Haven’t had rehearsals for a week as the second space was a bit too small, the director wanted a different venue. Hal and Itab have been desperately trying to find somewhere. Hence no blog on the workshops. I’m sure Hal will fill you in with his blog though (when he gets time to type it up!). Meanwhile I decided to explore a bit more of Lebanon with my friend Maria Chambers, who is a volunteer with our partners Firefly International, but also works as a CATT trainer using art as a way of working through traumatic experiences of young adults and children. She is here doing an intensive Arabic course and is observing some of our workshops.
We have fitted a lot in: a 5 hour hike, hopping on and off buses to various beaches, and hiring a car to drive to the mountains. Stopped off at Jeita Grotto (no sign of Santa) - how come no one told me about Jeita??!! I heard about it in passing and it turns out it’s pretty spectacular. Huge limestone caves full of stalagmites and stalactites, one of them being almost the largest in the world at 8.2m, and other varieties of crystallised formations. I never knew it takes 100 years for a stalactite to form 1inch, so these have been here a loooooong time. One cave has a fresh water underground river that provides water for over a million people in Lebanon. Impressive.
Driving through the valleys and ravines of Tannourine was beautiful. With the temperature at 16C it felt nice to be in the cool, wrapped up in a wooly shawl. I say wrapped up, I was only wearing a T-shirt underneath so it wasn’t that cold! We walked around a cedar reserve where I got covered in sap from climbing one. That'll teach me.
I couldn’t help but picture Khalil Gibran as we drove around. This was his area, just slightly north of Tannourine is Bcharre where he was born and grew up before emigrating to the US. I performed in a play about his life so I was particularly interested in coming to this region, to explore Mount Lebanon, see a collection of his works (at the museum in Bcharre), and just get a feel of the mountains that inspired the young Khalil. Stunning.
We also wandered around the small town of Saida, south of Beirut. It has become one of my favorite places; beach, windy souks, soap museum, lovely laid back atmosphere, and close enough to Beirut (30min on a local bus and only costs £1) to pop to in an afternoon.
Lebanon is full of vast contrasts, whether it be the massive class divide in Beirut, the northern Christian areas compared to the Southern Muslim areas, or the fact that you can be cool in the mountains at 5.30pm and swimming in the warm sea as the sun sets at 6pm.
I can’t talk about Beirut without mentioning the vast amounts of cosmetic surgery you see everywhere. I noticed a young woman in the shopping mall whose nose was wrapped up in bandages, which apparently is very common. It’s a status symbol, I’ve since been told. I wondered why she seemed to be proud. I’ve seen quite a few women sporting a Jocelyn Wildenstein look. Scary.
Lebanon’s capital has a plethora of old buildings that have been destroyed from years of civil war and unrest. When I first arrived I found it quite unbelievable, but now it's normal for me to see a building with bullet holes next to a brand new fancy modern skyscraper. I went to a bar in the Gemmayzeh area which was so modern and swanky on the inside yet their outside wall is somewhat of a "feature" riddled with bullet holes. Another reminder of how far removed we are from war in England and how close everyone living here is to it.
My Iraqi accent stands out from the soft-sounding Lebanese and I often get asked by taxi drivers where I’m from. In my first week I’d tell them Iraq - I’d instantly get a mention of Da’ash (ISIS); I’ve had, “Are you Da’ash then?” “Oh, you must be Da’ash.” “Do you have Da’ash in Iraq?” Or the other versions are “God help Iraq”, “You are very welcome here”, “Poor Iraqis, it’s terrible what’s happening to them”. My dad advised me to tell them I’m British but originally from Iraq. Worth a try. That, I’ve discovered, brings up a whole other subject though. “Britain? Oh, do you want to marry my son? He’s very handsome, look here is his photo.” “Are you married?” “Shall we get married? I can pay you.” Not sure which is more tedious. My friend pointed out that at least when they make the Da’ash comments they’re only joking!
We have finally found a venue and so we start rehearsals again tomorrow in a yoga studio in Hamra. When Itab rang the women to let them know of the new schedule (Saturdays off instead of Sundays), some of them said, “Let’s not have any days off!”
I’ve missed them. Daily I’ve wondered what Zarifa might be doing, or Isra’a - how will they be passing their days without coming to ‘work’?
I’m looking forward to seeing them again and getting back into the swing of things.