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.