(Beirut, Lebanon) My mind blanked out when Ali said it. It was as if this 12-year-old boy was speaking in tongues: “Alaa passed away. He drowned.”
Like all the child actors in the Masrah Ensemble, a nonprofit theater company in Beirut, Ali is from Syria. We were just a few hours away from staging “Ti-Jean and His Brothers,” a musical by the West Indian poet and playwright Derek Walcott, in the Shatila neighborhood of Lebanon’s capital, home to a Palestinian refugee camp.
Alaa Eldin Mohammad Mohammad, who had worked with us on the project, also known as “Family Ti-Jean,” had drowned off the coast of Byblos, Lebanon. The performance would become a tribute to him. A refugee from the war in Syria, Alaa had spent a few weeks with us as an assistant producer. For many of the actors, especially for the boys – Abdelkarim, Jamil and Murad – he had become like an older brother.
Since fleeing the war to seek refuge in Lebanon in early 2014, the 25-year-old had volunteered often to support cultural activities for children like the boys and girls in the ensemble. When Alaa and the trio of boys were together, they fought and joked around and gave each other a hard time, just as real brothers do.
News of Alaa’s drowning was everywhere in Basmeh & Zeitooneh, a relief and development organization that runs an education center with programs serving refugees and marginalized communities. I climbed the five flights of stairs, lined with mothers cradling newborns near the Doctors without Borders clinic. A gaggle of rambunctious children and a couple of exasperated schoolteachers flooded downward in the near-dark following a power cut.
On the landing of the BZ Art and Culture Center stood two more of our actors, Imane and Fatmeh, both 13, eyes swollen with tears. Imane, from Raqqa in northern Syria, was particularly silent this morning. Fatmeh, who usually asks all the hard questions with a smile on her face, had nothing to say. Another girl, Marah, an 11-year-old from Daraa who is often full of giggles, was equally solemn. She gestured toward the rooftop, where behind the concrete columns Alaa’s adopted brothers were sobbing, each in isolation. The news was still fresh.
"Directing this play illuminated, for me, the urgency of theater among young people coming of age in a world whose wars shake them off like fleas."
I was in a stupor and didn’t know what to do. Eventually we formed a circle and sat largely in silence – adults and teens side by side, as always, like a family. We decided to spend the afternoon together, with or without a performance. We pulled a couple of tables together to have lunch. The teenage actors began reciting lines from “Ti-Jean” about coping with the loss of a brother. Smiles broke out, the initial shock of grief lifted. We were alive again.
The teenagers insisted that the show must go on because Alaa had wanted them to see the project through to the final performances. People filled the quad atop the BZ building – some from Shatila camp, home to Palestinian and Syrian refugees among other minorities, some from elsewhere in Beirut, many of them friends and acquaintances of Alaa. The show opened and closed with moving commemorations of him.
It was not the last death that would rattle our community. One month later there was another – this time of Hassan Rabeh, a 25-year-old dancer and Palestinian refugee from Syria, who committed suicide. A member of the Sima Dance Company, he jumped to his death from the balcony of his Beirut apartment just hours after giving a performance. I did not know Hassan, but I grieved his death. It prompted a flurry of media attention about the dire living conditions of Syrian refugees and the consequent increase in youth suicide attempts.
Hassan’s taking of his own life and Alaa’s drowning have left an indelible mark on the performing arts community in Beirut. Their deaths threw into sharp relief the miserable living conditions of young people, Syrian refugees and destitute Lebanese citizens.
Young Lebanese – especially those from cities like Tripoli, where the local mayor puts youth unemployment at over 50 percent – are fleeing their own country in their thousands due to prevailing corruption and rising inequality. This can be hard to see when the international media continues to rank the Lebanese capital as one of the world’s best cities. “In a region that is being devastated by war and destruction, Beirut rises out of the desert dust,” wrote Travel + Leisure recently.
In the final days of Ramadan, a month after “Family Ti-Jean” had concluded, we once again sat together, adults and teens, Lebanese and Syrians, in a circle, to reflect on our journey and to consider what’s next. One of Alaa’s “younger brothers,” Jamil, could not attend. He was working a 13-hour shift at a clothes shop down the street. Meanwhile, Ali, always impatient and forthright, said what needed to be said before we had even begun. “When are we meeting again? When’s the next performance?” he asked.
I wish that Alaa could be with us when the family of actors convenes again this month to develop some ideas for future projects. The musical “Ti-Jean” addressed topics of oppression and justice, which greatly concern the children. Some would like to return to these topics, perhaps to write their own play and perform it in an actual theater, with real seats and lights.
Derek Walcott’s play asserts that a child, in her foolish wisdom and fearless conscience, can become “the sun’s right hand / And light the evil dark” and rally a community in its pursuit of justice and dignity. Directing this play illuminated, for me, the urgency of theater among young people coming of age in a world whose wars shake them off like fleas. They are imagining a different future, and I hope, in the coming years, to help them realize it.
These short biographies of some of the cast members [see the slideshow above, Ed.] provide glimpses of their individual and collective aspirations.
*Eyad Houssami makes theater. He is the founder and director of Masrah Ensemble in Lebanon, editor of Doomed by Hope: Essays on Arab Theater (Pluto Press and Dar Al Adab, 2012), and a former editor of Portal 9: Stories and Critical Writing about the City.