“Was war madness? Sam said peace had to be too. It was necessary to suggest the inconceivable. Putting Antigone on the firing line would take the fights by surprise. It would be so beautiful that the guns would fall down.”

Georges, an activist and student, meets Samuel Akounis, a Greek Jew from Salonika in 1968, during a demonstration for Palestine, with a handkerchief on his nose. What they have in common is a passion for theatre. Years later, Georges gets married and has a daughter, and Samuel, Sam, becomes the godfather. Stricken with cancer, Sam makes Georges promise to make his dream come true, his utopia of peace that he has been preparing for so many years: to play Antigone in Beirut, to steal two hours from the war, by choosing actors from each community involved in the conflict.

The Lebanese civil war has been raging since 1975, opposing Christian militias against Palestinian organisations and Lebanese left-wing parties. On June 6th 1982, Israel launched a massive invasion of Lebanon, with the support of the Lebanese Christian armed forces. The aim of the operation was to expel the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organisation) from Lebanon and install an allied regime in Beirut. After this attack, the Phallangist militias (Christian militias of the Lebanese forces) entered the Palestinian refugee camp of Sabra and Shatila refugee camps and massacred Palestinian civilians for 38 hours, even illuminating the camps at night with flares to continue the massacre. Independent sources put the death toll at 3,500, while Israeli sources put it at 700. No leader has been condemned for this massacre, considered to be one of the bloodiest of the Lebanese civil war. 

This is the context in which Sam wants to send Georges to perform Antigone. Antigone, the play performed in occupied Paris, Antigone “the skinny girl”, the embodiment of refusal, had become for Sam the occasion for a performance, on the “green line”, the demarcation between West Beirut and East Beirut, in a place that could speak of war while offering peace for the time of a few acts. 

Georges, with Sam’s notebook in hand, sets off for Lebanon, a country he knows so little about. There, he discovers war. He, the militant who had often demonstrated for the Palestinian cause, finds himself crossing Beirut in a taxi, startled by the sound of incessant gunfire. The confrontation with reality, underpinned by the unprecedented violence of Sorj Chalandon’s worlds, plunges Georges into the tangible reality of the intertwined stakes of the conflict and the unbearable tension of everyday life in a country that is being torn apart on all sides. 

“Who’s shooting? […]

– It’s Lebanon shooting at Lebanon.”

With the help of one of Sam’s friends, who becomes his driver, he convinces actors in each of the communities, slaloming between the Phalangists, the Shiites, the Druze and the Christian militias, trying not to offend anyone, praising the merits of each role to the people concerned and justifying the choice of Lebanon meeting after meeting. 

“Why Lebanon?

– Because of Damour and La Quarantaine.

– Back to back?

– Suffering to suffering.”

Georges manages eventually for all his actors to get together. 

“Antigone was Palestinian and Sunni. Hémon, her fiancé, was a Druze from the Chouf. Creon, king of Thebes and father of Hémon, was a Maronite from Gemmayze. […] An old Shiite had also been chosen for Queen Eurydice, Creon’s wife. “The Nourrice” was a Chaldean and Ismene, Antigone’s sister, an Armenian Catholic.”

Rehearsals could then begin, requiring ever more ingenuity from Georges to move the group forward and make Sam’s dream come true. 

Sorj Chalandon plunges us into the depths of the conflict and makes the violence almost palpable through his writing. The intensity of civil war, the hearts and nations being torn apart, is overwhelmingly true and lucid from the pen of a war correspondent who knows the region and shows us his immense empathy for it. When violence can be a weakness, the author offers a cry for peace, the outstretched hand of theatre and culture as a political and rhetorical weapon, as a means of speaking to the souls. A scathingly topical book in the current context.

The author

Sorj Chalandon is a journalist and writer. Born in Tunis, he was an activist for the proletarian Left in the 1970s and helped found Libération, where he was a senior reporter for 34 years. He has been a journalist with Le Canard enchaîné since 2009, and he is also a novelist and legal columnist. His work includes a report on Northern Ireland and the trial of Klaus Barbie, for which he won the Albert Londres prize. His latest book, L’Enragé, is about the revolt in the Belle-Ile penal colony, and won the Eugène-Dabit prize for popular fiction. Le quatrième mur was adapted into a graphic novel by Eric Corbeyran in 2016. 

To know more about…

Cirquenciel, Cirque social ayant pour but de répandre la paix à travers les arts du cirque, https://m.facebook.com/cirquenciel/

Corbeyran, E. and Chalandon, S. (2016). Le quatrième mur. Marabout. 

France Culture. (2024). “Sorj Chalandon, le juste et le vrai” (podcast), https://www.radiofrance.fr/franceculture/podcasts/serie-sorj-chalandon-le-juste-et-le-vrai 


Sorj Chalandon (2013). Le quatrième mur. Grasset.

Translated by Gabriel Capitolo

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