Metro al-Madina invites Beirut to a housewarming party

A few days before their first show in their new space, cabaret founder Hisham Jaber, vocalist Yasmina Fayed and musician-composer Ziad El Ahmadie glance back and look ahead.

Metro al-Madina invites Beirut to a housewarming party

Metro vocalist Yasmina Fayed, part of a photo series worked up for Metro al-Madina’s instagram campaign. (Courtesy Metro al-Madina)

BEIRUT — The Hamra Street bookshop-bar’s management has mounted several stacks on wheels, so the literature-containment technology can be used as a design element. Currently three of them collude with the permanent stacks to wall-in a pair of chairs.

“The city now reminds me of the ’90s,” Hisham Jaber says. “When we were in university, we saw a city trying to be something. There were a lot of things happening. After the war, you know, everybody believed in nothing. Our generation really rejected everything from the past.

“Everything collapsed and the city was trying to take shape. It came with all this political stuff, and this aesthetic of what they wanted Beirut to be. A lot of money was put into this [narrative.] Like ‘After the peace with Israel, Beirut will be the local Singapore!’”

He chuckles quietly.

“But it was just an idea. They modeled this city on that idea and it collapsed ... I think Beirut should follow its [own original] spirit. Beirut is Beirut, yaani. We are visitors.”

He blinks at L’Orient Today and a mischievous smile rises from behind his spectacles.

“Since the last earthquake, I think people have started to feel bored.”

This isn’t the first time the principal writer of Metro al-Madina has described life in this chaotic town as boring. The tedium seemed to reach a new high in the fall of 2019, when Lebanese underwent the uniquely bipolar experience of exuberant civil uprising and crushing economic and financial collapse.

With his onstage persona Roberto Kobrosli, Jaber has been at the helm of Metro since he conceived of this experiment in critical cabaret entertainment, birthed in January 2012. In their latest expression of apathy, Jaber, Kobrosli & Co are in the midst of relocating to a less-cramped location than the little sub-basement theater of Masrah al-Madina, its charming home for 11 years.

Jaber and long term collaborators Yasmina Fayed and Ziad El Ahmadie sat with L’Orient Today in a bookshop-bar to discuss Metro’s unique niche in Beirut’s cultural fabric, its move down the street, and the troupe’s fundraising show on May 26, staged to help defray the cost of relocation.

Metro à la Aresco

Metro’s new home is the theater of Aresco Palace. One of the landmarks on the Ras Beirut avenue that becomes Hamra Street a bit further west, this mixed-use commercial structure situated between Haigazian University and the Central Bank headquarters (cue villainous music) is variously said to be in Qantari and Sanayeh, now Hamra.

For four months or so Metro has been working with architect Paul Kaloustian to overhaul Aresco’s theater space.

“All the renovation work is done,” Jaber says. “We already finished like 70 percent of the major work. It’s now transformed.”

Jaber doesn’t want to disclose too much about the look of Metro à la Aresco, but he says the layout of the performance space will be the same, just with more generous dimensions.

“You will see,” he laughs. “We don’t want to spoil the secret. It will be a new space [but] with the same [terraced] concept as the original Metro, just updated ... It’s spacious and comfortable and a bit trippy … something like those 1960s films about the future, outer space or whatever.

“We now have a well-equipped theater with good dimensions. I think this is ideal for all the shows and experimentation we want in a space … especially in this phase, with everything else collapsing.”

He blinks at the mobile walls of books and sips from his glass.

“During the past 11 years we were in a space that didn’t qualify as a proper stage ... Metro in Saroulla was our workshop. We experimented with a lot of things, did a lot of things. We had this dialogue. But the stage is nine meters wide, three meters deep, with an elevation of 2.90-something.” He smiles. “You can change a light without a ladder, yaani. But we experimented a lot in this space. We transformed, and we had a vibe, and it was really great.

“We did, I think, what maybe the space was dreaming of.”

“We have a theater now,” he says decisively, “and we have a lot of things to do in the new space. After doing things on a small scale because we had to, now we can expand. We will experiment more … I did a lot of writing during Corona, and the past eleven years, shows that couldn’t be staged in Saroulla. We have a lot of productions coming.”

The stage of Metro al-Madina’s new space in Aresco Palace, then under renovation. (Courtesy Metro al-Madina)


When a cultural institution persists for a decade or more, it tends to be saddled with legacy. When the institution has a popular following, as Metro does, legacy resonates through the public as well as the cultural sector.

Yasmina Fayed is among Metro al-Madina’s mainstays. Small of stature and dynamic on stage, she has performed in more than 10 Metro shows — including crown-pleasers like ‘Hishik Bishik,” revisiting Egyptian pop music from the early 20th century, “Aghani Servicat,” which uses the close confines of Beirut’s collective taxi as a microcosm for comic observations on politics, culture and society, and “Fawazir,” structured as a musical guessing game for its performers. She estimates that altogether she’s done 500 performances for Metro.

“We’ve been experimenting over the years,” she says “Some shows last. Some don’t. So we move on.”

Fayed says the dynamic among the troupe’s performers is unique in her experience.

“It’s taken me from my comfort zone,” she smiles.

After fronting Ziad Zahab's band, she was “afraid to make something” on her own, she said. “When I started with Hisham, it felt so easy and natural, as if it was the natural flow of things.

“We’ve had something magical going on for years now. Whenever we’re preparing a new show, we’re always on the same wavelength, so everything comes naturally. Whenever we take a break, it seems like we just parted yesterday, and we pick up from where we stopped. I love it.”

Naturally the crisis and pandemic took their toll on the troupe.

“Sadly some had to leave,” she says. “What’s nice is that we met some talented new performers and musicians.”

