reach us; images of veiled mothers wailing with their bleeding children in their hands. I figure the journalists missed a trick. No one who has not lived it can connect with the image of a person 5 minutes after they’ve been bombed. The picture they should have shown us is the one that was taken 5 minutes before, as the child ran off giggling with a stolen piece of knefe; his grandmother looking up from her game of “bejeweled” on her ipad to scold him and tell him to finish his rice first.

Amira finally feels satisfied with her selection, and I follow her, relieved, to the till where she pays. She opens her wallet, and I am jolted by one silly little detail—the big bills at the back are clipped together by a paperclip. I know without having to ask that the paperclip is used to mark out some round number of dollars. 100 or perhaps 1000. I know this because it’s the exact same system my mother uses, and Amira is buying her carefully selected deals out of the exact same carefully organized bounty that my mother carries around with her back home. So funny that after all of the stories and photos and bleeding children and wailing mothers have failed in any way to move or even touch me, thinking back on this tiny little paperclip has me literally sobbing as I write this.

The funniest things will break your heart.

Friday, September 16, 2011

(Re)Writing History (Lebanon)

Carmen Jaoudé from the ITCJ starts my day off right, offering me a cappuccino and a reading list the length of my arm (thank you Carmen). We’re all of course a bit stumped on the “official network of veterans” issue*, but she spends an hour rattling off an impressive portfolio of relevant artists and research, and I am reminded how much creative work exists already; how important it is for me to be a student here before anything else.

My London production team has been bouncing around e-mails with phrases like, “an exploration of the process of creation that the human spirit undertakes after tragedy”; I’m realizing that it’s all under my nose. I still feel a desire to contribute, to build, to participate in that creativity here-and-now; I just also feel compelled to listen for and bear witness to the enormous body of art that currently exists in Lebanon today.

A bit of trivia: I named our theatre company ‘Témoin’ (witness) because I have a special affinity for the French interpretation of that word—the act of witnessing does not exist as a verb in French. One can only "be a witness" passively: "être témoin." The active verb, "témoigner," means to testify. And that is what theatre is at the end of the day, no? Testimony. The witnessing and communicating of what goes on in life. This year has changed my perspective on not just theatre but storytelling generally—its vital social and personal function in not just understanding but also forming ourselves and our realities. I don’t think “creating” and “testifying” are so far apart at the end of the day. We tell stories about ourselves and our world constantly, in order to form personal and cultural narratives that dictate how we see ourselves and respond to the world around us. There is creativity in those stories, there has to be—there’s just too much going on at any given time for there to be any “objective” way of understanding anything. “Truth” is just a fancy word for jarringly penetrating awareness; it is found in the beautiful and artful juxtaposition of fragments drawn from our experiences. There is a sense in which it is impossible to collect and retransmit information in any purely objective way. We can rattle off facts and figures, sure, but in order for the truth of a moment to survive the transmission from witness to audience, an enormous amount of creativity is necessarily involved.

“History” is just “art” with a different set of facts at its centre. Which group did what under whom and what year…it’s working on a macro level, is all. Equally important is what color the fabric of Alexei’s shirt was, what the wind smelled like that day in Ashrafieh, what beer Zeina’s brother was drinking... but there are so many such details that documenting them would not only be tedious, but impossible. We have to sift and choose. We have to find the details that fit together in revelatory ways. We have to build stories. And in a way this premise that artists begin with—that objective documentation is a lost cause from the start—frees them up to pursue the subjective truth, which (I’m going to go ahead and say it) humans are more attracted to at the end of the day anyways. You can argue with me on this one, but then explain why it is that most of my friends know more about Sierra Leone from the movie “Blood Diamond” than they do from any historical document—articles, books, documentary film—that have been published or released on the country to date? The irony, of course, is that the artists are the least interested in getting their facts straight, but their stories are the ones that we consume most readily, allowing them to define for us what’s “true” and “real.”

