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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 17 November 2018

Palestinian women in south Lebanon chase their theatre dreams  

A cinema closed since the civil war is re-opening and is offering free access to the community's marginalised youth

The children at the theatre. Photo / Sunniva Rose 
The children at the theatre. Photo / Sunniva Rose 

For the first time since 1989, teenage girls dance and sing on the stage of Cinema Rivoli in Tyre, south Lebanon. The cinema and theatre, built in 1952, closed during the civil war and is preparing to re-open officially in October as a free community arts space.

Tyre originally housed five cinemas, all built from the early 20th century onwards. But “they were bombed during the war or transformed into businesses”, says Qassem Istanbuli, who spearheaded the rehabilitation of venue. It took his team three months just to remove the trash that had piled up throughout the years.

The rehearsals  Photo / Sunniva Rose 
The rehearsals  Photo / Sunniva Rose 

But the stage has opened again, and dressed in colourful scarves, 10 Palestinian and two Lebanese actresses, all aged between 17 and 23 performed their first play, A Trip, in late August.

At the start of the play, the women enter from the back of the venue, loudly expressing their delight at seeing a theatre for the first time. “Imagine Fairuz sitting here”, says one. “Look up, there’s Mahmoud Darwish”, says another, trying to imagine what Cinema Rivoli looked like in its prime, when it often hosted famous local and international artists and stars.

“The first time they came a few months ago, there were cobwebs, dust and the lights didn’t work. We had to use our phones to see,” remembers Sophie Ramlov Barclay, a Danish anthropologist by training and a theatre practitioner who has worked over the past two years to stage the play, along with Fadia Lobani, a nursery teacher in the Burj al Barajneh camp near Beirut. “Theatre has been my dream my entire life,” says Lobani. But opening a playhouse in the camp proved impossible without sufficient funding, and in the capital, no free space for rehearsals was available. “Even if we’re close to Beirut, we are isolated. There’s an imaginary wall between us”, stresses Lobani.

She remembers that theatres and cinemas disappeared from Palestinian camps after the Palestine Liberation Organisation left Lebanon in 1982, which is why it’s so great that Cinema Rivoli in Tyre has been recently re-opened by a group of passionate theatre-lovers, the Tyro Association for Arts. With funding from SELAT: Links through the Arts – a project launched by Palestine’s A.M. Qattan Foundation in partnership with the Prince Claus Fund in the Netherlands – the theatre was able to pay for the girls’ transport twice a week for two months.

Interacting with the audience, the amateur actresses act out their desire to see their homeland, Palestine. The play ends with each woman stating what theatre has brought to their lives. Lobani, 49, has the final say: “Theatre gives me the chance to re-write my own ending”.

The performance. Photo / Sunniva Rose 
The performance. Photo / Sunniva Rose 

Like most of the 175,000 Palestinians in Lebanon, she was born in a refugee camp. Her parents fled their homes in 1948 after Naqba. “In the camp, we don’t have any form of entertainment. Acting helps us with our self-esteem and our creativity”, says Mrs Lobani. “I hope that my next play will talk more about our daily lives in the camp. We live in a prison, but our ideas are free. We can dream, sing, dance – act out all of humanity’s emotions.”

Palestinians in Lebanon have limited employment opportunities, cannot own businesses or acquire Lebanese nationality. Recent cuts by the United States to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency funding, which provides them with most of their basic services such as schooling and health care, have raised fears of worsening living conditions.

For A Trip, audience turnout was sparse. Only the first few front rows of the cinema were occupied, mostly by children from Burj el Shemali camp, located close to Tyre, even though there are 223 seats. Most of them were friends or family of the Tyro Association for Arts, of which one the members goes by the name “Dos”.

“You know why we’re half empty? Because people don’t understand how to think independently. They do what their political leaders tell them to,” says Dos, gesturing to pictures of politicians posted on the walls of streets outside Burj el Shemali camp.

Most of the locals are supportive of the girls acting, says Jana Ismail, 19, who took part in the play. “But some criticise us, tell us to stay at home and get married.” She dreams of becoming an actress once she finishes her major in translation.

The performance. Photo / Qassem  Istanbuli
The performance. Photo / Qassem  Istanbuli

Istanbuli’s last attempt to re-open an abandoned cinema, in the southern city of Nabatieh, failed after the owner sold that venue to a higher bidder in late 2017. It remains closed, and the identity of its buyer remains mysterious. “How many libraries, cinemas or theatres are there in south Lebanon compared to the number of cafe shops?” he asks. The answer is close to zero.

Qaseem Istanbuli Photo / Sunniva Rose 
Qaseem Istanbuli Photo / Sunniva Rose 

“When people go to the cinema or the theatre, they start to think for themselves. That’s our goal. And as soon as we started having an impact on the people of Nabatieh, the cinema was closed”.

This time, he says, he has “learnt his lesson” and signed a 10-year rental agreement at Cinema Rivoli. He hopes to replicate its model in other marginalised cities throughout Lebanon.

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