Arab Women in the Tower of Babel

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A scene from Sindyana (Oak Tree) by Zahira Ben Ammar. (Photo: Al-Akhbar)

By: Hassan Arfah

Published Thursday, May 10, 2012

Festival Preview: Women in Threatened Societies. Babel Theater, Hamra, Beirut. May 7-26.

Societies only advance by achieving equality between men and women. Yet this goal has remained elusive in developing countries, burdened by constant conflicts and political and economic instability, plus a heavy legacy of practices, beliefs and customs that discriminate against women. They are reduced to implements performing specific roles, their lives constrained within parameters defined by patriarchal societies.

This issue has assumed additional relevance recently with the political ascendancy of Islamists in the region, the profusion of religious rulings which we read of daily, and growing fears that women stand to lose the few legal gains they have made in some countries – not least of all Tunisia, homeland of the feminist Islamic scholar, Taher Haddad.

It is from this background that Beirut’s Babel Theater is attempting to shed light on the realities of Arab women within their societies through works that document their experiences and oppression, whether under occupation or under the burden of inherited cultural and social norms. For the second year running, the theater, founded by the Iraqi director Jawad al-Assadi, is staging the festival “Women in Threatened Societies” to give expression to women’s concerns and conditions via a range of media, from photography to theater, music and cinema.

“We are trying to make the festival an annual event that hosts diverse activities, with the aim of both supporting women’s rights in our societies, and providing young people with opportunities to present their ideas,” explains Helen Karam, the theater’s chief executive

This year’s festival opens Thursday May 10 with an exhibition by the prize-winning US-based Bahraini photographer, Ghada Khunji, well known for her documentary photographs, landscapes with historical resonance, and portraits reflecting people within their environments, mostly women.

In the evening, acclaimed Tunisian director and actress Zahira Ben Ammar will perform her new solo play Sindyana (Oak Tree) which premiered in Tunis on International Womens’ Day and has played in several world capitals. Written and produced by Ben Ammar, the play reflects on the current realities of Tunisia via the stories of four women.

Ben Ammar will also hold a two-day master-class for aspiring young actors (May 13-14). Karam stresses that such workshops are a fundamental part of the festival and of the Babel Theater’s mission. “It is part of the theater’s policy of nurturing actors. The theater’s purpose is not just to present stage works. It is also a home that embraces young people and provides them with platforms for their ambitions – in terms both of the physical spaces it provides and its programming policy,” she says.

Tuesday and Wednesday (May 15-16) will feature musical performances by the Egyptian singer Mariam Saleh, famed for her renditions of Sheikh Imam classics, who will use the occasion to launch her new album Mish Baghanni (I’m Not Singing).

In a bid to connect younger and older generations of artists, the festival will also pay tribute to veteran Lebanese actress Renee Deek. She will attend screenings (May 17-19) of the 1995 film Al-Khadimatan (The Two Maids), which was directed by Assadi, in which she stars as the lady alongside Randa al-Asmar and Julia Kassar. Audiences will have a chance to meet Deek, who was part of the renaissance of Lebanese theater during the 1960s.

Syrian ballerina Hoor Malas returns to the festival to lead two dance workshops (May 20-21), followed by her own performance.

Documentary films are also featured, with Palestinian-American John Halak presenting his 52-minute work “Wounds of the Heart: An Artist and her Nation” (May 22). The film tells the story of the Palestinian visual artist Rana Bishara in her village of Tarsheeha in Galilee, and how she evokes the place’s memory amid the occupation’s incessant attempts to erase its Arab identity, using symbols such as the cactus fruit or a loaf of bread to tell of her people’s history and their cause.

Syrian singer Badya Hassan will give two performances (May 23-24)to raise funds in aid of groups combating breast cancer.

In the closing two days (May 25-26), director and drama therapist Zeina Daccache will present her new project entitled “Scheherazade in Baabda”, starring 15 female inmates of Baabda prison. The director will present filmed excerpts of the play, followed by a lecture on her drama therapy program, which she began some years ago with the play “12 Angry Lebanese,” in which she directed prisoners from Roumieh jail. Released former female inmates who attended her workshops will also be present at the screenings.

In the spirit of the festival, spaces have also been set aside in the theater for a “cultural cafe” where young people can meet and develop new projects and skills, as well as exhibition spaces. Organizers hope the festival will thus serve as an incubator for ideas and suggestions that can then be realized as works, and which the theater may itself stage in future.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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