A large crowd of middle-aged men and women filled Issam Fares Hall on September 30 and October 1 to watch Vanessa Redgrave recite the book, “A World I Loved: The Story of an Arab Woman,” which is based on the memoir of Wadad Makdisi Cortas.
In the book, Cortas talks about the struggles of growing up in Lebanon during the French mandate, as well as the difficulties of emerging in an academic society while being a woman. She was one of the few women able to attain a higher education at the American University of Beirut, which was then known as the Syrian Protestant College.
After the formally-dressed attendees were seated, Cortas’s daughter, Mariam Said, presented the theatre and congratulated the Ahliah School, where Cortas spent 40 years as principal, for its centennial. Since its establishment in 1916, the all-girls school attracted dedicated students from various regions of the world, be it European, African, Middle Eastern, or Asian.
Said, who is not only Cortas’ daughter but the widow of Edward Said, was very emotive while introducing her close friend, the famous English Shakespearean actress, Vanessa Redgrave.
“After years of trying to find my mother’s diary and publishing her english version, I shared it with many great friends, including Vanessa Redgrave, who loved it,” Said revealed, “She decided to take excerpts of the book and transform them into a theatre, which was first performed in Brighton, England.”
For a span of two hours, Vanessa Redgrave recalled Cortas’ life from the days she was a student in the early 1900’s up till 1975, when the civil war in Lebanon broke out. Jordanian Nadim Sawalha also took part in the recital to depict the excerpts of men speech. Najla Said, the author’s granddaughter, took the stage partly as the young voice of many Palestinian students at the Ahliah School, who were troubled by war and distance from their parents.
While the audience heard the story of Makdisi, they were also kept company by the music from violinist Nabih Bulos, cellist Sary Khalife, and pianist Karim Said. Among their memorable performances was the Beethoven Trio. A few girls from Ahlieh School also decorated the stage with their soft soprano voices.
Even with the absence of any major acting or visual elements, the story was able to shake the crowd emotionally thanks to the reciters’ captivating voices and warmth. They told a sensitive story that many of our loved ones lived through during the British and French mandate in the Arab World, and they told it captivatingly.
The theatre ended on a moving note delivered by Najla Said, who spoke of the perspective of a child witnessing Lebanon as a shattered country while visiting on vacation. She mentioned how from the late 90’s up until 2006 she witnessed the reconstruction of Lebanon to a vibrant country free of sectarianism and full of love and hope. However, the summer of 2006 ruined it all, according to Najla Said.
Najla Said sought to resemble her grandmother by believing in the same kind of unity and empowerment that she did throughout the hardships of her childhood.
“I think teta might have been proud,” said Najla Said as the play saw its end.