Lebanese Culture and Art: Kassem Istanbouli and Tiro Arts Association

tiro group
Tiro Association for Arts volunteers and actors. Kassem Istanbouli, center showing peace sign.

Kassem Istanbouli is a passionate and renowned Lebanese artist who believes that art is for everyone. His conviction that artistic induction should be available everywhere, not just in metropolitan areas, led him to create the Tiro Association for Arts in Tripoli. Istanbouli’s endeavors with Tiro have taken him around the world and into the heart of accessibility and inclusion efforts for people with disabilities.

Kassem Istanbouli met with ABILITY Magazine’s Chet Cooper and Isabella Wisinger in a virtual interview to discuss his international career as an artist, winning the UNESCO-Sharjah Prize for Arab Culture, and the role of disability inclusion in the performing arts.

Isabella Wisinger: I would love to hear more about your career- how you got started as an artist and as a performer. 

Kassem Istanbouli: I started as an actor in 2008 with Stanbury Theater Company. We started to do street performance. And we do different performances for Beckett, Arabal, international theaters. And we participate in different festivals in the Arabic region, and in Europe and South America. In 2014, we started the project with Tiro Association for Arts. I had the idea about rehabilitating the old cinemas here in Lebanon. We rehabilitated four cinemas, three of them in the south of Lebanon, and one in the north. The idea is to link the south and north, and to create free cultural spaces. And that access to the arts becomes a right to everyone. From these ideas, we started different programs. We organize different festivals. Cinema, theater, contemporary dance, storytelling. We invite artists from all over the world to Lebanon. We do different training for kids and youth. And we started a program with women’s handicrafts. We have community. We started a different program with special needs, to screen films to the deaf and also to the people who don’t see.

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This is new in Lebanon. This dream is from the people. And we all work together on this project to create free spaces for people and to art for everyone. In our space we have a library, we have coffee, we have a cinema. We also have a bus. It’s called Peace Art Bus. I will send you a book about Tiro. We do different tours in areas that have no culture. Our goal is to go to the people who have no opportunity to see art. And we work a lot with the community here. Lebanese, Syrian, and Palestinian people. We have many workers. They are coming from Bangladesh, from Ethiopia. They also participate in the festivals. For 15 years we’ve been doing a lot of activities. Till now, we’ve created like 61 festivals. I mean, a lot.

Wisinger: That’s incredible. Can you tell me a how the festivals started?

Istanbouli: When we started to create festivals, we created this association. We invite people to come to stay in our houses. The families of the team cook. All the mothers cook for the guests. It’s like we create a family festival. It’s very personable. Artists come, they do training, they stay. We do a residency in Lebanon.

tiro peace bus activities
Peace Art Bus — Mobile Cinema and Workshops

Wisinger: There’s a live in residency program?

Istanbouli: Yeah. And this project is how we can believe in our dream and make it fact. We are learning by doing. And everything’s coming from community, from togetherness. We have the passion, we have the love. Imagine, we go from north to south. It’s from the north, from the south to the north every day to create these old cinemas. Now the cinema in Tripoli is the oldest cinema in Lebanon, from 1932. The oldest cinema in Lebanon is open again after 30 years. Many of these independent cinemas closed because of the war in Lebanon. And now we created this space again to let people meet together again without fear. To meet people from different countries. We are lucky because this space is also our heritage. It’s let us move between cultures and heritages. Also, we do cultural tourism. People move from place to place to see the festivals. This year, we will celebrate the 11th edition of the Tiro International Short Film Festival. We have the Tripoli International Theater Festival and Lebanon International Theater Festival for storytelling and contemporary dance. We do different performances with the students here, trainees from Tiro.

We do different plays for Dario, Lorca, Arabal, and Beckett. And we do different performances like playback theater. We also interact with the public in the street and open spaces with the bus when we move. Every day we have one movie screening, people can come without thinking about money because it’s free. We work with the people who are poor, people of different cultures who come to watch movies, families, they all come to the cinema. You see different ages, different nationalities, different religions.

Wisinger: Are the screenings free to the public?

Istanbouli: Yes. All the activities, the training, the festivals, the spaces, anyone can access them for free. And the new name of the space is the Free Lebanese National Theater. It isn’t linked to the government, the name means we are linked to the people. In most of Lebanon, it’s difficult to access spaces because it costs money. All of this happened because this we started to do performance in the streets and open spaces. We do performances in different countries, more than 27 countries. They invite us, we invite them. Sometimes we invite them to stay in our home or in the cinema, sometimes we sleep in a hotel. Depends on the situation. Now that we have our partners, they believe in the project. We work with UNESCO and UNIFIL, here in the south of Lebanon. And the Institute in Lebanon gives us movies to screen.

