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Fall 2006 Vol. V, No. 1

Creating “Laughter Under the Bombs”

Nada Al-Awar

Does life really imitate art? Sharif Abdunnur, lecturer in drama at AUB’s Fine Arts and Art History Department, has found a way to use his art to help hundreds of Lebanese children learn to cope with the painful experience of the July 2006 war.

Sharif Abdunnur’s theater production, “Laughter Under the Bombs,” not only brought joy to the hearts of dozens of children displaced by Israel’s vicious war on Lebanon, but more importantly it also helped them deal with the trauma of losing their homes and sometimes even a close family member in the destruction and violence. Abdunnur wrote and directed an interactive theatrical piece performed at Beirut’s Masrah Al Madina (The city theater) in early August. The production featured adult professional actors as well as children whose families had fled the bombing in the south to seek refuge in the relative safety of Ras Beirut. “It was a good opportunity to watch people from different communities sit together and laugh together despite all the terrible things that were going on at the time,” says Abdunnur.

The play, which told the story of a local theater troupe putting on a performance in Beirut during the war, required active audience participation and included a variety of characters and situations. It also involved a great deal of improvisation. The play itself represented only part of Abdunnur’s efforts to alleviate the suffering of some 120 children affected by the war. He explains that he and a number of volunteers “were trying to teach the children that since you only live once you have to learn to laugh and continue with your life and remain connected to other people no matter what happens around you.” Abdunnur had used drama therapy in the past both with children in prisons and refugee camps and with children with physical and mental disabilities.

Abdunnur’s efforts kicked into high gear a few days after the war began on July 12, when Masrah Al Madina contacted him. More than 60 adults and children from the south had taken refuge in the theater. Working with Al Jana, a local NGO, as well as with volunteers from the theater and five of his AUB students, Abdunnur began to meet with the refugee children on a daily basis. “Children have two types of reactions to traumatic experiences like war,” he explains. “They either clam up completely and try to isolate themselves from others or they get aggressive and become violent towards themselves and others. The problem though is that you can’t ask children directly about what has happened to them because this is likely to traumatize them even more.”

Working with children as young as three as well as adolescents and young adults, Abdunnur decided to concentrate on devising physical activities during the first five days of the program to get the children to calm down and to give them the opportunity to vent their anger, fear, and frustration. Later, and while improvising scenes suggested by Abdunnur, the children were able to explore and confront their feelings about what was happening to them without any danger of causing themselves further distress.

Abdunnur sometimes began with an exercise in which two children pretended to be husband and wife. Again and again, the children would begin by assuming the voices and mannerisms of the characters they were portraying and end up in a fistfight. It was clear to Abdunnur that many of these children had a great deal of hostility to work through before they could begin to enjoy themselves through acting, so he asked them to place their chairs at opposite ends of the stage, some 40 meters apart, and to then act out their roles. No longer within reach of each other and forced to make themselves heard at a distance, the children quickly adapted and began to have a good time. For a number of them, however, sorrow over the loss of loved ones clearly dominated their hearts and minds. The experience of one seven-year-old boy stands out in Abdunnur’s mind. Regardless of the scenario he was given, “he would always come up with a character whose mother had been buried under the rubble of a home that had been bombed. After a few days, once I had gained his trust, I sat down to talk to him about it and discovered that this was what had happened to his own mother.”

Abdunnur, who has worked for many years to help vulnerable children around the country and set up his own theater troupe named Masrah al Arabi in 2002, struggled with his own intense emotions during the war. “I was with the children all day and acted as parent, teacher, and therapist to them. The connection between us was very strong, but at the same time when a child who has suffered so much talks to you and manages to unload his own pain, you have to take it on yourself and try to cope with it.” Even after the bombing had stopped and the children were able to return to southern Lebanon with their families, Abdunnur continued to worry about them. “It was tough to say goodbye and also difficult to think that for these children the war had only just started,” he says. Being in Beirut for several weeks during the fighting was almost like summer camp to them. They thought they would be returning to their villages, their homes, and their schools when in reality they only went back to total destruction.”

Immediately following the ceasefire, Abdunnur took part in a variety of workshops organized by Al Jana that included trainers and teachers from NGOs and schools from around the country as well as from outside Lebanon. Conducting drama therapy workshops five hours a day for 10 days, Abdunnur demonstrated the importance of drama as a means of communicating with children who are struggling to deal with difficult circumstances such as war or abuse. Abdunnur is currently conducting drama and creative arts workshops in southern Lebanon for trainers who will continue working with children where they live. He is also hoping to produce a play that will be performed in villages in the south that will deal with the very serious problem of the thousands of mines the Israelis planted in the region just before the ceasefire took effect. A number of children have already been killed and injured by these bombs.

Another one of Abdunnur’s projects involves working with children and their teachers in the south to create giant street puppets and to use them to promote children’s rights. Aware that a great deal more needs to be done to ensure that vulnerable children, not just in the south but all over the country, are emotionally equipped to deal with the uncertainty and turmoil in their lives, Abdunnur is anxious to continue the work that was begun during the war. “So much is being done to deal with the material damage the country suffered during the bombing, but very few people are working with these children who have been badly traumatized and who already had problems to begin with.”
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