Ramadaniyat kick off at Masrah al-Madina


EIRUT: For many people in Lebanon, the holy month of Ramadan is a time of fasting, prayer, charity, forgiveness and other spiritual activities. For others, it is their favorite time of the year due to the wide variety of soap operas that premiere on Arabic satellite channels.

But over the last 20 years, Ramadan has also been celebrated with cultural events and theater performances at Masrah al-Madina in Beirut. “We celebrate the holy month of Ramadan because it is part of our heritage,” said Nidal al-Ashkar, a renowned actress, dramaturge and founder of the theater.

Therese Hawat with qanun player Muhieddine el-Ghali.

“People love Ramadan. After fasting they feel like listening to singing [and enjoying other cultural activities],” Ashkar told The Daily Star.

“This year we have a very special year ... we always try to do an Arab venture,” she said.

Dubbed “Ramadaniyat,” the program features six performances, mainly focused on traditional Arabic music and songs.

The festivities began Thursday evening. Conducted by Fadi Yaacoub, students of the Lebanese National Higher Conservatory of Music performed “Al-Hawa Sharqi,” composed by Charbel Rouhana.

Those who yearn for the Arabic music of the good old days should not miss Masrah al-Madina’s Friday production. “The Songs of the Beautiful Times” will be performed by Nisreen Hmaydan, a young Lebanese singer, in cooperation with the Lebanon Peace Orchestra, conducted by Walid Bou Serhal.

Hmaydan will perform songs made by famous Egyptian singers such as Asmahan and Leila Mrad.

After a four-day pause, the nostalgia continues as Therese Hawat and her son, singer Sami Hawat, take the stage on July 2 to perform traditional Arabic music.

The pieces will be drawn largely from the repertoires of late Egyptian divas Umm Kulthum and Mohammad Abdel-Wahhab.

“It’s a very special evening because she’s an elderly lady, but she’s a lady who has a very special voice,” Ashkar said.

Qanun player Muhieddine el-Ghali will also take part in the show.

Performers have traveled from across the region to perform at the theater, and represent a variety of traditional and national styles. On July 4, audiences will be treated to a performance by Turkish harpist Sirin Pancaroglu and her band.

For lovers of the traditional chants of Aleppo, known as “Qudoud Halabiya,” Anas Fakhri will perform on July 9. He is the son of Syrian legendary Sabah Fakhri, who gained international fame in the genre.

Stanzas inspired by the holy month will be presented by Shouyoukh al-Tarab and the Shahbaa Band for Musical Heritage on July 11, featuring a performance by Syrian singers Hussam Lubnani, Ibrahim Fares and Mulhem Khalaf.

Hmaydan will perform songs made by famous Egyptian singers such as Asmahan and Leila Mrad.

All the shows start at 9:30 p.m., giving people time to break their fasts, which usually happens around 8 p.m.

The Ramadaniyat is just one of the year-round programs hosted by Masrah al-Madina, one of the country’s most famous cultural landmarks.

Ashkar founded Masrah al-Madina in 1994 to promote culture following the end of the country’s 1975-1990 Civil War.

Ten years later, the theater moved from its initial location in the Clemenceau neighborhood of Beirut to nearby Hamra Street, into the space formerly occupied by the Saroulla Cinema, which was founded in the 1960s.

The space was renovated to include two theaters along with a gallery and a coffee shop, covering an area of nearly 2,000 square meters.

The name of the theater was proposed by May Jumblatt, the late mother of MP Walid Jumblatt, according Ashkar. Jumblatt served as the head of the Board of Trustees of the Masrah al-Madina Association.

“The only thing you can do ... in this city after a war, is to promote theater and present the best of what we have in the Arab world, and in Lebanon, to the young people, who were for 20 years under the bombs,” Ashkar said.

“The little boy who was one became 20, and he has never seen anything except very mediocre television series during the war, and everything around him was frightening and awful. He didn’t have an idea of what we have – a heritage of music, Arab music, Lebanese music, theater and every other art.”

Ashkar said her intention in founding Masrah al-Madina was to promote an open, liberal and free space where artists are able to express themselves.

The theater has a busy program for the rest of the year.

“For us, it is very important that the theater is working all the time, nonstop,” Ashkar said.

Bassam Saba, a Lebanese nay and flute player, and director of the New York Arabic Orchestra, will perform on July 29 and 30.

Ashkar also revealed that Masrah al-Madina will organize a drama workshop for between 35 and 50 Syrian and Palestinian refugee students aged nine to 13. The workshop will be held in August, and sponsored by the EU and the Norwegian People’s Aid Organization.

The theater will then present a series of student performances from Sept. 9 through 13.

They will be chosen by a committee from a range of artistic productions put on by Lebanese university students, including dancing, singing and drama.

“We choose the best of what people offer us to present during these five days,” Ashkar said.

In October and November, the theater will stage the famous play The Cherry Orchard, by Russian playwright Anton Chekhov. The production will be directed by Carlos Chahine.

Masrah al-Madina will then end the year with a major fundraising event in December.

Shouyoukh al-Tarab will perform stanzas inspired by the holy month.

Ashkar said that anybody can perform at Masrah al-Madina, as long as they are talented. “It’s not filtered, it’s not censored.”

“The only condition we have is that it should be good, very good and excellent. No mediocrity. Because I think we have enough mediocrity in the political world, the city and in tastes in general,” Ashkar said.

“We seek excellence and this is very difficult in Lebanon.”

Tickets for Ramadaniyat can be purchased for L.L. 25,000 and L.L. 35,000 at Masrah al-Madina, Malik’s Bookstore, Khoury Home, AltCity and For further information, please contact 01753010-11.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 26, 2015, on page 1.




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