“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.