Colette did not show up: Ziad Itani masters a play within a play

The play is also a huge artistic step for him, as he moved from monodrama to act within a group.
by Zeina Nasser English Zeina_w_Nasser

24 January 2019 | 15:20

Source: by Annahar

Ziad Itani watches the daily horoscopes on TV in prison, as part of "W Ma Tallet Colette" play. (Photo by Marwan Tahtah)

BEIRUT: “W ma tallet Colette”, which translates to “Colette did not show up,” is another trigger for the curtains opening on the fear and doubt surrounding Lebanese renowned actor Ziad Itani, after months of accusations leveled at him over potential links with Israel.

The bold theatrical play, co-written by Khaled Soubeih and Itani, directed by Hashem Adnan, and starring Soubeih, Itani, Ziad Shakaron, and Firas al Andary, sheds light on what Itani (playing a character named Fawzi Fawzi) went through during investigations with security authorities.

TEARFUL LAUGHS

The first scene, mixing theater acting, with some videos and other visuals on screen (designed by Ahmad al-Khatib), seems like the opening of the real case itself. As the audience watches a clash between a lady passing by and Fawzi (who works at Mr. Talal’s bakery), singer George Wassouf’s song “I lost everyone because of her” is played in the background.

The lady later turns out to be “Sitt” or “Sitt Sousou” (Mrs. Sousou, referring to Major Suzan Hajj Hobeiche, the former head of the Anti-Cybercrime and Intellectual Property Bureau, who has framed Itani of being an Israeli agent. For this purpose, she has hired Elie Ghabash, a hacker, who sent a message request to Itani’s inbox.

In real life, it was 12:30 PM, when authorities detained Itani, while he was leaving director Yehia Jaber’s house in Ain Remmaneh. The day prior to capturing him, two people asked the delivery boy about his address. “I told someone I’ll finish the rehearsal and file a lawsuit when I knew that,” Itani told Annahar. 

Just as Itani’s case shook a whole country and its security authorities, confusing a broad spectrum or public opinion that had no idea what the truth was, Fawzi (Itani) seemed totally confused, not knowing where he was or who was investigating with him.

“Are you a mafia? My family won’t pay anything,” he told investigators, as Zaatar, one of the investigating team members, revealed his ID. “But I can’t see it,” Itani said. The investigation team then laughed, sarcastically mocking Fawzi.

“The law said show your ID card, it did not mention seeing it,” investigators told Itani.

This photo shows Itani blindfolded in the investigation room. (Photo from Metro Madina Facebook page). 

This was just an example of the humiliation Itani went through while under investigation. A hookah (narguileh) being blown in Itani’s face and a couple of dumbbells belonging to one of the high-ranked investigators, were part of the artist’s investigation routine, Itani tells Annahar.

Investigators who look like”bodybuilders” were telling Itani it was “Nelly Jameson” he was contacting. It was the first time he hears that name. They even showed him the messages on an A4 sheet of paper, along with another sheet mentioning hotel Rotana and the names of the people they said he was planning to assassinate. The sheet then turned out to be prepared by the hacker Gabash.

YOYO!

Between every bittersweet scene, leading the audience to deep laughter or some tears being shed, “For this and that” music by the “The Great Departed” band was being played in the background.

The song, originally published on youtube by the band on March 12, 2018, a day before Itani was released from prison, was directed at his case. The main actor in the music video, and member of the band, Imad Hachicho, died on the same day after the video was released.

On stage, meanwhile, Itani remembers his father, who would have come to his rescue if he was still alive, and Talal, the "well-connected" bakery owner, "who will do anything to release me,” Itani said.

After loud laughs from the investigation team, a screenshot of Talal’s Facebook post (Director Yehia Jaber’s post originally) was shown on screen. “Spit on you spy,” it read, in addition to a number of famous TV shows and TV personalities confirming that Itani is an Israeli spy.

The moment Fawzi realized the case has been leaked to the media. (Annahar Photo/ Zeina Nasser)

Itani was shocked in real life. It all felt like a play inside a play for him. “So you’ve shown all this to the media?” he asked investigators, as they continued asking questions built-in with the answers they sought, or else, he will be tortured again.

