The Trials of Exile and The Production of Art: Conversation with Mohammad al-Attar, A Syrian Playwright

Rasha Salti

All images: Could You Please Look into the Camera? Performance, written by Mohammad Al-Attar, directed by Omar Abu Saada, Festival Bo:m, Seoul, 2012

Rasha Salti [R.S.]: Let’s begin our conversation with Withdrawal (Insihab), the performance/play that was presented in Beirut, Lebanon, in the framework of Meeting Points 6 program (April 7th to May 7th, 2011), curated by Okwui Enwezor.1 At that time, the uprising in Syria was barely weeks old. The performance consisted of stage readings with Fatima Laila and Wissam Talhouk. Withdrawal opens with a young unwed couple in a rented studio. Their love story gradually implodes as they negotiate the contradictions between their aspirations as individuals and their aspirations as a couple, in direct contrast with the real prospects in the Syria governed by Bashar al-Assad on the eve of the 2007 referendum. By exploring the intimate tribulations in a relationship, the play drew a portrait of the generation that became the marrow of the uprising—an event that political experts were firmly convinced would not happen in Syria. Did you intend to write a prehistory of the Syrian uprising while you were taking part in it?

Mohammad al-Attar [M.a-A.]: In truth, I wrote the text in 2007. It was published in English, in an anthology.2 Shortly thereafter, Okwui Enwezor came across it during his research for Meeting Points 6. That was a year prior to the Arab Spring, but there must have been an anticipation of something, especially if you consider the title Enwezor gave to his edition of the event: Locus Agonistes: Practices and Logics of the Civic.3 In my conversations with him, I recall that he liked how the text incarnated the predicament of twenty- and thirty-something middle-class generations in Syria, their perception of a horizon without prospects of self-realization, their sense of entrapment. The play ends on a dark note. It has since become clear that the desire for life is stronger and that people don’t surrender to a living death. The inclusion of the play in the program [acquired] tremendous significance after the insurgency erupted. The form in which it was presented, namely the stage readings, were part of Enwezor’s curatorial conceit: he wanted to showcase an open rehearsal, or a work-in-progress

Even now, the play has never been performed in Damascus, Syria. It is not an overtly political play, but obviously, it has been forged within an explicitly political reality that is transposed on stage. When I watched the performance in Beirut during Meeting Points 6
I felt that we had achieved a small victory. At the time, the insurgency was barely more than a month old; the government had already retaliated with a high degree of violence, but we were extremely optimistic. I was optimistic then, and I remain so now, though to a lesser degree—I am certainly not pessimistic. The play was written from that fragile and precarious realm of hope that some carried and defended; the firm rejection of surrendering to the prevailing order that the regime enforced. When I watched the performance in Beirut, I understood that we were right to have stubbornly, steadfastly, held on to this realm. My conviction of the necessity for change was further solidified.
I wrote the text after al-Assad had staged the notorious referendum and the grand spectacle of popular allegiance, at a time when his regime was in a very stormy diplomatic impasse following the assassination of Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri, and just after the formal—and humiliating—withdrawal of the Syrian army from Lebanon. I am neither intensely involved in politics, nor do I have affiliations to the established opposition groups or any other political movement, and yet I witnessed the referendum as the terrifying promise of the regime’s enduring reign of terror and hopelessness. The play comes from that realization.

R.S.: When you wrote the play in 2007, were you aware that it would be impossible to stage in Syria? Thinking back, Damascus was the Arab Capital for Culture in 2008, an initiative that the regime undertook very seriously, with Asma al-Assad at the helm.4 Tremendous resources were marshaled and the emerging creative talents in major cities were lured with the promise of finding production support and employment in the organization of events. New spaces were established, and older spaces were rehabilitated. There was a semblance of a widening of the horizon, replete with hope for a renewed cultural and artistic life. You were among those who worked in the administration of that program.

