The Lebanese creative community has been losing many of its pillars. The latest sorrowful loss was of Siham Nasser (1950-2019), a Lebanese playwright and academic who passed away late January. This loss coincides, unfortunately, with a consistent decline in financial support and audience attendance of stage theater. In an interview, Nasser expressed her frustration with the state of Lebanese theater: “All of us Arabs, in general, would rather go to the restaurant than the theater. I want to make theater one of our daily and social habits.”
Nasser led an exceptional and moving professional life. Most of her peers’ eulogies praise her commitment to theater and her endurance. Modest, giving, and selfless is how she was described by those who knew her on and off stage.
Nasser received special recognition for her 1992 play, “The Secret Pocket,” an adaptation of Algerian writer Rachid Boudjedra’s novel, “The Obstinate Snail.” The play secured first prize in the International Festival for Experimental Theater in Cairo. Nasser’s other works include “The Wall,” “Media...Media,” and “Jazz.” About her most celebrated work, “The Secret Pocket,” she said what “revealed is that we live in an age of fear of everything, and our first fear is to speak.”
By many accounts, Nasser did not belong to any of the “political establishment” factions so she could reap the benefits of political and economic sponsorship of her productions. According to press accounts, she stayed out of sectarian and partisan politics. Fiercely independent, she did as much as she could to finance her productions, often selling her own jewelry and possessions, or relying on the assistance of her relatives. Unfortunately, when these efforts were not enough to fund the production of her works, she was cut off from theater. Nasser was aware that those with deeply entrenched beliefs, be they about theater or politics, tend to overlook facts which do not conform to their beliefs. But the image painted by peers and critics shows Nasser as an independent playwright with “professional flexibility,” although this attitude might not have been beneficial to her career.
A majority of Lebanese playwrights profess public allegiance to certain theatrical movements, and while Nasser's career suggests some identification with a certain theatrical style, she remained untethered, cautioning against rigid beliefs. Rather, she stressed the need to be liberated from such ideas, be they traditional or modern, if they constitute a creative bloc to aspiration and freedom of thought.
These edited excerpts are from “Siham Nasser: Lebanese Playwright, Fiery Promoter of an Independent Theater, Dies at 69,” a major feature essay scheduled to appear in the forthcoming issue of Al Jadid, Vol. 23, No. 76, 2019.
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