In Conversation with Hanane Hajj Ali

Hanane is a theatermaker, activist, and educator.
Born, living and locked down in Beirut, Lebanon.

‘In the photograph, the writing on the wall of a destroyed theater says: We want bread, education, and theatre’

Before I met Hanane when she came to A Corner in the World Festival 3 with her seminal solo Jogging, all my Lebanese friends told me that she is a legend that changed the course of theater in Lebanon. Unfortunately, I do not have the space here to talk about her many achievements in various fields in a way to give them the attention they deserve so I will not go there. But I must mention her subtle, graceful and insightful ways with which she undertakes everything she does and transforms taboos as a theatermaker, a woman, an activist and an educator. Her ability to communicate with people from all walks of life with the same attention and egalitarianism seems second nature to her. All this transforms her life into a piece of art, in my view. 
Our conversations corresponded to one of the most difficult moments in the history of her city. Her curiosity, interests and time in this period seemed to be limitless, which filled me with inspiration. 

This correspondence took place between Fatih Gençkal and Hanane Hajj Ali from May 3 to August 5, 2020 through email and Messenger.

From: Fatih Genckal
Hanane Hajj Ali
Sent: Sunday
, 3 May 2020 22:34

Dear Hanane,
I want to start an interview experiment. I will ask you one question everyday and you will have 24 hours to respond to it. Then I will ask the next question based on your answers or my curiosities. You can also ask me questions in your answers and interview me in a way. It will be like a conversation.
If you answer quickly, I can ask the next question right away, so we don’t have to wait 24 hours. It can turn into texting each other too. Or not.
Please feel free to write as you are speaking.  Follow the spark the question starts in you.
So here is the first question:
What do you see happening with you and around you since the beginning of home confinement?

Hanane Hajj Ali 4 May 2020 05:48
I see the nature healing itself and restoring a part of its splendor, I see people of my country feeling angry, hungry, frustrated, humiliated, revolted… Yet seeking less disparities and more solidarity.I am rediscovering the joy of being PRESENT at home even though Housework is being added to the many tasks I am doing.In the same time I am trying to continue the debate with my city, walking alone and jogging, doing symbolic actions reclaiming public spaces, and touring with small group of people in its streets chanting poems, songs, excerpts of some plays, and demands, and talking to people standing at their windows and balconies etc. So I am living a totally new experience of living between in and out (the self, home, and the city) trying to continue my engagement to FREEDOM
Best, Hanane

Fatih Genckal 4 May 2020 14:27
You have a fascinating way of connecting your presence to everything around you. Being present in your body as part of the universe it lives in. This is an inspiration in a time where most theater-makers try to understand what they can do and what they are good for. Please tell me more about your debate with your city, Beirut, and this new experience you mention of living in and out. Where do your actions stand within the context of the situations in the city? What are you really doing to the city, to the people, to yourself?

Hanane Hajj Ali 5 May 2020 15:47
While we are deemed to hope trying to reschedule the performances of JOGGING in San Francisco, Poland, Paris, China and New York, I am shifting to a different kind of experiences inspired by the famous expression of Marshall McLuhan “The medium is the message” and I reposition a part of my work toward exploring the potential of the audio medium. For example I tried to audio record Jogging In different versions while I am walking and JOGGING early morning as I usually do in the empty streets of Beirut. On another side I am doing some artistic actions in coordination with groups of revolutionary youth in the public spaces in Beirut. These political artistic actions aim to focus on our basic human and civil rights in this critical period of Lebanon’s history. For example on the recently past labor day we designed a series of slogans evolving about all kinds of workers’ rights (thousand of them are jobless now) composed in a poetic style and we engraved them on big stencils and then spraying them on empty big publicity billboards of the city (most of them are nowadays empty because of the economic collapse), also we sprayed a lot of them on the walls of two major cities: Beirut and Tripoli where lately people resumed demonstrating despite the Covid 19 considering that famine is more dangerous than the pandemy.
My day is divided mainly between walking and jogging, sharing breakfast with my husband (where we discuss theatre, politics, etc. finishing with speculation about the ongoing devaluation of the Lebanese pound), and juggling with Zoom, google, and Skype meetings whenever the internet connection resumes in order to connect with my four children living in four different countries, to do work meeting, and virtual gathering.Cooking regained notoriety especially when Ramadan began. As for the rest of the time, it is mainly distributed between reshaping some projects in cooperation with the cultural associations I am a part of, and completing some research activities.
From time to time I am sharing face masked and hands gloved a walk with Chrystele Khodr, a young director with whom I started as an actress a new play “AUGURES” supposed to be presented on the twenty-second of last March, so while walking we discuss developing the project, not forgetting to shout high HELLO YOU UP THERE to any confined freind we pass under his balcony. But an important part of my remaining time I spend it whenever it is possible through 3G virtual meetings with the group “workers and workers in art and culture” that I joined during the revolution where we exchange information about the situation in Lebanon and the world, we discuss, we debate, and we design together artistic activities where writing, and video intersect with photography and audio recording. Most of these activities are meant to be spread on the social media. However, recently we started increasing our direct intrusive interventions in the city. The last thing that I accomplished in this field aimed to re-shed the light on the oldest theater space in Beirut“Theatre Beyrouth” which is the reservoir of Beirut’s cultural memory and which is nowadays completely forgotten since some years ago it was closed to be demolished as it happens to most of our cultural heritage. Also, I am putting the final touches on a text to be broadcasted on Radio Karantina, the artistic broadcasting platform initiated by the artist Nasri Sayegh.
A week ago we designed a city tour where 4 groups each composed of 3 to 4 persons wandered in the  neighbourhoods like the “musahharsti” who tours in the streets to wake up people before the time of fasting, but at the difference that we did it during the day. We chanted special songs tapping on a tabla talking with people from their windows and balconies handing them megaphones to express loudly their thoughts, their problems, their pain, and their needs. The experience was so encouraging that we decided to repeat it many times.

