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French Version

Lebanese women will have their say

Lina Khoury's 'Hekeh Niswan' promises an earful


"In the first draft I called it [a word sometimes used by Beirut taxi drivers]. That word was cut. Then I named it 'Coco.'" Lina Khoury smiles mischievously. "They told me I couldn't use that name. 'Why not?' I asked. 'Because,' they said, 'you told us it refers to [a word often used by Beirut taxi drivers].'"

Khoury is the playwright and director of "Hekeh Niswan" ("Women's Talk"), which begins a five-night run tonight at Masrah al-Madina. Her first Beirut production has a contentious pre-history, hardly surprising when you learn that it's inspired by Eve Ensler's "The Vagina Monologues."

"When I was in America I saw 'The Vagina Monologues' three times - twice theatrically," Khoury says. "I was high for days. It was liberating to know that other people have been through the same thing."

Ensler's award-winning one-woman play - first mounted in New York in 1997, then released on film in 2002 - is based on interviews she conducted with American women of various ages and walks of life.

That show's tone ranges from comedy and farce to melodrama and tragedy. It speaks to women's relationship with the pudendum, the sex organ that occupies a place of unrivalled ambivalence in human experience.

"When I started adapting 'The Monologues' two years ago, I'd read the script to my friends and they'd laugh. 'Where do you think you are?' they'd say. 'This is Lebanon.'

"So I decided that rather than just translating [Ensler], I would write a Lebanese play, one not just about women's sex."

"Hekeh Niswan" is a partial adaptation. Three of Khoury's 12 monologues are taken straight from Ensler - aficionados will recognize "How I Came to Love My Vagina," "My Angry Vagina" and "Hair." Khoury wrote the other nine herself.

"I decided to mix the sexual problems with broader social issues, though they can be related to sexuality - battered women, psychological and emotional abuse, the trouble women face taking public transport or walking down the street.

"When you're growing up you're not supposed to talk to boys. Then you reach a certain age and people start asking: 'So why aren't you married?' How are you supposed to you be if you aren't allow to talk to boys?"

The play's 12 characters aren't simply fictionalized versions of her informants but conflations of anecdotes related by different women.

The 30-year-old playwright interviewed women from a broad cross-section of Lebanese society, ranging in age from 18 to 55. Some were repatriates, others had never left Lebanon; some were Beirutis, others live in villages; there were Muslims and Christians, anglophones and francophones.

Lebanon's fragmented society lends itself to this kind of sectorial treatment but Khoury makes no pretence that her sample is absolutely representative of Lebanese society. Anyone hoping to enjoy the voyeuristic pleasure of hearing about muhajiba women experimenting with pre-marital sex or adultery will be disappointed.

"These women aren't meant to be representative," she says. "Premarital sex and so forth is haram among more conservative women. They simply don't want to talk about it.

"These women have different stories. One of them talks about the first time she was kissed by another woman. I wasn't interested in making them talk about pre-marital sex, but for sure there was a haram element in what they say.

"I know I'm not covering all the problems," Khoury continues. "These are the problems I'm interested in. At one point in one of the monologues a character says: 'The problem is in the women.'"

The playwright says she is most struck by how the experiences of so many women crossed the social divides that you'd assume separates them.

"Eight different women had experienced violence - they were rich and poor, Muslim and Christian, rural and urban. Many of them have been raped or molested as young teenagers. Usually they say 'the janitor' or one of their dad's friends assaulted them. The women were on both sides of the religious divide and amongst all classes."

Infrequently discussed in America, women's sexuality is especially contentious to those who patrol the borders of Lebanese morality, the censors at the Surete-Generale. Khoury had a long slog with the censors. She says she wrote five drafts of the play and made many more trips to see the Surete-Generale.

"Bad language" and gestures to certain body parts are strictly prohibited. Khoury recounts an amusing exchange in which an officer, having prohibited a gesture to the mons pubis, insisted that she demonstrate the precise stage direction she would give her actor instead - so as ensure that it couldn't be seen as lewd.

About a year and a half ago, on the other hand, she had quite a different experience with the censors. She expressed her frustration to a (different) officer that this was the third version of the play that she'd submitted. Interest piqued, the officer asked if she could see the original script.

"She started confiding in me about how, during the Civil War, she'd had to visit a gynecologist," Khoury recalls, "and how difficult it was because she was on one side of the Green Line and he - a male gynecologist - was on the other."

Clearly Khoury is frustrated by the double standards the performing arts suffer compared to other media. "We have so much pornography in this country," she says. "It's not banned. Have you seen the most recent video by [insert female Lebanese pop star here]? Not only is it not banned, it's encouraged.

"But when somebody tries to approach the subject of sexuality in a way that's not vulgar, that's nuanced and artistic, here there's censorship."

Khoury is adamant that she didn't set out to stage a play that's simply provocative, saying she "softened" some of the anecdotes for the stage. This raises questions of whether the playwright's collaboration with the censors had led her down the road to self-censorship.

"No," she says. "Many changes were not made because of the censor. The first draft had lots of curse words and direct references to [a word sometimes used by Beirut taxi drivers] that I cut voluntarily because I didn't want to offend anyone.

"Some stories were too harsh, so I used the least graphic ones. The rape monologue, for instance, doesn't describe the incident itself because it's too disturbing. The character only talks about the consequences. The violence anecdote is mild. You wouldn't believe the stories women can tell about this.

"I don't want the audience to think I'm choosing the most extreme stories just to shock them. I don't want to make any value judgments about these women's experiences. Having pre-marital sex, for instance - I'm not saying it's bad or good.

"My object is to have women be able to talk about these things because it's something we all share. When we talk about it, it's possible that we may in the long term find solutions. I don't offer any solutions here.

"To this day I can't figure out why it's rude," the mischievous smile returns, "to talk about PMS."

Lina Khoury's "Hekeh Niswan," starring Nada Abou Farhat, Carol Amoun, Rita Ibrahim and Zeinab Assaf, runs at Masrah al-Madina from April 12-16.

Beirut 18-04-2006
Jim Quilty
The Daily Star

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