M.a-A.: To answer the first part of your question, I don’t think anyone can anticipate the public life of a work of art while in the process of making it. I did not know I would not be able to stage the play while writing it; I cannot say that I was entirely devoid of any hope in that regard. However, I was not really thinking about that question. After it was completed I came to the realization, gradually, that I would not be able to stage it, but I have never lost the desire to do just that.
As for the Damascus Arab Capital for Culture initiative—indeed, I was among those who joined the administrative team. We were lured because we all felt we could make a real difference in arts and culture at the time. Yet we realized soon enough that the margins we had identified in the beginning were actually far narrower. It was not only a sobering realization of the regime’s perfidy, but more importantly, to some of us, this occasioned the awareness of the extent of the internalized censor within: self-censorship. That is fundamentally the regime’s mechanism of operation; the stem cell of tyranny. Oppression is so deeply ingrained in the individual’s perception of what is socially and politically acceptable that the power of the official censor is aggrandized; mythologized. Stories of reprisals exaggerated. To a considerable extent, and in retrospect, I think we failed to seize the opportunity to form small troupes and to pursue our aspirations to create productions in the narrow margins that existed.
For the record, overall, the initiative had a remarkable impact on two levels. On the one hand, it provided for unprecedented production resources, as much for those emerging talents who did not have opportunities to produce first works, as for the established talents who did not have opportunities to pursue ambitious projects. On the other hand, a number of very well-known international productions were presented to the Syrian public for the first time. The initiative created a momentum in all sectors of the arts, which local audiences had been yearning for. It is unfortunate that it had to wait for such an exceptional instance to discover this array of international and local productions. Unfortunately, as soon as the year ended, the momentum died, and the promises of “residual” impact had all but lapsed. For instance, we were told that rehabilitated spaces would become available for local talents, though none in fact were.

R.S.: This UNESCO-led program, Capitals of Culture has, with a few exceptions, witnessed spectacular failures in the Arab world. I recall distinctly that its edition in Damascus was one of the rare successes at the level of international programming, and how it mobilized a local generation of emerging creators; some were close friends, and others were people I’d met over the course of that year. I remember very well my ambivalence towards the enthusiasm that you and other friends showed. Yet at the same time I was fully aware of the project’s success. The most difficult moment was when Peter Brook was in Damascus presenting a performance, with all the jubilant newspaper headlines; and at the same time, the army was crushing the prison uprising in Saidnaya, a town only a few kilometers away from Damascus. In fact, news of the uprising only surfaced a couple of days after it had already started, and the regime had used the military and its artillery to crush it. I was floored by how a media black-out could be pulled off so efficiently. The journalists were there… Do you recall that moment?

M.a-A.: In all honesty, we, the locals, also learned about this uprising after it had already started. In full disclosure, we did not even try to learn more about it. That’s the self-censor within—the belief that trying to find out more would only bring trouble. You are right, this is a paradox; a huge one, and we should remember it. We should remember where we were, and how we were, how obtuse and shallow our margins were. We could not really build anything on them. The festive tenor of the entire program at the time was not only celebratory, it was also frivolous. The cultural program was a media stunt, a much-needed political opportunity for the regime to normalize its status in the local, regional and international media. Recall that at the time, the regime was under siege and didn’t have much room to maneuver. It is not a coincidence that festivities were launched with fireworks at the Umayyad Square with Bashar al-Assad in attendance, in addition to his most loyal allies at the time, the Turkish president Abdullah Gul and the Emir of Qatar, Hamad bin Khalifa.5 This event was of tremendous political significance. We were fully aware of the political stakes. There is no need to rehash the age-old debate of whether we were right to take part and/or wrong not to boycott, suffice it to say that we saw the possibility of strengthening the fragile and precarious margins in which we dwelled. I must repeat: we were not bold enough to seize the opportunities at hand, and we were shocked by the perfidy of the regime.

