In Focus

Interview with Rabih Mroué

This interview with Rabih Mroué, which took place in October 2013, outlines the artist’s training in the theatre, his formative influences and the evolution of what he calls a semi-documentary theatre. This dialogue also casts light on the intersection of biography and political histories in his work. More specifically, the interview discusses the nature of Mroué’s collaboration with Elias Khoury on Three Posters, the questions posed by his re-enactment a real video-taped martyrdom, and the critical reception of the performance both in Lebanon, and in Europe.  

Chad Elias: Can we start by talking about your education and training in theatre?

Rabih Mroué: I studied theatre at the Lebanese University in Beirut, where the department specialised in acting rather than in theatre studies or directing.1 When I started my studies I had not really been exposed to much theatre at all. The only play I had attended was by Roger Assaf called Ayam al Khiyam (The Days of the Tents), and yet it turned out to be one of the most important influences on me during the tail end of the war in the late 1980s. It only received considerable critical attention later on, but the theatre group that staged this play, al Hakawati (Story Tellers), were extremely important in the Lebanese theatre scene. 

My instructors (including Roger Assaf as well as Seham Naser, Butros Rohana, and Fakek Humaisi) were influenced by European drama. Assaf was the only one among them who tried to reinterpret an Arabic tradition of theatre by returning to such forms as the hakawati.2 The classes were mostly based on practice and every academic term (which lasted three months) we studied with a different instructor or director employing his or her own methods derived from a range of sources (Bertolt Brecht, Constantin Stanislavski, body theatre etc.). When I started to write and perform my own plays I chose to go in directions that went beyond these influences. It was during this time at university that I also met my partner and closest artistic collaborator Lina Saneh.

Chad Elias: Your work often plays on the tension between the live physical presence of the body on stage and the images that come to stand in for that body. Indeed, in many of your works you explore the afterlife that dead or missing people inhabit through media such as video or photography. Did you arrive at these concerns intuitively or was it more of an accidental discovery on your part?

Rabih Mroué: It was by accident, yes, but nothing happens entirely by accident. The pre-occupation with media started with questioning why and how we do theatre today. The first provocative piece I developed was a work called Come In Sir, We Will Wait for You Outside, which I wrote with artist Tony Chakar and Adnan Khoury and staged in the Théâtre de Beyrouth in Beirut the summer of 1998.3 It was the first time that I went completely against the things I was taught at university. In a sense my early performances were acts of unlearning. I wanted to rethink the most basic conventions of theatre. Looking back I can see that this was a really important breakthrough moment for me, but at the time I really struggled with the decision to move in this direction.

Come in Sir was written for a three-month long cultural season for the fiftieth commemoration of the tragedy of Palestine titled 50 Nakba and Resistance.4 This event was curated by the Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury. The Nakba [the Arabic term for the partition of Palestine into separate Arab and Jewish states] is a very heavy subject in the Arab world. My generation has inherited this weighty image of Palestinian suffering and dispossession from which we cannot seem to escape. However, many of my contemporaries, such as the filmmaker Elia Suleiman, started to react against this constraining image.

With Come in Sir we made a very conscious decision not to perform in costume or use character names. For most of the performance we were sitting on chairs talking rather than engaging in physical actions. At various points we would actually turn our back on the audience. We also employed microphones to project our voices, which again went completely against my training as an actor. Furthermore, we used video monitors on stage exploiting their capacity for live transmission. There was also a desire to explore the archival potential of video. On stage the performers played VHS tapes that contained television footage of the occupation of Palestine and the construction of the Israeli state.5

My early experiments with video came out of my experience working in a Lebanese television station in the early 1990s. The position I had at Future Television required me to perform a number of jobs including filming, editing and directing.6 This showed me how the media manipulates images to construct a particular image of reality. So I started to think about how to translate this technical expertise into a multimedia theatrical practice that would question the ideological roles assigned to images. The films of Russian director Dziga Vertov and those of French ‘new wave’ director Jean-Luc Godard, particularly Ici et Ailleurs (1976), were really important in this regard. Ici et Ailleurs questions the form in which the discourse of the Palestinian resistance presented itself. In the early scenes of the film we see footage of Palestinian women and children fervently reciting political slogans and rehearsing combat manoeuvres to the sound of jingoistic military anthems. Godard’s film offered a critical model through which to question my own relationship to images of suffering, martyrdom and resistance that had been naturalised in Lebanese society during fifteen years of war.

Chad Elias: For the most part the Lebanese Wars are not directly present in your work but their indirect effects are pervasive. How did you look back on that long period of conflict? Is your work predicated on taking a certain distance from biographical narrative?

Rabih Mroué: I think early on I wanted my work to avoid lapsing into any kind of psychological treatment of the war. There was also a general feeling among my artistic colleagues in Beirut that we did not want to reproduce the victim narratives that we saw in the mass media. Some of my formative works were attempts at talking about the war but not in emotional ways. I wanted to develop a framework to deconstruct our experiences rather than simply re-enact them for cathartic purposes. I began with the idea that all of the images that stuck in our memory could be put into a kind of playback loop, but they would have to be subject to some form of critical scrutiny.

