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.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Missed Connections (Hungary)

Settled on the floor at Gatwick airport, huddled up next to an outlet with my computer in my lap, as commuter feet march by me in all directions. MA615 to Budapest is delayed by an hour, and I’m uncharacteristically unfazed. I’m not even annoyed by the prospect of having to spend the whole night in Hungary after I miss my connecting flight, as I almost certainly will. Apparently, I’m not in any hurry.

Let’s not think too hard about what it means that I’m starting this trip with a missed connection. Foreshadowing is just a literary device, right?

All joking aside, that’s obviously my biggest (perhaps only) fear going into this thing: “what if we don’t connect?” What happens when you give yourself an entire year to meet someone, or many someones, and you come back having only scratched the surface? Ticked boxes and snapped photos without actually changing or being changed by anyone? Without having made new friends, without loving new people?

It dawns on me now that the whole “collaborative creation” brief is just a sneaky ploy, another way of upping my dopamine supply (and hopefully everyone else’s) in the non-zero-sum game that is life. Because deep down I know that when people build together, when they create together, they love each other. That’s all love is, really, a sort of bewildered excitement and gratitude as you join forces with other people—superheroes, each with superpowers so different from your own—to make something bigger and better than you could have ever dreamed up on your own. A life, a family, a play, anything.

We ran devising workshops with military vets in California last year, when we were building “Nobody’s Home.” We spent a week on the phones—in my hometown, mind you, where I spent my whole life and speak the native language—and no one came the first weekend. Another week on the phone and we got 4 participants. But what a 4! And we came away from that month with new friends.

I guess…this blog is a funny thing. An attempt at some next step. Or even a quantum leap. Because I know I can spend a month on the phone if need be, learn Arabic if need be, find even just one or two war veterans if it comes to that and build something together…and if I come away having learned something new, felt something new, I’ll be satisfied. But that kind of connection is a given, it’s organic, it’s what happens when you parallel play. How do you share what happens in Beirut between an upstart artist and some LAF vets with a playwright, then a cast, and finally a theatergoing public in London? What can remain of the original impulse? How does it transform, and what comes out the other side?

All great questions to mull over on a sleepless night in a Hungarian airport departure lounge, I’m sure.