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Wisinger: I’m curious to know what inspired your love of film?

Istanbouli: When I was in school. One time the teacher asked, who wants to do the performance at the end of the year? All my friends raised their hands, and then I said, why I don’t raise my hand? And I raised my hand, I didn’t know that this rising of the hand would be a regular thing with me. And then I got on stage. And at that time, the stage had the person who sits on the stage with the text to tell you what to say. And now I visit the old theater all the time. It’s near here, near the space we have in Tiro. I started to act every year in the school play. I remember one time I performed in a cinema Tiro later renewed, called Cinema Hamra. In the first memory I have of my brother, he took me to the cinema and it had no seats. I watched films at that cinema after we renewed it. It has been difficult, because we renewed four cinemas, but two of them, the owners got them back and they closed them.

This is a big problem. It’s difficult to keep independent and to keep the spaces open. We have to include freedom in culture, because culture without freedom will not have the same results. At our cinemas, the first film we screen is always Cinema Paradiso, the Italian film. It speaks about the history of the cinema. I remember in Tripoli, the man who put on the projection cried. He said, this film is about me. I also have my roots, because my grandfather had his storytelling, he came from Turkey and he brought movies by boat from Greece and Palestine. And they screen it here in Tiro on the wall. And my father, he also fixed problems in the projection. He’s worked for us. Here in the south, there’s no university to learn arts. So I went to Beirut. Now I am happy because we have the spaces to give opportunity to the people who live here in Tripoli, to learn arts and to see arts.

tiro rivoli cinema before and after
Renovation of Rivoli Cinema which became the Lebanese National Theater, the first free theater in Lebanon

They don’t need to go to Beirut. This is a problem about capitals that have all the centralized culture, and the goal of our project is to have balance, to have arts everywhere. Because we have many talented people everywhere. And anyone, if they have the opportunity and the access and the rights to watch art, they will go to watch arts. Because this is beauty, and this is the way that we are linked in all the world. It’s by art. We can share human language, and we can understand each other. We can understand different cultures. When you sit with anyone to watch a film, you will share with him the pain, the happiness of that moment. And you clap together. You will not ask about any differences. You will always be with this person. And you see that we are all together, we are all human, we are all from this earth. We need same things. We need beauty and we need love.

Wisinger: I think that’s beautiful. I love that you’re bringing things back to your local community and inspiring people there. What are some of the most notable places that you’ve visited and organizations that you’ve partnered with?

Istanbouli: I mean, I traveled to Spain, for example, to the Barcelona Almagro Festival when we started. That was the first time I traveled, and then we traveled with the company. We asked the government to support. They didn’t support. Then we went there, we had very little money, we rented a tent there to do our performance. And we enjoyed this experience, this festival. This first time, they selected Arabic companions to participate in this festival in Almagro in 2011. And then later we participated in Chile. I enjoy South America, we saw their culture and it’s beautiful. I did a short film in Brazil, called “Back to Sao Paulo”. It’s a beautiful memory. In different Arabic regions, and in Spain, we usually participate a lot because we have many artists there. They’re coming from South America, from Mexico, from Chile, from Venezuela, and Argentina. But we are lucky to meet them, because now during COVID we start to know that we all need each other, we are all connected. And to build culture, you need this. You cannot build alone, you need to build with the people.

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We all need each other, we all support each other. And we can learn from each other, from different experiences. Because of this, we created the Arab Culture and Arts Network in 2020. And this network is how we can link all the world online, how we can exchange culture, how we can learn to speak and to open doors. We are lucky to have different platforms. This is the beauty of technology. But yeah, I mean, it’s difficult. And our experience these last five years has been very difficult. Because we face in Lebanon bad economic problems. To keep the cinema open, and to have the voice of the people. This is important. The people can say what they want on stage, to have social change, economic change, tourism change. This will help to change all the country. Because when people change their mind, they fight for rights. Especially when we work with special needs. We feel how much talent they have.

And it’s not special needs, they are not in need, they have special power. When we screen films, the people who don’t see, we see that they see by listening to how we can create films for them, how we can create movies with body language for the people who don’t speak. And then we do performance with special needs. We have one member on the board of Tiro, who is also special needs. And we see they need space to create, they need to draw. The dream is that they feel like they give beautiful energy to the cinema and they are not alone. I mean, we don’t do separate training for them. No, we are all together. When we screen films, we let all the people come together, because this is what I mean, to be all together. This is important. It will not give any change if you do screening films only to them. You need to bring the people to see this experience.

tiro training workshops for children displaced because of war
Tiro art workshops for children displaced because of war

Wisinger: Yes, you answered my next question before I could even ask it. I wanted to dive into your past experiences with disability equity and inclusion in the film space. And it sounds like you’re already practicing that, which I think is wonderful. I was wondering, what are your thoughts on the state of disability inclusion in the film industry at the international level?

