Culture

The martyrdoms of Dib al-Asmar

BEIRUT: Lina Majdalanie (née Saneh) walks on stage and begins to regale her audience with the story of the first prisoner exchange between the forces of the Palestinian revolution and those of the Zionist state (aka Israel). The body of an Israeli pilot was swapped for the remains of nine fighters, eight Palestinian one Lebanese. It was March, 1971.

The stage is simply adorned. Hanging from the rafters is a pair of screens – one portrait-shaped, another landscape-shaped. Majdalanie stands stage left, behind a table.

As she commences her tale in earnest, she pulls a photographic print from a container – a portrait of an adolescent version of herself – and drops it in a vat of clear fluid.

As the story unfolds she drops more photos into the vat – all Polaroid-style pictures of the actor, taken on stage and off, with friends, colleagues, relatives.

The fluid undoes the development process, dissolving all images from the prints. The silent erasure of Majdalanie’s mementoes is projected upon the vertical screen, captured by a video camera framing the vat from above.

“So Little Time,” the 2017 theater piece by Rabih Mroué, is at once quite new and somehow familiar. The familiarity arises from the playwright’s thematic preoccupations. Audiences familiar with Mroué and Majdalanie’s shared oeuvre will be reminded of the thoughtful blend of engaged cultural critique and dark comedy in their previous work, but there’s nothing stale here.

Co-produced by four German and French arts institutions and sponsored by Berlin’s Federal Cultural Foundation, the work credits Majdalanie and Yousef Bazzi as co-writers. The play had its Beirut premiere during SB13, Part II – the free-standing final leg of “Tamawuj,” the 2017 Sharjah Biennial, curated by Ashkal Alwan founder Christine Tohmé – staged Oct. 14-22.

Majdalanie’s monologue recounts the tale of Dib al-Asmar who, in this fiction, entered history as the first Lebanese national to die fighting to liberate Palestine from occupation.

Asmar went missing in March 1968 while trying to infiltrate Israel with a group of Fatah-affiliated fighters. Having been officially named “martyr” in 1971, Asmar re-surfaces in 1974 in a second prisoner swap, this time alive.

Over nearly three decades, Asmar undergoes the uniquely bipolar experience of the “living martyr.” Seduced by the status accompanying state-sanctioned national adulation (and a personal monument that’s become so ingrained in the popular consciousness that people use it to give directions), Asmar falls into hubris.

Mroué and his collaborators aren’t content with tragic arrogance. Having attained immense self-regard, the hero goes on to experience self-pity, which swells into self-envy before collapsing into self-doubt. By this point he begins to wonder whether he’s really a figment of his own imagination.

Amid this (frequently comic) self-reflection, Asmar must figure out what to do with the life he has left. He decides to return to his career as a revolutionary fighter.

First, though, he must know who’s buried in his grave. It occurs to him that no one, his family included, had bothered to confirm the identity of the corpse that bore his name. People are less concerned in individuals, it seems, than martyrs and other symbols.

It proves impossible to learn the cadaver’s identity, leaving Asmar with a disinterred body to bury. When none of Beirut’s religious sects will allow the anonymous remains to be laid to rest in their cemeteries, the Lebanese state is left with one of two options.

It might cremate the corpse but that’s impossible since it would violate the country’s personal status laws. Ultimately it decides to bury the unknown would-be liberator of Palestine in Wadi Abu Jamil’s Jewish cemetery. The leaders of Beirut’s minute Jewish community, forever regarded as insufficiently Lebanese, accept the corpse.

The post-martyrdom career conjured up for Asmar is narrated as a series of several darkly comic “what-if” scenarios.

Here, Lebanon’s Civil War was ignited in 1975 after some Phalangists dynamite the monument to martyr Dib al-Asmar.

The managers of the post-war state declare there is no room for Asmar’s monument in their vision of the reconstructed city. In response, Asmar commissions an artist to make a hundred reproductions of his monument. With a crew of Syrian and Egyptian laborers, he has them installed all over Beirut in a single night.

Lebanon’s political class dares not notice the monumental invasion of the city, assuming the Syrian viceroy has approved the job.

Steeped in the conflict history of Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and Egypt, the core narrative of “So Little Time” is a melancholy reflection upon the record of political revolution in this region. It’s also a hilarious satire of the political and folkloric appropriation of history.

The play is a commentary on celebrity and the political appropriation of biography in nationalist iconography. “So Little Time” takes a few amusing swipes at artistic practice, as well, particularly contemporary artists’ efforts to harness their work to the vagaries of regional politics.

When Asmar (jailed for erecting his own martyr monuments) is released from a Lebanese prison, he takes to painting himself bronze and posing, statue-like, at random street corners. The public response mingles fear and contempt.

Recovering himself, Asmar later undertakes a suicide mission in occupied south Lebanon. En route, he’s arrested and thrown into a Syrian prison. When Bashar Assad becomes president in 2000, our hero is among those released to mark the occasion.

His second return to Beirut is relatively anonymous, but an artist recognizes him, proposing that the former martyr collaborate with him on a new project – standing on a plinth as a living statue.

“My dear man,” Amsar replies, “I tried that long ago.”

“No no, this time it’s different!” the artist insists. “Now we’re taking a critical distance from history!”

Driven by Majdalanie’s strong solo performance, “So Little Time” is remarkable for the narrative and critical density infused into the story of Asmar’s lives, detentions and deaths. In this, the play emulates Mroué and Magdalanie’s most effective collaborations.

Mroué’s fondness for mingling nonfiction and fiction has been a feature of his most challenging works – “Looking for a Missing Employee” and “Who’s Afraid of Representation?” come to mind. Asmar’s career of activism, death and apparent resurrection make the new work most reminiscent of Mroué’s 2007 play “How Nancy Wished that Everything was an April Fool’s Joke.”

“So Little Time” benefits from focusing its narrative on one character – rather than four, as “Nancy” did. The story of Asmar’s multiple detentions and his political inflation and deflation in the country’s political discourse are also much more effective in reflecting a regional politics that has demonstrated itself to be as discursively fickle as it is practically immovable.

This solo performance is unusual for the panoply of voices it wields.

As the story begins, Majdalanie speaks as a third-person narrator, recounting how Asmar entered Lebanese and regional history – which takes the story to 1975.

Some minutes later, the actor takes a seat and, assuming the role of Asmar himself, carries his story forward from 1990 to 2015.

The course of the Lebanese Civil War itself is narrated via intertitles, projected upon an onstage screen. Along with a recording of “Qare’at al-Fengan” (Abdel-Halim Hafez’s musical setting of the Nizar Qabbani poem), this part of Asmar’s career accompanies Majdalanie as she busies herself removing her blanched prints from their vat of fluid and hanging the white rectangles to dry – effectively creating a third onstage screen.

Performed in parallel to Asmar’s sadly comical political biography, it is this refined, completely gestural (and feminine) narrative that makes “So Little Time” new.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 28, 2017, on page 16.

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