[ Saalouk #4: Joe Kodeih ] Bringing the Middle Beast back to the Middle East

Five years after it premiered in English on Broadway, Lebanese playwright Joe Kodeih has brought his acclaimed production of 'The Middle Beast' back where it came from. The Arabic version opened to a packed Monnot Theater in Beirut on January 24. It is a story we thought we were sick of hearing, but Kodeih tells it with a sense of reality - and a bit of utopism too - that seems to make it all new again.
Middel Beast

Editor's Note: During the 'Jahiliah,' the days of ignorance before the coming of the Prophet, the poets were the media. While some sang the praises of whoever was in power, others refused to sell out and vowed only to tell the truth. They were the 'saalik' or 'tramps.' In this new section, MENASSAT.COM profiles people who we consider to be the modern-day 'saalik.' Our 'Saalouk #3' is Lebanese playwright Joe Kodeih.

Click here to go to the interview.

BEIRUT, Feb. 8, 2008 (MENASSAT.COM) – For a little while, we are allowed to think that this play is not about the great causes of the Middle East at all. "The Middle Beast" starts of with a scene in which a beautiful woman flirts with a man.

Then, an obvious Jew enters the stage - he is wearing a kippah, lest there be confusion. The Jew is trying to calculate the dimensions of the land. Hebrew music plays. Follows a bearded man wearing a kuffiah – the Arab, followed by an elegant man we will later learn is a Christian landlord.

Negotiations start to sell the Arab land to the Jew, with a ten percent commission for the Christian.

A man falls from a window, and the selling and buying process gets lost in talk about identity, and how to bury the dead.

"Middle Beast" is a strong comedy by Lebanese playwright Joe Kodeih. It opened on Broadway in English in 2003, and in Arabic at the Monnot Theater in Beirut on January 24, 2008.

Those who knew Kodeih from the beginning will not be surprised with the controversy he presents today at Monnot Theater, then at Monroe and Babel theaters. He always knew how to impress, to comfort, how to rebel and how to act as a fool.

With "The Middle Beast," Kodeih has created a play filled with meaning and dimension, with honesty and spontaneity. Kodeih creates a scene vaguely reminiscent of Jean-Paul Sartre's "Huis clos" (Behind Closed Doors). He wanted his characters to be in a jar they put themselves in. But the difference with Sartre is that the characters can get out of the hell they're living in, for hell is not "the other."

Kodeih wanted, in all simplicity, to create communication between the Muslim and the Jew. He wanted the Christian to take back what was stolen from him. He got them involved with each other. They cursed, they laughed, they remembered, before the curtain fell on more painful truths.

He got us involved too: to laugh at ourselves, at our traditions and characteristics, in order to push us to sympathize with who we call the enemy.

Someone awaits us: the seducing manipulator, setting up a trap, playing with our destinies. Let’s call him "The West," the "other," the main beneficiary from the war on the land. 

The idea is innovative – despite the unending talks about the Middle East. The impressive acting, the impeccable script and the intelligent comedy made "The Middle Beast" a play that deserves admiration.

Ammar Shalak, in the role of the Arab, was a perfect Arab.

Tony Balban, in the role of the Jew wore his role creatively. The "small" Shady Zein, was huge despite the ten percent the Christian feels shameful to ask in our today’s Levant.

Kodeih took a story we were sick of hearing from its rotting frame, to tell us with a sense of reality and a bit of utopism that "the solution is in your hand."

Five years after its premier on Broadway, Kodeih has returned with The Middle Beast and put if before a Lebanese audience that adores boldness. Joe Kodeih had always loved nudity, or stripping Man from all his stupidity and preconceived ideas. He wishes we could one day stand naked before the truth, without any shame.

Click here to go to the interview.