Maya Zbib is not only a Lebanese theatre maker of brilliant accomplishment, she is also a world renowned artist. Her company, Zoukak, which she cofounded in Beirut, is its own authoritative brand across the Arab world and the transnational performance circuit. One of the honorees of the Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre (CIFET) this year, Zbib brings a broader focus to the event.
CIFET is celebrating the work of Arab artists who have made their way through the transnational performing arts map, bringing their own styles of experimentation and their socio-political views to theatres and audiences across the world. She is a performer, writer and director. In 2018, Zbib also became the first female Arab artist to deliver a speech on World Theatre Day.
“We created Zoukak in 2006,” Zbib summarises her journey.
“We had decided to come together as a group because we wanted to have a platform as young artists coming out of university – specifically the theatre department of the Lebanese university – especially in a country where there is practically no support for theatre or theatre companies, nor is there any kind of infrastructure for art and theatre in general.
"So we wanted to create that platform ourselves, and have regular encounters among ourselves in order to think about theatre, and to see what kind of work needed to be created, what kind of thinking was interesting, what to put on stage today, and also to share our expertise and knowhow. It was not about creating work together per se, or as a starting point, but rather having a platform to exchange ideas. Fourteen years later, we have had hundreds of productions by different groups of people, and about twenty productions of our own as a company.
“We started the company at a point when there was a war with Israel, right after the beginning of the war with Israel, and so we started to make psycho-social interventions in different social contexts, working with children who were displaced, and different groups of people who were affected by war, using a drama therapy technique that we had developed. And later on we worked much more on that technique, through using a frame of clinical psychology and introducing exercises. This developed a tool that we have been using for over 14 years now in different contexts. At that moment, we also started a programme for trainers, and we started working in different contexts in Lebanon, especially with groups that have been through trauma and refugee groups, among others.
“I would say that one of the first major turning points was creating our first collective production, which was Hamlet Machine. To put that text on stage in Lebanon was quite a challenge. It made the company’s work stand out in a way, although some people hated it, others loved it. It was like our own imprint on the Lebanese stage. Another turning point was establishing Zoukak Sidewalks, our bi-annual festival that gathers international and local performances, from which so many young artists have benefited and had their work shown in Avignon. This year we were hoping to hold a new round, but it does not now see like a feasible idea. We’ll see.
“Another major turning point happened four years ago, when we got structural funding from the Drosos Foundation and were able to open our own theatre, which is a 100-seat space that we launched in 2016. We started out renovating the space which has now been badly affected by the recent explosion in Beirut, so we are still considering whether we are going to renovate it again, to fix it, or just move on. We’ll see. Anyway that was a very important turning point in our journey as a company which also helped us to establish ourselves on the cultural scene as well as providing a space for rehearsals and creation supporting young artists working in Beirut and all over the country.”
As for the lessons learned from touring and cooperation, Zbib says, “Having performed in different countries across the globe – in Europe, in the United States, in some parts of Asia and Africa – we’ve come to realise how few are the opportunities that we have to perform in the southern hemisphere, and how important it always is to perform to an Arab audience, and to audiences from India or those parts of the world with which we do not have direct contact due to post-colonial policies.
"So unfortunately it is much easier to perform in Germany than to perform in Egypt, it’s much easier to be invited to a festival in France than one in India. So we’ve been trying our best to perform in the southern hemisphere, we went to Santiago in Chile without receiving a fee. We agreed to perform without pay because for us the encounter with the audience is what counts, and because these are places that have very similar political and social struggles to our own, and our work resonates in a very potent way there.
“When we perform in northern Europe, by contrast, there is a kind of otherness that we are received with. We feel that even when the audience is un-judgemental and very loving, they still position us as artists coming from a third world country, as artists who have lived through war, and they do not necessarily relate to our work in the right way, or in the way we would like them to relate to our work, which would be based on equality and a peer-to-peer, eye-to-eye relation. Unfortunately they are looking at us mostly as ‘poor Arabs from those torn-up places’.
"Sometimes we also have humour in our performances that is related to violence or death, we use third-degree innuendos and humour, but it is not well received in Europe because they feel a bit offended that you are laughing about things related to death and violence, whereas in our part of the world it is much more interesting to reflect with sarcasm or with jokes, because it opens a different kind of attitude in relation to the themes we are dealing with.