On July 15, 2018, Human Rights Watch published a report in which Itani details the torture he went through while in custody. In November, Lebanon passed a new law criminalizing torture, including special procedures for investigating allegations of torture and witness protection.

According to HRW, Lebanese authorities should investigate Itani’s allegations in accordance with that law. In October 2016, Lebanon passed a law to establish a National Human Rights Institute, including a National Preventative Mechanism against torture.

A glimpse of the harsh torture Itani went through was acted in “W Ma Tallet Colette.” As he was hung for around 20 hours by his hands in a black painted room prepared for torture, he sang “Yoyo,” a song written by Itani himself, along with Soubeih, and al-Khatib.

In the song, one would imagine an ideal Beirut, that of “Sabbouha the song” (symbolising famous diva Sabah), and “Georgina the beautiful” (referring to Georgina Rizk, Miss Lebanon who turned to become Miss Universe).

(Photo from Metro al Madina Facebook page)

NIGHTMARE TURNED BRIGHT

What Itani aimed to show through the play, he tells Annahar, is “to narrate to the largest number of Lebanese what has really happened in his case.” He adds: “This could happen to anyone”.

“If what happened with me was turned into a novel, it will provoke anyone,” he said. Itani, however, prefers to express himself on stage, and not in a press conference.

The idea of the play came up when Soubeih and Khatib, Itani’s friends and colleagues in the art scene, advised him to express whatever he wants through theater. “They were my support in life and in theater,” he says.

Khaled started writing the play in June, and in September they started screening it.

The only role they did casting for, however, was the Sufi cleric (played by Firas al Andary), whom Itani met while in Roumieh prison. The scene at Roumieh prison reveals a peaceful, positive cleric awaiting investigation.

Artistic components in the play balance the content, Itani says.

The play is also a huge artistic step for him, as he moved from monodrama (a play based on one character only) to act within a group. What also differed artistically was that he was presenting a national cause on stage, he says.

The residue of a whole dark phase in the young actor’s life was visible on stage, as his hand was shivering in some scenes while being more stable in others.

When asked if it was part of the acting process, Itani said: “he was still undergoing treatment for all the torture he suffered, which resulted in affecting his nervous system”.

Itani in an individual cellar. (Annahar Photo/ Zeina Nasser)

Itani was imprisoned for 109 days. He spent six days at the State Security, and 10 days in a cellar, to then go to military tribunal and end up in Roumieh prison before being released.

“It was like a nightmare,” he says about the injustice he went through. “In such circumstances, one feels how much his/her rights and humanity are cheap in this country,” he says.

The choice fell on performing the play at Metro al Madina theater, however, although there were various other offers. “Metro is a unique venue compared to other places, so I preferred to choose where I’m more comfortable, not where I can gain more money,” Itani said.

The venue seems to be dear to his heart as well because the first time he stood on stage was at Metro. Itani also said that Hicham Jaber, producer, and owner of Metro, provided everything needed for the team to work comfortably.

SUPPORT IS KEY

The catastrophe Itani faced surely soothed with more support around him. He names to Annahar some persons he felt were a great support for him. Including journalists Elie al-Hajj, Thaer Ghandour, Fidaa Itani, human rights activist Nabil al Halabi, MP Paula Yacoubian, and many other close friends.

Itani, however, does not blame anyone who believed the false accusations. He is also aware that the current support is also related on “him transferring his message clearly on stage”.

He speaks dearly about Itani family collective, who appointed a lawyer as soon as the case was discovered. “They made a vow to continue until they know the truth,” he said. Itani’s main contact was the head of the family collective Mohamad Amin Itani, who assured him that “all this injustice will go away."

“Don’t worry, we will not be silenced against what’s happening to you,” he told Ziad.

After Itani got out of prison, he had no financial support. It was the Itani family’s support that provided him with a living.


OUT FOR HER

Through the play, Itani cries in prison upon hearing the sound of loud car horns. “They’re here for you,” his fellow prisoners indicate.

