Editor’s note: This is part of a series of weekly articles interviewing pioneering Lebanese women
BEIRUT: Clad all in black save for an orange scarf, Nidal Achkar leans back on her couch and sifts through a book on her coffee table. The home of the renowned Lebanese actress and director is strewn with books, some poking out of the shelves for lack of space, an indication not only of her love for literature and the arts, but also of her belief in the importance of learning and education. Credited with kicking off the modern theater movement in Lebanon back in the ’60s, Achkar is the woman behind the Beirut Theater Workshop, the Arab Actors theater company and cultural institute Masrah al-Madina. Considered a revolutionary figure within the arts, to this day she continues to work both on stage and off.
She attributes her radical approach to her upbringing. Decades before equality became an established right, Achkar was fortunate enough to have been treated just the same as her brothers, with all of them encouraged to get a good education.
“I was lucky because my parents were very different,” she told The Daily Star in an interview.
“They were too adventurous,” she added. “They were very open and they believed in girls – they believed that girls and boys were the same, so I was brought up like my brothers.”
“Courage ... and self-confidence and voicing one’s opinion and not being afraid of anything or anyone is a very important thing, and I believe I inherited that from my parents.”
This kind of upbringing has a big effect on a young girl’s morale, her self-confidence, and her ambition, Achkar explained. A girl who has fewer opportunities and less open-minded parents needs to find “intelligent tactics,” she said, to persuade them to support her education and accept that she wants a career.
“She needs to convince them that she needs to learn so she can become a better person, a better mother, a better wife, a better teacher, whatever she wants to do,” Achkar said. “Everything that has to do with the future becomes different when your parents encourage you.”
Achkar grew up in the quaint little town of Deek al-Mehdi in northern Metn, a town she still holds dear. She grew up close to the earth and appreciates nature, a value she attributes to her late father and something that is also reflected by the numerous plants on her wide balcony and the birds chirping away in their cages.
It was while in her village that she realized her love for the theater, and more importantly, for people.
“During those days, I would go to the square on national holidays and see gypsies dancing, and I would go dance with them,” Achkar said, leaning back and smiling nostalgically. “I would see real life and I loved it.”
Many people fleeing prosecution during the French Mandate would hide at their family home, and Achkar recalled that the house was always filled with intellectuals.
“There was mystery in the home, and it grew in my head,” she said. “The people I would see as a child, I would see them larger than life – authors, poets, politicians, people hiding in the basement. People would be eating upstairs, meeting outside, it all made me think that I needed to specialize in something related to people.”
Much of her ambition to excel in the field of arts also came from the boarding school she attended as a young girl, where she was encouraged by her teachers to pursue her studies in drama and theater.
“When I used to write, my teachers would tell me I was writing drama; everything had dialogue,” Achkar laughed.
Despite a difficult childhood due to her father’s repeated imprisonment for political activity, she managed to enroll at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London and graduated in the 1960s.
It was there that she met and trained with Joan Littlewood, an English theater director known as the mother of modern theater, with whom she ended up traveling and working with in Tunis and Paris.
“She encouraged me very much. I danced and sang and did choreography and wrote and improvised, and she saw in me someone with hope for their country,” Achkar said.
Despite her optimistic nature, however, she admitted to The Daily Star that she was not entirely positive about the fate of women in Lebanon.
“I don’t want to say things so negative ... but we are in a very black hole – the Lebanese woman’s situation is difficult,” Achkar said, adding that as long as women continue to live in a closed society in which their lives are dictated for them, it will be difficult to change the situation.
“What changes our lives is eagerness, looking forward, but you cannot do that without opportunities,” Achkar explained.
She stressed the need for the introduction of civil laws that would protect women, adding that because such legislation did not exist, women had to fight for their own rights. For Achkar, women need to come out of their shells, leave behind their sects and their political allegiances, and venture out on their own.
“I want a woman to become the president of the republic because she is the best,” Achkar said enthusiastically. “Women are the best – they endure more, they fight more, they’re more stubborn and they’ve got more values.”
“I imposed myself on the Arab world. Nobody was able to deter me, not in the arts, not in politics, not in anything.”