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Book review: Documenting the history of Teatro Beirut after the last curtain fell

Hanan Hajj Ali describes the early history of Lebanese cultural productions and links the destiny of its oldest theatre with the destiny of the city of Beirut

Sayed Mahmoud, Monday 16 Jan 2012
Teatro Beirut Book Cover
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Teatro Beirut (Beirut Theatre) by Hanan Hajj Ali, Beirut: Amar Publishing house, 2011.

“You’re not in a protest here, you’re our guests. Your demands are our demands.” This was the sentiment Kabi Leon, the Lebanese minister of culture, used to address those staging a sit-in opposing the unknown future of the Teatro Beirut theatre, which awaits its "END," a word that could explain much of what Lebanon witnessed over the last forty years.

While playwrights and intellectuals demand the inclusion of the theatre on the cultural properties list, the Ministry of Culture only makes statements that lack a real vision to save it. The ministry’s only solution has been to include part of the real estate on the historical buildings list as a cultural and historical landscape.

Playwrights, among them Hannan Hajj Ali, say that this solution achieves only part of their demands. They want the Lebanese Cabinet to issue a decree to classify the theatre itself as a cultural heritage. “The point is not saving the building but saving its spirit and its historical and symbolic value,” they contested.

Angry protests by Lebanese intellectuals a few weeks ago succeeded in temporarily stopping the demolition. Thanks to their movement, the current status of the theatre is in safe hands as it needs permission from the General Administration of Monuments. If the Teatro Beirut makes it to the list of heritage buildings, the ministry says it will stay.

The book's writer, Hajj Ali, stood at the front line of the protests against the theatre's demolition, perhaps because, before anyone else, she brought awareness of the symbolic value of the theatre through her book Teatro Beirut. The publication documents the history of Lebanese theatres, including the first theatre ever built in Lebanon, Teatro Beirut, and the golden age of theatre and cinema. It also includes historical posters and photos from when Beirut was the centre of culture in the Arab world.

According to Hannan’s book, construction of the theatre started in 1965 and it shot to fame during the 1990s as an independent and alternative space that would launch the careers of many directors like Roger Assaf, Mounir Abu Dabs and Shikib Khoury. The theatre not only graduated great directors but also prominent actors like Ali Ahmed, Antoine Kourbag and Nidal AlAchcar.
 
In this sense the Teatro Beirut encapsulates the history of the Lebanese theatre from the mid 1960s until now. Teatro Beirut, as described by Hannan, has gone from being a traditional theatre to sponsoring new experimental projects. This paradox gave the theatre its own tint and made it a moving space in a transforming city.

It isn’t possible to understand the crisis facing the theatre now unless we realise that its establishment was a natural response to the urban development of the city of Beirut itself. Hajj Ali's question becomes critical: “Does the collapse of this model imply the failure of its content? And does that reflect a demise of Beirut as a city or a transformation?”
 
A thorough reading of the theatre’s location and the political and social contexts of Beirut's history sheds some light. The theatre located near Gamal Abdel Nasser's statue in Ain Almaryssa, near the sea and the American University in Beirut, resembles the city itself. Termed “Babel Tower of Babylon of the Arabian Modernism," Beirut was the spot where the interests of various personalities crossed, and it grew mostly randomly, improvised by the residents of the time. Visitors and residents of this city had many options, until they shrank after the civil war and the "consumption fever" that struck Beirut after the Al-Ta’if agreement that left the city open to all types of possibilities. 

This theatre became a magical meeting point between the traditional downtown of Beirut, and the modern expansions between Al-Hamra Street and the ‘Solidaire’ where luxurious hotels and shops are located. It is also close to various famous hotels, including Saint Georges and Normandy, all of which are laden with remarkable historical moments in Lebanese history.

Yet what stands out as most striking in the possible loss of the building is that it's located in a socially and religiously diverse neighbourhood, near a popular area that represents a "natural source" of audience for the theatre.
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The history behind the theatre is what raises concerns for its unclear future. The theatre's administration is obliged to evacuate it by the end of this year according to the contract with the owner of the building. It is located in the ground floor of a multi-floor building, owned by the Snew family and was subject to legal disputes regarding heritage, resulting in a court ruling requiring sale and distribution of the money.

Indeed, the ghost of the sad ending to the spot that hosted Mahmoud Darwish and Noam Chomksy among many luminaries, thinkers and poets, all of whom remain as testimony to Beirut that was, and the possible new 'Beiruts' evolving now. The destiny of the theatre, somehow, appears tied to the destiny of the city.

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