By Oussama Ghanam
In 2003, during our student years, Ayman and I watched a restored version of Tarkovsky’s “Nostalghia” at the Pompidou Centre. It was the first time I had seen the movie in a real theatre. The first time I truly captured its ‘story’. The first time I had enough time and presence to consider the rooms where the hero was roaming, weeping or dying. After the last scene, where the man is slowly walking with a lit candle across an empty pool, starting over again whenever the flame goes out, we headed out with the crowd to the courtyard, under the grey skies of the Parisian tourist and historical centre, amidst the street vendors of postcards and Turkish shawarma. My mind was busy thinking about the clearly written manuscript on one of the rooms’ walls: 1 + 1 = 1.
Suddenly, Ayman said, “This is art. Either you start at the top, from the impossible, or you don’t.” I contemplated his ocean blue eyes and broad blond beard. He was like a bird of prey. I remembered in Damascus repeatedly watching “Mirror”, another Tarkovsky movie that I had recorded on VHS tape from Syrian TV in the early 1990s. The movie ends when a man, lazing in the forest grass with a woman during the purest of love scenes, asks her, “What do you want? A boy or a girl?” She doesn’t answer him, knowing that later he will “raze her to the ground,” as the saying goes. The woman, who was laying her head on his chest, straightens up, cherishing the breathing in of nature in the open plains. She looks at the dense trees creating a black screen through which she sees – and shows us – the past invading the present and the future, like a Bach sonata that sweeps us all away and lonely. I remembered all of that, reflecting on the many ways to be an artist, on the meaning of art.
We then went to the cafeteria of the International University Campus where we were staying. We ordered fries and steak and had a relentless conversation about Coca-Cola, Walter Benjamin and Alim Qasimov. During his school years, Ayman had a great fondness for Joseph Beuys. Together, we had been to the Pompidou, where we had admired his piano covered in khaki and heavy grey, the same colours as a shelter, with its red cross stitched on its flank. Ayman carried a felled tree trunk to his room that was transformed into a permanent table for student gatherings. He snatched a “Donate to Africa” billboard from the metro passageways and pasted it next to starving people on the wall of the same room. He then ripped it and painted it. On the facing wall, he fixed childhood photographs with his brother Said from 1980 or later, smiling in front of a wall in Beirut. He was wearing a khaki T-shirt with a red star design that sang out like Beuys’ covered piano. At that time, he conducted part of his academic research on the symbolism of the cactus that was central to Palestinian artist Asim Abu Shakra’s artworks. I contemplated with him at length the latter’s paintings of cacti plants uprooted from the ground and imprisoned in pots on windows. Ayman was as sharp and present, reckless with relentless energy and a constant questioning about windows, doors, pots, cargo containers, and everything that could contain us.
“During his school years, Ayman had a great fondness for Joseph Beuys. Together, we had been to the Pompidou, where we had admired his piano covered in khaki and heavy grey, the same colours as a shelter, with its red cross stitched on its flank.”
It was in that period that we discovered Kabakov’s work “The Man who flew into Space from his Apartment”, a beautiful installation, in which the viewer peeps in from the outside through cracks in the walls to where a lone man has attached a slingshot to fly through the ceiling and vanish into space. Cement dust and wood chips were raining down on the Soviet posters on the walls and on his cup of tea and ragged bed. It was the first time I understood the meaning of artistic installation and the sensory dimension of plastic art.
One time we entered a hall at the Pompidou where a work in polystyrene was on show, representing cartoon animals queuing for an identity parade in a police station. A circle of light was transmitted on their faces to the sound of funny percussion music. I stood for a moment in front of the monkey so that the spotlight hit my face like a suspect. Ayman laughed loudly and we exchanged positions. He stood in front of a kangaroo or something like it, waiting for the light before turning his head, only to bump into the trunk of the next elephant in the row, which we hadn’t reckoned with. We ran out of that hall madly laughing at the thought that we might have smashed a work of art in the ‘Temple of Modern Art’.
In 2002, I accompanied Ayman to the Chaillot Theatre to watch a revival of Didier Flamand’s 1977 “Prends bien garde aux zeppelins”, a semi-silent show with horrific images of World War I, including many by Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. But the real horror was Flamand’s final address to the enthusiastic audience, appearing – alongside his actors – with grey hair, as he recalled his play produced a quarter of a century ago. When one person shouted out: “Flamand… Flamand…”, he shivered and sobbed in front of the thousand-seat theatre that was once the seat of the League of Nations, before saluting a soldier killed in 1914 that neither he nor anyone knew. We shivered as we watched. At night, while sipping arak, we listened to Shahram Nazeri and Tom Waits. Suddenly, the play was mentioned on the news, and while we pointed to the screen our friends exclaimed, “You were there?!”
