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)