Friday, 14 November 2014

Postcard From Beirut

This was originally written for the British Council's Theatre and Dance Blog (which is here).

1. Let’s start with this: I don’t pretend to understand the full complexity of the political situation in the Middle East.
And then this: having spent a week in Beirut (Beyrouth) with Third Angel, mala voadora and our hosts Zoukak, I have a better understanding of what it is like to live in one of the many situations that there are in the Middle East.
2. Zoukak Theatre Company invited us to Beirut to show What I Heard About the World as part of its Sidewalks programme of residencies, for performances, talks, workshops, some early making time on a new show.
If ever a show ought to travel abroad it’s this one, to test our own assertion that this isn’t just a collection of funny stories about the world, that this is a show about how we understand the world, about how we think about other countries and the people who live in them. A show that is about the politics of what stories we tell and retell, about people in other parts of the world. Foreigners. This is a show that tries to communicate to audiences what it might be like to live through situations and conflicts that are beyond their own experience. So we owe it to ourselves, and the people we tell stories about, to see if we’re getting it right.
3. We had been told by friends and colleagues who had been part of Sidewalks before that we would have a great time in Beirut, and that we would be well looked after. But it is fair to say that just before leaving, as a group, there were some nerves about the trip. This was partly because our families were asking if it was wise. Party because people were telling us that car bombs had been going off again recently. Partly because the Foreign Office website said this: "A large-scale security operation is under way in Beirut. You should be vigilant, take extra care and minimise movements around the city for the time being. There is a high threat from terrorism… Further attacks are highly likely."
The American Government’s advice was DON’T GO THERE, and a ‘traffic light’ style danger zone map of Beirut and Lebanon suggested that we would have to pass through a red “do not travel” zone on the way from the airport.
I emailed Maya from Zoukak and mentioned our concerns. She replied: "This is regular procedure for 'western' governments, it's been like this since forever, but the places we would be moving through are safe and the taxi company take different routes to the airport. We just had artists from Australia who left two days ago and after you leave we have someone from Norway. And a few months ago when the French Embassy was asking its citizens not to come to Lebanon we had a whole company from France performing here. The country is full of tourists you just have to know where you are moving and we wouldn't take you somewhere dangerous. Of course it's worrying for the families but you will all be fine!
What I found reassuring about this is that I felt I could detect the slightest hint of exasperation in Maya’s reply. This again.
4. We arrive in Beirut at 4am. Visas are arranged in about five minutes as soon as we provide a phone number for where we are staying. We are met at arrivals by our taxi driver. 20 minutes later we greeted at our accommodation by Abdallah, bleary eyed in shorts and t-shirt, he’s got the short straw of meeting us at such an hour. But he is insistent that we have everything we need before he leaves for his bed. As we sit and drink tea and wine in the garden of our hotel/apartment, BEYt, we marvel, momentarily, at how lucky we are to have our jobs.
And so begins a week of some of the best hospitality we have encountered. Whilst we were in the making process for What I Heard About the World, we played with a running joke about what the people of each country are like. Whenever a country would get mentioned, I would say to Jorge, “What are the people like there?”, and he would reply, “They’re really nice.” We never specifically decided not to use it it, it just fell away; I think maybe I liked it more than the rest of the team. But touring internationally, with this show in particular, has proved the joke to be true.
5. On Thursday night we give a talk entitled Stories We Didn’t Tell, exploring the relationship betweenStory Map and What I Heard About the World, and the influence of the work of on the project.
We note, particularly, the importance of Worldmapper’s aim that their work helps the viewer to see “foreigners as yourself, in another place.” We talk about the how the show enacts (and explores) the problem it discusses, by representing each country with just one story – inadequate information to actually know about a country.
We are pressed to talk in more detail about our selection process for the show. We often talk about how instinctive our process was, choosing the stories that “appealed” to us. On this occasion, our audience push for clarification. They’re less interested, I think, in the logistics of our selection process, the geographical spread of countries, and more interested in our agenda for choosing the stories and how we represent them. It is clear to them that this is a political process. We are guilty of suggesting, sometimes, that the stories are chosen from the research-pool for no more reason than we “like” them. But here we confirm that the stories are chosen because of how they speak to us, because of the emotions they provoke, the experiences they describe, the experiences and lives they invite the audience to imagine living. With the encouragement of our hosts, we take responsibility for the content of the show.
It strikes me at the time – and I’ve been thinking about this a lot since – that we (I) usually shy away from labelling our work "political theatre". Partly because not all of the work we make is as overtly political as this project, but also because we suspect that using that label will put off a section of the audience (though why we think that, I’m now not sure). Theatre that is political. I’ll use that, but we (I) would usually hesitate to suggest that that was its primary focus. But I get a sense from our new friends in Beirut that they think, "well, if your theatre isn’t political what’s the point in making it?"
And it occurs to me that I agree with them. That we make theatre with the aim of getting people to stop, look at the world around them, and ask, "do things have to be this way?"
It is important to be challenged like this. And it has stayed with me (us). Because, yes, What I Heard About the World is political theatre: it deals with the way human beings treat each other on a personal level and a political, national scale. It recognises that there is an agenda to the stories that get told about “other” countries, and it tries, within the act of repeating a story about another country, to say, "yes, but what is it like to be an individual who lives this story?"
6. The shows go well. The theatre suits the piece – we are able to go ‘full widescreen’ with the set. And the ‘exotic animals’ we request turn out to be wooden cutouts, to match the Flat Daddy. A Flat Giraffe. Perfect.
Conversations after the show are fascinating. The importance of language, of naming things. In the show we refer to the ‘Israeli-Palestinian Conflict’. It is pointed out to us that that’s not what it’s called here. Here it would be referred to as the Arab-Israeli Conflict. Which of course is a name we recognise, too. But we didn’t even notice ourselves make the choice.
And one of my favourite compliments about the show, ever: I was looking at you, in your overalls, covered in blood, but I saw the woman, sitting there in Antarctica.
It’s clear from the workshop the three companies share and the conversations we have that there is a common spirit here. The way we make work. The way we explore ideas. It’s a privilege to have these conversations.
After the last show we are taken for some of the best food I’ve ever eaten. Wine, beer, more conversation. The Norwegian artists have arrived. We talk about collaborations, about festivals, about residencies. Someone knows someone we know in Glasgow. More connections.
I want to ask Zoukak how they do this. I understand why, of course. Just look around the table. But how. They’re fundraising for their own work, and at the same time facilitating this amazing international exchange.
7. This has been harder to write than I expected. It’s way too long for the word count I was given. And since getting home I have of course learned much more about the “political situation in the Middle East”. Our life experience is just different. Our proximity to war and violence is just different.
On our last night in Beirut we watch the football, sitting outside a small bar on Armenia Street, drinking tea, wine and beer, and eating Lebanese tapas. Whenever there is a goal, fireworks go off in the city. It’s Germany vs Brazil and there are a lot of goals. Again, I have a moment of being amazed at where this job takes us.
At half time, Lamia tells me that the fireworks remind her of the World Cup in 2006, when Beirut was under rocket attack from Israel. Her little girl was just three years old. One night, when the sound of the rockets falling on the city woke her up, she asked:
- Are they fireworks?
- Yes, her mum told her, they’re just big fireworks.
- Goal! she murmured, and went back to sleep.
This is in their recent memory. Living in a city under attack. Some of them believe it will happen again. But here we are, drinking outside, at a bar, watching football. I can’t shake the cliché: Life carries on. They hang out at bars. They bring up their kids. They make theatre. They make friends. They carry on.

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