Chad Elias: Your grandfather, Hussein Mroué, was an important intellectual figure in the Lebanese Communist Party (LCP). What kind of influence did he have on you politically or otherwise?

Rabih Mroué: My upbringing was very secular. My family had a very strong relationship with the south of Lebanon, but those bonds were not in any way religious or sectarian. They were much more cultural and geographical than anything else. My grandfather was an Islamic scholar who studied in the Najaf seminary in Iraq before returning to the south where he became a sheikh of the area.7 Over time, however, he became a committed Communist in both his intellectual and political life, if one can make that distinction. My family was influenced by his commitment to secular atheism, but my own work questions a dogmatic allegiance to the politics of the Communist Party.

Chad Elias: In its original performance you referred to Three Posters as an auto-critique of the defeat of the Lebanese Left. However, I was wondering if this work was also about the failure of that political project.

Rabih Mroué: You touch upon a very complicated history that has many layers to it. There are many reasons why the Left failed in Lebanon. Let me just single out one thing about the Lebanese Communist Party. I think one of its problems was its populist notion of politics. Their aim was simply to recruit as many members to the party as possible. As a result they disregarded the educational principles derived from Marxist traditions. The 1960s marked the high point of the workers’ and student movements internationally and in Lebanon too, and the LCP drew a lot of its membership from the Shia who constituted the poorest and most unrepresented section of the population at that time. However, when the civil war broke out and there were clashes between different sectarian groups, many Communists reverted back to their religious origins.

Chad Elias: Yet despite this populist message, the LCP pioneered sophisticated media practices that were really quite revolutionary. The party was the first to come up with the idea of the martyr video made for a television audience.

Rabih Mroué: I think the media practices used by the LCP can be traced back to the influence of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). In the late 1960s and early 1970s they started hijacking aeroplanes and undertaking terrorist attacks. Their aim was not really to inflict casualties on the enemy but to generate international media attention so as to put the Palestinian cause on the political map. But we ended up paying a heavy price for this, for it led eventually to Osama Bin Laden’s videotapes.

Chad Elias: How did you come to collaborate with Elias Khoury on Three Posters and what were your initial intentions regarding Jamal al-Sati’s tape?

Rabih Mroué: Actually, Elias Khoury asked me to work with him, and I was so happy to collaborate. But it was not the first time we had worked together. In 1995 we worked together on a play adapted from a chapter of his novel Majma’ al-Asra (The Repository or Collection of Secrets). We wrote it together, sitting in the same room, and it was a really great experience. So we did the same with Three Posters. We started from this tape of Jamal al-Sati, with no idea about how to go forward. But I did have a very clear sense of how far I wanted to move on from the type of theatre I had done before. For me there was a structure and form in theatre that I did not want to conform to anymore – plot, characters, lighting, etc. – all of those elements of the theatre that we used at that time. And in this sense Elias was really very flexible because he is not a theatre professional. He loves theatre but is not a practitioner.

I can say that we worked together on every aspect of the work. There were discussions regarding every detail, including the writing, the structure, the directing, the mise-en-scène. I asked him to be involved in the performance of the work. We were both on stage, both as technicians and as actors, though not in any traditional sense. We did everything from A to Z together in this performance.

Chad Elias: Can you say something about the structure of Three Posters? In the text you published in the Drama Review in 2006 you said that your initial idea was just to show al-Sati’s tape. Ultimately you decided this would not be enough and that you had to find a way to reintroduce an element of live performance that was part of the original tape, although of course you play with notions of ‘live’ and ‘living’.

Rabih Mroué: We had a lot of ideas at the beginning. One of them was to just show al-Sati’s video from start to finish so that it would speak for itself. But then we thought about what our contribution would be, what we wanted to say, and the questions that we wanted to raise from showing the video. So we came up with the idea of dividing the performance into three chapters: the second chapter shows al-Sati’s video as it is, with all the technical glitches and rough edits as we originally planned. The first chapter introduces the audience to Khaled Rahhal, a fictional resistance fighter played by me. And the last chapter is the video interview with Elias Atallah, the former LCP politician who was in a sense responsible for the operation carried out by Jamal al-Sati.8

Chad Elias: I am interested in what you describe as the first chapter, the performance you gave when you were playing the part of the martyr. How did you approach that role?

Rabih Mroué: There were actually some people who came up to me at the time and said that I was much more convincing than the real martyr. And I believed this, because when you watch Jamal al-Sati you see that he is making an effort, as though he is acting. Facing a camera can be nerve-wracking; you change immediately. You have to be so used to the camera not to feel its presence. If you are not used to the camera you start to act self-consciously and develop nervous tics. This is what happened to al-Sati when he taped his testimony. But this is what is also wonderful about his video. You see the very human side of him; you see the fear in his eyes. You can also see the pride he had for his cause. I think you can feel his hesitation in his stuttering. You sense that he is reading from or has memorised a written text, and that sometimes he tries to improvise but then cannot go on. You feel all of these things. How he acts in front of the camera is very, very interesting.

