In war-ravaged Beirut, as conflict ebbs, the arts begin to flow

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The lights went out on Masrah Beirut theater not so long ago. xTC The government's electricity department, struggling to undo the damage of more than 15 years of war, overhauled the electrical current supplied to this seafront quarter of West Beirut, switching over from 110 volts to 220 volts.

No one bothered to warn the theater. Thousands of dollars in equipment was damaged. But for the crew, bent on returning artistic enlightenment to what once claimed to be the center of Arab culture, it didn't take long to turn the spotlight on again.

The opening of Masrah Beirut is a landmark for Lebanon. It is one more sign that this country is finally shaking off the civil war, that it is girding itself to compete again for the mantle of the capital of Arab culture.

"To rebuild this city as a center for intellectual life is the biggest battle we have to fight. But I'm optimistic," said Elias Khouri, the theater's artistic director and editor of the cultural supplement for the country's leading newspaper, An-Nahar.

When the lights last went out on Beirut's drama scene, they stayed out for about 18 years. Before the outbreak of civil war in 1975, Beirut had been an oasis of cultural liberalism amid a desert of Middle East repression. Poets, playwrights and political dissidents came to Beirut to publish. It was the one city where books could be free of censorship.

The precursor of Masrah Beirut, in particular, ushered in a new era of modern, experimental drama in the Middle East. That theater closed 20 years ago amid the political turbulence that presaged the war.

The neighborhood

The theater's immediate neighborhood was rocked by some of the fiercest fighting as rival militias bombarded each other's positions in the nearby luxury hotels and nightclubs. The thunder of shelling replaced that of applause. Many artists and intellectuals went abroad. Audiences stayed home. Until Mr. Khouri and four friends reopened Masrah Beirut on a shoestring two years ago, the only serious productions were performed in the cultural centers of foreign embassies.

An entire generation of young Beirutis knew little of drama except school plays and western videos.

"To the students, Masrah Beirut is the greatest thing that ever happened in this day and age," said Aliya Khalidi, Mr. Khouri's assistant and a drama professor. "These people are still fresh and need enlightenment."

The 229-seat theater began with an empty building, a few stage lights and a lot of youthful exuberance. It was designed to foster an awareness of culture from across the Arab world as well as socially critical Lebanese drama, free from what many artists see as the heavy hand of the government.

Masrah Beirut is already in its third season of presenting Lebanese and other Arab plays, films and poetry. But it's still grappling with the legacy of war. Nor is it just that the electricity is unpredictable and the telephones are equally moody. Many Beirutis remain wary of venturing out into the town, especially those residents of East Beirut who haven't visited the west side for almost two decades.

The lobby, which doubles as an art and photo gallery, has been elegantly refurbished with marble floors and oriental arches. But outside the front doors, nearby buildings are still pocked from gunfire. A mammoth portrait of Ayatollah Khomeini glares from across the street, a sign of the radical Islamic politics that sprung up during the civil war. And the checkpoint up the block is manned by Syrian soldiers, who have come to dominate Lebanese politics.

The war's excesses have left an indelible mark on the circle of intellectuals who gravitate to Masrah Beirut. Many of the theater's productions reflect the experiences of war or refract the country's current situation through a lens cut by years of conflict.

The theater's charge is not to dwell only on the war but, Mr. Khalidi said, "I don't think it escapes any of us." For Mr. Khouri, life on the edge removed the fear of experimenting in his own writing.

'A tough experience'

"For me it was a tough experience, but it taught me that writing is a big adventure," he said. "When you are in a society without limits, where the distinction between life and death does not exist, where you experiment every day, your adventure becomes more profound."

As Mr. Khouri expounded recently over a small table in the lobby, the clank and clatter of his play, "Memoirs of Job," tumbled out of the theater.

Performed on a bare-bones set, the production recounts the actual tales of three women whose family members were kidnapped during the war. The old man Job, or Ayyoub as he is known in Arabic, collects their accounts. But the real story he writes is that of Beirut, an entire city held hostage by the machinations of domestic and international forces, including the United States.

When Mr. Khouri first brought "Memoirs of Job" to the stage last year, friends told him it would be a bust, that people wanted to forget the war. Vaudeville was what audiences craved, critics predicted.

"To our astonishment, it was the first time we had a full house for three [straight] months," he said. "People want to see. People want to know."

People lingered in the theater after the final curtain, debating with each other. Some, he said, came back a second and third time.

"It was fantastic. It was unbelievable," Mr. Khouri said. "I've never witnessed anything like that in the history of Lebanese theater."

This is, however, a new era for Lebanese theater. And it may not all be good. Peace in Lebanon is paid for with increased influence for the Syrians, Saudis and allies of Iran. Censorship, for the first time, has become an issue that writers and artists must confront.

Topics of politics, religion and God have become targets for the censor's scissors. Plays must be sent to the police for review, though sometimes the scripts submitted happen to leave out bits that appear on the director's working version. So too, films may be smuggled into the country.

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