On Carmen’s recommendation I bought two books: Yalo, which is a fictional novel about a Lebanese ex-fighter (written by prominent novelist and ex-Fatah fighter Elias Khoury); as well as A History of Modern Lebanon, Fawwaz Traboulsi’s extensive and astute analysis of the political and social factors leading up to the 1975 war. Which book contains more “truth?” I don’t know. Both are obviously important, I don’t want to compare apples and oranges here. But no prizes for guessing which one I am most compelled to curl up with next to a fan and a bottle of cool water this evening.

*A tangent: today I came home to an e-mail from the IDRAAC, which is the main Mental Health Services NGO in Lebanon. It read: “Thank you for your email. As you are aware “Military Veteran” is not really a concept in Lebanon. We do not have any formal networks with veterans. Our work is more on individual level. Your best bet would be to contact the Ministry of Defense. If you need further information, please do not hesitate to contact us.” (top)

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Ugly American (Lebanon)

So I’ve had fun playing the foreign clown. Some of the slip-ups have been pretty run-of-the-mill tourist things, e.g. taking a “bus” instead of a “service,” hugely overpaying the driver, and getting dropped off miles from home without any kind of map. Other faux pas were a bit more daft in hindsight—like my assumption that everyone in Lebanon is fluently trilingual, just because all the people I met in the first week (through Sabine) happen to be.

We get such a kick out of my Americanisms that I find myself intentionally disregarding the little taboos (“You can’t buy only two tomatoes at a time!”) to provoke the benevolent ribbing that ensues. I’ve learned that the humor in these situations is directly proportional to the rigidity of the rule being broken, so it makes perfect sense that I’m met with the biggest chuckles when I start to describe my project, and what I hope to do here.

I get it. After a week here, I get the joke perfectly. I don’t know if I can articulate it—the punchline might get lost in translation—but I’ll try.

The Lebanese civil war lasted 15 years between 1975 and 1990. There is very little unanimous agreement as to what it was about or what started it or even what exactly happened at each stage. Militia groups cropped up in every corner—split along religious lines, socio-political lines, class lines, and ethnic lines—and often these lines criss-crossed and overlapped. Some members of the oligarchical elite manipulated popular movements to steer the political situation in their favor. Some personally motivated, mafia-backed operations were coopted by social movements and grew sprawlingly out of any one person’s control. Organizations that took part as independent fighting entities include the LF, GC, KRF, Noumour, PSP, LCP, COA, SSNP, MB, SLA, LNM, LNRF, PLO, Amal, Hezbollah, LAF, PFLP, DFLP…

Get it? No? Okay, let me try again. Imagine you subscribed to an ideology as a kid. Maybe someone you knew got shot and it pissed you off and you wanted to get the bastards back. Maybe you were up to your ears in repeated injustice, and there was one organization out of all of them that genuinely had your people’s interest at heart; a beacon in all of the insanity. Maybe your big brother was a fighter and a family hero. It’s not hard to imagine, we all subscribe to ideologies.

Within and in addition to the 20+ national parties, there were both official and non-official interventions throughout the 15-year period from neighboring nations—notably Syria and Israel, as well as Iran and Iraq. Foreign involvement was so extensive that even the term 'civil' war is quite rightfully contested, as is the existence of any purely 'Lebanese' party. At some point or another, almost all of the parties were aligned with or fighting against almost all of the other parties. Because of the complexity of foreign involvement and strategic maneuvering, combatants frequently found themselves aligned with militias that didn’t share their ideological or religious views (at one point, Syria and Israel were both propping up the Maronite-dominated government, technically putting them on the same side, though for vastly different political reasons). Conversely, fighters also quite often found themselves in the position of—literally—firing at their brothers.

Imagine you lose sight of the ideology. Imagine the dust settles and no one can seem to tell you what the heck you’ve been fighting over the last 15 years. Or imagine that you still believe quite strongly in what you fought for. Either way, with 20+ parties in the mix, coming out as an ex-combatant for any one of them is statistically going to piss off 95% percent of your neighbors. And by “piss off,” I mean, “they might blame you for the death of their mother.”

