Championing culture in Lebanon’s south

This story was originally published by Al Jazeera.

Opening a theatre in Tyre was Istanbouli’s father’s dream [Photo courtesy Kassem Istanbouli]
August 8, 2016

Tyre, Lebanon – Palestinian-Lebanese actor and director Kassem Istanbouli is on a mission: to bring the performing arts back to the south of Lebanon.

Before the 1975-1990 civil war, Lebanon had a thriving film and theatre scene. Tyre’s introduction to cinema came in the late 1930s, when a cafe owner bought a 35mm projector and began screening films on a tablecloth hung on a wall beside his cafe.

The makeshift theatre was an immediate hit, and more formal establishments soon opened; by the mid-1950s there were four cinemas in Tyre, and four more soon opened in nearby Nabatieh. Many also hosted live performances by famous actors and musicians, serving as community spaces where people from different backgrounds came together.

But one by one, amid the chaos of the conflict, they closed their doors. Some were damaged by shelling, while others were occupied by fighters or simply unable to make ends meet in a country at war.

For almost 30 years, Tyre and Nabatieh remained without a single cinema or theatre. For the past three years, however, Istanbouli has embarked on an ambitious project to revive the tradition of theatre and cinema-going in Lebanon’s south.

“Theatre is important because it’s a way to develop yourself. It’s a way that people can meet,” he told Al Jazeera. “Theatre is life for the city, and joy … It’s a way to build peace. Any city without theatre is dead. Theatre is a mirror of life.”

Born in Tyre in 1986, Istanbouli developed a love of acting at school. He studied theatre at the Lebanese University in Beirut, earning a Masters in directing. Upon graduation, he formed a small theatre company with some fellow graduates, going on to develop several productions that toured Europe and the Middle East.

When it came to performing at home, however, they realised that everything was centralised in the capital. “Everything is in Beirut, so we started our project to change this,” Istanbouli said. “When we started travelling and performing, we realised that Tyre doesn’t have anything. We opened a small theatre, like 70 seats, and we started doing activities.”

Named Istanbouli Theatre, the small venue opened in Tyre in 2013 and soon proved so popular that Istanbouli began searching for a larger space. In 2014, he made a deal with the owner of al-Hamra Cinema, the city’s most prestigious pre-war venue. Hamra hosted some of the Arab world’s most famous performers in its time – including Mahmoud Darwish, Sheikh Imam, Ahmed Fouad Negm, Wadih el-Safi and Marcel Khalife – before shutting its doors in 1989.

The derelict theatre, with a capacity of 650, was in a state of decaying grandeur, having stood empty for nearly 30 years. Istanbouli convinced the owner to allow him to use the space for two years in return for restoring it to a working state. Istanbouli took out a personal bank loan and began working on the theatre with a team of volunteers, including Tyre residents and Palestinian and Syrian refugees from nearby camps.

“The project in Tyre was my father’s dream,” Istanbouli said. “My father was a hakawati – a storyteller … He was a fisherman and he used to bring movies by boat from Greece and show them on the walls of the hammam. My father worked for the Lebanese Electricity Company and he used to fix the projectors in cinemas. His dream was to one day open a theatre in Tyre.”

Al-Hamra Cinema, which retained its name after Istanbouli’s renovations, marked its two-year anniversary in May, having hosted two successful theatre festivals, two music festivals and two film festivals. Making use of his connections from years touring to international theatre festivals, Istanbouli has to date invited performers from more than a dozen countries to Lebanon, many for the first time. In support of Istanbouli’s vision, they all agreed to finance their own trips, allowing Istanbouli to maintain a policy of free entry to all of his events.

Istanbouli’s ambitions, however, go beyond reopening a single venue. He aims to revive local interest in film and theatre through street performances, festivals and multiple restoration projects – the latest of which involves renovating a derelict cinema in Nabatieh.

Stars Cinema opened in the mid-1980s and closed in 1990, towards the end of the war. Just as he did in Tyre, Istanbouli has made a deal with the owner of the building to restore it to working order in return for three years of use. The grand opening, slated for August 20, will mark the launch of the first ever Nabatieh Theatre Festival, with a short film about the history of the cinema followed by a live theatre performance and carnival.

“In Tyre, we had a contract for two years,” Istanbouli said. “Now the contract is finished and the owner says that he wants to invest money in the building and leave it as a theatre and cinema … This is what’s important about our project. We build for the people who live in the city, and then they complete the process.”

In the meantime, the major challenge facing Istanbouli is attracting a diverse audience. “People don’t know about theatre,” he said. “They’re not used to going to the cinema, to concerts. We need to change this… It’s important that we do theatre in the street [because] if there’s no public, there’s no theatre.”

Key to Istanbouli’s plan are the drama classes he runs in Tyre, free of charge and open to all ages. Several of his students have gone on to study theatre or film, and last September Istanbouli directed his students in a performance in Naqoura that was streamed live to Ban Ki-moon and other members of the United Nations to mark the UN’s International Day of Peace.

Hussein Abdalla tried to teach himself acting by studying clips of performances on YouTube before he began attending Istanbouli’s classes. The 19-year-old has just completed his first year of a theatre studies degree at the Lebanese University in Beirut, and says Istanbouli’s project is a source of inspiration for young people in southern Lebanon.

“Kassem brings fun and life to the city,” Abdalla told Al Jazeera. “Especially in the south, we don’t have much emphasis on theatre in school … Like football, like anything fun, it is an important way to create change in the country and make people value culture.”

Istanbouli concurred, noting: “We started with death. We started with nothing. And now we’re building, day by day … People come from different backgrounds and we can talk about anything we want. It’s a place of freedom.”

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