With two good friends of ours, my bride and I went cultural last Thursday evening. At the Beursschouwburg in Brussels. We watched 'theater' work created and performed by an Arab performance artist, Rabih Mroué, from Lebanon of all places. Google him and you'll be stunned by the hits pointing to his works. Born in 1967, the 41 year old artist, actor, playwright and TV station (day-job) illustrator is, to say the least, remarkable. Very much so, if you consider the environment in which he was born and raised to become the man he is today. A country torn by 15 years of civil war between Muslims and Christians, Lebanon had a few years of opportunity to rebuild and raise from its ashes until a new wave of assassinations, terrorist attacks and turbulent local politics came to shake its wellbeing and security once again. Under these circumstances, to become a performance artist and via your skills to express criticism on the established bold authority is, at minimum, ...heroic. Rabih Mroué is a simple, fragile looking individual, with deep and expressive eyes and a face that glows with goodness as he humbly speaks and blushes full of gratitude and humility when someone pays compliments to his work. After the performance, as Mroué approached the bar for a soft drink passing right next to our party, Christos, my pal, addressed a few kudos to him about his performance being 'inspiring' and 'quite creative'. Mroué nodded softly, overwhelmed with gratitude as he quietly whispered 'thank you, thank you very much...'. He resembled very much a Byzantine Saint in the subtle and sober lighting of the moment. Made feel a strange magnetism in the air.
All we westerners know and feel about Muslims nowadays is that they are bunch of deadly religious fanatics, oppressive to their own kind and cowardly to the Christian Westerners whom they want to convert to Islam with violence if needed as 'we are all the infidels', in their mind... Oh, yes, and they want to exterminate the Jewish from the face of the earth... Real pathetic! The recent Mumbai incidents are the latest evidence of this.
What we all seem to forget though is that those religious fanatics who make frontpage news with appalling acts of terrorism represent only an extremely low percentage among the millions of Muslims on Earth. The vast majority among them are peace loving folks like the rest of us who only happen to operate in a different monotheist religion than ours. They also have an exceptionally rich tradition in achievements that stem from the deepest roots of the history of mankind. At the back end of the first millennium Arabs explored sciences and arts to the point that we owe it to them today to have preserved the works of the Golden Age of Ancient Greece and to have created ideas and concepts that dominate astronomy and mathematics, to name a few, to this day. Being Arab or Muslim has far more to it than being a... terrorist. Of all people, the Israelis, who know Arabs quite well, are the first to admit that. That's why it is beyond contempt to keep the entire Middle East region in the vast turmoil of endless wars for so many years instead of helping them build welfare states like ours in the 'West'.
This is what I kept thinking as we watched Mroué perform his play on Thursday night. There you have a braveheart, someone courageous enough to challenge the current Lebanese bureaucracy and its old-fashioned authority agents, to be fearless in his choice of words against cowardly Hezbollah militias, a performance artist with a voice that represents all what is good in those parts of the world and what we, in the West, have chosen to ignore and forget. What are we gonna do about it, now then? Not much I'm afraid... we don't even have a clue these artistic brave souls ever existed! Performance artists of that kind are very scarce and members of the western community who are well aware of their existence can be counted in just a few fingers.
The performance lasted few minutes above the hour. All this time Mroué sat behind a lean table and, as he talked, he operated a MacBook Pro (I respected the lad even more for this). On his left he had a large projection screen where he projected a Powerpoint slide-show (maybe it was a Keynote, I couldn't tell). From time to time he showed us some short video footage, rather old with low resolution, amateurishly shot, with plenty of VHS copy-on-copy artifacts, but always with a fascinating content. Muslim guerilla fighters at a Civil War battle, often laughing and having good macho time, ready to spread ravage the way they are used to... a young girl suicide-bomb commando talking into amateur video moments before she blew herself into 'martyrdom'...
The key theme of all these was Mroué's 'personal archive'. A Pandora's box of excerpts of modern history as he's seen them deploy in front of his eyes for most of his adult life. Right thru the deadly silence of his audience, he kept talking about his archive in broken English with unseen charm and passion. Simple words that went far deeper than meets the eye! At a given moment he made some fascinating remarks about the concept of human memory, the past, present and the future. I didn't really get it first time, wondering what the rationale of his reasoning actually was. It only flashed in my logic subconscious when he later showed us a beautiful eighteen year old girl, a soon to become 'martyr', expressing her feelings on some amateur video footage a few hours before she perished in a suicide bomb attack of her own. Mroué made the point about her talking from the past, being dead and alive at the same time. It was just grotesque... but even in his broken English he was able to make a deep philosophical point that left us speechless.
Imagine such a theater performance to be covering tragic facts and events like this, in a comic, self cynical way. Gives a man an unusual feeling to say the least. All started with Mroué spending a quarter of an hour to talk about the titles he typically selected to assign to his performances. The one we watched was called "Make me stop smoking". This blog's title, "I, the undersigned" is another example he mentioned, that I am not even sure if he's ever used on any of his works. His argument was that a 'performance' should basically bear no relationship whatsoever with its title. Why should it, anyway? Even real life doesn't do that, he said. Look at me! My name is Rabih, which in Arabic means, spring! Do I look like spring to you? (spontaneous laughter in the audience).
What impressed me the most though was the fact that never ever did Mroué make any bitter fingerpointing whatsoever towards external to Lebanon Forces in order to pass blame for his country's destruction and war misery. Not even Israel or the US. Except when he took a few clever shots at the Hezbollah. Mroué remained patiently a pacifist to the end. And immensely entertaining... with a huge respect towards the rest of us in the audience. And towards whatever we happen to believe in.
Another perfromance high was one moment when he showed us Sigmund Freud transformed into a Hezbollah cleric via the miracles of Photoshop (thank you Adobe!). He said that, when he showed that same poster to an Austrian audience once, nobody laughed as nobody could 'see' the transform. Knowing the Austrians, it must have been dead hillarious!
In his closing 'statement' Mroué quit his slide-show; his MacBook desktop emerged with icons of the presentation files... he click-selected them together and threw them to the Trash bin. He then opened the bin and... after hesitating for a split second, he clicked the 'empty' button at the Finders' top right window corner... A good symbolic 'finish'... I am dead sure he's kept a backup though... not?
It was an unusual experience, to say the least. The good news for people living in Belgium is that Mroué is back here next April for a series of similar performances at the KVS in Brussels. To share with his audience some more of his bottomless 'personal archive'.