“Now I think is the time for us,” Hisham Jaber pauses. “Before, I had this feeling that I should leave. After the [April 4 Beirut Port] blast, I thought, No, I don’t want to be anyplace else. Now is the time to work.”
Jaber is among the co-founders of Metro al-Madina. The Hamra Street repertory theatre launched in 2013 with the unlikely aim of reinventing Beirut’s renowned cabaret tradition that went on to become one of the city’s great success stories.
With a program driven by in-house productions – many of them hosted by emcee Roberto Kobrosli, Jaber’s onstage persona – the 150-seat subbasement theater of the old Saroulla Cinema has proven remarkably successful with mature audiences of all ages.
It’s been a tough year, of course.
Metro temporarily shut its doors in support of the uprising of late 2019. When it began staging ferment-inspired evenings of music and comedy, it acknowledged the erosion of its audience’s disposable income by instituting a “pay what you can” box office policy.
When COVID-19 descended in the spring of 2020, the government shuttered all theatres. Metro reopened to audiences in mid-September with the motto “We are not okay … We will sing.”
“I think we’re collapsing now,” Jaber says. “That’s good. Everything should collapse. Now we should start building.
“I think all the current politicians – in the next five years, maximum seven years – they’ll go.” He pauses. “God could help a little – lend a hand, a finger even.
“From the political perspective, it’s f***ed up now, but from the perspective of art, it’s good.
“This is our work, to document this process in an artistic way, with many kinds of shows, talking about this era from different perspectives. This is what artists now should start doing – to build, to search for other meanings, another language, other forms, to feel what to do in this situation. I think this will regenerate something.”
The firewall between politics and cultural production isn’t the thickest in this country. As some of Lebanon’s veteran thespians tell the story, the theatre scene has long been in dialogue with politics since the late 1960s.
More recently, playwrights have recounted how uniformed individuals working with Lebanon’s censorship bureau take great interest in how scripts were written – to the point that they not only pointed out lines they wanted removed, but suggested inoffensive alternatives.
The censor-as-co-author phenomenon was common enough that it inspired one prominent team of writer-actors (now residing overseas) to write and stage a play dramatising such an exchange between a filmmaker and a state censor.
Complaints about censorship seldom come up in conversation with Jaber. If Metro has had fewer problems with the censor, that may be because, since it opened its doors, its preferred genre has been musical comedy.
The songs and stand-up routines revel in poking fun at the human condition. On the other hand, shows that have been running for years on end have tended to be set elsewhere – early 20th-century Egypt (“Hishik Bishik”), pre-reconstruction Beirut (“Bar Farouk”) and 1980s television (Discotheque Nana). Arguably the most political of Metro’s shows, “The Political Circus,” peppers its musical comedy with circus performers. Its latest show, “Al-Imarat al-Na’ima,” is set in Al-Andalus.
These days, Jaber’s preoccupied with reaching Metro’s audience in a way that keeps the company solvent.
Before October 2019, the Lebanese pound had been pegged to the US dollar at about LL1,500; as this story is being written, the pound’s market exchange rate was closer to LL8,300 to the dollar.
“Our tickets are still in Lebanese,” he explains, “so the most you’ll get for a seat is LL50,000 – and that’s at half capacity, with the corona restrictions in place.”
Metro’s performers seeded a few videos on YouTube during lockdown, but audience interaction is integral to Metro’s performances, so they don’t translate easily to video-only format. Jaber is now experimenting with a compromise.
Many of the shows and performers in the cabaret’s repertoire – “Franco-Arab,” “Aghani Servicaat,” vocalist Abd al-Karim al-Shaar – have or will be staged before a half-house audience while streamed online.
“A few weeks ago we did our first show online,” he says. “It was really great. We had an audience of 150-something, half in Lebanon, half outside. It wasn’t bad for the first time.”
Jaber says it took Metro three or four months to find the right streaming partner. They decided to work with the recently launched Aratoc streaming platform, a Dublin-based Syrian team.
