Theatre as an Optimistic Political Act: Lebanese Theatre Artist Sahar Assaf

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Many Lebanese know Assaf primarily as an actress, which she maintains is still her first passion. Early in her career she acted in several plays directed by respected theatre director Lina Abyad, the most acclaimed of which was titled Come Back to Bed Love. Assaf has also acted in a play under the direction of Issam Bou Khaled, and she has performed at Lebanese American University (LAU), Haigazian University, and the Lebanese University. She has also had minor roles in the television dramas Qalam Homra and Hdoud Shaqiqa. For Assaf, acting is far more than entertainment. She says, “I think it is through acting that we get the closest possible to our humanity, to understanding a different person. When one is totally present in the shoes of another human being, a character for that matter, just present without any judgments, one becomes whole.”[1]

“The Rape”, directed by Sahar Assaf. Photo: Alexy Frangieh.

Growing up in a patriarchal culture like that found in the villages of Lebanon, Assaf faced great resistance from others to the notion of women studying theatre or voicing their political views. “In many Lebanese communities women don’t have a voice equal to that of men,” Assaf told me. “While I was growing up, it affected me deeply every time I heard ‘No, because you are a girl’ or ‘No, women have no business discussing politics’…Today, the oppression of both women and men, especially resulting from patriarchy, is a recurring theme in my theatre and my teaching.”[2] Indeed, Assaf’s theatre is inherently political on multiple levels, addressing issues of patriarchy, governmental instability, and political chaos. If public apathy toward the theatre is not enough of a barrier, Lebanon still requires artists to submit scripts to a governmental censor for approval. Also, there is no governmental funding for productions and even corporate sponsorship is not possible without personal connections to the companies themselves. She says,

Practicing theatre in a country that’s constantly in turmoil is an optimistic political act in and of itself, regardless of its genre…It’s a constant call for life, for a prosperous humanity. When we put a story on stage, any story, we are inviting the audiences to reflect on their existence and humanity and understand it beyond the social meanings they constructed or those that were constructed for them. Theatre is a political act and like any political act it has a confrontational role. When the artist chooses to create despite the sterile situation around her, it’s the artist’s way of not giving up, of not taking the status quo for granted, and her way to fight back using the most peaceful method possible.[3]

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