Anbara is Superb in Wrestling with Social Conventions, Religion and Bitterness of Colonial Legacy

Nélida Nassar   05.26.2016

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This astonishing play has been assembled, principally by Lebanese-Palestinian playwright and director Aliya Khalidi from the autobiography, speeches, photographs and archives Anbara Salam Khalidi left behind on her death in 1986. The overriding impression here is
of an epic production by Khalidi in collaboration with dramaturge Noura Al-Sakkaf of a
text that explores both Anbara’s rebellious individual soul and the bitterness of the colonial legacy.

At a time where the Arab world and Islam embraces fiercely, out of conviction or by force the veil; a century ago a woman from the shores of Lebanon dares the unthinkable. Anbara in a gesture of cultural rebellion removes her veil or niqab – called at the time Al Fisha – after wearing it for twenty years. She discards it just upon delivering her first lecture at the American University of Beirut. Who is this daring Anbara Salam Khalidi?

Born in 1897 to a patrician and political family of twelve children, she grows up torn between the influences of her visionary, open minded, political figure father – Salim Salam nicknamed  Abu Ali – and her stern, religiously traditionalist, conservative mother – Kalthoum Barbir. Anbara manages to impose her own personality. Willful, pugnacious, defiant, and ambitious, she’s educated both at the St Joseph and the Makassed schools in Beirut then in England where she studies Shakespeare’s language, never attending university. Most of her critical thinking is acquired through the teachings of her instructor Julia Tohmé Dimachkieh portrayed by the bright and determined Najwa Kondakji. An avid reader of Tahreer al Mar’a by Egyptian reformist, Qassim Amin among many seminal books, polyglot and translator, Anbara is committed to knowledge and culture. Unafraid, she challenges the social establishment and conventions of the times, in particular the circle of Beirut Sunni bourgeoisie as well as the Ottoman occupation.

This theater of verbatim is one of the most significant developments in recent years’ dramaturgy. Here, Khalidi excels at recounting in tableaux vivants a specific milieu of Beirut’s society. Local and historical figures whisper in cafés or behind moucharabiehs, men who twist their mustaches, smoke their water pipes while gossiping or discussing events unfolding before them. Khalidi also introduces us to the idea that Anbara’s life is inherently dramatic. Losing at an early age her worldly, political activist and journalist betrothal Abdel Ghani Al Arayssi – hanged by the Ottomans – she marries Ahmad Samih Khalidi, principal of the Arab College in Jerusalem. A young rebellious daughter, sister and wife she forges ahead with her religious and political convictions as well as her feminist positions. Anbara is in the same drama tradition, in that it shows how rapport to religion can be a way in to exploring human relationships as well as social and ethical issues through a life of public service.

I should say straight off that this is a richly informative and utterly compelling play that slowly unfolds its meaning over 90-minutes. By the simple act of not demanding our attention, however, Khalidi rivetingly compels it. All is exquisitely conveyed in the vernacular Arabic speaking accent of the Beiruti Massiatbey neighborhood.

Khalidi’s stage production is a model of clarity as it handles the multiple shifts of scene with great ingenuity. A simple devise – moveable screens’ triptych – is metaphorical of the inner and outer, the permissible and the forbidding, the veiling and the unveiling. Lighting designer, Alaa Minawi alternates and balances with the admirable projections of images and shadows. Film director, Muriel Abourousse weaves the videos’ imagery of daily life with striking effects.

Khalidi as director, has assembled a first-rate cast. Nazha Harb lends the daring Anbara the air of a woman driven to superb articulacy by palpable injustice. She is deeply moving expressing both the character’s isolation and rebellion as a protective layer against life. Fadia Al Tannir, Anbara‘s mother reminds us that others often forge a heroine’s principles. Sarah Zein as Boushra transports us into the world of traveling theaters and oral tradition of pre-islamic Arabic knights and poets’ stories transmitted through Abla and Antar. Abdel Raheem Al Awji is totally convincing as Anbara‘s pragmatic, preoccupied and politically engaged father Salim Salam. Omar Al Joba’i plays Mohamad Salam as a friskily mischievous figure who genuinely shares and encourages his sister’s political and feminist positions. Hani Al Hindi portrays the younger brother Saeb Salam with his early obsessive love of carnations. While Al-Arayssi is vigorously and superbly portrayed by Ziad Chakeron. If nothing else, the play demonstrates that Anbara’s social rage was accompanied by a gnawing preoccupation with religion.

The plot would benefit from a more authentic reading of Mustafa Jamal Pasha’s murderous deeds. Didn’t he indiscriminately hang chiite, druze and christian as well as sunni. It would confirm the historical participation in the rebellion and upheaval of the different sects and their desire for living together going back already a century. I also would have wished for a less abrupt fishtail ending.

This is like no other play in Beirut. It moves at its own unhurried pace without gratuitous, superfluous staging effects and magically exposes the souls of a bygone era in danger of being left behind in our over digitized age. But, although Anbara possesses the anguished defiance of a typical Khalidi hero, the play also conveys both its author ’s complex feelings about religion, feminism, women emancipation and colonialism. Above all it is a palpable testimony and a devotional hymn of a granddaughter to her beloved grandmother.

Aliya Khalidi: Playwright, Stage Design and Director
Noura Al-Sakkaf: Dramaturge
Muriel Abourousse: Film Director
Alaa Minawi: Lighting Designer
Ziad Al Ahmadieh: Sound Designer
Eric Ritter: Fashion Designer
Actors: Nazha Harb, Sarah Zein, Fadia Al Tannir, Najwa Kondakji, Omar Al Joba’i, Ziad Chakaron, Abdel Raheem Al Awji, Hani Al Hindi

April 14 to May 28, 2016 at 8.30 p.m.
Babel Theatre, Marignan Center
Hamra, Lebanon