[ Saalouk #4: Joe Kodeih ] 'I want to push people to ask questions - so maybe they can change their reality'

Five years after it premiered in English on Broadway, Lebanese playwright Joe Kodeih has brought his acclaimed production of 'The Middle Beast' back where it came from. MENASSAT talks to Kodeih about the challenges of bringing something new to a story that has been told over and over again.
Joe Kodeih
Joe Kodeih. R.R.

Editor's Note: During the 'Jahiliah,' the days of ignorance before the coming of the Prophet, the poets were the media. While some sang the praises of whoever was in power, others refused to sell out and vowed only to tell the truth. They were the 'saalik' or 'tramps.' In this new section, MENASSAT.COM profiles people who we consider to be the modern-day 'saalik.' Our 'Saalouk #3' is Lebanese playwright Joe Kodeih.

MENASSAT: Your play, The Middle Beast, was first performed outside Lebanon and now you've brought it back here. Did you change anything to adapt the play to an Arab audience?

The play premiered at La Mama theater on Broadway in 2003. It was in English. At the time, I was using Nadine Labaki and Mario Bassil for the acting. I rewrote the script because I had to translate it. Then I reproduced it and changed some sequences, but I didn't touch the essence of the play.

MENASSAT: Why come back with the same play after five years?

I wanted to bring it back here because the American, cosmopolitan audience is not my audience. The cause I presented for them is not their cause. For the American audience, this cause is strange and exotic. I wanted to show my play to my people, and I believe that despite all the problems the Lebanese people have been through, they become more open and civilized. In fact, the Lebanese audience is much more open than the American audience. It has a greater ability to receive things, in addition to having a higher level of culture, giving them a high ability to grasp things.

MENASSAT: The cause of your play is not a new one – it has been used and over-used. What do you bring to it that is new?

All I wanted to say is that we deserve to live in peace, not as beasts attacking each others. We are being manipulated and we should be aware of that.

MENASSAT: Who do you mean when you say we are being manipulated?

J.K.: I give this one the character of the seducing woman. We are mostly seduced by the West and all it represents, but I’m trying to show how it is manipulating us, and how we fall in the trap.

MENASSAT: The Christian in your play has the weaker position – you only give him 10 percent of the land - yet the Lebanese Christian audience seemed willing to accept this.

J.K.: We laugh at our reality, even if its painful. I tried to show the Christian reality, just as the Muslim and the Jewish reality, in a comic frame. I tried to criticize it in a semi-humoristic way. When the audience accepts his reality with a smile, I think I have achieved some kind of psychological therapy there.

I try to put the spectators in front of a mirror reflecting their reality. I wanted to send a message to the Christian citizen to shake him up and incite him to see the truth. As a matter of fact, I gave the Christian a greater role in my play, because in the Middle East of today he is being absolutely crushed. I'm not only talking about the Christians in Lebanon, but in Iraq and Egypt as well. They live in some kind of depression because they feel they are facing extinction. My play carries a wake-up call: 'Take a closer look at your misery.' The land I'm talking about is first and foremost the land of the Christians. And there are many invaders.

MENASSAT: To tell you the truth, we sympathized with the Jew. How do you explain that?

J.K.: The audience sympathized with him, because he is a stranger, an outsider. In New York, the audience sympathized with the Muslim, though the play came at a time when every bearded man was considered a terrorist. I, myself, get very annoyed with this marginalization. But despite all this, we see that people everywhere are still capable of sympathizing with 'the other.'

MENASSAT: The acting of Tony Balban in the role of the Jew was exceptional.

J.K.: Tony is very professional as an actor and he really 'wore' the role he was playing. I had a problem with the actor who was supposed to play the role of the Christian; I had to change actors nine times. The choice was very difficult, for he would be standing by two major actors: Ammar Shalak and Tony Balban. But finally, Shady Zein was able to learn the role perfectly. He was our savior.

MENASSAT: It is obvious that you allow your actors a lot of input.

J.K.: I give them all their freedom. They are free in the role, the script and the acting.

MENASSAT: Despite all your criticism, you seem to have stopped short of any harmful comments.

I don’t even criticize, how do you want me to be harmful? I try my best to criticize a reality we are living. Who am I to allow myself to be hurtful? We are seeing enough of that.

MENASSAT: After the three characters divide the body of the dead man between them, we thought the problem was somehow solved. But you end the play with the sentence, 'We still have a problem,' as if we will never be able to finish with the cause.

J.K.: As long as someone else is drawing our future, the problem will remain. We are guilty towards ourselves. All religions are based on love. I assure you that I'm not an expert in religion or politics, but I perfectly know that the stage is the mirror of the society and the community, and I presented a problem that should end.

MENASSAT: How do you think this crisis will end, especially in Lebanon?

J.K.: I live in a country where it is impossible for me not to see the co-existence between Muslims and Christians. I personally encourage secularism, but we have in Lebanon a mixture and a diversity that empowers us with a huge cultural heritage. We should base our beliefs on that, and accept co-existence. This way, we would be able to put an end to the manipulation, the grudges and the hatred we are witnessing.

MENASSAT: Your play made us laugh to tears at times, yet it is hardly a comedy. How did you deal with this mix between comedy and politics?

J.K.: I am not at all interested in presenting a work the spectator would forget the second he leaves the theater, where he just says he had a good time. The frame was funny and comic, but the cause I presented and the way I presented it put the spectator in front of a dilemma and of many major questions. All I wanted was to push the audience to ask questions, so that maybe they would be able to change their reality. I repeat, the theater is a reflection of reality.

MENASSAT: Where do you see the hope in your play?

J.K.: Our cause sometimes slips out of the hands of our manipulators. There is definitely a fight over the Middle East, and different struggles inside the Middle East, but the interrelation and the clashes between the civilizations creates a mixture the West will never be able to understand, despite all their studies. This is what we should hang on to. This is what I wanted to show in my play, that the solution will always be in our own hands.

The Middle Beast is playing at Monnot Theater until Feb. 10.

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