The Green Line Explores Queer Desire in the Time of War
How does queer desire function against the backdrop of war? This seems to be the question that Makram Ayache’s The Green Line sets out to answer. Unfolding through interactions with four characters – Mona, Fifi, Yara, Rami/Naseeb – this twenty-five minute play at the 40th Rhubarb Festival is, as Ayache states in a telephone conversation, “a little glimpse” of a much longer play. Here, Mona (Rayan Jamal) and Naseeb (Laith Al-Kinani) are siblings; Yara (Sukaina Ibraheem) is Mona’s love interest, and Fifi (Yousef Kadoura) is Rami’s (also played by Al-Kinani). The play, currently in development, seeks to interrogate the way intergenerational cultural memories function in the context of queer desire. Ayache asks, “How are these memories inherited and erased?”
The play begins with an introduction to the concept of the “green line.” During the civil war (1975-1990) in Beirut, Lebanon, the “green line” was a line of demarcation that separated the mainly Muslim factions in predominantly Muslim West Beirut from the predominantly Christian East Beirut controlled by the Lebanese Front. In the play, the audience is drawn into a video image projected on a screen in front of them: a moving pathway through a forest, with a green plant in the centre creating an illusion of the audience being inside the forest themselves. Here, the green line is a place of war, a metaphorical line that divides two sides of the city. Ayache recalls a haunting image that informs this beginning. He remembers seeing a photograph of an abandoned urban space overtaken by vegetation, an area abandoned for fifty years after the ravages of war, with huge trees growing in the middle of the city; an image he calls “striking.” It is this image that Ayache tries to capture in the beginning of his play. By drawing his audience into the scene post-war, he seems to ask them to question their role in such unnatural calamities.
A prominent archetype in The Green Line is that of the phoenix, playing with the idea of rebirth and death in the case of siblings Mona and Naseeb. Phoenixes manifest visually in the show: worn as large gold pendants, these phoenixes are objects the twins inherit from their parents, who we learn have passed away. The two identical pendants also function as symbols of the tenuous relationship between the siblings, revealing the underlying gender discrimination in the legalities of inheritance. While Naseeb insists that they would be safe in the mountains away from the city, and wants to buy a house there, we learn that this move would effectively prevent Mona from finishing her education as an engineer. In the tussle between the two siblings, we learn that Mona has no financial agency in the matter, and will have to find a way to convince Naseeb to allow her to finish the last few months of her studies. While the inheritance from their parents allows for financial agency for Naseeb, for Mona, the same inheritance robs her of the agency to make life decisions for herself. Against the backdrop of war, the inheritance is a metaphorical rebirth for Naseeb, while Mona can only imagine the death of her dreams, as well as her desires (her love interest, Yara, is also a student at the university). It is an unfair gender imbalance, and Ayache’s writing is nuanced in its portrayal.
The Rhubarb program indicates that the play is set in an unnamed city in the Middle East. I am curious about this choice: Ayache admits to me that this question has been posed to him many times, by both his dramaturge and his actors during workshops of the play. The original setting, he admits, is Beirut, Lebanon, in the context of the civil war. While both writing the play and preparing for Rhubarb, Ayache claims his issue lay in trying to write a story for the Canadian literary canon without having it become co-opted as a multicultural immigrant narrative. In the next iteration, at the encouragement of his creative collaborators, Ayache plans to name the setting more explicitly.
The character of Rami/Naseeb is also a mystery. Played by the same actor, it is Rami who is attracted to Fifi. Naseeb however, is a controlling, almost-overpowering older brother to Mona. When asked about the duality of Rami/Naseeb, Ayache is reluctant to provide a clear answer. Instead, Ayache hopes the full-length play will be able to give insight into whether the actor is playing two different characters, or whether they are the same character, with Naseeb hiding his identity from Fifi by posing as Rami.
In The Green Line, queer desire functions as same-sex desire. There is the coy, almost-hinted-at, never-expressly-expressed attraction through conversation between Mona and Yara; Fifi (a drag queen) and Rami flirt aggressively throughout, concluding in a passionate kiss towards the end. Ayache explains that his intention was not to represent a gendered expression of queer desire; rather, his writing arose after several consultations with queer Arab women. Further, the two same-sex couples represent two different times, with the women’s story taking place in the 90’s and the men’s in present day 2019 – a fact he believes will be much clearer in the longer play.
The play ends with a contemporary cover of Abdel Halim Hafez’s famous Egyptian song, “Ahwak.” The female cover singer croons about the desire to protect one’s lover. This particular version, from the film Beirut Hotel, adds a sense of melancholia, and I wonder whether it hints at the sense of loss that colours the narrative of the two female protagonists. As the song plays in the background, the four characters appear onstage together, standing diagonally opposite each other. As they begin to walk off the stage one by one, their gestures and movements hint at complex, unresolved interpersonal issues—issues that may come to resolution in a longer version of the play. As Ayache mentions, the Rhubarb production was a way to introduce the characters to the audience, while the longer play will delve into the complexity of each character’s relationship to the others. The next iteration of The Green Line will be a staged reading in the third week of April as part of YESfest! in the Incubator Space at The Theatre Centre.
Sanchari Sur is a 2018 Lambda Literary Fellow in fiction. Her work can be found in Room, Toronto Book Award Shortlisted The Unpublished City (Book*hug, 2017), Arc Poetry Magazine, Humber Literary Review, Prism International, and elsewhere. She is a PhD candidate in English at Wilfrid Laurier University, and the curator/co-founder of Balderdash Reading Series, and blogs at sursanchari.wordpress.com. Twitter: sanchari_sur