BEIRUT — Located in the heart of Beirut's vibrant Hamra Street, an area that served as a hub for intellectuals in the 1960s and 1970s, Metro al-Madina is an independent theater company and cabaret. The theater was founded in 2012 by Hisham Jaber & co. from the rubble of an abandoned theater with aspirations of reviving Hamra's once-thriving theater scene. According to Jaber, the venue was formerly used by Lebanon's General Security Directorate to assess films for censorship before they could be screened. Since then, it has fully emerged as "a stage where all kinds of scenic arts can flourish," as Metro al-Madina's mission says.
Productions at the theater range from cabaret shows to plays and orchestra. The venue also serves as safe-keeper of tarab, a difficult-to-translate concept in Arabic that refers to the emotional effect of traditional Arab music. Jaber jokes that the idea of having some of Lebanon's best musicians, "the Gods of the Lebanese scene," as he calls them, dressed in costume onstage reviving an era long gone was once viewed as a wild idea.
"We thought we would never make it," Jaber, himself a stand-up comedian, playwright, actor and director tells me in his home close to Hamra street.
The Egyptian-style cabaret show offers a glimpse of Egypt's golden age of music.
While Beirut itself does not have a metro system, Metro al-Madina's underground venue acts as a vessel that transports its audiences to the past, stopping at different stations of time and culture through its various shows. It took just one visit for the venue to put me under its spell. The cabaret-style seating, candle lighting, waiters in bow ties, and not least the in-house productions themselves capture everything a theater and music enthusiast would want from such a time machine.
One of the prominent eras this time machine transports us to is that of "hishik bishik".
Hishik bishik is an Egyptian slang term mostly associated with belly dancing, and to a lesser extent with the sound of the finger cymbals worn by belly dancers. The word is now mainly used derogatively to indicate low-caliber or even promiscuous artistic content. Pulling from Egypt's exceptionally vast musical, cinematic and theatrical heritage that established Cairo as the entertainment capital of the Middle East — the reason why the Egyptian dialect is understood by almost all 300 million Arabic speakers — Metro al-Madina created the show Hishik Bishik in 2013. The Egyptian-style cabaret show offers a glimpse of Egypt's golden age of music, when music and vernacular lyrics were used as a simple medium of communication.
As an Egyptian, I never thought I would listen to this style of music in a Broadway-like production. According to Jaber, it wasn't long before the production was performing three sold-out shows a week and was invited to local and international festivals. To date, tens of thousands of fans across the world have now seen the show.
While many of Metro al-Madina's shows revive Egypt's so-called golden era, they do not neglect Lebanon's own rich musical heritage. The venue's Metrophone music series curates vintage Lebanese music, but it eschews the likes of Fairuz and the Rahbani Brothers and instead puts the spotlight on artists who may be less familiar to a younger generation or non-Lebanese audience. One such artist is singer and composer Filemon Wehbe (1914-1985). Known for his dark humor, Wehbe made satirical songs about the Lebanese Civil War and his discontent with the status quo. One production featuring Wehbe's songs, called "Keshou Al Dajaj" (Scare the Chickens Away), was made into a musical comedy performed by one of Metro al-Medina's youngest members, Samah Boulmona.
Boulmona is a self-taught accordion player and singer who joined Metro al-Madina in 2013. "I started singing at home and playing the keyboard on my own. I never believed that a person who plays an instrument can't sing. Of course they can sing. It may sound bad, but they can sing," he tells me as he prepares for a performance backstage. He first joined the company as an accordion player and a back-up vocalist in Hishik Bishik. It wasn't until one show, when he filled in for a more prominent performer in the show who lost his voice, that Boulmona truly emerged.
I first saw Boulmona perform at the celebration of Metro al-Madina's seventh anniversary. Halfway through the show, we heard the kind of voice often described as a "voice of the mountains," referring to the stylings of male singers from Mount Lebanon, like that of the late Wadih al-Safi. And there was Boulmona performing a mawwal, an Arabic music genre, usually a prelude to a song, that features prolonged vowel syllables and emotional vocals over a very slow beat.
The shows aren't about celebrating the past, but rather revisiting it.
Boulmona's impression of Wehbe onstage was uncanny. Going back to videos of Wehbe's performances, one could argue that Wehbe has been resurrected in Metro al-Madina — only as a better singer with cooler hair. "Filemon was one of the most beautiful Lebanese composers, following his soul with the simplest lyrics about a not-so-simple period," Boulmona says.
