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.