BEIRUT

Culture

Beirut’s Mansion bridges culture borders

  • File - The once luxurious home opened as a cultural center in December 2012, after standing empty since 1987.

BEIRUT: A few facts about Ciudad Juarez: Once known as “Paso del Norte” (Northern Pass), the Mexican border city was designated murder capital of the world in 2009, making it the most violent city outside active war zones. It is twinned with the U.S. city of El Paso, located just across the Rio Grande. For several years in a row, El Paso has been ranked the safest city in America. Ciudad Juarez, meanwhile, is famous as the birthplace of margaritas, burritos and femicides: the murder of someone because they are female.It was within this context that the New York-based group Theater Mitu launched their complex, thought-provoking performance on the city’s history, which was staged at Zoqaq al-Blat’s Mansion Friday and Saturday.

“Juarez: A Documentary Mythology,” is not a play, but a collective of testimonies that together form a many-layered, often contradictory, ever-shifting portrait of a city ravaged by violence.

Having left Juarez to study in the U.S., Theater Mitu’s founder and artistic director Ruben Polendo watched from afar as it fell prey to increasing violence. Determined to uncover the causes of the city’s devolution from a peaceful border city to a media-dubbed “hell on earth,” overrun by warring drug cartels, he came up with the idea for a documentary-performance.

For three years, Polendo and his team conducted interviews with citizens of Ciudad Juarez and El Paso, asking them about the city’s past, its descent into violence and their hopes for its future.

The result is a moving, fascinating, visually and aurally innovative performance. Rather than attempting to take on the characters of the people they interviewed, the American actors aim to serve as conduits for their testimonies, transmitting not only the words but speech patterns – pauses, fillers and false starts all included.

They play with their delivery of the testimonies, some of which are sung, others relayed through earpieces, still others typed on laptops and projected on stage. The visual portion of the performance features the use of video footage, which is projected onto an imaginative range of screens and surfaces to create a series of installations.

The audience that turned out to watch Saturday’s performance filled the spacious hallway of Mansion to capacity, some spectators standing in the aisles for the duration of the 90-minute show.

It was an indication of the growing popularity of the venue, a stunning three-story villa in Zoqaq al-Blat dating from the 1930s. The once luxurious home opened as a cultural center in December 2012, after standing empty since 1987.

Ghassan Maasri, an artist and architecture graduate, has been fascinated by the potential posed by Beirut’s abandoned structures since the late 1990s. After stumbling across the building on long walks through the city, he approached the owner, who agreed to allow the villa to be used as a cultural center rent-free. In return, Maasri and the community of artists who have set up studio space in the building put in the time and money needed to maintain the property.

Today, Mansion is the site of 10 studios, each serving as workspace for between two and five artists, designers, architects, researchers or filmmakers. Its enormous central hall has been adapted to host regular public events, from plays and performances to concerts, workshops and symposiums.

As time passes, Maasri explains, Mansion is being reintegrated into the social fabric of the neighborhood. The owner and his wife often attend events with friends and family, and neighbors increasingly come around.

“Some come and check out what’s happening, some people record a bit on their phones,” Maasri laughs. “Lately, we’ve had a lot of neighbors coming in. It took time because we don’t advertise the space, but it’s a nice group, and they’re coming in to see what we’re doing.”

An anomaly in central Beirut, where extortionate rents have forced many artists to work from home or abandon the city altogether, Mansion demonstrates the potential for abandoned buildings, many of which housed squatters during the war and have stood empty ever since, to be reintegrated into the urban fabric.

Maasri has been working on similar projects across Lebanon since the early 2000s.

“The first time, it was just in an empty lot that was being used a football playground by the kids,” he recalls. “That was in Caracas in 2003. It was also part of trying to figure out this possibility of questioning these empty spaces, what they could do, how they could fit within a functional city and its art production. ... The first time, we used old, abandoned spaces it was in Aley in 2005. I’ve been looking around, asking about spaces in Beirut ever since 2000.

“At the end of the day, it is a personal project. I have my arts career; there are things I like, in terms of how to work. ... I’m not a person to isolate myself in a studio, so this whole community mechanism is something I really like to be involved in.

“Maybe ideologically it’s very much in opposition to how things are going, whether it’s politically or socially. Beirut is being emptied out of nearly everything, and one of the things where I think Beirut’s potential lies is in its neighborhoods. ... I think this is the main lack that I try to fill is actually inhabiting these spaces, which are standing empty, not economy-driven residential towers with gated communities and ground-floor parking and all of that.”

For the moment, Maasri says, the future of Mansion is uncertain, but he and Mansion’s community of artists are working on developing plans for it to remain an active part of the city.

“We may not have the instant capacity to produce such plans, talking to developers or whatever,” he says, “but now that we’re here, now that we’re part of the history of the house, now that we’re connected to the neighborhood, I think that it’s a good investment to think about the future: What’s the relationship with the owner? What’s the [position] of the neighborhood that interacts with the site? Will it become an institution? Will it be given to someone else to run?”

In the meantime, Mansion’s cultural activities are building connections between locals and like-minded people further afield. In the wake of Saturday’s performance, Polendo and the Mitu troupe sat down to discuss the work with their Lebanese audience.

Ciudad Juarez may be close to 12,000 km away and its violence fueled by drug-related gang warfare, rather than religious or political divisions, but the conversation was dominated by the ways in which the performance had resonated with locals.

Parallels were drawn between the nostalgic, perhaps idealized memories Juarez’s residents shared of their city’s past and the idyllic descriptions of Beirut as the glamorous, progressive “Paris of the Middle East” in the decade before the war. Juarez’s influx of migrant workers searching for work in the city’s factories during the 1980s and subsequent changes in the social fabric reminded some of Lebanon’s current refugee situation. Others likened Juarez’s position as a border town caught between Mexico and the U.S. to Lebanon’s cultural and geographic identity as a meeting point between East and West.

What seemed to strike local audiences most, however, was a shared attitude toward living under the shadow of violence. Whether defined as hope, determination or resilience – and all three words were used – recognition of a shared coping mechanism in the face of uncontrollable forces helped to break down borders Saturday, briefly uniting citizens on opposite sides of the globe.

To keep up to date with Mansion’s program or performances, workshops and events visit www.mansion-blatt.blogspot.com or sign up to their mailing list.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 17, 2014, on page 16.
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Summary

BEIRUT: A few facts about Ciudad Juarez: Once known as "Paso del Norte" (Northern Pass), the Mexican border city was designated murder capital of the world in 2009, making it the most violent city outside active war zones.

Ghassan Maasri, an artist and architecture graduate, has been fascinated by the potential posed by Beirut's abandoned structures since the late 1990s. After stumbling across the building on long walks through the city, he approached the owner, who agreed to allow the villa to be used as a cultural center rent-free.

As time passes, Maasri explains, Mansion is being reintegrated into the social fabric of the neighborhood. The owner and his wife often attend events with friends and family, and neighbors increasingly come around.

An anomaly in central Beirut, where extortionate rents have forced many artists to work from home or abandon the city altogether, Mansion demonstrates the potential for abandoned buildings, many of which housed squatters during the war and have stood empty ever since, to be reintegrated into the urban fabric.

For the moment, Maasri says, the future of Mansion is uncertain, but he and Mansion's community of artists are working on developing plans for it to remain an active part of the city.


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