The gift of exile, the murderous rage at the heart of the healthy family: Playwright Wajdi Mouawad reflects, in L’Orient le Jour, on the eternal procreation of communal hatred in Lebanon.
Return, rejoin, reenter Lebanon: the only words that I can use to describe this journey back to the country of my birth contain within them an awareness of exile, of war and separation. I am more aware of this than ever on today’s journey, since I am returning this time en masse, accompanied by actors, stage managers and theater technicians, here to present theatrical productions that I have written and directed in a language foreign to the one I was born to.
Leave as a child, return as an artist. A strange metamorphosis.
What should this return mean to me?
What should return mean to all those of my generation who did not choose departure, did not choose to stay away, because we were still children when the civil war began?
Asking myself this question, in this context, as I put on these shows, is to question the meaning of writing itself, of theater, and of art. These things have carried me back to my country, given me the chance to get to know in some way the people of my country. These texts that I have written, these shows I am directing tell our story, the story of the things which burned us, that ripped us apart.
Answering this question, perhaps the central question of my life, commands a return to my childhood, where everything was set in place, for better and for worse.
The old proverb says that a fish in the water knows nothing of water. The first time they understand that it exists is when they are pulled out of it.
Hatred was for me the water I swam in.
In spite of the love that surrounded me, in spite of the care and attention of my parents-and they were marvelous parents, the more so because they knew nothing of the storm that was coming to destroy their lives-in spite of all this, I am forced to admit that I grew up in hatred. I bathed in hatred; I breathed in hatred, all while I understood nothing of hatred.
This I say without rancor and without reproach or rebelliousness; I say it while walking on eggshells. I say it with all the sincerity I can muster, and in awareness that so many of our parents transmitted this while they gave everything they had, tried to give the best of themselves to their children. But I look back now and can finally see all of the many and contradictory winds that blew against me since my birth. Nowadays these winds seem to blow against more and more of us: war, travel and discovery, exile and art, love and death. One of these winds, among the most powerful, a wind that has long blown against us, is that of hatred. Yet the sensation of hatred is tightly linked to writing, the writing that has now carried me back to this country, and the reason why I chose to present these works in the Samir Kassir festival [Kassir, a journalist and historian, was assassinated in 2006].
Throughout my childhood, I did not understand that I was learning hatred, word by word and day by day, for the Others. I learned to detest the Others, to dance and celebrate the tragedies that struck the Others.
A Maronite Christian, I was raised to hate that which was not Maronite Christian. And while my country’s culture taught me conventions of courtesy and hospitality, it also taught me to choose with whom to be courteous and hospitable and whom not. Being courteous and hospitable to a stranger was a choice and a deliberation. Because not all of the strangers, those Others, bear a human face.
I grew up from as early as I can remember on the stories of nineteenth century massacres perpetrated by the Druze against the people of my confession. I remember-and I will remember until the end of my days-the way they cut our throats, women, children and the old, how they drank our blood, laughed as they burned our churches and raped our women: if you don’t finish your plate, the Druze will come while you sleep and cut your throat. The Druze: the first Others, the first terrifying face that I was taught to fear and hate.
I grew up on revulsion for the Arabs, those my parents called Arabs, these refugees who arrived one day and settled in a neighborhood not far from my own, these people whose story no one really knew.
-Don’t play with that boy, he’s an Arab.
-And us, mama, what are we?
-We are not Arabs.
-What are we?
And so identity, whether forged on the negative or the nonexistent, was constructed in opposition to what was different. Nobody in my family was malicious, nobody in my circle was wicked or evil , but most passed on what had been passed on by their parents. As the political situation they faced grew tenser, a political situation that none understood well anyway, how could they resist the temptation to repeat the same formulas of hatred?
And so it was that all through those breathtaking summers, I grew up hating the Palestinian, the source of all our misfortunes, the central reason for the war that ravaged our country. Disgust, contempt and repugnance for the Palestinian filled the loaded silences and unspoken sentences. The bus that was machinegunned below our building in Ain el-Remmaneh forever sealed our pact of hatred for them. Through all the madness of intra-militia alliance-making that stretched through the war, the Palestinian never ceased to be, for the vast majority of Maronites, a germ to be hunted down and extirpated, so that the Christians might be saved and their dignity restored. And so we expressed ourselves, wherever exiles gathered, whether in New York or Paris or London or Cairo or Abidjan.
I was raised to mistrust Muslims, whether they were Sunni or Shiite, and I grew up in the dismal realm of anti-Semitism, where the Jews were unworthy of trust, liars and profiteers who had murdered Christ, who had usurped the land and controlled the world by their money and their malignancy.
As a child I danced the death of [Druze leader] Kamal Jumblatt; later the massacres [of Palestinians]at Sabra and Shatila were events of no significance for those with whom I shared my days. And in spite of the blood that ran, and in spite of the fact that it was sometimes spilled by people of my own confession, I heard the angry conversations of those who had lost everything and who, bereft, found no other answer than to throw back on the other all of their hatreds and resentments. Hatreds and resentments born of wounds they thought, rightly or wrongly, had been inflicted by the Others.
The seed of hatred was planted in me, so deeply and fertilized with such skill, that the seed could never really be removed from the place where it germinated. I belong to a culture which has over the centuries developed a remarkable talent for transmitting, from generation to generation, a preference for mistrust. That is simply how it is. It is a kind of incurable illness. I must remind myself of this. I cannot allow myself to forget the hatred, how the hatred was the water I swam in.
I needed a net to get me out of the water. Exile was my net, and there is the contradiction. Exile cannot be a victory; who would choose to leave their native land when that land is a place of happiness? Yet it was the experience of exile that made me see for the first time this hatred that lived inside me, this incurable illness. And, seeing it, realizing what it was, diagnosing it, looking into its hideous face, the inverse of everything I wanted myself to be. It is thanks only to exile, this uprooting of the self inside oneself, that I realized I was not the person I liked to think I was. Racist, hateful, sectarian. This is who I was. In spite of the literature, in spite of the theater, in spite of the new language, in spite of the art and the culture. I had become exactly what this war wanted me to be; I had become the war’s fodder, and the war’s filth.
How can this be dismantled? What medicine to take? How to unlearn? How to get off this road that never seems to end? My pen has to be turned to a new end. The written word, when there was a written word, had always been turned to the cause of hatred. So the written word only knew hatred; hatred was the reflection of this written word. How can we change its meaning then? It is thanks to the actors I have worked with, to teachers, to works of literature and thanks to the new contexts I have inhabited, first in France and then in Quebec, that I was forced to tell stories and write works in the voice of those I had been taught to hate. So it was in Incendies; so it was in Anima. Stories in which the heroes were those I had once hated.
Try to inhabit the mind of those you hate; this is the only way out. Make him the focus of your attention, invest him with your deepest emotions, make his tragedies your own, put your own heart inside of him.
Return, rejoin, reenter the homeland, but this time to give voice to the Others; this is the only way that I felt I could return. Samir Kassir, and many others before him, had understood this long ago. How could there be any other way? How else to avoid adding to the injustices, the killings, the violence? How to stop this butcher’s bill that keeps pitting us against one another, blood for blood, flesh for flesh? How can we resist? How can we resist what is already inside us?
17 May 2014