Fatih Gençkal 5 May 2020 17:33
What you are describing pleasantly echoes the time of the Gezi Protests in Turkey. It was an unprecedented time of creativity, meeting and collective action and I know that what we have experienced there will be with us no matter what. It was a wonderful practice of freedom, I believe, with all its issues and complications. On the other hand, the ensuing process has been quite frustrating with more authoritarianism and oppression of public opposition. Probably quite similarly to other struggles especially in the Arab world. As a person who has probably experienced many similar processes and struggles first hand, what do you think we carry on with us from these experiences, regardless of their immediate, visible outcomes, good or bad?

Hanane Hajj Ali 6 May 2020 10:59
Hi Fatih,
Mainly we end up addicted to freedom, democracy. This may cause much suffering, but more self esteem and dignity. Our long and hard march as potential citizen to ward embracing human rights imprints our arts in an altruist feeding process even in periods of confinement and hunger.
Best, Hanane

Fatih Gençkal 6 May 2020 11:46
I feel that the heart of your work demands presence, being out there, connecting to people, assembling. To me, it relates to the senses. On the other hand, you are involved in the digital platform as well which is a different medium. How do you think the impact of the physical and virtual differ? Can theater as you see it exist without physical presence and does online space have something to offer it?

Hanane Hajj Ali 7 May 2020 23:00
Theater as we used to see can not exist without physical presence. I guess the online space has indeed  something to offer it: it is to confirm what I have just said and to lead us toward new relation to senses, to audiences (audio-visual listeners/watchers), new forms, and new approaches of performing/performance.

Fatih Gençkal 8 May 2020 15:03
I believe you are saying that theater can only happen in physical form but the digital can open up new possibilities for expression and communication, which may not be called theater. I don’t really mind what we call it, myself. The only thing that intrigues me is the various attempts on the part of live performers to make things online. What are you personally interested to watch/listen to/play online? Video games also count:)

Hanane Hajj Ali 15 May 2020 14:41
Dear Fatih,
I must admit that watching theatre plays online is often frustrating, unless the play is recorded through a special cinematographic approach which makes the outcome rather a new product. So you can guess that in general what I watch most online are films. Nevertheless I cease the opportunity to watch theatre plays that I will not have ever  to watch live (unless accidentally in an international festival) like the Palestinian theatre plays. I wish I could watch video games but I never dared to approach this universe solely. I feel myself in this field like a baby in need of a mentor who will guide me in my first steps. No need to say that I am often into audiovisual music platforms.

Fatih Gençkal 16 May 2020 15:14
Do you think the extensive digitalization is helping with the visibility of different voices from around the world, like Palestinian theater, by rendering borders and distances insignificant and being almost the only platform for communication around the world?
Also can you share with me some links for access to Palestinian plays? 🙂 Thank you.

Hanane Hajj Ali 21 May 2020 12:27
Dear Fatih,
Digitalization of course helps with the visibility when there are obstacles that we can not surpass ( be it political or else), But I can not say at all that it renders borders and distances insignificant: on the contrary whenever I have the chance to see a play online I feel how alienating is to be a virtual spectator of a recorded theatre play.
As for the links for Palestinian plays there are two issues: first the plays are usually put for a very limited period of time and second unfortunately  there is no translation. Tonight at 10 PM Palestine time there will be a broadcast of a 1983 play by Al Hakawati Palestinian theatre group, it will be on Ashtar Theatre facebook page. I sent you a link on messenger.
Best, Hanane

Fatih Gençkal 23 May 2020 00:36
It is a pity that I don’t speak Arabic and there is no translation for these online works. It is a great thing that these plays can easily be accessed throughout a vast geography where various dialects of Arabic is spoken, though. Following on your remark about digitalization not rendering distances insignificant: as an artist who has performed in many parts of the world, how would you describe the live encounter shaping the experience of the performance that is not there when it’s online? How is your material affected when you take it to different places?