Istanbouli: We need the people, the production to start to think how we can put disabled characters in movies. You give them the space to speak about their stories, to speak about their problems, to build movies. This is the most important, to give them space, to give them voice. And this can be changed in theater. They can be beautiful characters, they can draw, they can do different things. I mean, what the public needs to have a change, is to write stories, to speak about special needs, put them in a movies, give a job to the people with special needs. They can feel like they can be like anyone, they can do any thing, they can work. This is the most important. But this is needed from every country to change, to give more opportunity and to think about how we can mix always.

They don’t need to be separate. They need to be present for all the activities. It must be discussed how you can prepare theaters and cinemas for the special needs to enter these spaces, how you can have training in schools. For example, you can make one movie for the people who don’t see. You can build a movie as voice, like storytelling. And this will bring in more of the public. If you only bring movies to the people who see, for example, then you will lose. This needs to be a big change. It needs to be thought about in the countries, in the law and the protection in theaters and cinema. It’s needed altogether to have the change.

Wisinger: I was curious to know if Tiro Arts is implementing any of this. What you were just mentioning—do you include voice-overs for people who are blind and low vision or sign language interpreters?

Istanbouli: You want to ask about the experience? I can send you different videos to see how they see the movies. They say first time they go to cinema, they say about how much they love the experience, how they enjoy seeing it and sharing and being in cinema, and how much they speak about it. I say we learn from them, they give a lot of energy. We speak with the schools here in Tripoli, and then we hear from them. I mean, they always love to come. And they tell the school, please, we need to go to the theater. And then we plan for them to come, we eat here, sometimes we cook together. It’s not only watching the arts. And one of them, they said that they want to be an actor, someone said they want to go to the university. They have small dreams, and their dreams are very beautiful. They have different talents and I can say they give us power.

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Wisinger: I wanted to ask you about your experience winning UNESCO-Sharjah Prize for Arab Culture.

unesco awards lebanese kassem istanbouli with the unesco sharjah prize for arab culture
Kassem Istanbouli receiving the UNESCO-Sharjah Prize for Arab Culture

Istanbouli: Any prize is good. UNESCO, they appreciate all the experience, all the work, and also that it’s for the people, for all the ones who dream, who believe in this project, who support this project. No one can succeed alone. You need the support of the people to succeed. Maybe you are the image of this organization, or you are in the interview, for example. But yeah, when I go there, I had one member from Tiro, he’s a refugee in Brussels. He’s from Palestine and he’s with us in the training. Before, when I invited him to go to Paris and then he went to the UNESCO office, he said how beautiful it was, how much all these people coming because of us made him feel proud. And we have also another student of Tiro. He’s married now in Paris, and he has a job there, because after he finished here, he went to Paris, and he came to UNESCO. He was so proud. Yes, for me, I have a lot of beautiful memories. And also we spoke about the experience and we felt a lot of importance about what we did.

After we came to Lebanon, we enjoyed being with the group here in Tripoli. It’s not successful because of the beautiful space, the different languages, or our professionalism. It’s beautiful because of this sharing of beautiful emotion with the people. There’s truth, love, passion, enjoyment. I remember one person in Tripoli who visited the cinema to see a film. When we turned off the lights, he slept, and we turned on the lights, he left. I discovered that he came to the cinema because he needed to be warm, because he lived in the street.

Wisinger: It’s incredible that it’s doubling as shelter for people as well who need a little bit of reprieve.

tiro training workshops for children displaced because of war
Kassem Istanbouli leading an acting workshops for children

Istanbouli: Yeah, I can say that this is a dream. It’s become fact because of all the experiences, and it’s important that the space stays open for the people in Tripoli. And when you come to Tiro- I hope one day you can visit us- you will see how important the space is for the people. It’s a space for everyone. Children come to the cinema every day and wait outside because they want to learn, they want to come to the classes. Everyone has story, has a dream here. And many of them, they learn theater. We have students here who finish at the university. We have some of them that become an actor or actress or dancer. They go to Europe.

Wisinger: I’d love to hear a little bit more about the classes that you’re offering. I think you mentioned earlier, there’s a lot of diversity, especially in age.

