Lebanon is not the easiest place in the world for an artist to express a difficult truth—or even ask a prickly question. The national government routinely censors any criticism of its past or its policies, but that doesn't stop Beirut-based performer Rabih Mroué. As he explained in a telephone interview last week, if he officially applied to the government to perform his tech-heavy, research-based performances, they would be banned. "So," he said with a casual shrug in his voice, "I perform them illegally."
Publicly exploring controversial ideas runs in Mroué's family. His grandfather, the Arab-Marxist philosopher Hussein Mroué, was assassinated in 1987 for his writing—by private citizens, who can be just as fearful as government forces. "He had already published two big tomes about the materialist tendencies in Islamic philosophy," Mroué said, "and was writing his third tome when Islamic fundamentalists came to assassinate him. He was 80 years old." There was no investigation.
Rabih (pronounced "Robbie") Mroué began making performances three years after his grandfather's murder—the same year that Lebanon's 15-year civil war came to an end. Hundreds of thousands died in the conflict and one million people, a quarter of the country's population, were physically wounded.
For many years, Mroué has been building an obsessive private archive of scraps and found objects documenting life in Lebanon—newspaper clippings, photographs, videotapes, audiotapes—without knowing what he was going to do with them. He became fixated on stories of missing people, both during and after the war.
"Lebanon, it's a very small country," he said. "How could somebody disappear? It's amazing! We had 17,000 missing persons in the civil war. Until now, we don't know anything about their destiny. I think they are dead, but nobody wants to take responsibility, nobody wants to declare that they are dead."
To deal with this problem, Mroué says, the government passed a law allowing the parents of a missing person to declare him or her deceased. "But, of course, nobody wants to kill his son—so they live in this state of missing."
The peculiar story of Raafat Suleiman, a low-level bureaucrat in the Ministry of Finance who vanished six years ago, caught Mroué's attention and became the basis of Looking for a Missing Employee. The case became a scandal as the government, via the press, lurched back and forth in its attempts to spin the story, sometimes characterizing Suleiman as an upstanding citizen, sometimes as a greedy embezzler.
Mroué performs the show from the back row of the theater and projects himself onto onstage screens. He has cameras pointed at his face, a stack of documents he leafs through to tell his story, and footage of an illustrator who sketches out the story as the show goes along. Because of his storytelling tactics and use of technology, the New York Times wrote that Mroué is "to Beirut what the Wooster Group is to New York: a blend of avant-garde innovation, conceptual complexity, and political urgency, all grounded in earthy humor."
Though Suleiman's story was big news in Lebanon, Mroué says some people were "shocked" when he first performed Looking for a Missing Employee. It was, he says, a case that the country followed day by day for a year and a half. "But I put the whole case in one hour and a half," he said. "It was like little doses when we followed it, but when we take one dose, it's like an overdose!"
After Employee's initial performances in Beirut, some people, whom Mroué is reluctant to identify, asked him to stop performing it. Instead, he's come here on his first (long-overdue) US tour to present the work.
"I am an artist, not an activist," Mroué said. "It's not about accusing or insulting or proving that he's an innocent man or not—I am not interested in such things. It's not about finding the truth or untruth, but trying to open some questions, to think about how the news in the newspapers functions."
While at On the Boards, Mroué will also perform a preview of his latest project, The Pixelated Revolution, about how Syrian protesters used cell phones as part of last year's Arab Spring rebellions. Mroué built the show with actual cell-phone footage and stuck to the restrictions of Dogme 95—the 10 austere rules established by directors Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg to make film a more financially accessible medium (for example: use handheld cameras, don't use special lighting).
The videos, Mroué said, document moments "when someone is using the mobile phone and when someone tries to shut him. In this way, it is like a war between the mobile phone and the gun."
Even though he is an artist who performs controversial work in a small country where controversial people sometimes get shot and disappeared, he doesn't seem that worried about it. "At least illegally, I can show for two nights or three nights," he said. "That for them is fine—it's not a big audience."
He also doesn't sell tickets for his shows, declaring them private. "That," he said, laughing a little, "is one of the tricks we can do with the censorship." Mroué did successfully fight a governmental ban on one of his shows, How Nancy Wished That Everything Was an April Fool's Joke, about four individuals fighting in different militias during the 15-year civil war. "The minister of culture was against this [ban]," Mroué said. "He votes with us and we won it."
And he reiterated that he sees himself as an artist instead of an activist, a question-asker instead of a critic. "I don't want to be a martyr for the sake of art," he said. "I do not want to be an artist for the sake of provoking anybody—I only want to provoke myself."