As part of the 2019 Shubbak Festival in London, Lebanese theatre maker Hanane Hajj Ali performed her one-woman show, Jogging, at Notting Hill’s Gate Theatre. The play was primarily in Arabic with English surtitles:
By Katie Logan
There’s a moment in Hanane Hajj Ali’s Jogging where, after removing her headscarf to perform as another Lebanese woman, Ali tugs off the long, luxurious wig the audience had assumed was her hair. Underneath is yet another covering, this time a thin cap over the hair. The removal of the headscarf leads audience members to presume an act of intimacy on the part of the performer. Instead, the second removal reveals the gesture to be another layer of storytelling and a statement about the nature of one-woman performances, which rely on a powerful connection between audience and performer while also asserting the distance that lies between them.
This moment is indicative of the larger project of Jogging, which purports to narrate Ali’s daily jog through Beirut. On a regular circuit with the same landmarks, Ali explains that she jogs to combat physical and mental ailments. She craves both the adrenaline and the dopamine that jogging produces. Even as the audience enters the theater, she prepares for a jog with extensive stretching and warm-ups that continue through the beginning of the play.
And yet to call Jogging a play about running would be like calling The Odyssey a story about sailing. As with Ali’s layers of scarves and hair, the deceptively straightforward premise unfolds itself into proliferating narratives, voices, and histories. It’s a play that meditates on what it is to be a woman, a wife, a mother, a citizen, and an artist.
As an actor, Ali uses her jogs to imagine herself into the lives of others even as she encounters the limits of knowing another’s experience. Her desire to play Medea, one of the “great acting roles,” gives way to the recognition of modern-day Medeas in Lebanon, wives and mothers who must make terrible decisions about their lives and the lives of their children as they seek refuge from war or negotiate the absence of husbands and other networks of social or economic support.
Ali is a long-time fixture in the Lebanese theatre and cultural scene, having co-founded the Hakawati Theater Group in the late 1970s. She appeared in the 2004 film adaptation of Bab el-Shams and works as a theater artist, teacher, and cultural organizer in Beirut. With Jogging, she’s performed everywhere from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival to Syrian and Palestinian refugee campsin Lebanon.
In her work, Ali tackles what she calls the “Lebanese Bermuda Triangle” of sex, politics, and religion. Jogging engages these topics by rooting them in Ali’s fifty-something-year-old body, which is rarely still throughout the course of the performance. Ali stretches, runs in circles, sneakily simulates intimate moments with her husband, and enacts Medea’s flight into the sun. So, too, do audience members’ bodies become part of the show, as Ali encourages viewers to consume fruit salad that she’s prepared or demands that another audience member hold her feet while she does crunches.
It’s not uncommon for an actor’s physicality to be an important part of a show, but Ali’s body and audible breath, along with her audience interactions, keep the audience constantly attuned to the exertion it takes to perform this particular play.
The physical demands of Jogging come both from Ali’s running around the stage and from the mercurial way she vacillates between characters—the all-powerful mythical Medea; Yvonne, who kills her children in Mount Lebanon before taking her own life; Zahra, who loses two sons to war—and even different versions of herself: the wise-cracking jokester, the seasoned performer, the concerned mother.
Nominal costume changes accompany some of these transitions, but primarily it’s Ali’s body that registers the different characters with a lift of the chin or a concaving of the shoulders. She slips between these roles so quickly that the audience still feels the previous presence lingering in the air of the theater.
Ali’s improvisational quality also contributes to the fluid boundaries between Hanane the character and Ali the performer, or between the world of the play and the audience’s world. While she performs primarily in Arabic with English surtitles, she occasionally halts the action to check in with the audience directly. On the night I saw the play, for example, Ali paused in the middle of describing an unpleasant sex dream about Fouad Al-Seniora—the former Minister of Finance and prime minister of Lebanon—to ask who the equivalent, physically unappealing politician in England would be; she received a chorus of “Boris Johnson!” from the audience.
By the end of the play, as the narratives of Ali’s multiple Medeas have linked together in sometimes subtle, sometimes devastating ways, the jogging of the title takes on a different valence. Ali muses on her relationship with Beirut, a city that “destroys to build and builds to destroy” and wonders if, instead of jogging along a predetermined route, she ought to be running away.
And yet, as the play suggests, the act of running in circles is never a static activity. Ali isn’t running in place as she creates connections between Greek mythology, her own life, and those of her countrywomen. The circles she traces on the stage aren’t the limits of her thinking; rather, they’re the physical activity that generates and gives shape to that thinking.
Deep thinking and writing have often been connected to the act of walking. Virginia Woolf, for example, whom Ali quotes in Jogging, famously and frequently composed in her head as she walked the streets of London, using the rhythm of her footfall to shape the rhythm of her sentences. With Ali, though, we might wonder how the pace of jogging affects the rhythm of one’s thoughts, or, conversely, how one’s thoughts might necessitate a faster pace. Is jogging the appropriate speed for the ideas swirling in Ali’s brain? How does jogging expand or constrict the storyteller’s field of vision? Do narratives produced by jogging fade more quickly, the pace of the jogger speeding past the more sustained observation of walking?
Even as Ali constructs a female lineage of loss, transformation, and power that spans millennia, she impresses on audiences the tenuousness of these connections. Twice she performs Yvonne’s suicide message: in the first instance, after completing the letter, Ali reveals it to be written not by Yvonne but by Virginia Woolf. In the second, Ali explains that the tape Yvonne recorded for her husband has gone missing, so she can only guess at their contents. She can only offer an imagined version of Yvonne’s worries, loss, sense of self.
While the play leaves Ali jogging in circles, the audience has the sense that this work of imagining will continue, even if it doesn’t lead to a final destination or discovery. The printed script of Jogging, which is sold in a trilingual volume at performances in order to avoid charging Lebanese audiences for tickets, is subtitled Theatre in Progress. While the title could gesture to censorship practices in Lebanon (completed theatre scripts intended for performance are subject to scrutiny by the Bureau of Censorship), it also reflects the constantly changing and additive nature of this text. In London, for example, Ali concluded the piece with a recitation of “Home,” by British-Somali poet Warsan Shire, a text not included in the written document.
Jogging might not always look the same, but it continuously aims toward the narrating of women’s lives and experiences that are not only underrepresented but under-imagined, not gifted with sustained attention and wondering. Ali’s physical, emotional, and intellectual efforts on stage are best rewarded in the way the stories of Hanane, Yvonne, Zahra, and even Medea continue to resonate with audience members past the confined space of the theatre.
Katie Logan got her PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Texas at Austin, where she also taught classes including “The Rhetoric of Mourning” and “Arab Literary Travels.” She is now an Assistant Professor in the Department of Focused Inquiry at Virginia Commonwealth University. Her research focuses on contemporary Arabic and Arab Anglophone literature, memory, migration, and women’s and gender studies.