The Daily Star (Lebanon)

The martyrdoms of Dib al-Asmar

Majdalanie and Mroué’s collaborat­ion is a fictive tale of one fighter’s life

- REVIEW By Jim Quilty

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 cowriters. The play had its Beirut premiere during SB13, Part II – the freestandi­ng 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 resurfaces 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 statesanct­ioned 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) selfreflec­tion, 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.

 ??  ?? Critical, amusing and narrativel­y dense, “So Little Time” is driven by Lina Majdalanie's strong solo performanc­e.
Critical, amusing and narrativel­y dense, “So Little Time” is driven by Lina Majdalanie's strong solo performanc­e.

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