Hanane Hajj Ali, Portrait of a Theatrical Trailblazer

14 February, 2021

Hanane Hajj Ali in open dialogue with an American audience after a  Jogging: Theatre in Progress  performance (photo courtesy Hanane Hajj Ali).

This week, Lebanon’s grand the­atre artist Hanane Hajj Ali is being rec­og­nized by The Inter­na­tion­al Com­mit­tee of The League of Pro­fes­sion­al The­atre Women. TMR’s Nada Ghosn inter­views her below.

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The LPTW, an orga­ni­za­tion that has cham­pi­oned women in the pro­fes­sion­al the­atre for over three decades and head­quar­tered in New York City, presents a week-long vir­tu­al pre­sen­ta­tion of the 2020–21 Gilder/Coigney Inter­na­tion­al The­atre Award Pro­gram. Events will take place online from Feb­ru­ary 16–22, 2021, all at 13:00 EST and will air on LPTW’s YouTube channel.

Hanane Hajj Ali (Photo: Nora Noor)

Hanane Hajj Ali was select­ed from a pool of 27 nom­i­nees from 18 dif­fer­ent coun­tries. Through­out her 40-year career, she has writ­ten, per­formed and direct­ed acclaimed Ara­bic-lan­guage pro­duc­tions and also facil­i­tat­ed and sup­port­ed hun­dreds of col­leagues, stu­dents and com­mu­ni­ties in Lebanon and through­out the entire Mid­dle East-North Africa (MENA) region. Jog­ging: The­atre in Progress, her most recent solo piece, is a “part­ly auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal and taboo-break­ing per­for­mance that tack­les the Bermu­da tri­an­gle of reli­gion, sex, and pol­i­tics” which has toured through­out the MENA region and Europe. Recent­ly she was in Switzer­land pro­mot­ing it. Her work is very much about social activism.

The Award itself, host­ed by stage, film and TV actor Tama­ra Tunie, will be pre­sent­ed on Tues­day, Feb. 16. In addi­tion to Ali, the Pro­gram hon­ors oth­er artists from coun­tries who are address­ing local and glob­al strug­gles through their the­atre prac­tice includ­ing polit­i­cal sup­pres­sion; vio­lence against women and chil­dren; racial, gen­der and iden­ti­ty dis­crim­i­na­tion; and lim­it­ed access to edu­ca­tion, among oth­er press­ing concerns.

Pro­gram­ming includes a Q&A with Hanane Hajj Ali on Wed., Feb. 17, How to Keep Cre­at­ing While Every­thing Around You is Falling Apart, mod­er­at­ed by Tor­ange Yeghi­azar­i­an. Also fea­tured is a pan­el dis­cus­sion, Women on Stage and in the Streets: Three Lead­ing Beiru­ti The­atremak­ers, on Thurs., Feb. 18, with Hanane Hajj Ali, Maya Zbib and Lina Abi­ad, mod­er­at­ed by NYU pro­fes­sor and Lebanese cura­tor Cather­ine Coray.

Go here to attend virtual events.

Nada Ghosn

“I’m an actress, that’s the sub­stance; I wear the veil of Mus­lim women, that’s the form, the out­ward appear­ance. Unless it’s the oppo­site: in sub­stance, a veiled woman, and in form, an actress. A para­dox? Con­tra­dic­tion? For­tu­itous excep­tion? I believe, for my part, that this is a true sit­u­a­tion, not con­form­ing to the usu­al mod­el, and which pos­es the com­plex prob­lem of iden­ti­ty with acu­ity.”— extract from “Iden­ti­ty Cards”

In her fourth decade as an actress, Hanane Hajj Ali is an emi­nent fig­ure of the Lebanese cul­tur­al and artis­tic scene. Her career began in 1978 with the Hakawati The­ater, which revived the Lebanese tra­di­tion of sto­ry­telling. In 2005, she was cho­sen by Jean Bap­tiste Sas­tre to play the main role of the moth­er in Les Paravents/Les Écrans by Jean Genet at the Palais de Chail­lot in Paris. Her lat­est piece, Jog­ging: The­atre in Progress, won her the Ver­te­bra Award for Best Actress at the Fringe/Edinburgh Inter­na­tion­al Fes­ti­val in August 2017, and toured pres­ti­gious inter­na­tion­al the­atres and festivals.