But the shows of Metro al-Madina aren't about celebrating the past, but rather revisiting it. "Metro al-Madina presents a deep view of the singers of the past. It gives the audience the chance to learn that there is more to the singer than what we already know. It provides new angles and a new style to a history we cannot ignore," Sandy Chamoun, one of the theater's most prominent performers tells me. One of Chamoun's favorite memories from Metro al-Madina was performing Al-Welada, a show where she performed Arabic pop songs from the 1980s and 1990s. "I felt like I had a lot of feelings, and I got to let them all out."
As Metro al-Madina's shows dig deep into the past, they naturally don't come without politics. I first met Chamoun in downtown Cairo during one of the most turbulent waves of the Egyptian people's uprising against the authorities. At the time, she was part of the team working on a series of interviews that amplified the voices of women in the 2011 Egyptian revolution. Six years later at Metro al-Madina, I watched her perform the songs of Sheikh Imam, a singer known for championing the poor and the oppressed. Her performance practically left me in a trance with her voice and overall undeniable presence. Her genuineness and passion for the lyrics truly brought them to life.
"We are all political of course. We do not make statements, but our principles do, our art does," she tells me in a cafe near Hamra. Chamoun explained that when she is performing, especially songs with political nature, the theater feels like a political demonstration, even in the absence of chants or banners, .
In 2012, Chamoun, together with songwriter and composer Khaled Sobeih and others, founded the band Al-Rahel Al-Kabir (The Great Departed), known for their bold satirical and political songs. The band had been rehearsing for months when they were first contacted by Jaber in 2013 to take the stage of Metro al-Madina following the release "Don't Mix" — a song mocking a speech by former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi in Germany where he described how freedom comes with responsibility. The band also received international attention in 2014 for their satirical hymn to the militant leader of the so-called Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
In 2017, Lebanese actor Ziad Itani gained fame after he was falsely framed as an Israeli spy — an unforgivable allegation in the region, especially in a country traumatized by almost two decades of conflict with Israel. Under torture, Itani confessed to meeting with a supposed Mossad agent named Collette. A few months later, in a twist of events, the truth of the frameup was revealed and Itani was freed, while the person responsible is currently on trial for the incident. Instead of emerging as a broken man, Itani worked with Sobeih to illustrate his experience in a dark comedy play titled "W ma tallet Colette" (Colette Didn't Turn Up). Of course, Metro al-Madina, of course, was happy to offer its stage for such a bold production.
In other places, you only hear the sound of cutlery on plates.
For the performers of Metro al-Madina, the audience is part and parcel of the spell. Of all the places where Boulmona has performed, Metro al-Madina's audience stands out as the most passionate, receptive and engaged. "In many of the other places I've performed, you only hear the sound of cutlery on plates," Boulmona says.
"I'm in love with the people who come. They get us," Chamoun says, adding that what makes them special is their openness to the performers' novel experimentation with the art of the past. "That's what's unique about Metro al-Madina, we can be experimental. We are not there to please the audience. We respect them, but there are no limits to the art that we deliver."
Besides the audience, the dynamics between performers at Metro al-Madina is another source of the enchantment.
I joined the team behind Hishik Bishik backstage before one of their performances, I realized that the magic they deliver comes from somewhere. The team's dynamics, which are on display as they get dressed, help each other with makeup, exchange jokes and generally catch up, are another source of this magic. One feels a sense of family that miraculously extends to the audience once the curtains open. Chamoun underscored that their strength is in the chemistry between the singers and other musicians, the near lack of hierarchy at the company and the "unity in the soul" of the performers.
This place gives people hope.
But this soul was torn apart after the tragic passing of Imad Hashisho, a fellow member of The Great Departed and Metro al-Madina affiliate, in a car crash in March 2018. "We are simple people, the least makes us satisfied. We formed a family and we lost one of our own," Chamoun says. When she heard the news, they all naturally gathered at Metro al-Madina. Jaber could barely find words to describe his loss. Photos of Hashisho hang both on the balcony door of his home and in his office at Metro al-Madina.
One evening in March 2019, Metro al-Madina hosted a free public event commemorating Hashisho's passing. The gathering was attended by his family and friends as well as "friends of Metro," a term describing regular patrons of the theater. I attended this event, which also happened to coincide with the first anniversary of my father's passing. The gaps in between songs were filled with the sounds of sobs and sighs from the audience, who were whispering out and crying Imad's name. People were consoling one another and I almost immediately found myself mourning the loss of someone I knew, but never met.
It was hard for Jaber to pick a favorite memory from the venue he started seven years ago. He believes that he would have left Lebanon, like many others from his generation, if it wasn't for Metro al-Madina. "This place gives people hope," Jaber concludes smilingly. "You leave the shit of everyday life, move to a different era, then go back to the shit of everyday life."