Theaters struggle to pen future after the blast

The glass-strewn lobby of Masrah al-Madina, in the wake of the 4 August Beirut Port blast. (Photo courtesy of Masrah al-Madina)

BEIRUT: “There are cycles of reconstruction and destruction in this country,” Zoukak Theater co-founder Junaid Sarrieddeen said. “People start up a project and then for no reason it gets destroyed. This is tiring. You feel like children building castles of sand on the seafront.

“Psychologically we still need time to understand what has happened. We’re in shock and not in a frame of mind to make decisions,” he added. “This theater was a dream of ours and now we’ve seen it destroyed so any decision we make is going to be influenced by the shock and trauma. We can’t think about the future clearly right now.”

Having relocated to Karantina in 2017, Zoukak’s Theater space is only a five-minute drive from the site of the Beirut Port explosion. Almost three weeks since the day that changed Greater Beirut’s urban landscape, Zoukak, and many other theaters, are still trying to piece together a plan for where to go next.

“We’ve secured and cleaned up as much as we can and we’re waiting to see what we need to fix next,” Sarrieddeen told The Daily Star. “The damage was extensive. We’re on the first floor and each wall has a street-side door, which were all ripped out of the walls along with some of the bricks and all the windows. Some other walls collapsed all together.”

While the team will be repairing the space and the equipment there, there is a chance they may relocate or reinvent their methods. In the coming months, they intend to decide whether it’s worth investing more into the space, or looking for an alternative.

“Of course we’re always going to continue creating theater and working in this country,” Sarrieddeen said. “So long as there is 1 percent, we can do it. We will, but we need time to figure out how and when.

“A lot of people have offered help so I’m not afraid of it being impossible, but it’s the willpower to do it that is in question,” he added. “We’re losing two to three months of our lives and doing renovations all over again. You start to question why we’re even doing this and it becomes absurd. This thing is more damaging than the destroyed walls and buildings. Our daily life is altered.”

Theatre Monnot administrator Ziad Halwani is similarly adrift. In a country where working in the arts has always been an uphill battle, the idea of rebuilding decades’ worth of work, is daunting.

“I was expecting that the theater would be less touched by the blast because it is underground but it was severely hit,” Halwani said. “Everything is repairable but it needs time, money and effort. We haven’t decided what to do yet because everyone has been concerned with repairing their houses and checking on friends and family, but we do hope to renovate and see what it will cost or if insurance companies will help. It’s a bit early for this process.

“The theater has a lot of broken glass, the stage and seating are OK but all the doors are broken, especially the noiseproof doors, which we only had installed not long ago,” he added. “The frames have come out of the walls and the whole ceiling has collapsed, as well as all the lighting and the lobby of the theater. It’s also impressively dusty, even with all our closed doors.”

The ongoing financial crisis, combined with the pandemic -- and the ensuing forced closures that followed -- have plagued all the city’s performance spaces this year.

Dawar al-SHAMS, in Tayyouneh, usually helps theater students in their studies through workshops and as a venue to stage their work. Weighed down by multiple crises and financially precarious, the association recently received a grant from the Lebanon Support Fund (coordinated by Culture Resource and AFAC to bail out 23 arts organizations hammered by financial and public health woes), but those funds were meant to pay salaries and maintain basic operations, not carry out the structural repairs the theater needs since Aug. 4.

“We have to manage our budget. The costs are considerable,” Abdo Nawar said. “Our local income has been zero since February and our [funding grants] from Sweden are blocked for now as Swedish banks are refusing to make transfers to Lebanon.

“We’re working on it. Hopefully we will find a way out,” he added. “We are having some minor activities and paying urgent expenses from our pockets.”

Hamra Street’s primary theater venues are also becalmed.

Shortly after Metro al-Madina received its own grant from the Lebanon Support Fund, Hisham Jaber told The Daily Star he hoped to have his troupe up and running again by the start of September. Since then, Lebanon’s COVID-19 numbers have swelled and General Mobilization has been extended through the end of 2020.

“Because of the Interior Ministry’s decisions, we’re waiting for the end of the lockdown before taking the decision to meet and resume,” Metro’s Lara Nohra said. The performers have been rehearsing, she added, and announced that in the next couple of days Metro will release a song on YouTube from “The Political Circus,” its major production from 2017.

“It’s footage from one of the Beiteddine performances,” Nohra said, “a song related to the dilemma of staying/leaving the ‘home country.’”

For Masrah al-Madina founder Nidal Ashkar, the decision to restore and reopen the theater is clear. The source of funding is not.

“All our doors and glass are completely destroyed and the wall holding the portrait of the famous artists who visited us is gone too. One of our guys was blown down the stairs and broke his leg,” Ashkar said. “Will we carry on when things calm down? Yes, we will. Yes, we don’t have any money for repairs, nor for the rent or electricity but we will go on.

“When we reopened the theater after lockdown we [offered] it for free for the young people to come, we cleaned it and made it beautiful and we don’t want to lose this,” she added. “We don’t want this community, one of the few left in Beirut, to disappear for good. So long as our theaters go on, there might be a little bit of hope for young people, to save the culture on this city.”





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