Searching for Space - A Diary

2.9.2014 - The Sunflower (part 1)

Our first prospect is Dawar Al Shams, meaning The Sunflower. The meeting is set up by our friend and collaborator Raghad Mardini. Situated in Tayouneh Roundabout, the theatre is in an ideal location given that Shatila camp is only a five-minute drive away. We are introduced to Abdo Nawar, the technical director. The auditorium has a capacity of 333 and is professional. This will give the women a good impression of what it will be like to perform in the larger Al Madina Theatre. There is a rehearsal room above the stage that can be used to run the nursery. This is an essential aspect of our project and adds an extra layer of complexity to our hunt for a rehearsal venue. It would be difficult to child-proof the space but not impossible. They are unable to give us the space until September 31st. Abdo tells us that management needs to discuss a fee and they would get back to us in a week or so.

 

3.9.2104 - The Lebanese Association for Plastic Arts (part 1)

We are encouraged today to hear that Ashkal Alwan, The Lebanese Association for Plastic Arts, having worked with our director Omar and our dramaturge/playwright Mohammad in the past, are eager to provide us with a rehearsal space. This could be a great solution until we move into Dawar Al Shams.

 

6.9.2104 - The Lebanese Association for Plastic Arts (part 2)

We visit Ashkal Alwan and meet with director Christine Tohme. In the Jisr El Wait area of Beirut, Ashkal Alwan is a 2000m² multipurpose facility that looks somewhat like a car park turned into a trendy exhibition space. There are two rehearsal rooms nearby the main area that could work for the kids. We’re very pleased. However, early on in our conversation we hit the rocks. They need the space for other events for a couple of the days in the schedule but the main stumbling block is that we’re too big. Christine had the understanding that this was a small project and that there are no kids involved. She says she’ll think about it but can’t make any promises. 50 women and 40 odd children would take its toll, especially on their small sanitation facilities.

Immediately we started to innovate and think of new ideas. Apart from Dawar Al Shams and Ashkal Alwan, none of the other theaters and art spaces in Beirut had responded positively to us. The children were a big obstacle for everyone. We figured we could pursue large gyms, basketball courts, spaces like that. Who has room for that kind of thing in such a congested town? Schools. We tried calling and writing the major universities - AUB, LAU, St Joseph - but so far nothing back.

 

8.9.2104 - Schools

 School desks stacked on the balcony

School desks stacked on the balcony

So today we tried contacting various private schools. Public schools would be difficult because something like this requires permission from the government. When there hasn’t been a parliament in Lebanon for over two years nor a president for nine months, the bureaucracy becomes surprisingly heavy. Nobody knows how things work or who’s in charge. It’s shocking that there are traffic cops because who pays them?

Anyway private schools didn’t work out. Lebanon is a deeply political place. We were to learn much more about this later. It seemed that as soon as people hear us say the word ‘Syrian’ or ‘refugee’ they shy away. At first we thought this was because it might be complicated, especially with the kids involved. This might have been part but certainly not all of it.

 

9.9.2012 - YWCA

We visit the Young Women’s Christian Association in the Clemenceau district of Beirut. Their philosophy ties in well with ours: “The vision of YWCA is a fully inclusive world where justice, peace, human dignity, freedom & care for the environment are promoted & sustained by women’s leadership.” We are therefore enthusiastic and looking forward to our conversation.

Two very nice women meet with us. Though they are Arab they speak in three tongues. As happens so often in this city, the conversation constantly jumps between Arabic, English and French. It can be confusing for some and amusing for others. If you are a master of all three then it makes sense as you seek to express yourself in what you see as being the most eloquent way possible. If not it can drive you mad!

Anyway the women were lovely and their space was very good - though Itab gets claustrophobia when places don’t have windows. I tell her I’m not sure she should be producing theatre. Unfortunately they also proved too expensive for us.

 

9.9.2012 - The Sunflower (part 2)

No word from Dawar Al Shams.

 

10.9.2014  - The Shatila Camp (part 1)

One of our contacts in the camp informed us of a potential space within Shatila itself. When we arrived the caretaker lifted a shutter that had clearly been down for some time. Dead roaches littered the floor. Paint peeled off the walls just from the breeze created by the slow-moving fans that he switched on.

It is big enough but can we really rehearse here? There is only three hours of electricity in the camp a day so we would have to use a generator. To give you an idea of what that would mean for the noise levels, this would be the equivalent of trying to rehearse at a Hells Angels birthday party. The kitchen was an absolute mess.

 The Shatila Camp

The Shatila Camp

We entertained the idea of getting a cleaner and painter to fix it up but it takes more than a spring clean to relieve the depression from these surroundings. We also reminded ourselves that we are trying to offer these women and children a sanctuary, a place where they can escape their troubles for four hours a day, express themselves to the extent that they feel comfortable, and feel safe while doing it. We needed to get out of the camp.

 

10.9.2012 - The Sunflower (part 3)

Still nothing from Dawar Al Shams.

