Raymond Jebara: Lebanon’s Theatrical Rebel

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Jebara was born on 1 April 1935, in Cornet Chehwan. He points out that his existence began as a joke that he is still living, seeing as he was born on April Fools’ Day. (Photo: Marwan Tahtah)

By: Rana Hayeck

Published Monday, April 23, 2012

Raymond Jebara, the outspoken playwright, shares the darkly humorous and scattered memories of his life as an absurdist.

With Raymond Jebara, every encounter turns into a drama. The mischievous dramatist practices “theater inside the theater.”

Dialogues from his theatrical pieces sneak into the conversation and the border between reality and fiction begins to erode.

This man’s life echoes his written work: poignant, ironic, disorderly, sarcastic, but also romantic.

Without doubt, Jebara is one of the most important figures in modern Arabic theater. But the personality of this actor, writer, and director escapes any attempts to define it.

During the interview (at which his friend, artist George Akl, was also present) he throws fragments of his life onto the table in the cafe. His memories scatter like pieces of Lego.

Why would this “absurdist” man, as he describes himself, bother paying attention to the chronological sequence of events?

Jebara was born on 1 April 1935, in Cornet Chehwan. He points out that his existence began as a joke that he is still living, seeing as he was born on April Fools’ Day.

He attended Sisters of the Sacred Hearts School and performed in plays written by one of the villagers and directed by the mayor. As a child, his first appearance was in a play named The Fall of Granada.

It was not a completely enjoyable experience. “The actor that played the role of the judge spat a lot as he spoke. My friend, who was the third character in the scene, would start daydreaming and scratching his chin,” he remembers.

“As soon as he started to touch his chin, I would say to myself, ‘I’m screwed! If he doesn’t remember to say his line, I won’t get to say my lines and I will stay here forever on the receiving end of the judge’s spit,’” Jebara continues.

Chatter and dark humor are part of Jebara’s world. He hides behind laughter from the absurdity of life and a homeland whose purpose, he maintains, is to “spite good people.”

Later on, his family moved from Cornet Chehwan to Beirut, where his dad worked. His father “began working at the public department of real estate as a doorman, and left there still a doorman, while many others progressed in life working there, because we in the family belong to the jackass species,” he says.

Jebara points to his own life as further proof. He still “works more than one job to make a living because art does not feed.”
At La Sagesse school in Ashrafieh, people were astonished to see Jebara and his brother greet everyone they met, as is the custom in the village.

Jebara did not get his baccalaureate certificate. His father fell ill and it was decided that he would join his mother’s relatives in Brazil in 1954. He only lasted 20 days as an expatriate, unable to endure emigration.

On the ship returning to Lebanon, he sailed for 11 days lost in the eyes of a young woman from Genoa he glimpsed behind a window. Her name was Marcella.

On land, the young man “drowned” in the science of surveying after learning the profession “at a school in the Capitol Building in Sahet al-Bourj [downtown Beirut].”

But the stage had transformed him and there was no going back. “From the very first scenes in the village plays, I dreamed of becoming an actor,” he says.

He kept his ambition to himself fearing that “it would not be accepted in my milieu.” His dream, however, came true almost by coincidence.

His friend Munir Abu Debs was running the Institute of Modern Acting, which later became the Beirut School of Modern Theater, as part of the activities of the organizing committee of the Baalbeck International Festival.

This institute played a central role in Lebanon’s theatrical renaissance during the 1960s. Brilliant names such as Jebara, Latifeh Moultaka, Rida Khoury, Joseph Bou Nassar, Mireille Maalouf, Michel Nabaa, Shakib Khoury, Yacoub al-Chidrawi, and more graduated from there.

With Abu Debs, Jebara took his first steps on stage in the ancient Greek tragedy Antigone in 1961. However, the “two bitter friends” went their separate ways when Antoine Moultaka established the Lebanese Theater Circle, which Jebara then joined.

Later on, he would play leading roles under the direction of Moultaka and Berge Vazilian. His favorite role is still Raskolnikov in a theatrical adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment directed by Moultaka in 1963.

At that time Jebara started teaching theater at the Lebanese University where he stayed until 1990, when he moved to the Universite Saint-Esprit de Kaslik.

He still teaches there today, in addition to writing his weekly column in the Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar’s cultural supplement and hosting his daily radio program Hello, Grandma on the Voice of Lebanon.

After he tried acting, he felt a desire to write and direct plays and to adapt international themes in his own style, “because an actor is the most qualified person to write a play and direct it.”

He concludes by saying, “That is why Moliere is considered a playwright whereas Jean Racine and Pierre Corneille are counted among the poets. And that is also why Albert Camus surpassed Jean Paul Sartre in writing plays.”

He finished his first play Let Desdemona Die in 1970. It was followed by a prolific career in producing plays, from Zarathustra Became a Dog (1977) to The Male Bee (1982), The Dream Maker (1985), Who Picked the Autumn Flower? (1992) and A Picnic at Demarcation Lines (1977), among others.

In addition to writing, Jebara directed plays, including The Conspiracy Continues by the Rahbani Brothers (1980) and Summer 840 by Mansour Rahbani (1988).

Jebara sees no problem in combining an absurdist and anarchic theater with an ideological one. “When I wrote the play Charbel (1977), I presented the character as a man, not a saint and a miracle worker,” he says, avoiding answering questions about the right-wing views expressed in his statements and articles.

He refuses to talk about his management of Tele Liban between 1986 and 1990. These were strenuous years during which he suffered paralysis in one half of his body. He continues to suffer from the aftereffects his illness.

He is no longer keen on waging wars and opening new fronts. “I wish to die in my sleep,” Jebara, who has a heart condition, says as he smokes incessantly.

He recalls a scene from A Sacristan Goes to Heaven where the late Rida Khoury screams, “My pa died!” Camille Salame then asks her about his age. When Salame realizes that he was very old, he adds with great emotion, “Poor man, he must’ve been bored out of his mind!”

Jebara remembers the last days of his friend and acting partner. Rida Khoury was “the best actress in the Arab world,” he says.

He speaks a lot about regrets. “Fools are happy,” he says. But the theater was not exactly a place to find escape in.

His absurdist work, which combines pain with dark cynicism, leaves no room for that. Illusion is forbidden. Life is depressing and we have to live it happily, the nihilist man par excellence seems to say.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


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