Chad Elias: I wanted to ask you now about the third part, the interview with Elias Atallah. When you interviewed him, did you feel that you were able to interrogate the ways in which the LCP chose specific members of the party to perform operations? What was the purpose of the interview?

Rabih Mroué: We wanted to include the voice of the Communist Party, the voice of the institution, and to present it directly in the work. This is the reason why we approached Elias Atallah. The purpose of the interview was to see what the Communist Party would say about this operation, since we were criticising and questioning how the party authorised these suicide missions. So we went to the porte-parole [spokesperson] of the party who was responsible for al-Sati’s operation. I think we were lucky that Atallah was prepared to talk about the operation without any hesitation or fear. At that time, the party had come to the realisation that it was no longer able to hide the crisis it was going through. Some, like Atallah, wanted to change the party, but there were others who did not, so there was internal conflict at this time, and this was why Atallah was ready to talk about the topic so freely. He was very critical of the party but his was not really an auto-critique. He was using the interview to challenge established figures who did not want to change the party’s politics. This is my opinion, because not long after the interview he left the party and founded the Democratic Left.

We were very frank with Atallah. We asked to film him in silhouette so that his face was masked in shadow, and then right at the end introduce light to reveal his identity. I do not think he paid much attention to what we said at the time. He gave us the freedom to do what we wanted. I remember that the interview lasted quite a long time; it was more than twenty minutes. But what is left is only about four minutes long because when it came to editing I cut it very forcefully, very violently. This was a decision that Elias and I made together; we chose to cut it in such a way that the cuts would be visible. We also wanted to make it clear that the video was manipulated and edited, and that it was our point of view, that we were responsible for it as well as Elias Atallah, that we were also playing with his interview.

The interview was risky at the time. There were a few voices in the country that we were criticising, particularly the Syrian regime, and it was still a taboo to criticise the Syrians. So all three of us – myself, Khoury and Atallah – were putting ourselves at risk. We made this point with the performance, saying that the regime was responsible for assassinating the intellectual figures of the Communist Party because Syria wanted to control the resistance against the Israeli occupation.

Chad Elias: This was the case right through to the assassination of George Hawi in 2005, even after the Syrians had withdrawn.9 I wanted to ask you now about the reception of Three Posters when you first performed it at the Ayloul Festival in Beirut. How did the audience react and how was it received critically?

Rabih Mroué: There were just three performances, which all took place over the course of one day. Initially, we had only planned to perform the work once for it was potentially dangerous to stage a work in public that dealt with this topic. But there were a lot of people who wanted to see it so we added two repeat performances. Looking back you could sense the audience’s shock at watching al-Sati’s video. Most reactions were not very positive, because of the quite radical form of the work. You have to remember that at the time there was not really a tradition of experimental art and theatre in Lebanon. That said, in the Ayloul Festival that year there were other performances that were pushing boundaries. There was a piece by French choreographer Jérôme Bel called Shirtology, the Sheffield theatre company Forced Entertainment performed Quizoola, and Lebanese artist Walid Raad was doing his lecture-performances for the first time in Beirut. But all of these were new for Lebanese audiences at the time.

The other problem people had with Three Posters was its foregrounding of the political. For me, that was a significant question at that time. If you say that every work of art is political, whatever it is – even if you are making art for art’s sake – that in itself is a political position that is open to contestation. I was thinking of the performance as a kind of provocation: how political can we make this performance and still call it a work of art? Elias Khoury and I tested the limits of this idea, and although for me the performance was so rich aesthetically, I do not think this was immediately apparent to our Beirut audience. Three Posters really started to open a lot of doors for me, raising questions that I am still working through. For example, The Pixilated Revolution 2012 continues the enquiry initiated by Three Posters into the use of media in politics and its relation to, or correlation with, death.

Chad Elias: You stopped performing Three Posters outside Lebanon after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. Do you think you would perform it in the West again? Is it too difficult to perform outside of the Lebanese context?

Rabih Mroué: I do not think so, no. The issue is not at all about the translatability of the Lebanese context because I have shared much more complicated work with foreign audiences that have been able to engage on a number of levels. My refusal to perform this work again has to do with my desire to respect the memory of Jamal al-Sati and his cause. I do not want people to misunderstand his position and label him a terrorist (this is actually what happened several times when we performed the work outside Lebanon). I think that this is unfair and presents a very narrow view of his actions. Although I am against suicide operations, al-Sati was defending his rights. He undertook a military operation against an occupying army, not against civilians, and it was in his country, not on foreign land, so it was an act of political resistance. I think we have to respect this.