William Haswany: The Rahbani Brothers’ Sheriff

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In 2000, Mansour Rahbani was preparing a play called The Life of Abul-Tayyeb al-Mutanabbi hoping to take it on a tour of the Arab world. (Photo: Kamel Jaber)

By: Kamel Jaber

Published Friday, October 12, 2012

Of all of William Haswany’s roles, singing and acting in numerous Rahbani plays, he is most famous for playing the local “sheriff” in Assi al-Rahbani’s The Ring Seller (stage and film version). It is the role that made him a fixture on the Rahbani stage for forty years.

At his summer home in Harajil (Mount Lebanon), William Haswany remembers his life on stage. His memories are tinged with sadness over the way artists in Lebanon are treated.

Haswany was born in the village of Ras al-Harf (Baabda district - Mount Lebanon) in the autumn of 1933. His father, Khalil Haswany, was a poet who worked as a building contractor and was keen on the theater. His mother, Nimri Hanna Youssef, had a beautiful voice. It is from them that young William inherited his passion for the arts. This was reinforced when as a child he listened to the sketches written by the Rahbani brothers, which were broadcast on Near East Radio. His dream was that one day he would become one of their stars.

Ras al-Harf was where the Haswany family spent their summer holidays. The winter and school days were spent in Beirut. Haswany attended elementary school at the Savior School on Monot Street and secondary school at the Sacred Heart. At St. Joseph University, he studied law for three years, but he never finished his degree because by 1951, he had become a teacher at the Freres School in Furn al-Shebbak.

In 1958, he established the House of Education school in al-Fanar and in 1971 he established the Lebanese Brotherhood School in al-Hadath. With the outbreak of the civil war, four years later, the school closed down. After that, he sold both schools and dedicated himself to teaching literature and philosophy at the Antonine Institute in Baabda. None of this prevented him from pursuing his passion for acting and singing.

In 1958, now firmly established in his teaching career, Haswany applied to the Rahbani group which was looking for folklore dancers. At the time, the two brothers, Assi and Mansour, were in charge of the Baalbek Festival. Unfortunately, when the 1958 revolution broke out, his contract fell through and the Festival was cancelled.

The following year, William Haswany got married and put his interest in the performing arts aside. The Rahbanis, meanwhile, continued to put on their shows in Baalbek. Haswany’s friend, sports teacher Chibil Baaqlini, encouraged him to reapproach the Dabkeh troupe. In 1960, the “the troupe was practicing a certain dance. Assi Rahbnai came over to me, he grabbed me by the shoulder and took me aside. He said to me: ‘They told me you have a beautiful voice. Go on, let me hear something.’ So I sang a bit of Alloma by Wadi al-Safi, a very popular song at the time. Before I finished, he interrupted me and said: ‘Forget about dancing. You will be a singer and actor with the group.’”

On the steps of Baalbek in 1960, the Rahbani brothers presented The Season of Glory, where Haswany sang on stage for the first time. It was a duet with Amal Hamadeh called The Beginning (he later sang it with Huda and then with Georgette Sayegh). This was the beginning of a long journey with the Rahbanis.

In all his roles, Haswany was distinguished by his loud and clear tone, “perhaps it was because I was a teacher, used to keeping things under control and issuing orders that the Rahbanis chose me for the role of the sheriff, and I really enjoyed it.”

In 2000, Mansour Rahbani was preparing a play called The Life of Abul-Tayyeb al-Mutanabbi hoping to take it on a tour of the Arab world. According to Haswany, “he sent word asking me to take part in it. This required me to travel with the group for 25 days in April. I could not do that because it was the period just before the official baccalaureate exams. This would have had repercussions for the students’ future and they might have failed. So I sacrificed the play.” Haswany’s teaching career had previously led him to decline roles, “but I never abandoned the theater completely. Sometimes I helped backstage, or in training and rehearsals.”

Haswany later began to work with Father Fadi Tabet, who in 2002 asked him to take part in the play, Right Does Not Perish, alongside the late Elie Snayfer. After that he took part in all of Father Tabet’s plays, staged in Lebanon and abroad. He played his last role in 2011 in the play His Eminence and the Sultan. He insists: “I have not retired. The word retirement is in itself painful. I have chosen to spend what is left of my life beside my family, because I spent many years away from them engrossed in the theater and teaching. Don’t they and I deserve that?”

Haswany has a third passion beside theater and teaching, and it has always been part of his life - poetry. He began to write at the age of 14 with the help of his teacher, Joseph Nujaym. “I was in my third year of middle school. He used to ask us to compose ten verses on a certain topic. He pointed us towards the poetry of Said Aql and Michel Trad. That is when I wrote my first poem.”

His first poem was in colloquial Arabic titled Don’t Tell Her She’s Pretty. He published it in his third volume of poetry in 2009. He had already written The Law of the Jungle (2000) and The Law of the Jungle 2 (2005). In 1996 he established the “William Haswany salon for poetry and literature” at his home in al-Hadath (east Beirut), where he received many poets.

Haswany is angry that the Lebanese Ministry of Culture “continues to ignore the colloquial poetry known as zajal. Lebanon is the only country that produces zajal and it is the fount of our culture, so why are we squandering and ignoring it? Recently, the ministry made the union of zajal poets in Lebanon a core part of the Ministry of Culture. But this is not enough, we want their interest to be tangible.” He wonders: “Where is the palace dedicated to literature, poetry and prose that the government promised? No one cares or takes this seriously. And where is the medal that Lebanon was supposed to award the zajal poet, Mohamed al-Mustafa, who died two weeks ago?”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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