In the days that followed, there was always another artist, another movie, another play. Five years later, in 2010, I came to Beirut with my first play, Krapp’s Last Tape by Samuel Beckett. On that day, my scenographer friend Rami and I forgot a small detail: to bring the desk for the actor to sit on. Ayman spent the whole day looking for a desk for Krapp, Beckett’s hero. We finally found one in his sister’s house that had been a gift from the family. To carry it from Spears Street to the Sunflower Theatre in Tayouneh, he hugged it close to his chest while lying down in the open boot of a Mercedes taxi.
I met Ayman again eight years later during his last exhibition in Beirut. I slept in his large studio in Hamra admiring his paintings, surfaces, textures and various dimensions. I watched the city and his bleak play about it, its vanished past, its meaningless presence and ruthless presence in a place where no one really wants to be forgotten or remembered.
“I met Ayman again eight years later during his last exhibition in Beirut. I slept in his large studio in Hamra admiring his paintings, surfaces, textures and various dimensions.”
At dawn in that studio, in the narrow corner amid the wide space, between the four facing chairs, the bed, the tree trunk, and the chair from the Lebanese house in the Paris University Campus, I met my friend again as we both hit our forties. I saw him at the same time as the weary sea city was painfully, slowly waking up. I saw him singling out all his things with the strangest mixture of care and abandonment, as he had always done. “It is useless”, he told me, with a loving and beautiful smile.
I visited Beirut several times since that time. We would meet up and chat in the sunny cafés between Hamra and Bliss Street, until one day in early March 2020, I had to return to Damascus. The next day, they closed the Syrian borders. There is a virus that kills people, they said. Our visit to Beirut, a hundred kilometres away from the capital, was only possible by plane and with a hotel reservation. Because viruses do not fly on planes, as everyone knows!
Two years later, I flew back to Beirut on a 20-minute flight. During this time, the banks had collapsed, as had the local currency. Then, there was the horrific port explosion. When I called Ayman following the blast to tell him “My home is your home”, the much-used phrase that felt the most insane that day, he answered with the same calm, tinted with the same blue madness: “Teslam, Habibi. As I told you before: It is useless….” I later knew from a mutual friend that he was with another friend at the time of the explosion and that they were both wounded that day.
I came back after two years, planning to perform my first play written at the age of 46 in Beirut, the city that had changed drastically and forever. I called Ayman. “Come immediately to my atelier. I want you to see the new work before the workers’ arrival tomorrow. We need to cut it, untie it and send it,” he said. I went by taxi, beneath the rain, to that strange ‘atelier’ set in a mall in the suffering city in the Manara district, between an international branded sporting goods store and Starbucks. In a space dedicated to similar commercial activities, emptied due to the absence of any desire to invest, even if that desire was fake; in a double hangar that might be filled with casual wear, Harley bikes or Arabian sweets; sitting between power cables, construction scaffolding, cardboard ads, and paint pales, Ayman was working, alone, like a silent Andrei Rublev.
I hurried as light rain began to fall, following a two-day storm. I stepped in and saw what I felt I had seen before, over and over. Ayman’s installation was an intricate mix of children’s toys and adult mindfulness. I contemplated the construction: it was flooded with paint and commercial Egyptian movie posters, through one of its cracks an old television was seen on the floor. I remembered Beirut buildings after the explosion, as seen on television in Damascus. I remembered Ayman tearing up a billboard in the Paris metro.
“Go to the back”, he said. I entered behind the installation. Behind the scenes of the well-known photo of the city stabbed in the chest as if with a cross or a silver knife, I found a janitor’s room, with all its junk and lawful poverty. A clothesline. A dangling ball – or an orange – in a sport sock. A TV antenna. A small satellite dish. And through the cracks of that hut-room-house-shelter-tent was my friend’s reinterpretation of Kabakov’s installation. Ayman insisted on spraying it all with the metallic khaki military colour that completely and cruelly contradicted the facade of the city which had come to resemble a toilet filled with the filth of this world. The city which, after being closed for two years, had exploded, because it won’t – and does not want to – provide a healthcare system to its residents.
