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?’