Metro Al Madina: How a musical theatre in Hamra became an ode to survival

A long-standing playground for talent, experimentation, and innovation has found a bigger and better home.

Metro Al Madina.
Metro Al Madina.

Metro Al Madina: How a musical theatre in Hamra became an ode to survival

Beirut: Lebanon’s nightlife staple Metro al Madina's remarkable journey has survived the country's ‘era of collapse’, finding a bigger home for itself in the capital city.

With its unique vision, Metro has always sought to uncover the joys hidden within the depths of Arab musical heritage. It also set out to reclaim the grandeur of the often-denigrated and misunderstood cabaret scene, redefining it as a space rooted in quintessential urban experiences and lighthearted entertainment.

Within this metropolitan atmosphere, myriad art movements began to take shape. Metro's team unearthed hidden cultural treasures ready to be polished off and revived for a younger audience, infusing them with a modern take on societal and political issues. They did it all through a lens of satire and criticism while remaining an inclusive haven for all.

The Metro experience has since become a versatile blend of theatrical and musical performances, stand-up comedy shows, live concerts, and DJ parties.

Intimate beginnings

It began in a cosy theatre in the historic Saroula Cinema building on Hamra Street in Beirut. Recently, it found a more spacious home to host its artistic endeavours at the Aresco Centre, also situated in the vibrant Hamra Street.

Artist extraordinaire Hisham Jaber – the playwright, director, and creative force behind Metro – has been through many ups and downs over the years, witnessing the venue’s evolution. His ambitious plans helped build its unique character and elevate its impact.

Looking back, Jaber describes the theatre scene in Lebanon as gruelling and exhausting, weighed down by demanding and draining conditions. At the start of his journey, he spent his days seeking funding, engaging with potential donors, applying for bank loans and waiting for approvals.

As a result, theatre productions were few and far between, often taking a considerable amount of time before they saw the light of day.

The concept of Metro Al Madina was born out of these hardships and a desire to challenge the traditional norms of theatre, which typically assumed that there would be an audience seated in chairs and actors performing on stage.

Metro Al Madina.

But Metro embraced a more experimental and open space, in a bid to revive the “daily theatre” concept popularised by the late theatrical icon Chouchou. Jaber presented it in a way that aligns with Beirut's transformations since Chouchou’s era in the 1960s and 1970s.

Before Metro, Jaber had put on many out-of-the-box theatrical performances. Some featured actors who played their roles from the auditorium while the audience watched from the stage. He also crafted a three-part play that unfolded over three days and involved audience participation.

Metro embraced a more experimental and open space, in a bid to revive the "daily theatre" concept popularised by the late theatrical icon Chouchou.

Additionally, Jaber had previously introduced the comedic character of "Roberto Kobrosli," which he performed in several interactive stand-up comedy shows (and later developed in Metro). Through this character, he discovered that the audience was more receptive to humour, criticism and satire as long as it came from a fictional persona.

Roberto Kobrosli could say whatever he wanted.

That's where the idea of Metro took root: an inclusive, diverse space that expanded the boundaries of expression and established a clear, professional framework through which artists could make a living while presenting their ideas freely.

With acquiring that small theatre in Saroula, Jaber's idea began to come to life.

Hidden joy and feminist heritage

Metro soon began to take shape. The intimate physical space blended the concept of a metro station with the ambience of cabarets – i.e., spaces for delightful performances that embrace levity. (Contrary to popular belief, such shows require hard work and meticulous training to be presented with finesse.)

After its inception in 2012, several productions took place. The first was Cabaret Show, followed by The Passionate Agent and the Double Agent, a comical and critical satire of intelligentsia, and then The World of Hot Air, which blended elements of theatre and cabaret.

Then came the Hishik Bishik Show, which drew inspiration from lighthearted Egyptian musical traditions that were prevalent in the 1970s.

Ilpo Musto / Alamy Stock Photo

However, this kind of production seemed unknown and alien to the generations born during or after the Lebanese Civil War. However, by presenting these cultural shows as lively urban experiences, Metro managed to attract these younger audiences. 

The venue committed itself to such musical productions that drew inspiration from tradition, while also incorporating fresh compositions and orchestration, which were performed by artists such as Yasmina Fayed and others within the Metro universe.

In addition, thematic musical productions, sometimes written by Jaber himself, were presented in a playful and new way, with dialogue that echoed old-school simplicity.

Once dismissive of the region's "heritage" – viewing it as rigid, serious, and formal – young people suddenly found themselves enjoying a rich treasure trove of art, pulsating with life, almost closer to contemporary storytelling than many current productions.

Metro managed to bridge the gap between newer generations and a deep-rooted legacy that sometimes evaded them.

Theatre of innovation

Conventional Lebanese musical theatre, epitomised by the Rahbani brothers, had once dominated the scene in terms of concepts, set designs, costumes, and atmosphere. Before Metro, there had been no clear deviation from this brand of musical theatre. No one had dared to shed the Rahbani cloak.

Conventional Lebanese musical theatre, epitomised by the Rahbani brothers, had once dominated the scene in terms of concepts, set designs, costumes, and atmosphere.