Imagine that a polite amnesia grips your nation. Not a childish act of denial, but a rational—perhaps even wise—enforced attitude of quiet. There are things we won’t discuss for a bit. “Ideology” is kind of a dirty word. People are mourning. Let’s not enter into any kind of conversation that could stir things up; lead to more confusion and blame. The war we talk about, sure, unendingly. “We are bored with talking about the war.” Victims we can talk about, we are all victims. But combatants? Combatants fought for a party, and “party” is a dirty word…I won’t allow my children to support a party. Ask my children who they support, and they’ll tell you, “Brazil.”

It’s no coincidence that, in a 2009 documentary about the war, only 1 of the 6 ex-fighters interviewed chooses to remain anonymous; and of the 6, he’s the only one who expresses a continued belief in the stance of his party—the only one whose narrative doesn’t include “I feel manipulated and betrayed, and the war was a huge mistake.” I don’t think he’s actually a minority, by any means. I just think most ex-fighters wouldn’t go anywhere near a camera.

Now. Imagine that an American clown wanders into Beirut and starts to naively and systematically break all of the unspoken rules. She wears chunky foam flip-flops (more of an eye-roll than a laugh); she gets stuck in the elevator because she rides it just before the daily 6pm power-outage (okay, that’s pretty funny); she asks for plastic bags to take the dog for a walk (she wants to do what with the poop?!); and she’s planning to network with ex-soldiers—not just to talk with them about the war, but actually to do some sort of creative “art” thing together (hilarious. oh my god, hilarious).

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Beirut Skyline (Lebanon)

Room with a view. I'm literally speechless as Sabine shows me into my new home. Her flat sits atop a ten-story apartment block. Like all of the homes I've seen here, it takes up the entire floor, with wall-to-wall windows on all sides giving the feeling that you're floating on air.

The lot of disused Army vehicles at the base of the apartment is a nice touch, although I wouldn't really call it a coincidence--they're just part of the standard landscape.

Dissecting the project with Sabine has made me consider and reconsider so much of the terminology that I've thrown around in the lead-up to this. Coming here I knew that the "home" part of the "homecoming" would be a huge point of focus. A journey is defined as much by its destination as its point of departure, and one of the questions I had coming here was "what is home to an ex-fighter in Lebanon?" This home is already too many things to put in a blog, and I've only been here a couple of days. Sabine has been working with another Lebanese artist, Chantal, to collect personal stories from towns and villages throughout the country, and has compiled them into a gorgeous storytelling piece. She performed it for me in Arabic and then translated it afterward, and I realized how much there is here, how specific and textured this place is, and how far I am from understanding what it would mean to come home to it.

There's also the issue of the journey. A Western soldier coming home leaves a physical space behind to return to a different geographical location. Not so here. It's interesting to note the way that a place's history so drastically affects and shapes language. "Veteran"--as a person in civilian society who has the special status of having lived through war--is almost a nonexistent concept here; there are soldiers and then there are civilians. All of them have survived the war.

But those words I had already mulled over; I expected I'd have to examine them. Here's one that caught me off-guard though: "creativity." I was probing about the likelihood of organizing an informal showing to share the work created, and after about five minutes of faffing Sabine came out with, "Ok listen, we can organize anything, we can do poetry or theatre or whatever. And people will come, definitely, because they're my friends. But everyone here is bored with talking about the war. We've done a lot of it already." Perfect! A creative challenge: what can we present that won't be boring, here, in this context, for this audience? That's what creativity is, right? Something untested, something new. I had never before considered the audience and context as such huge determinants in defining "creativity," but of course they are. Of course they are. And what's really thrilling about all of this is the fact that the audiences here are going to guide us in creating something that will be totally specific, totally born of this time and place. If I can manage to share even a piece of that with audiences in the UK, they're going to know much much more than if I just came back with interviews and news clippings to compile into something "creative" back home in London.