Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

How Syrians Have Enriched Lebanon’s Artistic and Cultural Life

Kosai Khauli
Syrian actors Kosai Khauli (L) and Sulafa Maamar (R) arrive to attend the 2011 Murex d’Or awards ceremony in the northern port of Jounieh, near the capital Beirut, on June 23, 2011. Photo: JOSEPH EID / AFP

In 2013, theatre director Osama Halal left Damascus for Beirut after the security situation in Syria worsened. Hundreds of other Syrian artists followed the same route. They have had a significant impact on Lebanon’s artistic and cultural life, a contribution that is largely ignored by those who focus on the economic burden on the country of more than a million Syrian refugees.

Shortly before leaving Syria, Halal presented Solovan in a theatre in Damascus, a show that symbolically addressed the beginning of the revolution in 2011. The production attraction the attention of the security services, who sent him a message saying, ‘Your work is not welcome here, and if you want to work, we will provide you with the text and work team.’

“Before the revolution, we were used to the lack of a second point of view other than that of the state services,” Halal told Fanack. “There was no plurality of opinions, and no criticism of any kind was allowed. There was no such thing as independent art, which forced us to resort to symbolism and semi-encrypted work with the hope that the security services would not decipher the messages we wanted to convey. However, the revolution prompted me to ask myself the question: Why do I work in theatre or art? I had no desire to leave Damascus, but I realized that leaving was necessary after the threats that we received. Despite the fact that there were much better opportunities for me in Europe in terms of living conditions, work and other aspects, I preferred to stay in Lebanon.”

Halal has worked in the theatre since 2002 and directed nine plays as well as developing other performances and ideas that did not come to fruition in Syria but were later implemented in Lebanon. “I didn’t have a place, a theatre, a studio or a permanent group in Syria,” he said. “In every show I dealt with new artists, so when I came to Lebanon, I had an old idea that I could not stop thinking about, which was to establish the Koon Theatre Group. After I came to Lebanon, I started preparing for my first show called Above Zero, which was performed in 2014 and ran until 2018, with a team of Lebanese, Syrians, Palestinians, Germans and French. Also, we presented it in several countries and achieved great success, and I continued selecting artists with whom I had previously worked.

Each of these artists has a skill, whether it is acting, dancing, singing or playing, and each of them has a different way of expressing messages. This is how I started as soon as I came to Lebanon, taking advantage of the small amount of freedom that exists in the country, both in terms of freedom of expression and the type of issues discussed. I was able to have a place of my own and my group in this country.”

Some argue that the level of academic experience, techniques and skills that the Syrian artists brought with them was much higher than what had previously existed in Lebanon. For example, the Syrians introduced the concept of the ‘dramaturge’ – a literary editor who liaises with playwrights and researches, edits and interprets scripts. If the production includes a scene from the 1980s and one of the characters is shown having a drink, the dramaturge is responsible for finding the right drink from that period.

The Syrians have also helped to push territorial boundaries within Lebanon through art, enriching the artistic movement and theatrical performances, increasing audience turnout and promoting cross-border artistic development.

This is in addition to related associations and institutions and sponsors of Syrian art and culture in Lebanon because of the geographical proximity between the two countries. These institutions have created a large labour market for both the Lebanese and Syrians.

Despite these positives, the experience of Syrian artists in Lebanon is complex. Although they enjoy a degree of freedom unseen in Syria since the al-Assad family came to power, Syrian artists are not officially permitted to work in Lebanon and often struggle to get permits to travel abroad. These difficulties have prompted a number of artists to emigrate to Europe. Others have felt forced to take more extreme measures, such as actor and dancer Hassan Rabih who committed suicide in 2015. For his part, Halal was able to reach an agreement with the Sunflower Theatre. He joined the theatre in 2016 and established the Koon Studio, which has become an educational centre and haven for artists of all nationalities living in Lebanon.

To date, Halal has produced a number of successful productions with the studio’s theatre group, including Above Zero, The Other Side of the Garden and Ich Liebe Dich. He also organized four workshops to enable the exchange of knowledge and experience between artists and theatre makers, including technicians, writers and composers, all of whom worked free of charge. In addition, amateurs were invited to practice with the professional members of the group to gain experience, which helped to establish several new talents, some of whom have since become professionals themselves.

“I tried to create an artistic movement to support amateur or professional artists who want to develop their work and skills regardless of nationality, identity or anything else other than being an artist,” Halal said of this initiative.

Of all the art forms, drama has arguably been most significantly impacted by Syrian input. Although this dates from before the outbreak of the war, the influx of Syrian refugees has greatly enriched the scope and quality of Lebanese theatre productions. For example, Syrian director Samer Barqawi’s three-part drama series al-Haybah (‘the prestige’), played to sold-out audiences for three years. Other Syrian directors who have made a name for themselves in Lebanon include Rami Hanna (Tango and The Writer) and Rasha Sharbatji (Ma Fiyi, Samra and Private Relations).

The Lebanese drama scene has taken advantage of the Syrians working in this field, especially after the ban imposed by many Arab channels, and the Gulf states in particular, on Syrian dramas. As a result, a large number of Syrian producers, directors, writers, actors and others now dominate the scene, to the extent that ‘there is no Lebanese drama except in the presence of Syrians’, according to Lebanese art critic, Shafiq Tabbarah.

A number of Syrian actors, such as Tayyim Hassan, Kosai Khauli and Mutasim al-Nahar, have gained fame in their host country, in some cases surpassing the success and celebrity of their Lebanese counterparts.

In terms of fine art, dozens of Syrian artists have established themselves in Lebanon, with their work represented in exhibitions and collections across the country. As Syrian painter and artist Mudar Dwara explained, “Syrian artists in Lebanon have almost entered all painting exhibitions and hotels in Lebanon, and the artists were more welcome in Lebanon than in any other neighbouring country or diaspora countries, although Lebanon is a small country facing difficult economic circumstances.”

He added, “The works presented by the Syrians in Lebanon were distinct and varied, and each artist expressed his or her style, art, way of thinking and touches. These Syrian touches were in Lebanon, yet they maintained the Syrian art heritage. The Syrian crisis greatly influenced many of those works because crises and wars create art in the same way they cause tragedies.”

Unlike many Syrians working in the theatre, fine artists have found it easier to establish themselves in Lebanon, mainly because they can work alone from their own homes or studios, and because of the economic dimensions of this field, which became more active with the Syrians’ arrival.

“As a Syrian artist in Lebanon, I have not encountered any harassment or issue. On the contrary, there was a lot of support from the people around us. I was free to hold any exhibition or participate in any event. I am not alone, and I think that dozens of Syrian painters who came to Lebanon from all Syrian governorates discovered the same about Lebanon,” Dwara said.

The exact number of Syrian artists working in Lebanon is unclear, as is the number of exhibitions they have held, in part because there have been so many.

Besides theatre, drama and fine art, hundreds of Syrians work in, produce and study various other arts alongside their Lebanese hosts, including music, film, singing and sculpture, all of which have flourished since the influx of refugees, despite their portrayal by some groups as an economic and social burden.

user placeholder
written by
All Fanack articles