Itani mentions that he has lost his wife and motorcycle, yet there is a reason he’s going out of prison, “I’m out for her, my daughter,” he screams with mixed emotions!

Itani is aware that his hero’s welcome was at a critical time prior to parliamentary elections, yet he indicates that “Hariri only intervened in his case, by ordering the security forces to go on with the case and to reveal the truth”.

Itani notes the entire truth of the matter, “that he knows nothing about what they accused him of” during the last 17 days as part of the Information branch’s investigation. “There’s a huge difference in the professionalism between various security authorities,” he says.

When asked where he sees the future of freedom of speech and freedom of expression going in Lebanon, Itani laughs out loud “It’s not even present to talk about its future,” he says.

Ziad itani stands near a grafitti reading "The walls have ears" in Jemmayzeh, Beirut. (Annahar Photo/ Zeina Nasser)

“What we have is packaged freedom of expression,” he says. There is no mere freedom against the system in Lebanon, and most of the free Lebanese are outside Lebanon because they can talk whatever they want there, he says.

Yet Itani had the guts to say “Sitt Sousou” about Suzan Hajj, in front of the public. “She is the one who ordered all of this to happen. Of course, I will say her name, after all, I filed a lawsuit against her and another against the investigation team,” he says.

People’s feedback until now is very good. There have been 25 fully booked shows so far, and the play has been showing for two months, and it will remain to show, as long as there is an audience willing to watch.

Itani has previously acted in “Beirut Tarik Jdideh”, written and directed by Yehia Jaber. The play remained on stage for four years, completing 420 shows, with more than 45,000 sold out tickets. He has also acted in “Beirut Fawka Chajara” for a year and a half (101 shows).

Lebanese actor and writer Ziad Itani hugs his daughter on March 13, 2018, following his release from jail where he was held for allegedly "collaborating" with Israel. (AFP Photo)

WHAT A MYTH!

“In the play, we witnessed for the first time how Colette was transformed into a character that was created out of fabrications,” Soubeih says. “Here is the ultimate truth for the Lebanese”, he says,” Collette Fianfi, the tall, blonde girl, with green eyes never existed.”

Soubeih is astonished how everyone was believing that she existed, although she was created in torture places.

Traumatized by media reports, Soubeih, first believed what was said. He and Ziad have been colleagues “in a unique way” before the incident. “We used to exchange songs, and we shared similar Beiruti phrases,” he said.

There has also been a collaboration between Ziad and Khaled on “Kellon Yaani Kellon” song in 2015 and “chocolata khat ahmar”.

As soon as Itani was out of prison, there wasn’t any way to contact him. After he was released, Khaled and Ahmad visited him. “It was as if Ziad was feeling hot but we were his cold breeze,” Soubeih said.

Soubeih then heard the story over 30 meetings. Each time, Itani would tell his friends new details as if it was the first time he's saying it.

Soubeih can say the story in a better way, since he did not go through the whole experience himself, and he is seeing it from a further angle, with less or quite different emotions. That’s why the script succeeded.

While Itani was in prison, though, Soubeih gradually came to believe he was innocent.

Regarding working with Itani, Soubeih regards how “Ziad was giving a “cue” for the first time in theater, after being used to acting alone on stage.

One of Soubeih’s characters, who is an investigator wearing boxing clothes, looks much like the real-life investigator. It wasn’t really hard for him to play this role since he used to do bodybuilding when he was young, so he knows how those people move.

The role of the judge, however, which he mastered, astonishing the audience, included some fun and dancing moves from Itani himself. It was also co-written with Itani, who is a fanatic about Oum Kulthum, a main topic in the judge scene.

(Annahar Photo/ Zeina Nasser)

The smoothest part about the play is that Itani is very spontaneous and real. Yet, the most difficult part was the first screening, when there were three different security branches watching the play.

“We were saying what the people deserve to be addressed,” Soubeih says. He adds that “not all security branches are on the same level of professionalism in Lebanon”.

According to him, professionalism should be poured in its place, and that will happen when those who tortured Itani get punished”.

