BEIRUT: Ask anyone in Lebanon to recall life during the halcyon pre-Civil War days and they’ll probably tell you about going to the cinema. As befits an image-conscious country, pre-1975 Lebanon was besotted with film. Every major town, city and district of Beirut had its own cinema, it seems, where locals would gather to watch Egyptian and American stars strut their stuff on the silver screen.
Corresponding to this period was a golden age of Lebanese theater. Crowds dressed in their finest frippery eagerly attended shows staged by close-knit clusters of progressive-minded actors.
In Tyre, Al-Hamra Cinema was the heart of the city’s cultural life, a meeting point for lovers of film and theater. Launched in 1959, the theatre staged live performances that featured some of the Arab world’s best-loved stars.
Actor, singer and comedian Hassan Alaa Eddin (known to his fans as “Chouchou”), Palestinian poet, author and advocate Mahmoud Darwish, composer, singer and oud player Marcel Khalife, Syrian comic actor Duraid Laham and Egyptian composer and singer Sheikh Imam – all of them trod the boards of Al-Hamra in its heyday.
During the ’70s and ’80s, as the cultural climate became ever more politicized, the cinema-theatre became the site of several important meetings hosted by nationalist and leftist figures and parties. At one 1977 meeting alone, PLO chairman Yasser Arafat, Druze zaim and socialist thinker Kamal Jumblatt and PFLP leader George Habash all added their names to Al-Hamra’s roster of famous visitors.
In 1987, after more than ten years of conflict, the cinema closed down, another casualty of violence whose complexion had changed from revolution to civil war to criminality. For the past 26 years the structure has stood derelict.
This month, Al-Hamra is scheduled to reopen, thanks to a passionate restoration campaign led by actor and director Kassem Istanbouli.
“It has always been my dream to open a theater in my city, as I believe in resistance through joy,” he says.
“Tyre is a city with a great culture and history and we have been living in pain in the recent years. It is enough. I want my children to grow up in peace and joy.”
Istanbouli opened a small performing arts space, the Istanbouli Theater, in the southern city in January. With an audience capacity of just 80, however, he felt it was not enough to revive Tyre’s cultural scene.
“We had a bright cultural life back in the ’60s,” he says, “and it made me sad to see this abandoned Al-Hamra Cinema.”
Istanbouli spoke to the owner of the building, who gave him permission to use the space in exchange for restoring its former glory.
“My idea is to use Al-Hamra Cinema for performing arts,” he says.
“It will host live theater performances, concerts and film screenings. I am currently preparing some festivals, and I am very happy because the Municipality of Tyre will be supporting an International Theater Festival that will take place on the stage of Al-Hamra this year.
“My dream is to bring to the population of Tyre the best artists at [the] national and international level,” he adds, “but also to open a door for all the great artists we have in Tyre.”
Istanbouli says he will assume responsibility for the theater’s programming, explaining that the space will serve as a much-needed addition to the city’s cultural scene, which currently lacks an independent theater.
With a launch date set for May 23, Istanbouli has been working feverishly with a team of volunteers and local builders to get the theater ready. In the absence of state support for cultural projects in Lebanon, he says he financed the project himself, using money inherited from his father, in addition to personal bank loans, which he hopes to recoup once the theater is up and running.
“It is a risky business,” he admits, “but I trust the people of Tyre’s love for the arts.”
To find out more about Al-Hamra Theater, visit facebook.com/events/278884158947421