Old Syrian-Lebanese Railways – Another NowLebanon Insight

(NowLebanon, August 2010)
The abandoned train station in Mar Mikhael is a decaying testament to a long-gone era in Lebanon; a romantic remnant of a past increasingly overrun by sanitized conceptions of the future. The rails, once a valued symbol of progress and collective mobility, are now barely visible beneath a stretch of weeds and lifeless brush.

But for a few hours on Wednesday, August 17, nearly 200 people stood in front of the rusting relic for an inspired demonstration in outdoor guerilla theater. What time is the train coming? is as much a skilled and captivating show as it is a poignant statement about a neglected national treasure.

“No one asks that question anymore… most people don’t even know the train stations exist,” says producer and costume designer Denise Maroney.

And that is what makes this project so visionary: It is an important reflection on the spatial significance of a derailed artifact. “The trains used to be a huge part of life here,” Maroney says. “Towns built up and flourished around them. But no one sees them anymore… I thought, wouldn’t it be cool to do a show in a train station?”

But not just one station. The show is being performed at rundown rail sites across the country. The effort is inspired by Maroney’s main gig; she heads Books in Motion, a project aimed at making theater mobile, accessible and free for everyone in Lebanon.

Award-winning director Lucien Bourjeily wrote the show’s script, which he adopted from a legend about buried treasure at the Riyak Train Station in the Bekaa Valley. Pulling in a lot of laughs, the show’s five main actors execute some really sharp comedic moments in their hopeless hunt for the fortune.

“Everyone wants to find the treasure, and no one finds it in the end, but that’s because the real treasure is the train station itself,” says Maroney.

The play is set in 1950s Lebanon, which the producer calls the “glory days” of the mechanical beast. And she would know. To prepare for the show, “We read books. We interviewed [officials] and took down personal accounts” of life during the thriving train era, she says.

Recreating the wardrobe of that decade was no simple task. Vintage is actually hard to find in Lebanon, Maroney says. She picked up most of the costumes in her hometown of New York City, and some designs were crafted from vintage patterns. “If my grandma was alive, I would have raided her closet for the costumes,” laughs the producer.

Even in its rugged, aged condition, the rail line lends a surreal backdrop to the play. And there are just a few touches added to the ready set design: a phonograph record player, chairs and a bench. “They give us a bit, but we have to imagine the rest,” says audience member Elie Rida.

Before the show started, people wandered around, surveying the crevices of the now-industrial wasteland. “It’s great to bring people to such an unusual place, a place that most people don’t know about. Revising the memory of this through theater is a great thing,” says Marc Codsi, who also attended the show.

The play juxtaposes light-hearted amusement with a harsh reality. The train system gradually broke down during the civil war, and would come to a final halt almost 20 years later in 1997. A muted victim of the war, Lebanon’s defunct railway marks that rupture between a celebrated past and an uncertain future.

If it no longer holds a functional place in the practical lives of the people, at least projects like this can pay homage to the forgotten magnificence of a time when the links between Tripoli and Beirut, Saida and the Bekaa made those places feel not so distant.

“I want people to leave with the feeling of having had a communal experience,” says Maroney.

“What time is the train coming?” is performed in colloquial Arabic. The next show is in Choueit Araya on Sunday, August 29. The last show will happen at the Riyak Train Station on Saturday, September 4.

For more information, visit Books in Motion.

To read more: http://www.nowlebanon.com/NewsArticleDetails.aspx?ID=196338&MID=123&PID=2##ixzz0xc2VAQvB
Only 25% of a given NOW Lebanon article can be republished. For information on republishing rights from NOW Lebanon: http://www.nowlebanon.com/Sub.aspx?ID=125478