While the general population of Columbia University was huddled on College Walk, sipping hot chocolate and watching the trees bloom into beacons of artificial fluorescent luminosity, the audience in Miller Theatre was transported to the forests and hills of the Levant.
Using the stories and memories of Wadad Makdisi Cortas captured in her memoir, “A World I Loved: The Story of an Arab Woman.” Her daughter, Mariam Said—widow of the late Edward Said and former professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia—and acclaimed British actress Vanessa Redgrave transformed the memoir into a narrative for the stage. Directed by Redgrave, the performance incorporated multimedia, musical accompaniment, and narration, offering dramatic reading of selections that capably offered a distinct perspective on both personal and political events from World War I to the Lebanese Civil War as seen through Cortas’ eyes.
Containing her childhood educational experiences, her work as a principal of a girls’ school in Beirut, and her reactions to the chaos and confusion that has gripped the Middle East throughout the 20th century, the narrative goes on a whirlwind tour of the region, never settling too long on one location or idea before moving on to the next. Several ideas were constant throughout: the narrator’s love of Lebanon and grand hopes for independence and stability within the Arab world; her love of teaching and desire to educate; and a constant, unrelenting, and one-sided condemnation of the Jewish state that seemed to detract from the general narrative.
Of the three readers on stage, it was Redgrave who stole the show, weaving together a series of emotions and actions with a voice that could bring any audience to nirvana, even if she chose the Oxford English Dictionary as her text. Supporting her was Nadim Sawalha, who read many of the male roles, such as Cortas’ father or an article by Edward Said. He brought life and energy to those parts, with his deeper voice a stark yet welcome contrast to Redgrave’s soft storytelling tone. Sawalha also impressed the audience by reading the poetry sprinkled throughout the text, first in English and then in beautifully fluent Arabic. The final reader was Najla Said, Mariam Said’s daughter, who voiced the roles of the women and children, reading letters preserved in the text and in the end relating her own life and experiences in Lebanon to those of her grandmother.
Projected behind the readers was a constant succession of photographs, maps, and images that matched the stories being told and elevated the narrative from a simple story to a series of real-life experiences. Music was also present throughout the performance, provided by Stephen Bentley-Klein on the violin, Sary Khalife on the cello, and Sofya Melikyan on the piano. In addition to performing a selection from a Beethoven trio and a part of Bach’s First Cello Suite, they also accompanied the angelic voices of girls from the Spence School in songs selected from those sung by the girls at the Ahliah School, where Cortas was principal for many years.