BEIRUT: Early Monday evening Al Bustan Festival issued a press release cancelling the last six concerts of its 2020 concert series, in “accordance with the Decree of the Ministry of Tourism dated March 9, 2020, to suspend all musical and cultural activities in Lebanon in order to limit the spread of Covid-19.”
The festival had decided to go forward with this edition, despite the economic and financial crisis that had descended over the country in late 2019 – reflected in the widespread civil disobedience campaign that commenced Oct. 17.
Acknowledging the state of things, the festival committee decided to cap ticket prices at LL30,000 for all shows – excepting a few fundraising concerts. Ticket-holders for the festival’s last six shows can be reimbursed at all branches of Librairie Antoine and Al Bustan Festival Office.
The cancellation was among the first to be announced in the wake of the Tourism Ministry decree, though a number of Beirut performance venues had stopped shows following the release of recommendations issued on Feb. 7 by the ministerial committee dedicated to dealing with the Covid-19 outbreak.
One of these venues was Metro al-Madina. The popular Hamra Street cabaret space has been struggling since Oct. 17. Metro joined the cultural sector strike staged in support of the demonstrations. After a month, it reopened with a reduced slate of shows and an exceptional, no-reservations, pay-as-you-can box office policy.
Metro’s Thawra Night performances, a mix of acerbic comedy and musical performance, have been well received but – much as they capture the spirit of rebellion – they haven’t helped the space’s finances. Neither will the enforced closure.
“We were already on the edge,” Metro founder Hisham Jabber told The Daily Star. “If this goes on for more than a week, after being shut for a month already, it could be a disaster for us. No Beirut performance venue can deal with this closure.”
Jabber was particularly annoyed by the phrasing of Monday’s edict. While the ministerial committee had made sweeping recommendations for the closure of all entertainment venues, the decree had made no explicit mention of cinemas, making performance spaces feel discriminated against.
“If you want to shut everything, that’s fine,” he said. “If everyone in the country is told to spend two weeks at home, we can do this. It’s positive. But this arbitrary regulation is like children playing in the back yard.”
(Empire cinemas has since issued a press release saying that, as of Tuesday, it would comply with government demands and shut all its locations.)
While Metro sits out the closure, Jabber said, he and his performers are rehearsing. “We have a lot of new shows coming,” he said, “when we open again.”
For Masrah al-Madina, just upstairs from Metro’s sub-basement venue, the closure decree signals an escalation of a mounting cash crisis.
“Once the intifada started, we started to lose money,” Masrah al-Madina founder Nidal Ashkar told The Daily Star. “We made the theater free for young performers and the [half dozen-plus] shows we staged were free for audiences. But we had a big debt before – rent, a huge electricity bill – and that debt accumulated.
“Now we’ve stopped everything. The minister was absolutely right to make the decree. No one would dare come to the theater now. Now we’re trying to be intelligent,” she laughed, “which is rare.”
At this point the 2020 European Theatre Festival has been postponed to 2021. Other events on the Madina’s 2020 calendar – dates with Odin Teatret, the avant-garde Danish troupe, shows by Sahar Assaf and Lina Abyad and the Mishkal Festival, all scheduled for the autumn – await the all-clear.
The Daily Star was unable to contact spokespersons for Theatre Monnot and Dawar al-SHAMS to see how these venues are being affected by Lebanon’s perfect storm of economic, financial and, now, public health crises.
Junaid Sarrieddeen, co-founder of Zoukak Theatre Company, was more forthcoming, and expanded upon many of the sentiments expressed by Jabber and Ashkar.
Zoukak joined the cultural sector’s generaI strike in sympathy with the demonstrations, shutting its venue for three months from Oct. 17. Otherwise the crisis had no effect on Zoukak’s public program, Sarrieddeen told The Daily Star, though the troupe did adjust admission prices to LL10,000 for those under 27.
“It’s our responsibility not to aid the spread of the coronavirus,” he said. “We stopped public events at the theater for these two weeks now, to be responsible.”
The problem with the decreed closure of “pubs, nightclubs ... parties, art shows and programs of all categories and kinds,” Sarrieddeen continued, is that it’s too selective.
“There are only a few theaters in Lebanon,” he said. “How many mosques and churches are there? Where do people gather more? There is a problem with this decision they’ve taken, to close nightclubs, cinemas and theaters.
“They say they will talk to the religious figures to see what they can do but this decision is irresponsible. More than 2 million people mingle at churches and mosques every day, especially older people who are more prone to the virus, whereas far fewer numbers and generally younger people go to theaters or night clubs.
“Everything should stop or nothing at all. We can’t pick and choose ... It’s like taking action only against the weak or those already struggling. The law isn’t very clear about what should or shouldn’t be shut but nightclubs are shut until March 15. I suppose it’s the same for theaters, so we’re shut until March 19.”
Like other companies, Zoukak has been challenged by the financial crisis and attendant capital controls that set the scene for the Covid-19 outbreak.
“Theaters are suffering just like any other industry, with problems involving running costs, ability to pay staff and actually get hold of the money,” Sarrieddeen said. “Everyone how has to think 100 times before applying for funding and it entering a Lebanese bank account ... We’re having to think up alternatives of how to work in these times, secure finances and be able to use the money freely, especially since there is no transparency from banks regarding new money entering the country.”
The essential problem isn’t the latest strain of coronavirus, Sarrieddeen added, but the drift of current government policies, which betray its attitude toward the country’s cultural sector.
“If you look at today’s [government] priorities, culture is not even on the list,” he said, “to the point where the new culture minister is also the agriculture minister. They’ve combined the sectors and reduced the value of both.
“Our government never thinks about ... really investing in culture. Culture is the soul of a country, so if it stops, so does the country. We’re trying to revive the scene, keep music in the streets.” – With Maghie Ghali