Thu, Aug 23, 2007 - Page 15 News List

Lebanon bans tale of militia fighters

By KAELEN WILSON-GOLDIE  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE, BEIRUT, LEBANON

Rabih Mroue

PHOTO: NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Over the next three months, the Lebanese artist Rabih Mroue will stage his new performance piece in Paris, Rome and the capitals of Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt. But he will not present it here, for the audience with whom it might resonate most.

This week, an Interior Ministry censorship board banned performances of the piece, How Nancy Wished That Everything Was an April Fool's Joke, which was to have received its premiere this weekend.

For Mroue, the outright ban is a first. And he says it bodes ill for an art scene that gestated during a period of precarious peace but is now squeezed by the government's fear of renewed civil war.

"The margin of freedom is getting smaller and smaller," he said during a break from his day job as an illustrator for a Lebanese television station. "The vision is becoming so narrow, and there is no more room for different voices."

Written by Mroue with Fadi Toufic, Nancy presents an episodic history of Lebanon's 15-year civil war through the experiences of four fighters who served in different militias. For the duration of the performance, Mroue; his wife, Lina Saneh; and two other actors sit on a couch meant for three. Above each actor's head, like speech balloons in a comic strip, are a microphone and a screen projecting posters of the "martyrs" and militias that are common to this day on the streets of Beirut.

The four characters tell stories of contradiction that ricochet off one another. They will adhere to an ideological position and then change it. They pledge loyalty to a political leader and then betray him. They make allies and then forsake them. They switch sides and get lost.

In each story they tell they are killed in battle, only to come back to life again in the next round, like irrepressible players of video games.

The various and competing narratives weave a dense web that gives a sense of how conflicts play out over the years in any city - Beirut, Baghdad, Sarajevo, Belfast - riven by sectarian strife.

Mroue, 40, belongs to a tight-knit generation of artists, writers and filmmakers that has put Beirut back on the cultural map since the end of the civil war in 1990. They have learned to maneuver on the margins of mainstream society, striving to create works of formal precision and political insight with as little interference as possible from Lebanon's fragile, divided government.

But that space is indeed shrinking. Since the late 1990s, Mroue had eluded the censors by ignoring them. He didn't bother to clear his scripts. The price, he said, was that he could perform each piece for a few nights only, he could not accept a fee, and he relied on art spaces that are slightly off the radar.

But after he staged Who's Afraid of Representation - a piece incorporating the true story of a civil servant who killed some of his colleagues when he was fired from his job - in late 2005, officials from Lebanon's Interior Ministry called him in and demanded that he eliminate portions of the performance.

Since then, performance spaces have been reluctant to stage anything without previous approval from the censorship board. So this summer Mroue decided to take his chances with the censors.

After a weeklong struggle with Mroue over parts of the script, the censorship board banned the performance Aug. 14.

"I expected to have to cut from the text," Mroue said. "But I didn't expect it to be stopped in such a violent way."

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