 

11.9.2014 - Wedding Halls & Yoga Studios

 It has been an incredibly demoralizing last few days. We have been contacting every kind of venue you can think of. Either they were flat out not interested or they cost way, way too much. We really need a space for the first two weeks. Finally we managed to set up a couple of meetings with alternative venues.

The first of these was a wedding hall. A portly man with a comforting voice sat down and listened to our needs. He was intrigued. After Itab finished describing what we do he showed us downstairs. There was a small kitchen where we’d be able to make tea and coffee in the break for the women, while the main space was excellent. Exactly the kind of space we were after. There were plenty of chairs, and the place was clean if not shining. Of course we’d have to overlook the oversized, fake wedding cake in the corner; the pink and white satin ribbons and lace strewn around; the fluorescent green and purple lights that ran along the wall; and the disco ball. All of these would have to be overlooked but it was perfect. Upstairs he even had a good space for the kids to run around in. He told us he would call back in a couple of hours and we left predicting the laughter the venue would incite in our women. Fake wedding plans were afoot!

Later we visited a yoga studio in Hamra. Though traffic would be dense and the buses might have difficulty parking to deliver the women, everyone likes a central location. The space was perhaps a bit tight for us but it was bright and cheerful. A decent escape from the camp. Our original plan to do yoga might also be realized.

Over dinner we received a call from the guy at the wedding hall.

“I have considered your project and understand that this is a charitable endeavor. I wish to recognize that with my offer to you. I will rent it out for $1000.”

“Wow. $1000 for three weeks? That is very generous. Thank you!”

“No. $1000 a day.

“??!!”

“I normally charge $1500 so this is a very good price.”

“Ummm do you think…”

“This is a non-negotiable offer.”

“But perhaps you didn’t understand that…”

“You don’t want it? Fine.” Click.

We’re pretty sure he never wanted to give us the space at all. Politics begin to creep into our search. And we realized that the yoga studio is definitely too small. 

 

11.9.2012 - The Sunflower (part 4)

Radio silence from Dawar Al Shams. Not good.

 

12.9.2014 - Shatila & Sabra Neighbourhoods

This morning we decide to go to the area of Shatila & Sabra but not into the camp. Instead we wander around the neighborhood nearby and walk into random large buildings. The largest buildings tend to be schools. There is ample space but school is back in session. What’s more our fears about public schools being too bureaucratic ring true. We have to get permission from the government to use any space of theirs. So we give up and walk to the main road.

 Parked car in Shatila Neighbourhood

Parked car in Shatila Neighbourhood

We engage with a couple of locals and ask them if they know of any wedding halls nearby. They laugh and cheer and congratulate Itab and me. After explaining that we’re not getting married they point us in the right direction. We jump in a taxi and head off. We figure that wedding halls have a decent amount of space, and being close to the camp means we save money on buses…maybe.

We arrive in a large venue on the sea. It’s soothing to hear the surf slowly slide against the beach. The owner is affable without giving too much away. He takes in what we have to say and then leads a brief tour. There’s a lot more satin and phony representations of love than the place yesterday. But this place is caked in filth. That’s no problem for us because we can clean it but would you get married here? Would he get married here? Oh. He did get married here. I stroll over to the window while Itab discusses the details with him. Once there that recent memory of the gentle sound of the sea have faded. What I see before me is effectively a landfill site washing up on the shore with each new wave. It’s as if we’re still in the camp.

It’s not a bad space and he offered us a fair price. However the aura was very negative. More than that it was potentially dangerous. Bringing two bus loads of Sunnis into a staunch Shia area of the city was risky. There have been a few attacks on Sunnis around here in recent months. We though it best to move on. It’s now clear that we won’t be able to start on Sep 15.

12.9.2012 - The Sunflower (part 5)

Finally Dawar Al Shams return our phone calls! And it’s to tell us that they can no longer offer us a space at all. I am up until 5am researching really alternative rehearsal spaces. So alternative that they’re not really rehearsal spaces, or even indoors. Though they complain about not having enough greenery, Beirutees famously ignore the parks that already exist. These parks are a good size, a few are very big indeed, but they have not been looked after over the years. However recently, like with much of the city, regeneration projects are underway. The parks have improved dramatically in the last decade. But would the women would be more comfortable in a private space, not to mention the permit we’d need to use a public space in that way… Oh and of course there’d be the “Syrians aren’t allowed to congregate” rule (See below).

   

13.9.2014 - The Unesco Building

We organize a meeting at a Unesco building near the airport. All of the military security that we encounter seems to suggest the site has close ties to the government. An incredibly grand chandelier that rivals that of the Dolmabahce Palace greets you at the entrance. After little guidance we knock on the only closed door we find. A well-dressed man in his late fifties opens the door. We’re unsure if this is the same man we spoke with on the phone earlier but he welcomes us nonetheless. With his gentle voice and disposition he leads us into the conference room and we take a seat at the table. The meeting is over in under three minutes.

“If you’re going to rehearse here then you must perform here; at least two months before the performance you must provide us with the script; you must get permission from the minister for culture; you are not allowed to use Syrian refugees.”

“Why can’t we use Syrian refugees?”