“We have a fallen state but we also have a judge that stops an unjust investigation,” he says.

According to him, the General Security let the play pass because it's not against the law. “Ziad was asked to stick to the script and not to improvise,” Soubeih added.

Soubeih is aware that a large part of the audience came for the content (information) of the play, yet the real challenge, he says, was balancing between acting, music, comedy, visuals, and information.

“People judge if they only saw content or also witnessed a work of art,” he says.

Khaled Soubeih plays the role of the judge, Ziad Chakaron (lawyer), as Itani confesses what he said under torture and pressure. (Photo taken from Metro al Madina Facebook page).

SLAPPING SOCIETY ON THE FACE

Ahmad al-Khatib, playing the role of Zaatar in “W Ma Tallet Colette”, describes that play as a “therapy” not only for Itani, but also for the whole team, who is still “traumatized”, as he said.

Al-Khatib did not believe what happened from the beginning, and playing the character Zaatar, who tortures Itani at many instances in the play was very difficult for him.

“During the rehearsals, I stopped acting many times, to realize later on that I should regain this balance,” he said.

The musician and actor explains the “parallelism” the team was trying to accomplish out of the play. “It’s a reflection of the real story, with characters having a slight shift, in order to inform the audience that anyone could be subject to such

The young artist is affected by the ending of “W Ma Tallet Colette’s first chapter.

After 45 minutes of watching the play, “the audience feels like it's a slap on the face against a whole society that was trying to understand what happened”.

He then adds: “Through our play, we were throwing away the media and state system, and performing what is more like “a therapy for society”.

Here are some hints for the “rotten state we live in”, he added. When asked if he thinks there is freedom of expression in Lebanon, Al-Khatib sarcastically answers “أحا” in Arabic, meaning “Say what?”

“This is one of the very few theatrical plays in the world constituting a docudrama on stage,” Al Khatib says, referring to few examples of “a play inside a play” in history, specifically by the renowned Italian playwright Dario Fo.

“It’s ultimate surrealism since Ziad was detained,” Al-Khatib shockingly says. “It's the absurdity of life”.

HOMOGENEOUS TEAM

It was a single team, director of the play Hashem Adnan says when asked about his experience working with Ziad Itani in the play.

“Itani holds a just cause and it was a pleasure working with him,” he said.

Theater is a place for collective thinking and individual thriving, he said, adding “obviously, I accepted working in the play, which is a great addition to my career.”

Adnan has experience in political and social theater, and this could be a reason why they asked him to direct the play, he says.

He worked on fixing some characters and dramaturgy. “We were trying to locate where power or abuse of power was being performed on stage,” Adnan adds.

Hassan Jomaa and Farah Darwich were shocked after watching "W Ma Tallet Colette". (Annahar Photo/ Zeina Nasser)

AUDIENCE QUESTIONS FREEDOM

The audience’s feedback after watching the play seems to portray more understanding of what happened in Itani’s case, and a whole leap of fear of what might come next in Lebanon, mainly regarding freedom of expression

30 -year old Hassan Jomaa, a pharmacist, came from Houmin, South Lebanon, to Hamra, Beirut, to watch the play. After following up on the issue on the news and social media for months now, he wanted to know what Itani will say through it.

“When Itani was arrested, I believed the media, and was embarrassed that I have watched “Beirut Tarik Jdide," a previous play for Ziad Itani,” Jomaa says. He adds: “Yet now, I’m very embarrassed about how we let the media lead us or unlead us to any opinion. We are being driven by any news they are marketing.”

Jomaa maintains that he was later convinced Ziad is innocent. “After watching the play, I was more devastated by what Suzan Hajj did. This could happen to any of us,” he said.

Farah Darwich, however, had no idea what the whole incident was about. She knew the full story through the play, she says.

“It’s so unexpected, and I feel very scared,” she told Annahar just as “W ma Tallet Colette” ended. She added: “I feel like it could happen to me, and there is no security in this country.”

How many “Sitt Sousou” are on the verge of stripping away our freedom in Lebanon? so whispers freedom of expression.

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