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Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Al-Hakawati Theatre: Lebanon as it Should Be

Al-Hakawati Theatre
A photo of the play “Ayyam Al-Khyam” performed by the Al-Hakawati Theatre troupe. Source: Hanane Hajj Ali – Fanack.com.

Youssef Sharqawi

The Arab theatre lived through several stages in its short life, which lasted for nearly a century and a half. It entered the third phase, after the post-independence crises, of class inequality and social injustice, finding itself before the task of renewing and protecting the independent society and contributing to change during the Arab revolutions calling for socialism.

Then came the June 1967 defeat, and the theatre lived through this stage until the mid-1980s, as it rapidly and desperately fell.

The Arab theatre passed through this crossroads from 1967 to a late period, between the adoption of Western theatre traditions and the idea of ​​adhering to the Arab theatre origins. Within this reality, theatrical forms linked to the reality of people and their circumstances emerged and relied on collective participation in its production.

Perhaps the most important of these is the experience of the Al-Hakawati Theatre Troupe in Lebanon, which published its manifesto in May 1979, in an attempt to establish a theatrical experience that derives its essence from reality, through which it can form a progressive and renaissance position.

There is a political, social and cultural background to the Lebanese theatre in the 1970s, crystallised in the Civil War, which created a state of dispersion.

According to the critic Abdulrahman bin Zaydoun, that war, despite its horror, shaped the new Lebanese theatre and promoted popular theatrical diversity based on teamwork and writing a committed dramatic script.

The Emergence of the Al-Hakawati Troupe

It is known that Roger Assaf is the real founder of the band, along with Abido Bacha, Rafik Ali Ahmad, Rafik Tabee’, and many others. The band was formed, and its elements came together, as stated in its statement: “It is a troupe motivated by a common motive to express through the theatre,” aware of the impossibility of achieving this through the dominant theatre, so “the troupe decided to use the only possibility available, which is to go through experiments aimed at finding the elements of creating an alternative theatre.”

The troupe was formed in 1977 by students, employees and professors who met at the Institute of Arts in West Beirut from several regions across Lebanon, with common convictions. At first, it started with about 30 members. They held discussions for more than three months, with a decisive premise: the theatre that Lebanon knew until 1977 is rejected for several reasons: it represents European intellect with the production relations prevailing in Europe. And because this outsider theatre does not meet the taste of the national popular audience to which it should be directed.

It also lacks the elements of expression that the people know in their heritage. Also, this theatre exercises an oppressive relationship with the audience, in addition to theatrical illusion.

Some members withdrew after protracted discussions, while the rest agreed to adopt the Al-Hakawati’s (Narrator) approach, i.e., the narrator’s relationship with the audience.

The Al-Hakawati theatre experience emerged to express the corruption produced by the Civil War. In this regard, Abido Bacha says: “The experiment was the political and social activity in the popular committees and agricultural cooperatives and cooperation with the Lebanese National Movement and the Palestinian resistance, and the socio-political activity that Roger Assaf underwent here and there. The theatre came as a means to express this affiliation, a secondary means of mobilisation in 1977 when the Al-Hakawati Theatre Troupe was founded.”

The manifesto

Al-Hakawati Theatre
Lebanese theatre director and actor Roger Assaf poses in Beirut 21 May 2000. RAMZI HAIDAR / AFP

The Al-Hakawati Theatre’s lengthy statement in 1979 stated two main issues: changing the nature of the relationship with theatrical production and with the audience. On these bases, the troupe chose “collective work” in the subject, scripting, preparing actors and economic dealing in its work. It also chose to have a direct relationship with the audience (popular groups), achieved by breaking the theatrical illusion through using and developing the narrator method and the audience’s involvement in organising performances.

The troupe adopted an intentional orientation to the audience wherever it was.

The troupe concluded its statement: “This general orientation, which includes all the elements that we discussed, is the practice that will allow the theatre to raise the issue of the identity and function of art in our society at the theoretical and practical levels. It is the only field that allows the possibility of embodying the controversial relationship between the public and the art, giving the theatre, in particular, a justification for its existence and enabling it to play its progressive national role.”

