SIDON, Lebanon — In a brightly lit meeting room at Ishbilia Theater and Art-Hub in Sidon a young woman fought back tears as she read a deeply personal poem about death, depression and remembrance.
“I knew this day would come, but I did not expect it to be so soon,” she recited. “I can still hear your guitar strumming as I lock myself up in my room.”
Taking a seat to steady herself, she continued along to the final stanzas of her poem: “You’ll get away from here too, you’ll get away eventually. Now I say goodbye to you soon, because I have to leave, essentially.”
The audience applauded, cheered and one person stood up to give the young poet a hug.
At Sidewalk Saida’s opening night Dec. 8, performers and poets of many backgrounds took the stage at an intimate event to tackle taboo topics including mental illness, love, religion and suicide. Many of them, like Nourhan Sees, 22, recited their poems in public for the first time.
“This is the first time that I have ever performed my writings, my feelings, my thoughts,” Sees told Al-Monitor. “I was shaking. My voice was trembling.”
Sidewalk Saida, whose name uses the Arabic word for Sidon, is the newest branch of a network of recurring open mic events that aim to showcase poets, musicians and artists across several Lebanese cities.
There is also a branch in Trento, Italy, that was established after Sidewalk events began in Lebanon.
But Sidewalk Saida is different. Its organizers, poets and university students from Sidon who had to overcome obstacles to get it off the ground said it is the first space of its kind in south Lebanon. By creating a unique venue for free expression, they aim to create a community of artists that exists outside of the traditional boundaries set by society in Lebanon’s third-largest city.
Slam poetry, provocative statements about Islam and discussions about sexuality might seem commonplace in Beirut. But Sees, her fellow performers and Sidewalk Saida’s organizers said that because of Sidon’s conservative social scene an event like Sidewalk Saida is nothing short of revolutionary.
“We had the opportunity to express ourselves, to be more open. That’s rare in Sidon, very rare,” Sees said. “After the performance I felt this strength, like I had gotten something off my chest. The more people perform, the more people are performing — the faces are changing. People become more courageous.”
With performers hailing from other parts of south Lebanon, such as Nabatiyeh, Sidewalk Saida’s impact was already apparent.
The main act of Sidewalk Saida’s opening night was poet and Sidewalk Beirut founder Maysan Nasser, who has been a veteran of slam poetry events for years. She is the author of a collection of poetry, “Don’t Tell Them,” which addresses identity, sexuality, depression, suicide and her own borderline personality disorder.
As a testament to the power of such performances, a poet who was not previously slated to perform got on stage after Nasser finished to read out a personal piece of his own.
Hiba Zibawi, the co-founder of Ishbilia Theater, said that such instances of spontaneous inspiration are the reason why events such as Sidewalk Saida have the potential to remake Sidon’s burgeoning artistic community.
“The artistic scene in Sidon is very conventional and it’s very classical,” she told Al-Monitor. “These contemporary or modern events introduce Sidon’s residents to new forms of art and expression that may encourage new artists in Sidon — poets and creatives in general.”
According to Zibawi, past conflicts and tensions in south Lebanon and Sidon have contributed to a lack of open artistic communities in the region.
Sidon has been the site of political conflict as recently as 2013, when tensions between followers of an ultra-conservative Sunni leader and supporters of Shiite militant group Hezbollah spiraled into violence.
Several poets at the event, including Sees, mentioned that Sidon is a devout city, and others like poet and Sidewalk Siada co-founder Mohammad Rashid suggested that local political groups have for years discouraged social liberalization.
But Zibawi’s sister, Nahla, who is the co-founder of Ishbilia Theater, said she does not believe that Sidon is actually as conservative as it may seem.
“I think it’s a stereotype,” she told Al-Monitor. “It’s a stereotype that each Sidonian needs to break. If what we are doing is helping in that, then we are one of these initiatives in the city that is working toward showing that the city has so much to give.”
The Zibawi sisters reopened Ishbilia Theater this year after it shuttered in 2007, almost 30 years after their father opened it in 1979. The theater is a special place for them, having operated for decades amid multiple wars and periods of instability. Now they have a new vision for the space and want to make it a hub for independent cinema and a place for local youth to be able to learn, work and gain exposure to new ideas.
“Space is one of the greatest difficulties,” Rashid said about the process for getting the event off the ground. “Luckily we found a great place that is kind of the perfect place for self-expression.”
Rashid said that he and the event’s co-organizer, university student and writer Malak Abu Zahr, had a tough time finding a location for Sidewalk Saida that would allow poets to talk about certain taboo subjects. “Maybe in other venues they wouldn’t permit this,” Abu Zahir said.
In addition to the difficulties of finding a location for the event, Rashid said he and Abu Zahir had to overcome personal barriers as well. “Have you ever heard the story about the bird who is jailed. Then you free the bird, but the bird doesn’t realize it’s being freed?” he said. “That’s kind of the situation in Sidon.”
Rashid added that societal restrictions have gradually diminished over the last 10-15 years in Sidon, but he and Abu Zahir could not help fear criticism from local media or conservative political groups.
“It was kind of a journey, an adventure, a risk,” he said. “But we made it and we are so proud of what we have done.”
Since its opening event, Sidewalk Saida’s second session took place Dec. 20, and Rashid and Abu Zahir plan on continuing the events on a biweekly basis. Working hand in hand with Ishbilia Theater, they both stand poised to contribute to Sidon’s shifting social landscape. And in Hiba Zibawi’s words to finally give Sidon’s young artists the chance to say “We’re here, we exist.”
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