Fayed is enthusiastic about the talent coming through Metro al-Mehania, the cabaret’s in-house training for aspiring performers.

“They’re young, talented and fresh. I can’t wait to work with them,” she says. “Aside from the energy, I think they have a different perspective of the shows we’ve been doing. Of course this will reflect on everything that we do. Being on stage with the new performers might bring out something new in me, I hope.”

“All of us came from a history of performing,” says oud-player, vocalist and composer Ziad El Ahmadie. “I believe that art and music is not just entertainment. It must speak to people’s minds.

“Hisham wondered why is it that whenever somebody makes a serious play in Beirut, there are only 2000 people who are interested in this kind of elite theater. Serious musicians too have a small audience. We need to live from art, so we need to find a way.

“Why don’t we find a way to speak artistically to people, while respecting them, presenting high quality music and performance and new ideas. Why is it that we can’t be funny when we tell someone something serious?

“Metro finds a [compromise] between making a living out of art and respecting the audience, giving them very well-done shows that are meticulous about details like lighting, musical arrangement and content. This is Hisham’s thinking ... Metro was the solution.”

Audience and nostalgia

Metro al-Madina exists to stage in-house productions that include a great deal of new composition. That said, the importance of historical music and popular culture is evident in the cabaret’s programming. Shows like “Hishik Bishik,” “Bar Farouk,” “Discotheque Nana” and “Fawazir” lure audiences with their amusing, often affectionate, treatments of decades-old music.

A casual observer may see Metro’s programming as tapping the vein of nostalgia.

“I don’t think it’s just nostalgia,” Fayed avers. “It’s telling people ‘You have an option.’ You can come see something different. It’s not all the nonsense on TV today — not Turkish soaps, not the news, not the fake news on social media. You can see something that’s relevant to life, yaani. I think we are a better option, and I think people can differentiate between something good and something not.

“Since we closed in December, a few people have come up to me to say, ‘When are the shows coming back?’ This tells you something. People want to see real faces from life that may bring back nostalgia but can be critical of the life we’re living in Lebanon. Who would have thought that ‘Aghani Servicat’ would be such a hit? All the songs are originally written. The melodies are amazing and it’s fun. At the same time, there is always a layer beneath everything we do in Metro. I think that’s the thing that attracts audiences.”

“Bar Farouk was not nostalgic,” says Ahmadie. “Ultimately it’s saying … because of the stupidity reflected in the Lebanese music at that time, we arrived to the Civil War. There is always politics — even during the time of King Farouk in Egypt, and so in ‘Hishik Bishik’ music. If you look, you may find something political in our songs.”

Ahmadie says that just because a show has a historical setting doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s nostalgia. Nostalgic tunes can be performed in theater productions that are at once creative and quietly critical.

“We are still watching Shakespeare until now, aren’t we? Hollywood still makes movies set in the 18th century, and cowboy movies. Why not? You need songs that people know that they can connect with and, at the same time, something that they don’t know so that they can think about, while being entertained.

“‘The Political Circus’ was all new — written, composed, arranged, performed and played on stage with the orchestra. In ‘Bar Farouk,’ we have five new songs. So we are trying to present something new as we compose something for these gaps in the show. We present something that people know so that they enjoy. Both.”

A bigger stage

Metro à la Saroulla dictated the scale of shows Jaber & Co could stage at home but the troupe has performed in larger venues. “Bar Farouk” and “Political Circus” both debuted at the Beiteddine festival and various shows have toured outside Lebanon. That said, most Beirut audiences associate Metro with Saroulla, provoking questions of whether a larger home venue will pose any challenges.

Jaber doesn’t anticipate any problems.

“Usually we work with what we have,” she says, “and put our faith in what we have — in our performers, in the city, in logistics, in technicians, and in our space. Now we have shifted to another space. The old stage was a small one. We will do shows for this stage.”

Jaber is looking forward to adapting old shows to the new space, and especially in finally bringing home “Political Circus,” which Metro hasn’t been able to stage since its premiere performances at Beiteddine in 2018.

“I trust Hisham,” says Ahmadie. “I trust … that he will find solutions for the differences between the intimacy of Metro’s small stage, because we were very close to the audience there, and bigger places where you can see maybe only the front row. He will find solutions.

“As a musician I know that it will be hard for us, especially with ‘Hishik Bishik,’ because this show was performed at Metro around 480 times. We will feel the difference in a new atmosphere, but we will find solutions and manage. It’s a new challenge, like always.”

“You know I still can’t imagine doing ‘Hishik Bishik’ on a bigger stage,” Fayed smiles, “but we’ve performed on bigger stages and it’s not that different.

“The new stage is cozy. You feel the boundaries. You feel the walls. The sound is warm. So I’m not afraid of it. I’m extremely excited. I want to try everything. I want to try the shows that we’ve done on the new stage, and then open new shows.

“We’ve spent years trying to build something. We have something going on that deserves a bigger chance and a bigger stage. I think we deserve a proper chance to do things on a larger scale.”

Fayed leans forward. “When we were performing the last three Saroulla shows in December, some of the artists were very sad, coming into the dressing room, about to cry. I didn’t have this feeling at all — not until the very last night anyway.

“For those first two shows, I was full of energy because I saw that the place is falling apart. The smell was awful. It was as if this little old theater was saying ‘Okay, yaIla, go now. You have my blessing.’”

Metro Under Construction” will be staged in Metro al-Madina’s Aresco Palace space May 26 at 9.30pm. 

BEIRUT — The Hamra Street bookshop-bar’s management has mounted several stacks on wheels, so the literature-containment technology can be used as a design element. Currently three of them collude with the permanent stacks to wall-in a pair of chairs.“The city now reminds me of the ’90s,” Hisham Jaber says. “When we were in university, we saw a city trying to be something. There were a...