Wijhat brings artistic projects to life in Beirut
Journalist in Beirut
In the auditorium of the Tournesol theatre in Beirut, thunderous applause welcomes distinguished Lebanese director, Eliane Raheb, and Michel Jleilaty, the main character in her latest documentary Miguel's War. Around 200 spectators attend the screening of this Christian militiaman’s story. His service with the Lebanese Forces ended in exile due to the civil war (1975-1990).
Michel reveals his dark side as well as his traumas in this intimate story. “The character might be unique,” insists Eliane Raheb, “but the message is universal”, adding that she had difficulty financing the project. “In Lebanon, the cultural sector cannot really rely on public funding. This means that independent cinema has to look abroad for backing.” But projects that go off the beaten track or tackle sensitive subjects have a harder time convincing investors. “I used a lot of my own money to make the film”, she confides. “Then I turned to more progressive forms of funding, like the Wijhat grant.”
Funded by the pan-Arab NGO Mawred, which is supported by private foundations and international players, such as the European Commission and the Swedish Art Council, Wijhat (“destinations” in Arabic) enables some thirty creators from the region to carry out projects each year. A scholarship worth €7,000 is awarded to the creators. “Our funding is aimed at all Arab artists without distinction, regardless of their discipline, their reputation, or their country of residence. Our objective is to enable them to spend time abroad”, explains Areej Abou Harb, the programme’s director. From Morocco to Egypt, the association seeks to promote cultural exchanges in the Arab world. “With wars in Syria and Yemen, instability in Iraq and the crisis in Lebanon, the creative world needs support more than ever”, she says in her Beirut office.
Lebanese artists have been hard hit by the economic crisis, which has left many struggling to make a living from their art in a country where the national currency has lost 95 per cent of its value in three years, and where the monthly minimum wage is now capped at US$30 compared to US$450 before 2019. This has devastated the local scene, while performing abroad can be like an obstacle course.
Without the Wijhat grant, Fadia Loubani would never have been able to take her women's theatre group to Denmark. The three-week overseas tour, last September, left a lasting impression on the actresses. “It was like a dream”, smiles Hala, in her twenties. “What a chance to finally see something other than our daily routine!” As with the other actresses in the play, she comes from Bourj el Barajneh, a Palestinian refugee camp south of Beirut.
“Until the plane landed in Copenhagen, I couldn't let myself believe it”, says Maha, in her fifties, with a leopard print scarf over her hair. “I was too afraid to be disappointed.” Solemnly entitled This is Us, the play relates their difficult daily lives. In the play, the six actresses talk about love, loneliness and the discrimination they suffer in a still very patriarchal society. One of them talks about the rejection of her community, as her husband suffers from schizophrenia. Another, a teacher, tells of her struggle for education and women's emancipation. A third woman recounts the death of her husband from coronavirus as a result of not receiving medical care. “The audience was won over. When we cried, they cried with us. When we laughed, they laughed with us”, smiles Maha, still amazed that the troupe has sold out all over Denmark. “I didn’t expect so many foreigners to be interested in our stories.”
Making your dream come true
Not every project can be financed by Wijhat – an institution based abroad must first give the green light to host a troupe, an artist in residence, or to exhibit a work. The dancer Serge Moawad was thus able to receive a grant to spend time at the prestigious Vaganova academy in Saint Petersburg, Russia, which enabled him to perfect his technique “with the best teachers in the world”.
Coming from a modest family, he knew that the opportunities available to him were limited. “In Lebanon, there is no structure for professional ballet dancers. I was doing odd jobs to pay for my trips to Europe. That's how I was able to travel to Bucharest and Prague. But the devaluation of the Lebanese pound made all this very difficult.”
The 21-year-old now lives in Paris, where he has joined a dance company. “I would not be where I am today without my time in Saint Petersburg”, says the curly-haired dancer, his face framed by thin glasses. “Thanks to Wijhat, I was able to make my dream come true.” Serge dreams of returning to Lebanon one day to start a dance school “and pass my passion on to the next generation”.