“We also realised that somehow there exists in the United States a kind of third-degree humour, or third-degree understanding of the text we present, maybe due to pop culture, or because Americans do not have this post-colonial guilt. Somehow our work is very well received in some parts of the United States. Generally what we found to be very important is who is receiving us, what kind of structure is inviting us, what is the conversation taking place. This has proven to be more important to us than just to go and perform somewhere, not meet anybody, and come home. That would really be uninteresting. What is interesting is to have a kind of conversation that is political, new and capable of pushing our work forward.
“I think the young generation is freer,” Zbib says of the horizons of experimentation in the Arab world.
“They are experimenting across disciplines and cultures and fields of work. I can see that from the group of young theatre makers and performance artists who applied to our mentorship programme, which is basically a course through which we mentor individuals and groups of artists as they create their work of art over six months of rehearsals. We provide them with a space to perform, technical support, and a small grant. The applications were very exciting. They were cross-disciplinary – across theatre, dance and film – and there was a lot of visual art too within the performance work. So I think there is a lot of potential in this new generation of young artists in the Arab world.”
CIFET, Zbib agrees, is a significant event that has had an impact on her career: “CIFET is a very important festival for me as a theatre maker, and it was really important to me as I was growing up. It was actually one of the very first festivals in which I performed. It was a performance by the late, beautiful director Seham Nasser, called All Here, and it won the best performance prize in 2006. It was an adaptation of several plays by Beckett. The way the audiences received the performance was so moving, the conversations that emerged around it and the discussions were really vital for me back then. In 2015, we presented one of Zoukak’s creations, something that I co-directed with Omar Abi Azer, my partner: He Who Saw Everything, based on Gilgamesh.
"It was one of our most important performances to be shown there, and it was very interesting how the spectators responded, how they were listening, the actions and conversations we had still resonate with us today. Every now and then we feel we ought to give this performance again because in Egypt it went so well, and we learned something from our performances in Cairo – something that we were almost unaware of up till then – thanks to the spectators who have strong political awareness and are used to see theatre, which is quite rare in the region as well. I think the festival has created a real audience, a real infrastructure for an audience across the city of Cairo, within all those little and big theatres, all filled with spectators. It is one of the most beautiful festivals in the Arab world.
“I am very happy and honoured to be among the honourees of CIFET. It is a very important festival for me, and a festival that has marked the Arab region for so many years, so this is a huge honour.”
But Cairo is as good a place as any to bring up the impact of patriarchal system on the structures and practises of the performing arts.
“Of course patriarchy affects all aspects of life,” Zbib says, “and in the context of religious patriarchy, it is even worse. But especially in Lebanon political patriarchy has had a negative effect on women and how they exist in the world. When it comes to theatre, it actually affects the first steps of being on stage. For me it was not an easy choice with my family, when I decided to be a performer. There is this kind of negative sense related to theatre, that it is about being a loose woman or someone who is easily and merely representing herself, whereas it is much easier for men to go on stage, to go on podiums, to play the role or orators, politically and even artistically.
"Of course it affects the primary choice to make theatre, then it also effects the next steps of your career when you say ‘I’m going to be a theatre director’, for example. It is very difficult to position yourself as a female director with your peers, technicians, and with people who will be listening to your ideas and instructions. It might be quite hard as a woman to direct technicians, so you have to go through a lot, and you have to cross a lot of borders in your own understanding of yourself and your role, before you can advance in your work in general, because it is not common to have a theatre director who is a woman, as much as it is not easy for us to be performers.
“The recent explosion,” Zbib goes on to answer a question about the catastrophe in Beirut, “has been and still is a huge shock. I do not know when we will wake from this terrible event that has destroyed a huge vibrant part of our city and our cultural life. Unfortunately our theatre has also been badly affected by the explosion, as I said, so our activities have been suspended. It has been a difficult period for us. Since last October there has been an uprising against the corrupt regime leading the country, followed by a major economic and political crisis, then the Covid-19 appeared so we had to close our theatre, and now with this explosion our activities have to remain suspended.
"We feel we are in a terrible limbo, a nightmare that is endless. And this government is not doing anything to remove the pain, or to remedy the sorrow and the deep wound that this explosion has caused due to corruption and the inadequacy. It will take years to remedy and heal what has been destroyed, but what is beautiful is how people have come together, and how young people are helping to clean and to support those who are in need. It gives us great hope to see how the new generation is reacting beyond political and religious affiliations. In our theatre we had volunteers coming to help clear the rubble, clean the costumes and gather together the set. Such love and respect is inspiring.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 September, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly