In southern Lebanon, theater program seeks to build a cultural life

Actor and theater manager Kassem Istanbouli is seeking to encourage an interest in the arts among the youth of Tyre, who have few options for creative outlet. 

Nicholas Blanford
Kassem Istanbouli (c.) instructs his class of young actors on the stage of the Cinema Hamra in the southern Lebanon port town of Tyre.

In a disused and run-down old cinema in the center of this ancient port, a group of young amateur actors takes to the stage equipped with a broom handle and a metal cooking pot.

One after the other, they improvise a scene using the implements. One turns the broom handle into a gear stick and the pot into a steering wheel as he pretends to be a taxi driver. Another plays a soldier with rifle and helmet. A third is a magician with wand and top hat.

Filming them quietly from a table on the stage is Kassem Istanbouli, a Lebanese actor and theater manager. A proponent of cultural life across southern Lebanon, he is seeking to encourage an interest in the arts among Tyre’s youth as an alternative to the drudgery of daily life and the lure of militant groups like the Shiite Hezbollah or Palestinian factions.

“Any city that does not have cinema, theater, or art is a city of death,” says Mr. Istanbouli. “Cinema is life, and the arts is beauty.”

Iran-backed Hezbollah has dispatched thousands of fighters to neighboring Syria over the past three years to defend the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Hundreds of them have died on that country’s battlefields, and the organization continues to seek recruits among Lebanon’s Shiites.

Some of those recruits are inspired by what they perceive as an existential threat at the hands of extremist Sunni groups like the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra, Syria’s Al Qaeda affiliate, who consider Shiites apostates. Others join as a natural consequence of having grown up immersed in Hezbollah’s culture of resistance and enmity toward Israel.

Others still are drawn to Hezbollah’s ranks by the promise of a steady salary and the benefits of the party’s socio-economic welfare programs, powerful incentives given the lack of jobs and activities for the youth of Tyre and south Lebanon.

A constructive pursuit

Ibrahim Ibrahim, 18, a budding actor under Istanbouli’s direction, says acting represents an opportunity to do something constructive with his time. Otherwise Tyre has little to offer the young.

“If I wasn’t here I would be either at home or smoking a nargileh [water pipe] at a café. There is nothing to do here,” he says.

The amateur actors meet each Sunday for rehearsals and practice in the gloomy cavernous interior of the Cinema Hamra, which opened its doors in 1952 but fell into disuse and disrepair during Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war.

The cinema’s original stage curtain – a ruffled, slightly tattered, and faded golden drape – hangs above the actors. Fresh red paint brightens the walls, but Istanbouli has not yet managed to acquire sufficient funds to patch the holes in the ceiling and purchase proper seating.

Istanbouli’s theater group will soon perform Tóték (The Toth Family), originally a novella by the Hungarian writer Istvan Örkény that was later adapted for the stage. The story is a black comedy set during a war in which a family goes out of its way to please the son’s commanding officer, who is invited to stay at their home.

“We chose it because it is similar to what is happening in the south [Lebanon] right now, with so many people having gone to war,” says Istanbouli. “It's about the search for a good life and peace.”

The theater and cinema restoration is clearly a labor of love for Istanbouli, but he faces a challenge to promote the arts in an environment in which such activities are often met with bewilderment and even suspicion.

Little time for the arts

“The people in Tyre think we are crazy. They are ignorant when it comes to these things. We are achieving things here, but there is no respect for what we are trying to do,” says Venus Farhat, 18. She says her dream is to become a professional actress and that she has the full support of her parents. Some of Istanbouli’s student actors are only six or seven years old; their mothers, seated on plastic chairs, watch their performances with proud smiles.

South Lebanon has been buffeted by decades of war and occupation by neighboring Israel. Many have left to seek a better life. Those that remain are tough, pragmatic, and stoical, earning meager livings by growing tobacco, olives, or citrus fruit in the steep stony hills. In such an austere environment, most have little time or understanding for the arts and theater.

A recent two-day festival organized by Istanbouli included singing groups from nearby Palestinian refugee camps and local schools, a band from Syria, and music from several countries serving with the United Nations peacekeeping mission in south Lebanon.

“It was a big shock to the authorities to see all these musicians in the street,” Istanbouli says. “The people enjoyed seeing the [UN peacekeepers] and musicians from different countries here in Tyre. We made the people happy.”

Tyre, in ancient times a thriving Phoenician port city, sits on a promontory jutting out into the azure waters of the Mediterranean. Although Hezbollah has influence, its one-time Shiite rival and now ally, the Amal Movement, has always enjoyed more popularity here. The mainly Shiite residents – there are sizeable Christian and Sunni communities – tend to be easygoing and prefer Amal’s more moderate politics to Hezbollah’s, which follows Iran’s system of theocratic rule.

Istanbouli has organized several film and theater festivals in Tyre. Last year, an Iranian theater troupe attended his festival and performed at the Cinema Hamra.

“The Iranians were dancing on the stage and playing beautiful music, and people in Tyre were shocked,” Istanbouli says. “They associate Iran with Hezbollah and religion, not art and beauty.”

Culture of resistance

While Hezbollah is not opposed to art, theater, or cinema, it tends to view with caution any project or activity that might contradict or threaten the party’s carefully cultivated culture of resistance against Israel.

In Hezbollah-supporting Shiite areas of south Lebanon, the Bekaa Valley, and Beirut’s southern suburbs, the party’s symbols and motifs are impossible to avoid.

Posters of the party’s leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, are plastered on walls alongside pictures of “martyrs” killed in action against Israel and, more recently, in Syria. Banners carry praise for the “Resistance,” the name given to Hezbollah’s military wing. Many watch Hezbollah’s Al-Manar television, which broadcasts stirring images of resistance fighters in action and anti-Israel propaganda alongside soap operas and talk shows.

After more than three decades of existence, Hezbollah has become a generational organization. The sons of Hezbollah fighters grow up surrounded by, and immersed in, the culture of resistance. For them, joining the party is a logical outcome of their upbringing, a process that guarantees for Hezbollah a steady flow of fresh and motivated recruits year after year.

“In our society when a baby is born, before it is a day old, someone will have whispered into its ear ‘Israel is our enemy,’ ” chuckles Mohammed, a veteran member of Hezbollah and the elected mukhtar, or administrative official, of a village in south Lebanon.

Offering glimpse of another life

​For Mohammed, the war in Syria is no longer about the survival of the Assad regime but about the survival of Shiites in Lebanon and the Arab world. Since 2013, Hezbollah-supporting Shiite areas of Lebanon have been hit multiple times by car bombings and suicide explosions carried out by extremist Sunni groups.

“It’s not about Assad for us anymore. If we don’t fight they will annihilate us. We have no choice,” Mohammed says. But in a rare moment of candor, the committed Hezbollah veteran concedes that war fatigue is on the rise. Even some Hezbollah fighters are balking at repeated tours of duty in Syria.

“Fighters won’t refuse [orders] to go, but they will make up excuses. If you are about to be sent somewhere and you hear that 10 people have just been killed there, you won’t want to go,” he says. “People are tiring of the war. They feel it’s a waste of lives.”

Still, many young Lebanese Shiites continue to flock to Hezbollah’s call.

“I have always wanted to join Hezbollah, but it is the war in Syria that made me take that step. I joined to fight the terrorists in Syria,” says Abbas, a 23-year-old builder who took up arms with Hezbollah six months ago. “If I die, I will be a martyr,” he says.

That willingness to fight and acceptance of martyrdom sits uncomfortably with Istanbouli’s ambitions for Tyre to become a cultural hub.

“The strategy is to find a cultural space and then build festivals which will become the identity of the city,” he says. “It will bring people here to participate and watch. And then we can build our [theater] team and build the capacity of the young in the south.”

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