BEIRUT: “We’re trying to encourage people to return to the theater,” said an unusually somber-sounding Hisham Jaber, “for a little happiness, something good amid all the bad stuff we’re struggling with.
“We are taking precautions,” said the co-founder of Metro al-Madina, “and the people are too. They come wearing masks. Every table was set socially distant.”
Metro reopened its doors June 26, after being shuttered for well over three months by the city’s COVID-19 lockdown. After a few concerts, the Hamra Street cabaret space announced that, starting July 9, it would celebrate its eight years with eight free performances of its highly popular stable of shows.
The schedule commenced with “Hishik Bishik,” the repertory company’s long-running comic love letter to Egyptian popular music of the early 20th century. Thursday night saw the return of “Franco Arab,” a newer creation that revives the mash-ups of Arabic songs with foreign tunes that sprung up in Egypt and Lebanon during the ’60s.
These shows all draw upon a common pool of talent and treading water at the center of that pool is a diminutive musical dynamo named Yasmina Fayed.
Among the principal vocalists of Metro’s troupe, Fayed spoke to The Daily Star Saturday afternoon, before the performance of “The Age of Collapse,” the latest installment of “Aghane Servicet,” one of Metro’s vehicles for new in-house comedy and music.
“We stopped for two months starting Oct. 17,” Fayed recalled, “and went straight to Riad al-Solh. When we reopened in early December it was very good. People wanted to prove that nothing could stop us.
“The lockdown confinement was a bit hard,” she acknowledged. “We didn’t know if we’d see each other again. Eventually we got together to rehearse ‘Aghane Servicet’ on the roof, and it was great. Now we’re back, and the main issue isn’t so much the virus any more. It’s the economic situation.”
Metro’s decision to offer a week of free shows is, Fayed feels, a brilliant one.
“I think what we’re doing is essential at this time,” she told The Daily Star. “It’s not about money. It’s not just about politics, [though] just being there makes what we’re doing a bit political.”
She said returning to the stage after the long layoff was a bit challenging.
“I was so scared I couldn’t stop trembling for the entire two hours,” she recalled of the first post-lockdown staging of “Hishik Bishik.” “There were only 30 or 35 people in the audience but you’d really think they’d just been released from prison. We all felt like we were out of practice and the audience gave us a big boost.”
Fayed said the first concerts of the free eight-show series were great.
“We were surprised at how many people came to see ‘Hishik Bishik.’ The number of corona cases is spiking right now but people are crazy. That first time [after lockdown], I felt like killing myself because there were so few people in the house, all of them our friends. Friday night was much better. We had twice as many people and they really wanted to be there. It was special.”
Performing gratis for an audience reeling from an apocalyptic currency crisis, soaring prices and the increasing social unrest they provoke is a lovely gesture that cannot be sustained. Fayed says she hopes the troupe can keep performing through the end of the year.
“I think we need to stick together now,” she said, “especially when it comes to performing new material. We have to support each other. It’s the only solution.”
“It’s nice to watch something live now. You could cry,” Jaber says with a gasping chuckle. “We are trying to do something in the body of this city. Maybe we can have some happiness amid all the collapsing. So we will collapse ... happy.”
He coughs up another laugh.
Metro al-Madina’s “Eight years, eight free shows” program continues Saturday, July 11, with the timely musical comedy of “Aghane Servicet: The Age of Collapse” and Sunday with “Shashma and New Stories,” stand-up comedy with Wissam Kamal, preceded by a set with Mohammed Baalbaki. Doors open 8:30 p.m. Shows start at 9 p.m. For advance bookings, ring: 01/753021 and 76/309363