Pre­vi­ous­ly, she took part in numer­ous plays, such as Job’s Mem­o­ry by Elias Khoury (1994), Ah Ya Ghadan­far by Gérard Avediss­ian (1997), Lucy la femme ver­ti­cale by Andrée Che­did (2001) and Mrs. Ghada’s Thresh­old of Pain by Abdul­lah Al Kafri (2012). She has also appeared in many films, includ­ing L’om­bre de la ville by Jean Chamoun (1998), La Porte du Soleil by Yous­ri Nas­ral­lah (2004), What’s Going On? by Joce­lyn Saab (2009) and Le jour où j’ai per­du mon ombre by Sou­da Kaadan (2018).

In her play Jog­ging: The­atre in Progress, Hanane is an actress who plays a role: that of a woman, a wife, a moth­er, a cit­i­zen and an actress. How­ev­er, in real life, she is also these five things at the same time. “What I liked in this play is that I was able to play between real­i­ty and imag­i­na­tion, between the real char­ac­ter of Hanane (who is not quite iden­ti­cal to myself) and oth­er fic­tion­al char­ac­ters inspired by real char­ac­ters. It was­n’t easy to be (and not be) myself and these char­ac­ters at the same time,” she explains. 

Her act­ing style flows back and forth between hakawati and com­posed char­ac­ters. Found­ed in 1977 dur­ing the heart of the war by the man who lat­er became her hus­band, Roger Assaf, the Hakawati the­atre works on col­lec­tive mem­o­ry and on the assim­i­la­tion of the forms and tech­niques of the Arab sto­ry­teller, as well as pop­u­lar poetry.

From  Jogging: Theatre in Progress : Alone on an empty stage, Hanane — wife and mother — lifts the veil on her identity, becoming an “This the­atri­cal adven­ture, instead of pro­ject­ing myself into fic­tion or into an aes­thet­ic vision of the world, brings me back to my deep­est truth, to my his­to­ry, to my iden­ti­ty, to all the cul­ture that the human group to which I belong uses as a force of resis­tance in the face of the war, the destruc­tion, the dis­pos­ses­sion of self that all forms of aggres­sion exert on us. ”— extract from “Iden­ti­ty Cards”

Hanane joined the Hakawati troupe in 1978. “I came from pol­i­tics to the the­atre at the age of 16 because of the war. It was a way to fight for cit­i­zen­ship, cul­tur­al rights, pub­lic space. I dis­cov­ered, amazed, that the the­atre was not what I had learned, but an art linked to peo­ple, to life, which draws its mate­r­i­al from real-life sto­ries and finds its form in col­lec­tive expres­sion. It became my voca­tion,” she says. This the­atre dealt with the mar­gin­al­ized, the oppressed, the for­got­ten, the kid­napped and the arbi­trary dis­ap­pear­ances dur­ing times of war and peace, but also with mem­o­ry and col­lec­tive history.

To please her fam­i­ly, Hanane obtained a BA in Biol­o­gy in 1980, then in 1982 she received a high­er degree in the­atre stud­ies at the Lebanese Uni­ver­si­ty of Beirut. A few years lat­er, in 1986, she left to study the­atre and telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions in San Diego, Cal­i­for­nia. In 2008, she final­ly obtained a Mas­ter’s Degree in The­atre Stud­ies from Saint Joseph Uni­ver­si­ty in Beirut.

“I fought many bat­tles to become ‘Hanane the actress’ in a soci­ety that con­sid­ers actress­es to have a bad rep­u­ta­tion, to fol­low in the foot­steps of excep­tion­al artists such as Rida Khoury, Renée Dik, Nidal Al-Ashkar, and to be mar­ried to an artist of Maronite Chris­t­ian ori­gin — a strug­gle shared by few inter-com­mu­ni­ty cou­ples dur­ing the Lebanese civ­il war which, while inflam­ing sec­tar­i­an­ism, also removed the blind­fold from the eyes of some who chose uni­ty in diver­si­ty. ”— from “Artist’s Manifesto”

As an actress, Hanane first came to writ­ing through her par­tic­i­pa­tion in Hakawati. “We would take an idea and impro­vise, then we would write. Every­body did every­thing, from cos­tumes, to the stage man­ag­er, to direct­ing. I dis­cov­ered that I could write and that I liked it. It gave me con­fi­dence, and I grew that way,” she recalls.

In its orig­i­nal form, Jog­ging was a mono­logue about how Hanane runs in Beirut. Then the Lebanese the­atre col­lec­tive Kahra­ba invit­ed her to the fes­ti­val “We, the Moon and the Neigh­bors” orga­nized every year. Hanane turned in a 30-minute per­for­mance on a stair­case in the street, and a Bel­gian cura­tor invit­ed her to a res­i­den­cy. From there, oth­er res­i­den­cies fol­lowed and the work con­tin­ues to evolve.

A captivated audience in Beirut for Hanane's street theatre.

