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Two floors below al-Hamra Street in Beirut’s cultural heart is Metro al-Madina, one of the most vibrant independent theatres in the Lebanese capital. For decades, al-Hamra Street has attracted artists, performers, poets and academics. Operating against this rich artistic backdrop is Hisham Jaber, actor, director and founder of Metro al-Madina, who believes that art can create a unique space in the midst of chaos.
Since the beginning of his artistic career in 2002, Jaber’s main motivation has been his strong belief in the audience. In fact, he tailors his pieces according to the audiences’ tastes and the revenues generated from ticket and bar sales, staying away from external sources of funding to create art that is truly independent. He is also known for experimenting with and even inverting the genre. For one show, the audience stood on stage while the actors performed in the seating area.
His first production was Cola, Barber, Museum and Course, his graduation project for the Faculty of Arts at the Lebanese University. The play was a black comedy that examined the civil war (1975-1990) from the perspective of one generation that had lived through the war and another generation that was born in the middle of it.
He continued to produce theatrical works until 2006. Solo or Solo in 2003 also dealt with the civil war and its social impact and incorporated footage from the conflict. In 2005, he produced Arabic Bread about five Lebanese characters who come back to life after 3 million years and agree to destroy the political system by devouring one another. The Death of Najib Brax was presented the same year.
Following a series of bombings and political assassinations, most of them in and around Beirut, Jaber moved to Egypt in 2006. His first project was producing a documentary about Egyptian cinema, but it became an opportunity to delve into the history of Egyptian art, which for decades has been the locomotive of art across the Arab world. The project evolved into 12 documentaries charting the history of Egyptian cinema since its inception through to 2000.
Along the way, Jaber explored the works, performances and artistic figures that had inspired and enriched his own career. During this period, he began to write his play Not for the Public, before deciding to return to Beirut in 2008.
Jaber has always aspired to create a cultural and artistic arena that presents real and enduring art. His dream became a reality with the founding of Metro al-Medina in 2010. In an interview with Fanack, he said: “I was preoccupied with the prestige of art, and I was working to have a real venue for genuine art, not a cheap one, so we established Metro al-Madina, which was to have diverse stages and tastes of art, and the audience could choose the taste that suits it. The audience would even participate in the development of such art by contributing opinions and suggestions.”
Jaber bet on the audience, a risk that is still paying off a decade later. Although the fluctuating revenues present financial and creative challenges, Jaber remains convinced that art lovers will always support quality art that meets their tastes.
In its first months, Metro al-Madina presented several successful theatrical and musical performances, including The Flaming Agent, The Double Dancer, The Year of False News, Devil’s Eye and Cabaret Show.
The most important and successful production to date is Hishik Bishik, a cabaret show set in early 20th-century Cairo during the golden era of Egyptian music. Originally intended to run for two months, the show’s success allowed it to continue for seven years, and it is still regularly reprised.
“Hishik Bishik is the product of previous experiences, and it was a successful experience that compensated us for all the losses that preceded it,” Jaber said.
In addition to writing and directing, Jaber developed Metrophone, a project to revive Lebanon’s musical history by bringing back forgotten but significant works by 16 singers and composers including Faryal Karim, Sami al-Sidawi, Sami Hawat and Nahawand. The project was enthusiastically supported by the families and relatives of these artists, some of whom attended the concerts and even performed their songs themselves.
“Metrophone is a quest for art and the history of the industry of art in Egypt, Syria and Lebanon,” Jaber explained. “It helps us discover what we have all missed after we satisfied ourselves with the final products of artists who are still present [in our artistic memory], such as Fairuz and Um Kulthum. We wanted to overcome the dilemma of the public’s love of heritage, which the public knows very well, by thoroughly searching for the roots of the history of art.
Jaber continued, “There is a part of the music that has been forgotten in this city, so we wanted to bring it back to its rightful place by offering a strong dose of singing to a public that is yearning for long and old singing and music concerts. Although it was an adventure to perform one song at a one-hour-long concert, it was a very successful adventure. Since [Metrophone’s] inception in 2013, the audience turnout has been impressive and consistent. After the presence of the audience was limited to the elderly, the theatre is now full of all age groups.”
Jaber’s preoccupation with quality art and his efforts to reintroduce it to Lebanon’s cultural scene has always gone hand-in-hand with his interest in and fair treatment of the artists behind it. The last Saturday of each month is dedicated to discovering and nurturing new talent, which has helped to launch the careers of stars such as Chantal Bitar, Colette Chedid and Rosette.
“An artist needs to be satisfied to be able to perform well,” Jaber explained. “We are basically a company, not an association, and every artist involved in a show is part of this company, and the remuneration is part of the appreciation shown by the place for him or her. This makes artists satisfied with themselves and with what they present.”
Artist and musician Farah Qaddour, who got her start in Metro al-Madina, said, “I found in the Metro a space and a musical taste that I love and artistic colours that have allowed me to gain new experiences and skills as well as a stronger presence on stage by learning new theatrical skills. Hisham Jaber played a major role in opening new horizons on the types and techniques of art and music, for me and for many other musicians.”
She added, “What distinguishes Hisham Jaber most is his musical ear. He is very intelligent in his selection of singers who will perform the roles of [real-life] singers, for example, and he has impressive research skills. He is never content with a superficial search for musicians, but visits them wherever they are. Metro al-Madina and its art projects have played a great role in enriching art in Lebanon, as the music and art scene before Metro al-Madina was very different.”
Jaber concluded, “I think the most important achievement of the Metro was that it gave hope that something good can be done and that real art can be presented, which has brought life back to art in Lebanon and allowed theatres to compete with cinemas. We dreamed of creating an oasis in a city full of problems, exploiting the margins of freedom that the city has. This is in addition to restoring to the art makers their confidence in the audience and allowing them to take chances and produce art based on revenues. This audience will find its way to true art in a scene that is full of many other colours.”