R.S.: When the insurgency broke out in March of 2011, for longer than a year, it embodied so many of our ideals. In 2012, you moved to Beirut and in the iteration of Meeting Points 6 in Berlin, Germany (January 2012), you presented another play entitled Could You Please Look into the Camera?, which was also in the form of stage readings, and with actors. Could You Please Look into the Camera? was pieced in a dramaturgy, with testimonies from prison detainees suspected of being “insurgents”, and who had endured torture. The work raises questions about the role of art in representing everyday life in the context of the insurgency, all the while drawing upon images, stories and documents used by the militants, in a work of art. At that stage, the world (as well as the media) was interested in the insurgency, and the insurgents (as well as the regime) had unhindered access to the internet to convey the everyday lived experiences of the insurgency in unmediated ways via Facebook, YouTube, and the like. Why did you feel the need (or desire) to present another play?

M.a-A.: Okwui Enwezor had decided that the iterations of Meeting Points in the various cities that were going to host it would not happen immediately after each other. Close to nine months had lapsed between the presentation in Beirut and the one in Berlin. In the meantime, I had become totally involved and was overwhelmed by the insurgency. Furthermore, I considered Meeting Points an important platform where I could express myself with a relatively high degree of freedom. If that first text contained some answers as to why the insurgency happened in the first place, nine months later, I felt it was time to propose some representations and reflections on what was going on within the insurgency. I don’t agree with you that the world was really watching, or that people were interested enough, and that the lived experiences of everyday citizens were communicated in their naked truth or their full complexity. Yet whether that was the case or not is not the point, because victims of violence and terror will invariably feel that what they endure is not acknowledged enough by the rest of the world. This is not something proper to Syrians, Iraqis or Palestinians (or Rwandans or Afghans, or anyone else, for that matter)—each have expressed similar feelings in a myriad of ways. The necessity of using the visibility afforded by Meeting Points was thus too pressing to ignore. In parallel, I wanted to explore the limitations and virtues of theater (my own practice) when it engages with an ongoing insurgency in the here and now. Going further, perhaps, is an exploration of the significance of the play or text as a document. What kind of a document does a literary text constitute, and what is a document? This was in addition to the desire to express things that I was convinced people did not know or did not have the right type of access to.
Okwui and the Meeting Points team agreed to include another performance. The text is based on thirteen testimonies by political detainees. After conducting the interviews, I wove the statements together and embedded the “documentary” material within a dramaturgy. My interrogations on the nature of the document and the relevance of a dramaturgical structure guided me through the process. There were two instances of the stage readings within Meeting Points, but afterwards, the play was staged with actors. A performance directed by Omar Abu Saada was held in Arabic at the Bo:m Festival in Seoul, Korea, which basically commissioned the production of the play, and following that a one-time-only performance was held in Beirut (due to our limited resources).6 The play was performed in English in Edinburgh and Glasgow, as a production by the National Theater of Scotland, and it was also performed in German in a theater in Berlin, produced by suite42 in cooperation with Heimathafen Neukölln.7 The play is often performed there now because it is part of their repertory. The text has also been published in English in TDR: The Drama Review in September of this year. Unfortunately, the Arabic version of the text has yet to be published; it is partly my fault that we have not been actively invested in seeking a publisher.

R.S.: Today you are still living in Beirut. Your movement out of the country is limited for many reasons and you are working on a new play. An adaptation of a classic. The situation in Syria is quite different—or perhaps you don’t see it that way?