“Beirut is a part of my life. Two things help me sur­vive: the­atre and jog­ging. When I walk in this city in wild trans­for­ma­tion, ideas come to me and I write them down when I get home,” she con­fides from her Covid-19 con­fine­ment. Dur­ing her exer­cise out­ings, she gives free rein to her dreams, desires, hopes, dis­il­lu­sions and she runs, always the same route in Beirut. The effects of this dai­ly rou­tine are con­tra­dic­to­ry. In fact, two hor­mones are released in her body dur­ing exer­cise: dopamine and adren­a­line, which are in turn destruc­tive and con­struc­tive, just like this city that destroys to rebuild, and builds to destroy.

“One day while I was run­ning, I had a dream that was like a spark. I imag­ined that I was smoth­er­ing my son with a pil­low to relieve him of can­cer and this coun­try that had made him sick. After that, I was par­a­lyzed for sev­er­al days and thought of Medea. I had nev­er accept­ed to play this role because I was not con­vinced by her act,” Hanane admits in our phone interview.

“Since then, Medea has lived in me. I have become a frag­ment of her being and I have been search­ing for years among the women I meet, the oth­er frag­ments. I am think­ing about how I can approach this myth today. Who is Medea in a worn-out and cun­ning city like Beirut? If tragedy is a past the­atri­cal genre, why does the smell of hor­ror still haunt my nos­trils when I run around Beirut?”— excerpt from “Jog­ging”

Then Hanane imag­ines the char­ac­ter of Yvonne, inspired by a news item. On Thurs­day, Octo­ber 19, 2019, a woman decides to put an end to the days of her three daugh­ters: Noura, who is 13 years old, Elis­sa, 10, and Mari­am, aged sev­en, before join­ing them in death. This edu­cat­ed moth­er, how­ev­er, mar­ried the man of her life. He lives and works in the Gulf Emi­rates in the ser­vice of a very rich emir. He is in charge of his sta­bles and his pure­bred Ara­bi­an bloods. One fine day, she learns that he has a dis­solute life. She pre­pares a fruit sal­ad that she gar­nish­es with hon­ey and whipped cream, and sprin­kles copi­ous­ly with rat poi­son before offer­ing it to her daugh­ters. Once they are asleep, she films the scene for her hus­band, eats the rest of the fruit sal­ad, and goes to bed next to her daugh­ters. Her neigh­bors dis­cov­er the bod­ies the next morn­ing. The film she leaves behind dis­ap­pears with­in hours. But one sen­tence remains: “I left and I took my daugh­ters with me, so that they will nev­er know the suf­fer­ing that was mine, and to ensure their future.”

“Yvonne want­ed to bear wit­ness to some­thing that was close to her heart. The mys­te­ri­ous dis­ap­pear­ance of the video­tape is proof that she want­ed to denounce some­thing, some­thing that no one sus­pect­ed and that only she knew, some­thing that she could no longer assume, that she was inca­pable of chang­ing. Some­thing is wrong in this coun­try. Seri­ous inci­dents shake us and shock us, but pass their way through our mem­o­ries and fade away as if they nev­er hap­pened. Enor­mous or imper­cep­ti­ble facts, scan­dals relat­ed to mon­ey, hon­or, pol­i­tics, reli­gion, fam­i­ly, pow­er, cor­rup­tion and gen­er­al­ized filth.”— from “Jog­ging”

The char­ac­ter of Zahra was inspired by a woman from South Lebanon whom Hanane knows. Mar­ried very young by her fam­i­ly to a much old­er man, at the age of 20 she meets anoth­er man named Mohamed and decides to divorce her hus­band. She then becomes a jour­nal­ist and earns enough mon­ey to build their house. But Mohamed changes with time, and she even­tu­al­ly dis­cov­ers that he loves anoth­er woman. She asks for a divorce and becomes a pious woman. She works with the fam­i­lies of the mar­tyrs, and rais­es her chil­dren in this ide­ol­o­gy. Two of them die in the Israeli war of 2006, while the third dies in Syr­ia in 2013. Tor­tured to death by the regime, he is declared a “mar­tyr”. How­ev­er, he left a let­ter denounc­ing this hypocrisy and asked his moth­er to donate his limbs.

“This sto­ry gives my play its full mean­ing. Even though she did­n’t kill him direct­ly, her son died for the ideas she raised him in. Who is Medea? I don’t know. Me? You? Beirut? The dead? How many moth­ers in Lebanon live in this coun­try with­out being able to pro­vide a future for their chil­dren? It’s exile or death!” says Hanane emphatically. 