Mokhtar al-Harabi says in his study, “The Experiment of the Al-Hakawati Theatre in Lebanon between Theory and Practice”: “It is the first time that a theatre seriously attempts a new theatrical form. It is a form that has nothing to do with the dominant forms of theatre, except in using some of its techniques. And the collective work in the troupe does not stop at that level only, but its goal is to reach the position of the popular artist towards the group because he does not create the works alone.”

The Al-Hakawati theatre troupe, according to critic Khaleda Saeed, plays the role of “the mediator who constitutes the voice of the group or the group’s memory in a form that reaches the scripting authority and remains in harmony with the state of complete adherence to the group as the work is not signed except as a group.

Furthermore, a group of displaced villages participated in the signature. It is a departure from an old tradition in the Arab and European cultures and a return to the position of the popular artist towards the group because they are just a loop in a chain.”

The Experiment

The Al-Hakawati theatre takes on a popular festive dimension in its form, vision and performance techniques. The narrator in the troupe is closely related to the Lebanese environment. Regarding the components of the theatre troupe, Dr Jamil Hamdaoui says: “The troupe seriously strived towards establishing an authentic Arab theatre, forming heritage memory, inclination to popular and innate tendency, belief in teamwork, and transforming the troupe into a workshop for research, diligence, innovation and experimentation, and theoretical and applied excellence.”

The script in the Al-Hakawati Theatre troupe is a compilation and accumulation of oral heritage on the colloquial tongues of the people, whom the troupe members meet. Some tell stories or events they have seen or about influential personalities in their lives from their relatives and society, and members of the troupe would record observations through these meetings.

“Then, they sort between the gestic heritage, the characteristics and natures of individuals, to obtain a distinct quality from a social group in its past and present. It appears from this process that the collective character in this approach has its peculiarity in its ability to reach people and unite with them. Rather, it pulled them into the work and lured their memories with that spontaneity in narration, expression and gesture.”

According to Theatrical Arts magazine, the troupe tried in its experiment to “avoid the scene of the intellectual who teaches the illiterate people and makes them feel that he is teaching them, as the show starts with an introduction between friends. Instead, the performance starts with equal people who witness the same events and remember forgotten incidents. This theatre does not teach people. It draws their attention to the power that lies within them.”

Khaleda Saeed says: “the Al-Hakawati troupe neither writes nor records history. Instead, it is a mediation platform through which the group writes and records history. Writing arises from day to day lives, individuals, daily worries, and memories. In this regard, the artist does not compose content about the group, nor represent on their behalf their dreams and aspirations, rather the work is based on the advancement of the people’s voice from the margins to the axis.” In other words, the troupe was able to achieve what was necessary as mentioned in its statement, which is “starting from realistic scenes, characters, and sensual events, and transforming them artistically by discovering methods of performance stemming from original taste and imagination.”

A Subjective Equivalent to Lebanon

The troupe members have worked together for many years, despite the religious and cultural differences or intellectual and political affiliation. The troupe seemed equivalent to what Lebanon should have been during the Civil War and beyond. They met with a unified spirit and agreed to work collectively without a dictator director and direct leadership. Instead, each individual bears their responsibility, without anyone cancelling the other, but rather integrating with, and completing each other.

The discussion and drafting of the statement lasted two years before its release. These discussions between the troupe members grew in an atmosphere of different ideological affiliations within the group, according to Mukhtar al-Habashi, which produced a diverse unity that achieved a state of enrichment on the theatrical and humanitarian levels among the members until the Al-Hakawati theatre experiment became an authentic love experience.

Roger Assaf summarised the story of the Al-Hakawati theatre during an interview, saying: “It is a fundamental experiment because it changed the relationship of the cultural, artistic work to reality and the audience, with the recognition of those who lived through that period in Lebanon and the Arab world. It was a basic stage in which we discovered how a work of art could be rooted in reality and carry an aspect that allows people to open up and go beyond the limits of their understanding of reality, connect with history and memory, and in particular with the unwritten history carried by people’s collective memory.

“Secondly, it has to do with something outside the context in which we live, i.e., the Arab nation. The discovery of this matter through the theatre is important in the Al-Hakawati’s experience. Not to mention the theatrical form, which is related to the roots of popular culture in Lebanon, with its peculiarity that has a synonym in every Arab country. Our experience in the Al-Hakawati theatre is related to the village in Jabal Amil in the south, and it is not far from the heritage of the Arab peoples. Wherever we represented the Al-Hakawati, it was easy to communicate with the Arab masses.”