“They own the platform and it’s based in Dublin, so we don’t have any restrictions,” he says, “unlike Facebook, where you cannot talk about [he names a number of political actors], where you can’t talk about khara. This is good for us. We can do what we do, without borders.”
Since Lebanon’s economy went down the toilet, Metro’s ticket prices have been more elastic – ranging LL3,000-LL20,000 for live viewing, while anyone wishing to support Metro may pay around LL100,000. Overseas, tickets for the live stream run from $5 for early bird tickets to $10 and up for support tickets.
Jaber hopes that, as Lebanon’s art sector consolidates in the wake of domestic economic collapse and pandemic-driven recession, the theatre scene will reboot on a more sustainable model.
That desire has made its way into Roberto Kobrosli’s latest routine.
“Mainly we’re talking about how we have to stop begging.”
Since the 1990s, he says, troupes fell into the practice of applying for grants to make theater. Since supporting the arts sector is alien to Lebanese political culture, these funds came from overseas governments and INGOs.
“It’s a bubble scene,” he says, “It makes me sick. I believe ‘the fund’ is what f***ed up the scene here. We don’t have theater here. We have plays that run three days. Then they disappear. This is not theater.
“Theater is funded by people – from ticket sales or sponsorship. This is how it’s been from the beginning, since the Greeks.
“Now we don’t have money anymore. It’s economic crisis everywhere. So what do we do? This is what I fear … We can’t just beg for money. If you didn’t work for your money, it’s useless. It’s like owning land but not knowing where it is or how to use it.
“Okay the politicians made a system to manage this way of doing things. We need to destroy this system and start working like everybody else. Go to Europe, man. People there are working like animals.
“This is the basic idea of Kobrosli’s show. Don’t give us money,” he chuckles. “Teach us how to fish, yaani.”
A casual observer might find Jaber’s attitude toward funds a little ironic, since one of the reasons Metro has been able to survive this damned year was the Lebanon Solidarity Fund – an initiative between the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture and Culture Resource that provided funds to secure the core teams of 23 local arts institutions for one year.
“This is a different thing,” he says. “Why? Because we were collapsing. This is why I say we should have funds for small businesses that are working, individuals that are working. We need funds, of course, to work, to build.
“But we don’t need $15,000 for a play, for example. I’m looking at the stage and I see two stools and one glass. What are you doing with the $15,000, khara?
“With $15,000 we can run a place with 60 employees. You can produce 10 or 15 plays, maybe stage 200 shows in one year. This is working. We need funds for individuals and small businesses who have projects.
“What Al-Mawred and AFAC did was really helpful. Without this fund, I assure you maybe half these companies would have collapsed or emigrated overseas.”
The inertia Jaber sees in the theater sector reflects the state’s refusal to invest in local enterprises – not just the cultural sector, any sector.
“We need a new agreement among the Lebanese people,” he says. The current arrangement, “it’s not working. They say Lebanon can’t be a non-sectarian country. Okay, we have a lot of religions here. This is good! We should build on this.
“You know how many prophets have passed through Lebanon, historically? The ministry of culture were doing something for religious tourism a few years ago. In these mountains we have shrines for all the prophets, but you can’t see them. There’s nothing, just a sign from the ministry saying, “Here is the Prophet Adam” did I don’t know what.
“What the [hell]? Adam? … We have Qana, but do we have even one wine called ‘Qana’?”
For the past couple of years Jaber has been working on another show set in historic Beirut, specifically Suq Amoumiyya, the city’s once-famed red light district.
“Amoumi, yaani, it’s global, for everybody.”
“It’s not restricted to a specific period. I take all the periods with these main elements, so you can know the most important things, how it was, how it ran, the girls there, the connection there among people and the state.
“The street was named after Al-Mutanabbi,” he chuckles. “In Baghdad, Al-Mutanabbi is the book street. Here, it was the red light district, the street of prostitutes. It was big, man.”