“no one puts their chil­dren in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land

no one choos­es refugee 
camps or strip search­es where 
your body is left 
aching or prison,
because prison is safer
than a city of fire

no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
saying -
run away from me 
now i don’t know what i’ve 
become but i know that anywhere
is safer than here”

Excerpt from the poem “Home” by Warsan Shire quot­ed in Jog­ging

Hanane regularly engages in street performances in Beirut.

“My per­for­mance is called Jog­ging: The­atre in Progress because the the­atre is an open ago­ra. I close the show with an epi­logue where I open a dia­logue with peo­ple. I’ve nev­er been inter­est­ed in preach­ing to the con­vert­ed; what I’m inter­est­ed in is stir­ring up the stag­nant waters and stim­u­lat­ing crit­i­cal think­ing,” she adds. This has some­times led to inci­dents. “One evening in Dahiye, a man con­sid­ered that I had no right to attack such sacred sub­jects as ‘mar­tyr­dom’ and pulled out his pis­tol to threat­en me with it. Anoth­er time in north Lebanon, women stood up in the mid­dle of the per­for­mance to express their indig­na­tion at the famous slo­gan ‘God is dead’, which was bandied about in Beirut dur­ing the six­ties and sev­en­ties, and at the way I chal­lenged Allah by ask­ing Him to give me jus­tice. But these sit­u­a­tions have always end­ed up being resolved through dia­logue, man­ag­ing to open minds and change men­tal­i­ties. For exam­ple, I had to go to these women in the poor areas of the north to talk with them, and we dis­cussed top­ics they would nev­er have talked about before.”

In this same lin­eage, Hanane does inter­ven­tions in the streets of Beirut, a kind of intru­sive per­for­mance, which are nei­ther polit­i­cal man­i­festos nor street the­ater, but some­thing in between. “I take a loud­speak­er and I talk. For exam­ple, dur­ing the con­fine­ment, I went around the build­ings in my neigh­bor­hood with a loud­speak­er to call peo­ple to share their sto­ries,” she says. 

“All my life, I have dreamed of a 360 degree the­ater, and thanks to the Octo­ber 2019 rev­o­lu­tion, it has come true. The thawra has bro­ken the bound­aries between what is the­ater and what is not the­ater. Pol­i­tics entered soci­ety with all the debates and per­for­mances that took place every day. This is our true right to cit­i­zen­ship, to the city, to cul­ture. Peo­ple think that the coro­n­avirus has put an end to that, but I don’t think so. Lebanon will nev­er be the same again, just like Egypt, even if it lives today under a total­i­tar­i­an regime.” 

“In my the­ater and on the street, I seek to break the Bermu­da tri­an­gle of gen­der-pol­i­tics-reli­gion that pre­vents us from real­iz­ing our cit­i­zen­ship. My three char­ac­ters con­front these three taboos, such as the prob­lem of con­sent between spous­es for exam­ple,” says Hanane. More­over, the play was not pre­sent­ed to cen­sor­ship. At first reject­ed by all the­aters in Lebanon, its inter­na­tion­al suc­cess even­tu­al­ly changed the situation.

“I am yours tonight, I am your wife, your prey. I am your harem, your for­bid­den and your right… Take me, pierce me, smash me, go through me, tear me apart, burst me and gath­er me… swell in me and burn in my lair, set your­self ablaze in my womb. All my sens­es awak­en in your hon­or. I am an immac­u­late and pure car­pet that you turn into rot­ten­ness.”— from “Jog­ging”

hanane protesting in the streets of beirut 2019 IMG_8513.jpg
hanane and husband at oct 19 demonstrations IMG_8511.jpg

“Women have a major role in Lebanon. In cul­tur­al insti­tu­tions, uni­ver­si­ties, three quar­ters of the employ­ees are women. They were lead­ers in the Rev­o­lu­tion. But the cor­rupt polit­i­cal sys­tem oppress­es them. I agree with the fem­i­nists on many points although I nev­er pre­sent­ed myself as such. I think that the whole sys­tem is affect­ed, and I have always fought as a cit­i­zen, in the name of my right to jus­tice and free­dom, although in the con­text of the patri­ar­chal soci­ety, women are more affected.”

Arab feminismArab theatreBeirutHakawati TheatreLebanon

Nada Ghosn is a Paris-based writer who has lived in the Emirates, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and Morocco, where she has worked for the press and diverse cultural institutions. These days she works as a freelance translator and journalist, having translated several essays, art books, novels, film scripts, plays, and collections of short stories and poetry from Arabic into French. She regularly covers culture and society for such publications as an-Nahar, Grazia and Diptyk, and participates in art projects, conferences and performances.


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