Paris, 2022-03-10 13:46:30. Restoration of the Historic Lebanon Theater
TRIPOLI, Lebanon – The hissing of a water hose spraying the earth reverberates around the walls of the dimly lit Empire Cinemas in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli. From the floor of a chipped-paint room that was once a ticket office, a man sorts rusty nails and screws, while in the adjoining hallway, a woman dusts off a mirror.
The restoration effort is being led by 35-year-old actor and director Kassem Istanbouli, known for his theatrical works throughout Lebanon.
Several days a week, his team — which includes a Syrian, Palestinian, Lebanese and Bangladeshi — drives three hours from their homes in the south of the country to work in the space, which was built in the early 1940s but abandoned for decades.
The restoration project that began last month is the first of its kind in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city, known in recent years for sectarian and other violence.
“What we are trying to say is that Tripoli is a city of culture and art,” Istanbouli said. “When you open a cinema and a theater, people will come and come. But if you give them a weapon, of course they will shoot each other and kill each other,” he added.
For much of Lebanon, Tripoli’s artistic history is a relic of the past, overshadowed by extreme poverty, corruption, and immigration.
But Tripoli has a particularly long cinematic tradition, as it once housed as many as 35 cinemas, including the first in Lebanon.
The Empire Cinemas is the last of the five historic cinemas still standing on a hill square in Tripoli, which surrounds a clock tower gifted by Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II in the early 20th century. It closed in 1988 when huge movie complexes opened inside malls, and home video players increased in popularity.
Istanbouli, founder of the Tiro Association for the Arts in the southern city of Tyre, has already converted three abandoned cinemas there into theater and movie venues.
Much like the Rivoli Theater in Tyre which was restored in early 2018, Isanopoli aims to transform the empire into a multi-purpose venue housing not only art festivals and plays, but also a library, visual arts studio, and workshop area.
That’s no small feat these days, given the crippled economy and more than 80 percent of the population living in poverty.
Even before the financial crisis led to the current depression, Tripoli was already the poorest city in Lebanon – beset by government neglect and underinvestment. It was a major springboard for illegal immigration, with the Lebanese now following the same perilous path as the Syrians fleeing their civil war, trying to reach Europe via the Mediterranean.
The director’s project was inspired by his father, an electrician who was fixing movie theaters in the south, and his grandfather, who was a seaman and storyteller—a narrator wearing a red fez while telling folkloric tales in old Tyre cafés.
“This project will improve the city economically. It will bring tourism and change its reputation,” Istanbouli said.
Charles Hayek, a 39-year-old historian and conservation activist, said the Istanbuli project would do more than just fight negative perceptions.
“Qasim is saving a heritage building and bringing it back to life,” he said.
Tripoli has lost much of its architectural heritage – especially around Tell Square – in the past decade due to neglect. Before the 1975-1990 civil war, Inga, the oldest cinema in the field, attracted two of the biggest music celebrities in the Arab world: Umm Kulthum and Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab.
This building has now been demolished and replaced with a parking garage.
In order to fund the rehabilitation, Istanbul has entered into a partnership with the DOEN Foundation and the Euro-Mediterranean Foundation for the Support of Human Rights Defenders. The cinema is held by a private owner for five years and he hopes to officially open within six months.
One afternoon, Istanbuli led volunteers who finished repairs through acting exercises.
“Pretend you’re an animal,” he told a woman who then declared herself a panda. “Now I want you to face a dog who wants to be a dog?” Asked.
Maha Amin, one of the attendees from Tire who used to dust the mirrors in the morning and was now on stage, had never thought about the possibility of acting, let alone a visit to Tripoli.
“The environment we live in is not acceptable for a woman my age to do this,” said the 57-year-old special needs teacher. She initially went to Istanbul’s Rivoli Theater in Tyre to record her seven grandchildren, but ended up joining them.
“Especially in difficult times today, people need to breathe and express themselves,” she said. “Here on the podium after a long day of work, I can say whatever I want with complete freedom.”
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