Friday night. While exploring different clubs, bars, and all that is Beirut nightlife is interesting, on this night, we were exposed to a different side of Lebanese culture. Turning away from the bustling street of Hamra, we were heading underground to a “metro” bar and theatre for a Lebanese cabaret show called Bar Farouk. The bar was dark and groovy with a variety of colored lighting that resembled something like a 1950s disco room, but on a miniature scale. The entrance doesn’t seem like a typical one to a theatre at all – it was a bar lounge/dance area – so I wondered if this is event the right place. But sure enough when the time came, the modest doors to the theatre room opened, and we stepped from the hip underground bar into an artfully designed and decorated theatre room, whose spaciousness was hard to imagine as we sat in the underground bar, waiting to enter.
After we sat down, I took in the atmosphere around us. We were early – the room was empty. The red curtains on the stage and warmly colored walls encircled our tables along with those of our neighbors, completing the mood set by two dim candles set at the ends of tables. The cozy room fit about 60-70 guests, varying from parties as large as 10 people to couples who came to enjoy a classy evening show. As we chatted along, the guests slowly trickled into the room, filling it with whispers and laughter.
After about an hour at our table, the intro music to the show stealthily crept into our ears and we fell to silence one by one. The other tables, however, did no such thing. Chatter was in full force, and no regard was made to the music coming from on stage. I was a little awestruck but just dismissed it as a cultural habit that I wasn’t used to. Having performed in bands, orchestras, and musicals, a quick descent to silence was the norm in the United States. I was eventually able to accept the mélange of noise and music because the actual show had not started yet. Fortunately, the audience gave up its full attention when the curtains pulled back and the characters came out on stage.
The show began with a slow rhythmic melody, with all the instrumentalists in the dark. After each scene, more characters were gradually introduced. It began with this ridiculous eccentric man, poking fun at his fellow musicians and the audience. He had thick round glasses with a black rim, ambled around in a stiffly hinged but enthusiastic manner, and had no reservations about teasing others. Then came in his partner, a much more broadly built man: forthright and proper but still easygoing. The major dialogue began at this point. Our levels of Arabic prevented us from getting many of the jokes, but fortunately, there was much more to the show to enjoy than just the dialogue.
As the show progressed through the many periods of Lebanese history and culture, we got to see various characters appear. From beautifully dressed seductive femmes to jockeying and joking workers, there was no shortage of eye-catching performances. I especially enjoyed the utter release of several ear shattering shrills by this vibrant-pink dressed actress during the period of the Lebanese
Civil War (war cries?). Ok maybe not enjoyed, but it was definitely seared into my memory. This girl had some lung gusto.
As we approached the end, the tunes became much more modern. This came hand in hand with the increasing portions of audience singing along and chiming in. It really struck me that for the last 3-4 songs, virtually everyone knew the lyrics. It showed that the memories and culture from even a few decades ago still thrive within the elderly and middle aged community, if not the youth as well. I don’t know how much of the audience was Lebanese or travelers, but seeing everyone so engaged with the performance really testifies to the passion of the Lebanese people despite a tumultuous past. Props to the singers!