A Lebanese singer, musician and screenwriter, Michelle Keserwany in well-known in Lebanon for her satirical political songs, that she writes with her sister Noel. She also one of the scriptwriters of the film Capharnaüm by director Nadine Labaki (Jury Prize, Cannes 2018). She facilitates the writing workshops in Arabic of the 99 LIVE LEBANON project and talks about her experience.
Why did you join the 99 LIVE LEBANON project?
The 99 LIVE LEBANON project seemed interesting to me in the present context of Lebanon, especially to encourage a very large number of women to reveal their potential, to write, to act and to express themselves. Also, I love the creative process of the project: the team work as well as the idea of writing without a specific goal, listening and then leverage on what is available around to write. Finally, leading these workshops makes me think about my role to support creative activities, especially regarding the courses I teach at the university. The whole 99 project intrigues me and allows me to enrich my practice.
How 99 LIVE LEBANON creative approach differ from the methods you teach at university?
When I give lectures on storytelling and scriptwriting at the university, I primarily try to stimulate students’ creativity through exercises that are relatively fixed. In 99 LIVE LEBANON the content produced by the participants is the very core of the project. They are the ones who speak, the ones who say “I”. Everything they say is personal, even if they imagine to be a different character and they are accountable for it. The testimonials of the Zyara web series play a very important role to encourage them to speak. These sensitive portraits give to the project its spiritual, moral and human dimensions. The videos that we watch and transform into theatre monologues are really moving. The witnesses of the web series Zyara say ” I ” and bravely expose themselves, which allow in turn participants to say ” I “and expose themselves with equal sincerity and depth.
What about the dynamics of collaborative writing: does it help to write together?
In the context of 99 LIVE LEBANON, we deal with intimate and personal matters and writing together allows everybody to unveil their fragility and gives the strength to do it. The workshop is a safe place where vulnerability can be revealed and expressed in front of others though writing. Confidence thus increases and self-consciousness decreases. My role is to create such a comfort zone.
Could you share and comment a text written by the participants so far?
A text particularly impressed me. It begins with the prohibitions heard as a child: do not accept the sweets that you are offered because it is Aayb ( عيب a social defilement, fairly untranslatable in English). Then, with a very subtle transition, the text goes on to the injunctions made to the adult female and forcing her to accept things that she does not want to because of the same Aayb (social stigma). It is a powerful text about the sentences that oppress while being full of good intentions and sweetness.
As an author, songwriter and screenwriter, does this project bring you something new?
It brings me a lot. My usual writing method is to make a lot of research and gather a lot of details. In this project, at each workshop, I am immersed in the middle of all these details. I think a writer has to be like a sponge who absorbs things and transformed them into something else. For example, when I write political songs, I am listening to people, I hear their thoughts, their words and desires and at a time, without paying too much attention, it is there. The writer’s job is in my opinion a job of transition, transmission and transformation more than creation from scratch. In this profession, I believe that you have to listen much more than talk.
What do you expect from the future play 99 LIVE LEBANON?
I think that the play 99 LIVE LEBANON will be first, an incentive for participants to continue to write and express in their professional and personal life. Each of them realizes, workshop after workshop that they have a specific style, a unique voice that can speak loud and clear. The play will have a very positive empowering effect on them both on artistic and personal level.
You speak and write in several languages. What does that mean to you? What is at stake in the multilingualism of 99 LIVE LEBANON project?
The issue is very important in Lebanon. The Arabic language is spoken by everyone but speaking English or French is a social marker. It says that you belong to the upper classes. The languages in Lebanon bring together but also create distances. In my opinion, the staging of the play will have to handle this challenge and show that languages can support each other and not reproduce domination clichés. For me, for example, writing in literary Arabic is a challenge; this is why I try more and more to write in Lebanese Arabic to get out of the translation issue and filters.
What are your other projects at the moment?
Right now, I write fables in Lebanese Arabic, “twisted” from famous tales to convey a social and political content. I work as well at the University and work on a short and full length animation films. Last but not least, with my sister we are in the process of writing a new song.
Conversation on June 30th, 2020
Short biography of Michelle Keserwany
Michelle Keserwany is a Lebanese singer, musician and screenwriter. At the age of 21, Michelle Keserwany released her first satirical song, viewed over a million times on YouTube. Since then, she has composed with her sister Noel many other songs, to criticize the corruption and dysfunctions of her country. She also co-wrote the screenplay of Capharnaüm, a film by director Nadine Labaki (Jury Prize – Cannes 2018). Michelle splits her time between the writing of animated films, songs and courses at the university. She also facilitates the writing workshops in Arabic of 99 LIVE LEBANON project.