Eyad Houssami

A Russian airstrike near Idlib last autumn all but obliterated the set of my first – and last – public theater performance in Syria. Fresh out of college and ambitious as I was naïve, I woke up well before dawn in Aleppo on the winter solstice of 2007. I put on a black suit and pulled the bouquet of roses out of the vase in my hotel room. I stuffed my face, downed liters of water, and took a taxi to the countryside, to the Byzantine Dead Cities stretching across a swath of hills blanketed in snail shells and dung. We passed villages flanked by clotheslines laden with sheepskins. It just so happened to be Eid Al Adha, Feast of the Sacrifice, and the skins of the slaughter were hanging to dry.

I arrived in Serjilla, only a bit behind schedule, and from sunrise to sunset walked in a grueling and patient spiral. A Moment of Silence for the Shuhada of Iraq, I called the work. I wanted to mourn what I could not comprehend: the indeterminate loss of human life in the wake of the American-led invasion and occupation of Iraq. A few shepherds, later a group of teenagers from a nearby village, and finally a friend who drove up from Damascus rounded out the audience.

Now that more than 250 thousand have died and more than 10 million, almost half of the Syrian population, have been displaced from their homes, I wonder what has become of that audience – those teenagers – today. 

An actor from Aleppo, with whom I began to collaborate a few years ago, told me that it was the kids, not the adults, who kept the spirit of hope and adventure alive through the clandestine journey across the Mediterranean to seek refuge in Europe. For them, it was a terrific, maritime adventure. Perhaps they were even leading the way.

Indeed, only a child’s imagination could withstand the maws of the fossil fuel and drought wars raging in Syria today. The violence and human suffering have become undeniably fantastical, so much so that it is almost impossible to apprehend the phenomenon with an adult mind conditioned by history, by the television and the media.

So these days, as a theater director in my work alongside the artists and cultural managers of Masrah Ensemble in Lebanon, I am not mourning but learning how to collaborate with young teenagers, mainly refugees. I am dreaming of long-term theater education projects that cultivate the skills we need most as a society: expertise in living off the grid and in circumstances of permanent drought.

James G. Workman argues that we must learn to adapt to extreme scarcity, writing of Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens who “believed the fossil fuels era was over, replaced by a scarcity much, much bigger and far less replaceable. By 2025, two thirds of the world’s population will face water shortages.”1 He suggests that the Bushmen of the Kalahari provide an example of how to regulate our resource consumption and to honor the integrity of local and regional ecological systems even as profiteers will go to any length to extract every last cent of the land from the people who inhabit it. These factors have already transformed our lives, and will continue to shape the future we prepare for here. 

Serjilla and Homs and Aleppo and so many other cities in Syria and Iraq are now in ruins, and the trash and pollution crisis in Lebanon, best represented by the volcanic eruptions of methane in neglected landfills and the rivers of garbage that have flowed through Beirut, has put millions at risk of cholera and typhoid. The toxins released from burning trash in residential areas have multiplied, by 416, the cancerous substances in our atmosphere. 

It is clear that resources play just as great a role as ideologies in the present and future conflicts in the region.

I do my best to recycle and use the public transportation system – the sixteen-seater vans and buses – in my daily life in Beirut. The van that drops me off at Shatila refugee camp, where Masrah Ensemble has been developing the Family Ti-Jean project in collaboration with Basmeh & Zeitooneh for Relief and Development since last year, usually stops around the produce market. From there, I walk into the neighborhood, past the small hill of garbage – a Robert Rauschenberg collage of seven overflowing dumpsters and waste – until I reach the UNRWA water tower in Hayy Farhat. The children and adolescents with whom I am collaborating here will need more than token acts of environmental consciousness to salvage the future of their towns and cities.

In Family Ti-Jean, I’m working with more than a dozen performers, more than half of whom are young teenage Palestinian and Syrian refugees: break dancers, photographers, and passionate actors, some of whom balance school work with theater and the responsibility of being caretaker at home. We are developing an Arabic-English rendition of the play Ti-Jean and His Brothers (1958) by Nobel Prize-winning poet and author Derek Walcott for performances in public spaces. The adults and teenagers are collaborating on developing and performing in the project.

In Ti-Jean, the Devil owns half the world and has done all that is evil, from butchering thousands in war to spreading disease. Young Ti-Jean challenges the Devil and ventures through the forest, loosening knowledge from characters like Frog, who sings: All around you, nature/ Still singing. The frog’s/ Croak doesn’t stop for the dead;/ The cricket is still merry,/ The bird still plays its flute. Perhaps like Ti-Jean, we must build our relationship with nature and confront the vicissitudes of life as children: “To know evil early, life will be simpler,” he says. “I think nothing dies. My brothers are dead but they live in the memory of my mother.”

In embodying a narrative whose hero, unlike his brothers, respects and listens to his environment, we plant the seeds for future generations to pay heed to the creatures and world around them with a bit more sensitivity. We are certainly not reducing greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere. That would require a fundamental transformation in how we live, to practice – or rehearse – living off-the-grid. And one of the long-term Masrah Ensemble projects, currently in development, aims to consider how theater must do just that. 

Feature image: Actors experiment with outdoor movement and performance techniques at the American University of Beirut, February 2016. Photograph by Christine Youakim.

1. James G. Workman, Heart of Dryness: How the Last Bushmen Can Help Us Endure the Coming Age of Permanent Drought (Walker and Company, 2009).

Eyad Houssami makes theater. He is the founder and director of Masrah Ensemble in Lebanon, editor of Doomed by Hope: Essays on Arab Theater (Pluto Press and Dar Al Adab, 2012), and a former editor of Portal 9: Stories and Critical Writing about the City.