To flee or not to flee? That’s the question

BEIRUT: There are no firm figures, but most estimates put the size of Lebanon’s diaspora at double or even triple the number of Lebanese dwelling within the country’s borders.

At a time when some Lebanese citizens may be asking themselves whether it is more painful to stay or to leave, “Passport. No.10452,” Betty Taoutel’s latest production, explores the pros and cons of emigration.

“I am always inspired by what’s happening in Lebanon,” says Taoutel, who wrote, directed and co-stars in the play, alongside lighting designer and sometime-actor Hagop Der Ghougassian. “It’s the story of Omar, a young boy who comes back from school crying. His mother asks him, ‘Why are you crying? Have you been punished? Did you have a problem with some of your friends?’

“He answers, ‘No, I’m crying because I’m the only Lebanese kid in class.’”

“Here in Lebanon,” she adds, “we still have this epidemic of going outside the country to deliver, so that you can give your child a [second] nationality.”

Omar’s mother tries to convince her reluctant husband that they must immigrate to Montreal in order to protect their son from the violence wracking Lebanon. The inspiration came from Taoutel’s daughter, who came home from school one day and told her mother that half the children in her class have dual nationalities.

“To write this play I did research,” Taoutel says. “I went and did interviews and I talked to people who left the country [permanently], or left and came back with another nationality. It’s based on true stories.

“The fiction is in the way they’re treated on stage. I’m always inspired by friends, by stories people tell me, by what I’m seeing. ... After what my daughter told me, I contacted the parents of her friends and asked them what they did to get this second nationality.”

In the play, Omar’s minority status as a uniquely Lebanese citizen is the catalyst for his mother’s decision to emigrate.

“When Omar’s mom sees the list of his friends’ nationalities, she realizes that maybe she hasn’t done anything to insure a better future for her boy,” Taoutel says. “A second passport is like insurance.

“It’s about this trend, but for me it’s a tragedy. It’s absurd. I don’t have another passport, but it doesn’t mean that when there are problems and explosion and attacks I don’t think about it. Sometimes we say, ‘Maybe we’re wrong. Maybe we must leave.’ You don’t know when it’s going to become worse.”

Taoutel originally wrote the play in French for Montreal’s Arab World Festival, where it was performed last November. The production’s local run will be in Arabic, although in typical Lebanese fashion Taoutel says there will be smatterings of French throughout and even a couple of interjections in English.

Taoutel and Der Ghougassian began working on the play last June, but continue to adapt the script. One of the factors in the mother’s decision to emigrate is the spate of bombings in the southern suburbs and downtown Beirut, which she evokes when convincing her husband of the danger of remaining in Lebanon.

This production, Taoutel says, blends comedic and tragic elements and is her most realistic to date in terms of mood and staging.

“It’s a very comic play, but sometimes it’s very poignant, very painful,” she explains. “Omar’s mother is trying to convince her husband that they have to leave, so she will use lots of different, very comic ways and some very dramatic ways. She will tell him, ‘If anything happens to Omar you will be responsible. I hold you responsible for his life.’

“It hurts a lot, but it’s better to laugh about it. You cannot say to people, ‘Come and cry for an hour and 20 minutes.’ People have had enough. They live the tragedy in [real] life.”

The play is likely to resonate differently with local audiences than it did with viewers in Montreal – a city with a Lebanese population of over 400,000, Der Ghougassian says. In Montreal, he explains, the characters’ dilemma held an element of nostalgia for those who long ago made the decision to leave. In Lebanon, the issues it raises are all too topical and potentially painful.

“It’s as if we are all eternally condemned to a search for security,” Taoutel says. “Our parents were looking for security. We are now looking for security for our children. It never ends.”

“To go or not to go,” Der Ghougassian adds. “For us, now, that is the question.”

Betty Taoutel’s “Passport No.10452” opens Feb. 6 at the Monnot Theater and runs until March 4. For more information or ticketing, please call 01-204-422.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 30, 2014, on page 16.




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