On Sunday August 29th, Ani and I headed to a site we never knew existed: the Araya-Chouit train station. After Google-mapping the towns, we set off and arrived there early.
Early to what you might ask? Well, the reason we did hear about this is through Books in Motion’s (BIM) series of theatrical pieces written and directed by renowned Lebanese director Lucien Bourjeily, produced by Denise Marooney and amazing puppet design by Randy Ginsburg (a UK-based artist). Araya proved closer than the other featured train stations, and once we got there, I was confident I made the right choice.
Parking on the main road, we came across a cute little puppy, sitting alone on the side of the street with a broken arm. I petted the dog, made sure she stayed off the road, and continued to the train station. She followed us there, and despite our attempts to find her a safer place to stay, she insisted on coming too. Once we got to the site proper, fortune was on our, and Chouity’s side (I called her that cause we found her in Chouit and she was a real sweety = Chouity) a couple of dozen orphans from SOS villages were there having a picnic before the play started. They were ecstatic when Chouity found them, and she couldn’t have been happier, running around, with a limp, from child to child. We will get back to Chouity later.
The first thing you see once you reach the station is the impressive water tower. Locomotives of the day used steam-powered engines and water was a necessary supply along with coal at every station. The rusted water tank had scars all-too familiar to many old Lebanese structures: shrapnel holes. The damage littered the metal shell that once held well over 4000 liters of water and ensured 24/7 operation of the train station.
To the right of the tower, a small booth stands, roofless and doorless. It’s what remains of the ticketing kiosk my dad and his scouts troupe used to bargain at for lower ticket prices to make feasible their scoutly excursions into places as far as dahr el baydar. Nowadays, no humans stand in line in front of this ticketing office, and the only scouts are bees looking for fresh flowers to replenish the dozens of beehives that are kept in lines in front of the guichet.
Then, the station itself looms from between the heavy forest (something not so common anymore in Lebanon). The façade and interior tell stories of what this place used to be and how history has forgotten it. In many places, the brick-red outer façade has been ravaged by vegetation, water erosion and man-made damage. The roof tiles are loosely held together, faltering over the decaying windowpanes and shutters. Below the 2-story-high building, the sign read “Chouit Araya” in Arabic and French, over a segment of the building which had caught on fire many years ago, and was now exposed to the elements.
Inside, everything was devastated. Stairwells, roof beams, and even floor tiles were reduced to rubble. Amidst this sad situation though, patches of intricately designed ceramic tiles stand out, reminding the beholder that this was once an awe-inspiring sight, one that symbolized Lebanon’s once vibrant and promising circulatory system.
After going over every centimeter of the location, the spectacle was about to begin. The official in charge of railroads and trains in Lebanon (at first I thought it was a joke and laughed… another brilliant example of how the government wastes money and spends resources on a sector that has been dead for over three decades) took the ‘stage’ and described the Lebanese Railway System’s Golden Age back in the 50s. He expressed his remorse that the railway system is no more, and insisted if it were brought back to life, many of Lebanon’s infrastructure and pollution problems would be solved. An environmentalist also added on what the trains official had to say, insisting public transportation in the form of trains, was the ideal solution.
The president of the municipal council of Chouit then elaborated on the historical, social and sentimental value of this once splendid station, which once joined two neighboring towns, torn apart by civil war. He lamented those days, and acknowledges the link and friendship is stronger than ever, but there is no Chouit-Araya station to be testament to that brotherly bond.
The play then began. The satirical comedy retells the folk story of treasure buried by Ottoman soldiers near the Riyak train station as their forces fled the oncoming British onslaught in 1918. The actors and actresses seamlessly merge song, stand-up comedy, puppetry and drama to deliver a truly unique, lighthearted and delightful theatrical piece.
I’d like to mention a few things I found very nice: the puppets were amazingly constructed from everyday objects like pans and dishes and balls. Also, in a segment where the actors speak Turkish, the actors performing the dialogue held up cue cards with an Arabic translation of the conversation (like subtitles, hehe)
As for Chouity, she watched in amusement as the play unfolded and the dozens of people clapped and cheered. After being fed and given water by the cast and crew, one of the cast members volunteered to take Chouity to a shelter, where she will be cleaned, vaccinated and relocated to a loving family. So, apart from the awesome location, amazing play and insightful messages, we all got to save the life of a beautiful little puppy.
All in all, let’s hope this initiative helps spark the much-needed attention to a potential life-saver for Lebanon’s traffic jams and pollution. I would like to end this post by borrowing a few words from the actor who played one of the main characters, did the voiceovers and made us all laugh plenty, Raouf Khelifa: “Nshalla yerja3 el tren yemshe, ta nirja3 n2ool toot toot 3a Beirut…”