Hanane Hajj Ali 28 May 2020 12:50
Dear Fatih
First of all, I have a surprise for you: I got the permission to exclusively and confidentially share the English version of  a great play with you: it is TAHA written and performed by Amer Hlehel and directed by Amir Nizar Zoabi, but please since the play is still touring, do not show it to anybody else.
To answer your question about Jogging when showed in different places, it is perfectly like when you talk about the same subject to different people: even though you repeat the same discourse with the same words, the live encounter makes that you will never have the same gaze, the same rythme, the same quality of eye contact, same breath… there is everywhere a different context, a  different ambiance, different cultural receptors that make you as a sender permanently evolving when coping with , which makes your work after each place deeper and reacher although the same… and all this lacks when virtually showing the show… it is blindly the same.
Best, Hanane

Fatih Gençkal 29 May 2020 17:49
Thank you for the great surprise dear. I haven’t been able to watch it yet, but I will the first chance I get.
Jogging is quite a personal story which is powerfully political at the same time. It is also very alive as you explain. I am wondering if the content of the play changes in each setting and if you intend to make any changes to it after the pandemic and the current developments in Lebanon?

Hanane Hajj Ali 4 Jun 2020 22:01
Dear Fatih,
Excuse my delay in answering,
Concerning your question, I never anticipate the changes, they happen hic and nunc. for example when I performend JOGGING for the first time after the begginning of last October revolution, I was not sure beforehand that the performance was still relevant. It was during the performance that I became sure that it still is from the first moments of the representation, and this feeling was the driving force behind the changes or the additions  that I made in some points of the discourse (the text), in attitude, and in the interaction with the audience. I was improvising sure, but this improvisation had its source from being very active on the ground during the revolution, an activity that provided me with images, slogans, new fears, new hopes, and new perception of the different audiences. All this was reflected during the performance.
All this to say, I do not know now if I am going to make changes after the confinement, or to say it better I am sure there will be changes but I do not know now what and how.

Fatih Gençkal 8 Jun 2020 12:06
I made a piece in 2012 about the generation that grew up in the 1990s in Turkey using biographical materials of the performers as well as cultural and political images, events etc. It was about an apolitical generation growing up with pop culture in a politically very tense period. It acquired a new immediacy after the outbreak of the Gezi movement in Turkey in June 2013 and all the acts and words in the performance were seen and heard in a different way. I can totally imagine how Jogging will resonate even more in the pandemic/revolution situation. Do you have any concrete plans to perform it somewhere in the near future? Even within pandemic limitations -outdoors, with physical distance etc? And are you going to work on a new piece?

Fatih Gençkal 26 Jun 2020 13:05
Hello dear, I haven’t heard from you in a while. I hope all is going well. Life is pretty much back to normal here, with the addition of masks and some restrictions. How are things for you and in general in Lebanon?

16 Jul 2020 12:11
Hello dear, i hope you are doing well. I haven’t heard from you in a while, just wanted to check in. I see that the situation there is quite tense. Please let me know how you are doing when you can.
With solidarity,

Hanane Hajj Ali 17 Jul 2020 00:43
Dear Fateh,
Thank you for your genuine worry about the situation in Lebanon which is deteriorating day by day. Tonight is the first night where we had some hours of electricity and therefore I am trying to answer as many emails as I can. Let us try to talk together on Messenger on Sunday if you can so I can update you in detail about the situation.

Fatih Gençkal 17 Jul 2020 15:56
Dear Hanane, thanks for writing in such a condition. I would like to talk to you if you can on Sunday. Please let me know when you can. And if it’s too difficult, don’t worry about it. You can also write if you feel like it. I hope things will take a turn for the best. All my best,

Hanane Hajj Ali 17 Jul 2020 18:42
Yes dear Fateh, it will be my pleasure to talk on Sunday hoping that we will have internet.
What about 11am?

Fatih Gençkal 21 Jul 2020 14:18
Dear Hanane, I didn’t hear from you on Sunday so I assume you weren’t able to connect. I don’t know when you will be able to read this email, I hope soon. I am able to gather some reportage on the situation through international news channels but I know that their way of reporting does not always paint a reliable picture or go into the subtleties of the situation of the people. I hope things will proceed for the best of the Lebanese people. I send you my best wishes.
I’ll be happy if you drop me a line when you can. I will also look out on facebook for your posts.

Continued on Messenger

Fatih Gençkal 27 July 2020 13:31
Hanane dear, how are you? We weren’t able to speak. Please drop me a line when you can. I hope you are ok. Best,

4 Aug 2020 20:13
Dear i Just heard about the explosion. I hope you are safe.

Hanane Hajj Ali 5 Aug 2020 04:53
(voice message)
Hello Fateh, how are you? … Ah, ya Fateh, what can I say? … Ahhh, we never lived something like that. We never lived something like that. Till now I was trying to clean the shattered glass, the doors were blown up. We never, we never lived a catastrophy like that. I don’t know what to say you Fateh. But, thanks God we still have the ceiling on our heads. Whereas thousands of people are now homeless. And I don’t know how many injured and how many dead. Tomorrow we’ll know better. Now, I was still working, I’m tired. Maybe I will talk to you tomorrow, OK habibi?

Conversations is produced by A Corner in the World, 2020
It is realized with the support of The Consulate General of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

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