DBAYEH, Lebanon: “Sect 19,” the new stage play by the brothers Farid and Maher Sabbagh, interrogates the future of Lebanon’s sectarian political system.
The two-and-a-half-hour musical is set 30 years in the future in Roumieh prison, Lebanon’s largest correctional facility. The curtain rises upon 18 inmates – each standing in for one of the country’s 18 recognized confessions. All are being “rehabilitated,” in hopes of solving the problems that are underlying their deviant and unlawful behavior.
Funding the inmates’ rehabilitation program is wealthy businessman (Rafik Fakhri), whose political ambitions hinge on Lebanon collapsing into a cluster of sectarian statelets. Covering this process is a gold-digging reporter (Jessie Abdo), who serves as a love interest for the businessman.
For their part, the prisoners are kept isolated from one another, and are closely watched by an army unit, commanded by a captain (Youssef al-Khal), who is renowned for his robust patriotism.
The hero of the story, the captain, wants to protect unity of the state from the internal divisions threatening it and to cure the inmates of the disease they all share: “sectarianism.”
Aided by a team of Japanese experts, the army officer manages to produce a pill that has a miraculous and immediate effect on the inmates. Once they swallow it, the prisoners forget their scorn for each other and become more open to each other’s points of view.
The panacea, however, is not a real cure for the plague of sectarianism. Certain officials are plotting to divide the country along sectarian lines. Now supported by the prisoners he’s been guarding, the captain declares he will fight this conspiracy.
Leaving the prison, the captain and his team decamp to the Karantina trash mountain, where they encounter an army Colonel (Farid Sabbagh) who has been exiled for his opposition to the confessional political system.
Another antisectarian protagonist emerges in the character of Ben (Maher Sabbagh), an atheist who heads his own band of followers. The atheists are more radical than the captain and his allies, who haven’t abandoned their religious beliefs and are simply calling for the separation of sect and state.
These contending visions of secular politics prove impossible to reconcile and bloody clashes break out between the captain’s pious antisectarians and the godless atheists.
The colonel-in-exile is killed in these clashes. Before he dies, he suggests the captain forms a 19th confession that unifies all those Lebanese who stand against the sectarian politics dividing the country and who believes in national coexistence.
A morality tale on the compatibility of religious belief and secularism, “Sect 19” has some craft about it as well. Overseen by Yara Issa al-Khoury, the stage design is modern and vibrant. Painted backdrops first situate each of the prisoners in their cells. Later on, it sets the scene of Karantina’s municipal rubbish dump – the army captain’s inmates confront their atheist allies.
Clearly though, “Sect 19” is a political play, first and foremost.
“They agreed with each other and killed the nation,” one of the songs goes. “Our country was united and they divided us into 18 sects ... If you want Lebanon to be a forum for all religions, let us unite and form the sect 19.”
The play’s political line is as evident in its promotional literature as it is in its patriotic songs. The Sabbagh brothers make it clear that they are calling on Lebanese to unite under a new sect committed to “co-existence and openness to the others.”
In doing so, they are at pains to avoid offending the matters of faith underlying Lebanese confessionalism, stressing that doing away with sectarianism isn’t an attack on religion as such.
The playwrights believe their call is needed to raise the awareness of a people absorbed by sectarian loyalties. The play suggests this is the only solution to Lebanon’s sectarian debacle, because a 1936 law withdraws the citizenship of any Lebanese national who denounces his or her sect.
If the play’s broad theatrical and narrative conventions conform to those of popular entertainment, the same is true of its political rhetoric. Most of the narrative and thematic elements in “Sect 19” can be correlated to the country’s recent political history fairly easily.
Yet depicting “atheism” as some kind of antipatriotic bogeyman – as though those who have opted out of the sectarian system have somehow been responsible for its worse excesses – is farcical and betrays a seam of political opportunism in the play.
Some might note a contradiction in political secular nationalists who place their faith in a military whose mechanisms are themselves conditioned by sectarianism. The role that might be played by civil society in overcoming sectarianism, on the other hand, is ignored, as is the institutional corruption that is often justified in sectarian terms, but has more convoluted roots.
Some may be entertained by the song and dance of “Sect 19,” but as a political platform audiences may find that the play – like the magical Japanese-manufactured pill at its center – is just wishful thinking.
“Sect 19” runs Thursday to Sunday 8:30 p.m. at Dbayeh’s Qasr al-Moutamarat until the end of April.