Therapy through theatre: Meeting Ziad Itani
"And now it was time to tell you my story," Lebanese actor Ziad Itani told a packed audience at Beirut's Metro Al Madina theatre, wrapping up another performance of his latest play, And Colette Didn't Show Up (Wa Ma Talet Colette).
Itani has performed to sold-out venues before, but there was an exceptional interest in this play. While his old performances were mostly about Beirut, its communities, and Lebanese history embedded in political satire and social commentary, this one revolved around an incident that shook Lebanon and the region.
On November 25, 2017, news broke out that Lebanese writer and actor Ziad Itani was arrested on suspicion of spying and collaborating for the Israeli government.
Following several days of interrogations and alleged torture, it appeared that Itani admitted to the accusations, was charged in a military court with "collaborating with Israel and providing information on politicians, media figures, and political partiesas well as drug possession."
Ongoing reports came out claiming that Itani was aiding the Israeli government in assassinating caretaker Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk, as well as collaborating with an Israeli Mossad agent posed as a Swedish woman – allegedly named Colette Fianphe – in a "classic honeytrap" scenario.
If convicted with treason, Itani would have likely been sentenced to death. Though the death penalty is still legal in Lebanon, it has been under a moratorium since 2004, so although the actor could have been sentenced to death, he would have remained in death row for an indefinite period.
103 days later, 54 of which he was held in solitary confinement at the hands of the military police in Lebanon's notorious Roumieh Prison, Itani was released on the evening of March 13, 2018. Meanwhile, the head of Lebanon's Internal Security Forces' Anti-Cybercrime Bureau Major Suzan Hajj Hobeiche was issued an arrest warrant for allegedly framing the actor.
|Itani was tied in a stress position, hung by his wrists for several hours, kicked in the face, sustaining damage to his teeth, threatened with rape, and threatened his family would face physical violence and legal charges of their own|
Getting back on stage
"When I was released [from prison], I was suffering from some serious emotional and psychological trauma," Ziad Itani tells The New Arab, adding that he was distraught by the fact that most of his closest friends and colleagues did not support him.
"They left me and didn't stand by me," he said, "except for two people." The two people he referred to were Khaled Soubeih and Ahmad Khateeb, two Lebanese musicians who co-wrote And Colette Didn't Show Up with Itani.
"If it weren't for Khalid Sbeih and Ahmad al-Khatib, I don't think this play would have happened," he admitted. "From the start they insisted that I would never get past this unless I do it my way, in my form of expression: satire and theatre."
Itani credits his collaborative chemistry with Soubeih and Khateeb to many conversations shared about politics.
"We always would talk about pressing issues in the Arab world, and how the system and its regimes hate [free expression and satire]," Itani explained. "You know, with the surveillance and censorship of plays, movies, and so on."
Ziad Itani's plays are similar in their presentation, with a simple stage setup, combining of elements of stand-up comedy with traditional storytelling – also known as hakawati. Itani also primarily speaks in his native Beiruti vernacular.
However, unlike other productions, And Colette Didn't Show Up also adds an element of dark humour. Itani, Soubeih,and Khateeb portray the fallacies of the case, be it the torture –induced confessions, interrogation process, and the dissemination of information through the media. But knowing that this has happened to the lead actor with similar cases of torture happening in Lebanon is a reminder that this play is simply not a nostalgia trip.
|Through [my] story, one could see all the scandals that happen in this country and all the corruption that takes place|
The play also creatively takes aim of high-profile media personnel, including talk-show hosts and news reporters, who he said fed into the hysteria of the case with little to no effort in fact-checking any of the allegations and statements from state security.
"Through [my] story, one could see all the scandals that happen in this country and all the corruption that takes place," Itani explained to The New Arab. "From the corrupt interrogator, officer, and journalists, to those who are held in prison over false charges."
|Unlike other productions, And Colette Didn't Show Up also adds an element of dark humour [Diana Richani]|
Theatre as a form of therapy
"That's what the guys think too," Itani says when asked if writing and performing And Colette Didn't Show Up was a form of therapy to him.
"I do think that it definitely helped in way; I stood back up, let it all out, and could tell everyone what has happened."
|I stood back up, let it all out, and could tell everyone what has happened|
Itani added that he intentionally changed the names of the characters, rather than acting as himself.
"It was very difficult for me to play the role of a character based on myself, who is suffering from what I literally went through."
The play highlights some of the psychological and physical torture he endured, but a thorough testimony he gave to Human Rights Watch was especially harrowing.
Among other torture methods that have been documented in previous cases, the actor was tied in a stress position, hung by his wrists for several hours, kicked in the face, sustaining damage to his teeth, threatened with rape, and threatened his family would face physical violence and legal charges of their own.
Itani insisted that he only confessed because he was under torture and told Human Rights Watch that he caved in after they threatened to rape him.
The actor still feels he is "living this experience" as he continues to follow all the legal developments taking place over the incident.
Is justice looming for Ziad Itani?
Human Rights Watch stated that Itani's arrest "constitutes an enforced disappearance," urging Lebanese authorities to carry out an investigation into his allegations of torture and enforced disappearance.
Meanwhile, the actor told The New Arab that he has pressed charges against Hobeiche, hacker Elie Ghabash, the officer who interrogated and allegedly tortured him, "and his whole interrogation team." There have been no calls internally for an investigation over Itani's torture allegations, despite a Lebanese anti-torture law going into effect in October 2017.
While the case itself is still in its early days, former Anti-Cybercrime Bureau Major Suzan Hajj Hobeiche has been subject to an internal investigation that has continued to stall. She was charged with committing a felony back in May, only to be released on bail and referred to a military tribunal.
Her trial, which was set to take place in September, was postponed to January 25, 2019, after her legal team requested to review newly found evidence related to Elie Ghabash, hacker and her suspected accomplice.
"We are seeing some serious political pressure to try to pardon [the accused], which of course does not remedy me," Itani said. "Nobody [who] does this to another person [should] get away with it."
Kareem Chehayeb is a Lebanese writer and musician based in Beirut.
Follow him on Twitter: @chehayebk