M.a-A.: Without a doubt, the situation in Syria is very different—there is no point in fooling oneself and trying to lessen the extent of the disaster. We are back to a situation where the horizon is unclear. Personally, my only consolation is the firm conviction that ours was a journey we had to embark on, and that today we are living what is perhaps its most arduous chapter, but that it is necessary and unavoidable if we are to move forward to another stage. Transitions to a better reality don’t always have to take the longest and the most painful trajectory, but this is what has happened in Syria. I suspect that this is not unlike the temperament of our region; the predicament for finding the most treacherous roads and the penchant for tragedy. (Perhaps this is why I am now working on adapting a tragedy.) How do you break loose from the harnesses of decades of tyranny, of dictatorships, of the alliance between capitalism and the military, all imbricated within sectarianism and communitarianism? What we are witnessing today is the product of the sedimentation of all this, and of the coercion of a specific interpretation of religion and belief. I am relieved that so many essential questions have now emerged to the foreground: questions of identity, of affiliation, of cultural capital, of the state (its nature and its form), of constitution and its language… It is a thunderous, complex and poignant chapter that does not carry promises for better tomorrows in the very short term. I take solace in the fact that the Syria that was; the Syria I was born and raised in; was like a mausoleum closed by tyranny. The insurgency forced it open, and this is the reality we are witnessing today. There was no way around that. I am not pessimistic, because at least the Syria I knew is gone for good and will never be again. The Syria of the future may not be exactly as I wish it to be, but at least we are now back in the temporality of time. We were outside time; now we are within time. This is what gives me a modicum of hope.
As for the present adaptation of Antigone: why a classical text, you ask? Aside from the reasons I have just cited, there are practical considerations. My partner in this project, Omar Abu Saada, and I have both been drawn to working with female refugees. We had been thinking about that after having been involved in a number of projects within communities of Syrian refugees in Lebanon who use theater and drama as a means to mediate or facilitate communication and expression. We have come to understand that there is a steeply gendered differentiation in the reality of refugees. The conditions that reign over the lives of women are singularly complex and heart wrenching, whether they arise in their roles as mothers, wives, widows, sisters, or daughters. At the same time, they are able to express their lived realities with remarkable eloquence, and they often pay attention to simple issues that usually go unnoticed. They have sacrificed a great deal, and they continue to do so. Most importantly, they seem to have a greater ability to endure, to forgive and overcome profound hurt, or wounds that for others would be impossible to scar. I felt the need to start from an existing text: I did not want, nor did I have the ability, to start from scratch, and thus I chose to adapt. Antigone spoke to me on all these levels—it speaks from a woman’s point of view on a civil conflict; a war, and asks questions of duty, of responsibility, and of ethics. In fact, it asks more questions than it provides answers to. I have my own position, but that does not imply that I have answers, or that I can write a text that delivers answers. I am against all tyrannies. There will not be a new Syria until the tyranny of the regime ends; and until all the other tyrannies that have popped up since (like the Islamic State for Iraq and Syria—ISIS) end as well. I do have a great number of questions. Right now I am re-reading all the different adaptions and transformations of that classical tragedy. It is an amazingly rich text, but it is also very potent and capable of embodying a Syrian Antigone.

R.S.: Thank you for sharing that with us, Mohammad.

M.a-A.: Thank you too, Rasha.

  • 1. http://meetingpoints.org/mp6/, and http://meetingpoints.org/mp6/downloads/Meeting%20points%20intro.pdf, last accessed July 7, 2014.
  • 2. Mohammad Al Attar, Plays from the Arab World (London: Nick Hern Books, 2010).
  • 3. http://meetingpoints.org/mp6/downloads/Statement.pdf, last accessed July 7, 2014.
  • 4. The Arab Capital for Culture is an initiative undertaken by UNESCO under the Cultural Capitals Program, to promote and celebrate Arab culture and encourage cooperation in the Arab region. The preparation for the festivity began in February 2007 with the establishing of the Administrative Committee for “Damascus Arab Capital of Culture” by a presidential decree.
  • 5. On January 18, 2008. The opening ceremony included a visual show, levitated dancing, musical segments, floating acrobatics, and hot air balloons (Arab_Capital_of_Culture: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2008, last accessed July 7, 2014).
  • 6. http://festivalbom.org, last accessed 9 September 2014.
  • 7. The English translation was done by Prof. Lisa Wedeen; the German translation was done by Andreas Bünger and Ghada Salim.