New York Times
BEIRUT, Lebanon, Aug. 17 — Over the next three months, the Lebanese artist Rabih Mroué will stage his new performance piece in Paris, Rome and the capitals of Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt. But he will not present it here, for the audience with whom it might resonate most.
This week, an Interior Ministry censorship board banned performances of the piece, “How Nancy Wished That Everything Was an April Fool’s Joke,” which was to have received its premiere this weekend.
For Mr. Mroué, the outright ban is a first. And he says it bodes ill for an art scene that gestated during a period of precarious peace but is now squeezed by the government’s fear of renewed civil war.
“The margin of freedom is getting smaller and smaller,” he said during a break from his day job as an illustrator for a Lebanese television station. “The vision is becoming so narrow, and there is no more room for different voices.”
Written by Mr. Mroué with Fadi Toufic, “Nancy” presents an episodic history of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war through the experiences of four fighters who served in different militias. For the duration of the performance, Mr. Mroué; his wife, Lina Saneh; and two other actors sit on a couch meant for three. Above each actor’s head, like speech balloons in a comic strip, are a microphone and a screen projecting posters of the “martyrs” and militias that are common to this day on the streets of Beirut.
The four characters tell stories of contradiction that ricochet off one another. They will adhere to an ideological position and then change it. They pledge loyalty to a political leader and then betray him. They make allies and then forsake them. They switch sides and get lost.
In each story they tell they are killed in battle, only to come back to life again in the next round, like irrepressible players of video games.
The various and competing narratives weave a dense web that gives a sense of how conflicts play out over the years in any city — Beirut, Baghdad, Sarajevo, Belfast — riven by sectarian strife.
Mr. Mroué, 40, belongs to a tight-knit generation of artists, writers and filmmakers that has put Beirut back on the cultural map since the end of the civil war in 1990. They have learned to maneuver on the margins of mainstream society, striving to create works of formal precision and political insight with as little interference as possible from Lebanon’s fragile, divided government.
But that space is indeed shrinking. Since the late 1990s, Mr. Mroué had eluded the censors by ignoring them. He didn’t bother to clear his scripts. The price, he said, was that he could perform each piece for a few nights only, he could not accept a fee, and he relied on art spaces that are slightly off the radar.
But after he staged “Who’s Afraid of Representation” — a piece incorporating the true story of a civil servant who killed some of his colleagues when he was fired from his job — in late 2005, officials from Lebanon’s Interior Ministry called him in and demanded that he eliminate portions of the performance.
Since then, performance spaces have been reluctant to stage anything without prior approval from the censorship board. So this summer Mr. Mroué decided to take his chances with the censors.
After a weeklong struggle with Mr. Mroué over parts of the script, the censorship board banned the performance on Aug. 14.
“I expected to have to cut from the text,” Mr. Mroué said. “But I didn’t expect it to be stopped in such a violent way.”
He appealed the decision and was rebuffed. The censors would not provide an explanation. When he started receiving offers of political cover from various factions, he said, he knew that the fight he had on his hands was no longer his own, and that the performance risked being used anyway.
“How Nancy Wished That Everything Was an April Fool’s Joke” was to have been presented on Aug. 18 at Art Lounge, a fashionably disheveled gallery that doubles as a bar and boutique on the outskirts of the city in the drab Karantina industrial district.
Reached by telephone, the owner of the space, Nino Azzi, said he was relieved. “It’s better to sort out all the legalities in advance,” he said. “It’s a bit delicate right now.”
A year after fighting between Israeli troops and Hezbollah in Lebanon, the country remains on tenterhooks. The lingering specter of the long civil war is reinforced by a standoff between pro-government and opposition parties, and by continued fighting between the Lebanese Army and Islamists in the north.
Mr. Mroué and his contemporaries were once considered part of a postwar generation, but they have not entirely escaped Lebanon’s cyclical violence. Mr. Mroué is more aware of that than most.
“We know we are in the midst of a cold civil war,” he said. “There may be no fighting, but we know the fighters are there. Even the younger generation is ready to fight.”
Born in Beirut in 1967, Mr. Mroué studied theater at the Lebanese University, where he met Ms. Saneh, his wife and frequent collaborator.
When they were in their early 20s, the couple created a stage adaptation of “The Journey of Little Gandhi,” a novel by the Lebanese writer Elias Khoury. Since then they have collaborated formally and informally on an ever more multidisciplinary body of work that includes videos and installations combining photography, text and sculpture.
Yet theater remains the spine of their art. Few of the theater directors who were active in the 1980s are staging plays in Beirut now. Mr. Mroué and Ms. Saneh have helped sustain Lebanese theater by pushing it into the realm of performance art.
With a string of formally inventive, astringent performance pieces to their credit, they are to Beirut what the Wooster Group is to New York: a blend of avant-garde innovation, conceptual complexity and political urgency, all grounded in earthy humor.
“Rabih is a thinker,” said Walid Raad, one of Lebanon’s best-known artists. “There are concepts, plays, figures, texts and forms — and Rabih has something to say to, and about, them. At the same time, it always seems as if his dialogue is in the service of the present and future, in Lebanon and elsewhere.”
George Arbid, a architect and university professor who follows Mr. Mroué’s work closely, said, “He is seriously interested in the local audience, and yet his work travels everywhere.”
vLocal presentations of Mr. Mroué’s work are becoming increasingly rare. He has been part of the international art circuit since 2002, traveling extensively to biennials and theater festivals as far afield as Sydney, Australia; Seoul, South Korea; and Tokyo, where “Nancy” had its world premiere in March. When he does perform for the Beirut public, it constitutes a major cultural event.
In Mr. Mroué’s view, a Beirut audience would have implicitly understood the genesis of his latest piece. “It came out of a real fear of another civil war,” he said. “For those of us who already lived through one, we can live through almost anything — but not that, not again.”