Istanbouli: We start with six- or seven-year-olds. Sometimes they learn drawing, dancing, handicraft, theater. And with other ages, they learn photography, cinema, editing, traditional dance, dapki and storytelling. We work with schools and universities. They come to the space. Another part of our work is to protect the old movies in the archives, to scan all the old posters, because this is how we keep the memory alive. We do training in the villages too- we go by the bus and put on student performances in different areas. The group at Tiro travels sometimes to do performance outside. This is what I meant earlier. During the festivals, people organize with us, and many of them become members of Tiro. They start when they six or seven, when they turn 17 and 18 and they’re still in the cinema.

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Chet Cooper: How did you find funding to restore these wonderful theaters?

Istanbouli: When we started, we didn’t know what we would do. When we started to do street performance, we realized we needed to have different experiences too. We started to do rehabilitation of cinemas, and at the beginning, I started with my family. They supported me and I put all my money in. I had a shop where I sold movies before, and I put all my money into the new box outside of the theater at the entrance. Then people started to donate and then things went well and we had out start.  I’ll send you the book of Tiro so you can see more information. Later, we started to have organizations contact us. They started to work with us, and then we got donations, and then the people who become members of Tiro donated to the association. The public donates to cinema, and we create festivals. People pay for the tickets to come to Lebanon and then we host them. We ask people to volunteer.

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And then after we met with different organizations, and started to work with the DROSOS organization. They are our partner and they helped us to renew the Tripoli cinema. After we renewed two cinemas at the beginning, we got partners and we worked with different groups around the world. They started to communicate with us. We have different agreements. Then we started an NGO, so we have a fund. We bought the bus by crowdfunding. People online that we don’t know donate from all over the world. We bought a bus. We call it the Peace Art Bus. This is what I mean that now it’s at a different level, especially with current economic problems in Lebanon. It’s difficult, like when we started. When we started, it depended on volunteering and people donating. Now, people are tired and they’re suffering from the war, from all the things in Lebanon. It’s not easy to keep the place alive. And what I can say?

If everyone goes where we have light, who will come here? We have darkness. What we try to do is make the place alive by putting lights up so that people will come. I mean, when you do good things, something will return always.

Cooper: Have you been to Sharjah?

Istanbouli: Yes, I visited Sharjah one time. I was invited to Gulf Theater Festival and I participated in the festival. Just one time.

Cooper: Did you have a chance to meet his Highness Sheikh Dr. Sultan Bin Mohammed Al Qasimi?

Istanbouli: I’d love to meet him personally, but I didn’t have that chance to see him in Sharjah. But I hope I will meet him. For me, what he did for Arabic theater is very important, because it’s important that someone who’s empowered loves art. Imagine this person. He’s writing text for theater. What he did is very important in the Arabic region, in culture, in arts, and I appreciate a lot what he did supporting Arabic artists.

tiro children in southern lebanon learn arts
Children in southern Lebanon in a Tiro art class

Cooper: Right. And his sister created and runs, Sharjah City for Humanitarian Services for people with disabilities, which is doing such great work. We’ve met a couple of times in promotion of employment of PwDs and ABILITY Job Fair and abilityEntertainment platforms.

Istanbouli: Can you please send us the link?

Cooper: Sure, have you ever been to the UN during the CRPD?

tiro book 1

Istanbouli: No, but one time I met the General Guterres. I met him at Tiro. Yeah, he’s interesting, and I gave him a present, an old poster from the cinema. He put it in his collection.

Cooper: You mentioned earlier electricity might cut off ?

Istanbouli: Yes, because we don’t get electricity all the time. Yeah, it’s a difficult life, because this is important for culture in this time. This is about cultural resistance, and it’s important to keep the space open for people.

Cooper: Cultural resistance. I love that term. That’s the first time I’ve heard it. So is that part of general electric issues in Lebanon or just the area you’re in?

Istanbouli: In all of Lebanon, there’s not a lot of electricity. It’s 2 hours of electricity from the government. And then you pay to have an extra motor that’s private. And then you need to put in a solar system. Sometimes we have no electricity at all. We hope that we keep our work alive, and keep the team. This is why we need to have different support from everywhere to keep our space open, so that we won’t stop. And what we do is keep hope alive for people.

Cooper: Well, I’m going to not let you use up your electricity anymore. Wonderful speaking with you. I know Isabella was excited to meet with you as well. And we’ll let you go, but we’ll stay in contact.

Wisinger: Thank you so much. It was lovely to meet you. And thanks for using your electricity to speak with us today.

Istanbouli: Thank you. I’ll send you the book now. Bye.

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