“It has been decreed that large numbers of Syrians are not allowed to congregate in any one place.”

We don’t understand why they insisted we travel all this way. “You must come. You must come. Let us speak in person.” So went our telephone conversation this morning. But then we decided not to try to understand the way people think here. They have their reasons and they are usually offensive ones. It's best we not aggravate the situation. But to address his points: performing in lifeless venues is bad news for art and business; we are not a political organization but we will not be censored and, more importantly, we will not censor these women as we seek to give them a voice when no-one else will. Besides we won’t even have a full script till at least a few weeks before we perform; There's a ministry?; We are not allowed to use Syrian refugees? Syrians are not allowed to congregate? Sorry, what? I guess that options out. “Can you pay for our taxi/time, mister?”

 

Shatila Camp (part 2)

Later we travel back to Shatila. After the last venue we saw there we were sure that we had to rehearse somewhere away from the camp. However we we’re assured this was a significant improvement. And it was. First we sat with the site manager who doubled as a football coach on the weekends. His trophy cabinet is incredibly healthy with a collection that he is clearly proud of. There is even a photo of him with the European Cup, though I’m cynically suspicious of its authenticity. I’m probably just jealous.

The space is very clean, comes with air conditioning, a full kitchen, good space for the kids. The kind man will even give it to us for free as long as we make a donation to the group at the end. It is perhaps a little small for the number of participants we have but we can’t get over the concept of the sanctuary. However presentable and cheap the space we just felt that we had to take these women out of this place in order for this project to be as effective as it can be.

 

15.9.2014 - The Private Club in The Cosmopolitan Hotel

Our search for basketball courts yielded a meeting at The Private Club in The Cosmopolitan Hotel. A good name for a hotel in Beirut but we’re suspicious whether they’d be happy hosting refugees. As soon as you used the words ‘Syrian’ or ‘refugee’ in this town there was a sense of scorn or bitterness. We met with the manager of the sports areas of the club and he was wonderful. A Lebanese man that had lived in Montreal for many years, Ramzi was incredibly enthusiastic to work with this.

We waited until the end of the conversation to mention that the workshops would be with Syrian refugees but he didn’t flinch a bit. This was quite a high-class hotel and yet he was talking about refugees sharing coffee and biscuits with the regular clientele. It was admirable. There were some logistical problems with the venue and it was a bit far from the camp and the rest of the city. In other circumstances we would have jumped at the opportunity to collaborate with someone as welcoming and polite, open-minded, and enthusiastic. He didn’t have to but he said that they have no political affiliation and do not discriminate based on class or creed. Not something you hear often in Beirut.

 

15.9.2014 - St Joseph University

 St Joseph University

St Joseph University

 When we left the hotel we checked our email and saw a note from St Joseph University (SJU). They apologized for the delay in replying to our message from a couple of weeks ago but they might have a rehearsal space if we still needed one. We headed to their office so quickly that we wrote the reply as we walked through the campus gates. We found the office of the woman that wrote us. She, Yara, works for the Secretary General of the university who is simultaneously working on her dissertation about theatre and social development. I see why she got in touch! She was happy to see us and was keen to show us the space.

Established in 1875, SJU is one of the top two in Lebanon. Yara led us to the University’s campus for Innovation and Sport. Completed in 2011 and designed by a team of 109 architects headed by Youssef Tohme, this campus is light and bright with a vibrant atmosphere that could potentially lift the women. Here is a description of the campus from an architectural website:

This new campus takes a contextual approach, integrating physically, culturally, and historically with Beirut’s urban tissue. Conceptually an urban block with sculpted voids, the building’s hollow spaces define six autonomous blocks and construct multiple viewpoints across Beirut, connecting students to their dynamic setting. The voids also generate a street-level meeting space, which flows fluidly to the top floor in the form of a massive staircase. It concludes at a landscaped terrace overlooking the city. Light is a vital element in oriental architecture and one that shapes its style and identity; the campus exposes alternate light qualities through Moucharabieh-inspired perforations and a polycarbonate volume. Such manipulation presents a striking contrast in filtered light and luminescence. A stylized random-opening treatment is a snapshot of the Lebanese War, lending a poetic glimpse into the reality of destruction and violence.    

Yara introduced us to Ms. Mony Safa, head of this particular campus, and together we headed upstairs. The first room they showed us was a standard classroom with floor-to-ceiling windows. If we could find a way to child-proof this then it would work just fine. The next was ‘La Salle de Musique’. In keeping with the rest of the campus this room receives a lot of light and is the perfect size for our group.

The university were amazing. Within 36 hours we had an agreement that we could use their spaces for two weeks. We can start September 18th. This may be officially three days later than planned but in the Middle East that’s definitely ahead of schedule. Now we’re hoping our stay at SJU can be extended until November 1st when we move to Al Madina Theatre in Hamra. There we will rehearse for two weeks before the first of three performances on November 14th.

25.9.2014 - The Search continues

SJU can only house us until October 8th! Beirut's not making it easy on us, is it? Two cancelled venues and a whole lot of surprises.