Metro's ingenuity lies in its ability to break from the mould.

Presenting a fresh take of musical plays, singers would take centre stage, performing either a single long song or a set of songs, paying homage to prominent, ethereal voices from the Arab world, such as Sheikh Imam, Sayed Darwish, Leila Mourad, Mohammed Abdel Wahab, and Umm Kulthum.

These huge artistic personas were brought back to life through talented vocalists such as Sandy Chamoun, Naim al-Asmar, Cosette Chedid, and Abdel Karim Shaar.

Additionally, Metro supported young experimental bands who released satirical albums, such as Al-Rahel Al-Kabir (The Great Departed), led by Khaled Sabih.

This eclectic mix of programming gave way to contemporary productions that offered a different voice, delving into more current stories that were once believed to have no roots in our heritage at all.

One example lay in the rediscovery of the works of Sami al-Sidawi and Widad, which were astounding not just from an artistic perspective; they revealed an early feminist perspective that challenged male dominance, laced with defiance and rebellion.

This is particularly evident in Widad's lyrics, which were seen at the time as a bold departure from the prevalent themes of mourning and misery, especially in women`'s music.

Widad's audacious songs, like Eye for an Eye and Tooth for a Tooth and You Shall Regret It, can be seen as an early call for gender equality. They signalled the growth of a progressive feminist movement that was starting to take shape in the Lebanese art scene, before being stifled by the war and its aftermath.

Politics as a circus

Meanwhile, Metro didn't just flirt with politics; it reframed it entirely.

The venue didn't become a platform for any predominant political views; instead, it diluted their messages, ridiculed their rhetoric, and dismantled their myths. It thrived on mocking the very figures that upheld the prevailing power structures.

Metro never explicitly declared itself a political entity, and yet, it was clear that everything it presented was intricately linked to politics. People saw in Metro's performances a reflection of what was happening around them and an artful commentary on the state of affairs.

Metro never explicitly declared itself a political entity, and yet, it was clear that everything it presented was intricately linked to politics.

A prime example is The Political Circus, a performance staged ahead of the 2018 legislative elections in the country.

It skilfully lampooned the political discourse at the time through extended scenes that served no other purpose than parodying vacuous rhetoric and revealing it as hot air.

The pivotal turning point in Metro's journey came with the October 2019 revolution.

Metro embraced the initial spark that ignited the protests, and the venue's core artists were among the first to rush to the streets, sleep on the roads, and create the chants that ultimately became anthems of the revolution.

Remarkably, Metro's role in shaping and supporting the revolution was not premeditated, nor was it a reflection of a clearly defined political agenda. Instead, it was a natural extension of Metro's essence.

Through its artists, its audience, and its content, Metro had built a powerful presence within broader social movements that dominated the country at the time, armed with a hope for change.

Nonetheless, they were swiftly suppressed through opposition from various forces. A deep and profound frustration gripped the Metro family. On the flip side, their overarching social awareness and extensive experience came in handy.

Hence came the rallying cry: "We're not okay, but we will sing." This slogan encapsulated both an acknowledgement of the harsh reality and a determination to overcome it, exemplifying the resilient spirit of Metro.

Art as a profession

During and after this period, Metro staunchly defended art as a profession, a calling, and a vital part of society.

They emphasised that every artist should commit themselves to their craft as a means of livelihood and sustenance but remain grounded, without grandiose and unrealistic expectations.

Going back to creating art became a personal, political, and existential necessity. It allowed every artist to defend their vision through an unwavering and ongoing dedication to their craft.


Within Metro's ethos, art was viewed as a career, subject to the same challenges as any other, and artists had to adapt to these realities in order to persevere.

After a hiatus, Metro bounced back, encouraging people to make sense of the challenges they faced, and find ways to resist them within an available space.

This newfound vigour was channelled into daily performances, where the audience contributed as much as they could, reflecting the spirit of collective resilience.

Training programme

With the Beirut Port blast in 2020, it seemed like everything in the country had shattered, leaving little room for anything but the profound silence that followed. But this deafening silence soon began to seem like a complicit acceptance of the explosion's never-ending devastation.

So, the choice was made to invest in the future generation through the launch of a professional training programme for young talents across various fields.

These budding artists underwent intensive training under the guidance of experts and seasoned professionals, paving the way to produce their own unique shows or to integrate into Metro's ensemble. It also empowered them to choose their own professional path, navigating the rocky waters of the industry.

In the face of chaos and adversity, Metro represented a beacon of hope in the art world.

In those trying times, finding opportunities to remain in the country and continue creating art had become increasingly difficult. To steer the country towards a new trajectory, defending the city and its people seemed paramount. And so, despite a prevalent decline and collapse, the decision was made to move Metro into a modern and welcoming space, the Aresco Palace.

The new venue boldly expressed itself through its lighting, décor, layout, and enhanced facilities. In a way, it was a protest against the status quo itself.

This contemporary theatre was not seeking to model its experience on the past, nor did it pay heed to accusations that had long haunted modernisation projects. The most popular of which is, perhaps, the "charge" of undermining the sanctity of theatre.

Instead, Metro stood its ground in its new home – bolder, larger, and more ambitious than ever before.  

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