“I immediately recalled the plastic soldiers and the wars we fought as children, together, me and Ayman, in our cities.”
I immediately recalled the plastic soldiers and the wars we fought as children, together, me and Ayman, in our cities. The innocent wars, the fervent tendency to feel a new world under the stone, inside the box, behind the door, beyond the horizon, above the clouds, and within us eventually. I remembered his childhood picture on the University Campus dormitory wall. His attack with scissors on a small fascist at a party and my intervention with other comrades, before going back to our room to listen to Tom Waits talking about “burying every dream in the cold ground” while drinking the remains of a bottle of Syrian Arak al Rayan. The huge paintings in his exhibition in the luxurious gallery in 2018. Playing with him and ripping off his coat in Paris. And our long conversation about what ought to be and what is possible on the lawn of the university campus.
I emerged from behind his theatre set. I saw my friend sitting on the low wooden bench, and sat beside him.
– Do you remember Bert Neumann?
– The scenographer who worked with Frank Castorf.
– I don’t know him.
I told him about “The Master and Margarita” and “Forever Young”, my two favourite of Castorf’s shows. About three physical dramatic spaces – in front of, inside, and behind the décor – and about a screen at the top, and how Martin Wuttke brought Palestine into the story of Christ in the show adapted from Bulgakov’s novel. How he ran naked and hit the window and was imprinted on it like Bugs Bunny. Then, while smoking a marijuana cigarette and talking about Margarita, he was filmed by Castorf’s camera and broadcast live in the House of Culture’s theatre in Bobigny 20 years ago. I told him about the scenography of a painful, but human-less, play, which I saw here again. “I thought I’d put a screen on top,” he said.
Then we talked about the banking collapse. About a country that has never really known banks and a country that wishes it hadn’t. He moved his foot in irritation and said, “None of this matters to me”. With the same determination as before. “I know”. Then we went out into the dark.
We moved from the huge shopping mall towards Hamra Street, the heart of the city we love, between the grandiose buildings built to hide the sea from the city people. There was no electricity but still we proceeded with confidence and experience. We walked at Ayman’s speed and lightness, and when I was out of breath after following him, he proffered a chunk of Snickers that we shared, which gave an artificial boost of energy as speech returned.
– Whoever does a similar thing will never start from zero.
– Whoever does a similar thing isn’t familiar with zero.
And another unspoken conversation. How long will the next absence last? What is the next disaster?
– A man like me never gets married.
– Can I write a play about your decor?
– Stay for dinner – there are nice friends. I have an extra bed. My home is your home.
– I’m still searching.
– I remember that penniless Algerian on a cold Belleville night trying to get a free taxi ride with French citizens who had just ended their evening, and always getting kicked out…
From metallic khaki to that cardboard ad. We ascended to Hamra Street. The lights had gone out. Nevertheless, we walked confidently because we knew the place was a few metres away, to the inside. There is the coffee shop. There is the hotel. There are our sleepless nights. There is also the parting which, like the meeting, is never arranged in advance.
Bio: Oussama Ghanam is a theatre director, Playwright, dramaturg, and translator. He is the founder and artistic director of Damascus Theatre Lab (DTL) since 2010. He is also a professor at the Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts in Damascus since 2005. As a director, he has directed the following plays: “The Last Tape” – Samuel Beckett in 2009, “It Happened Tomorrow” – Kroetz, Dario Fo, Mark Ravenhill in 2010, “Homecoming” – Harold Pinter in 2013, “Glass”; a free adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ “Glass Menagerie” in 2015 and “Drama”; a free adaptation of Sam Shepard’s “True West” in 2018. In 2019, he was invited for artistic residency by the Tunisian National Theatre and directed George Buchner’s “Woyzeck” with the TNT Troupe. Since 2011, Oussama has delivered 16 professional, artistic research workshops with topics discussing dramaturgy, acting and performing in modern and contemporary theatre. He translated many plays from English and French into Arabic (Shepard, Bond, Ravenhill, Sarah Kane, Krimp, Joe Penhal, Heiner Muller, Kroetz, Dario Fo, Buchner…) . Recently, he has translated Patrice Pavis’ “Dictionary of Performance and Contemporary Theatre”. Oussama holds a Doctoral degree in Theatre Studies from the University of Paris VIII (Saint – Denis).
A VERSION OF THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN PRINT IN SELECTIONS #58 BEING AYMAN BAALBAKI