A constant journey of doubt and experimentation | Mohammad Al Attar
When the world was seized by collective panic, I was left with the same nagging questions: Who cares about theatre? Who cares about culture at this point, in the middle of a pandemic?
I don’t have easy answers at this time, so I would like to return to March 2011 when the Syrian revolution against the Assad regime started. Back then, I grappled with the same question: “Of what use is theatre today?” My answer was clear. This was not a time for theatre. Playwriting seemed a frivolous pastime compared to writing political articles and organising demonstrations. I held on to this opinion until, upon the urging of a few friends, I began writing the play Could You Please Look Into the Camera? As part of my research for the play, I interviewed 10 young men and women in Damascus, who had been arbitrarily detained by regime security forces during the first few months of the revolution. They all asked me the same question: “What’s the meaning of dramatising our stories today?” My answers sounded confident. I highlighted the role of theatre as a witness, and its power to humanise our stories in a way that the dry prose of news media with its facts and figures fails to do. But deep down I was still searching for answers that could help dispel any remaining doubts about the work I was doing.
The answers emerged during the initial meetings I had with each of the individuals who narrated in detail the horrific experiences they had endured and that shaped the persons they had become. Our discussions about prison were accompanied by conversations about food, music, cinema, and love. The meetings helped me realise that the importance of the work lay precisely in those moments and not necessarily in the prospective act of performance per se. It lay in the participants’ need to talk and my need to listen — in their liberation from unspeakable images and mine from the fear of sharing a similar fate, for it was merely coincidence that separated those who were detained from the ones who survived in Syria. That text later became the medium through which we all — the director, actors, technicians, and I — engaged with the events around us as the regime’s brutality against the revolutionaries grew. Rehearsals became our only safe haven for discussions and arguments. Was our audience 17 able to register any of this later? I can’t be certain, but I believe some of it must have been felt. Through our post-performance discussions with the audience in places far away from Damascus like Seoul or much closer like Beirut, I became convinced that as professionals in the field of theatre we still have a role to play in such a time of devastating wars and crises. And, so I returned to theatre after months of prevarication.
Since that time, I have come to believe that answers will emerge from engaging with the work itself, and that our theoretical knowledge about theatre and its role is not sufficient during times of radical transformations. In the summer of 2013, during a theatre workshop that I held with a group of young people in Raqqa following the liberation of the city from the grip of the Syrian regime and only weeks before it fell under ISIS control, we found meaning in the friendships that developed among us. Theatre didn’t change our lives or fates. Shortly after, one of the workshop participants was killed in a regime airstrike and, later, two others were kidnapped by ISIS fighters and still remain missing to this day. The rest of the group became refugees scattered around the world. All that survived from that workshop are the enduring friendships that have helped us live through the painful memories of loss.
In Beirut, while working on the play Antigone with some Syrian refugee women who lived with their families in squalid camps in the Lebanese capital, once again I struggled to answer the same question posed by the women: “Of what use is theatre today when we lack basic life necessities?” I decided to set aside the arguments I had prepared in advance and invited them to discover the answer together. And, so we did. During three months of working together, we discovered many answers — in their challenging of male authority, their reclamation of the narrative of the Syrian crisis, their growing confidence in themselves, their voices, and their bodies, and their grappling with the racism they had faced in a society dominated by a rigid, hierarchal class system. At the end of one performance, Wafaa, one of the performers, came up to me and, pointing at a group of elegantly-dressed women standing outside the theatre, said: “they used to see me only as another cleaner for their homes, but now they lavish me with praise for my stage presence.” I asked her jokingly, “what about the other women who haven’t seen the play?” She responded with a chuckle, “I don’t care about that anymore — what matters now is how I see myself.”
While I was in the midst of preparing for a performance of The Factory — a play about the scandal involving the French cement plant Lafarge in Syria — Muhannad, a worker at the plant who had suffered from the management’s mistreatment and neglect, agreed to speak with me after much hesitation. I asked him why he had changed his mind. He told me that even though he couldn’t retaliate against such a giant conglomerate that had joint interests with the governments of major powers, he wanted them to stand trial through the play. I explained that the play does not revolve around a trial nor will it be a substitute for one, but he insisted on telling me his story. Several months later, Muhannad attended a performance of the play in Athens. I received a short text message from him: “Yes your play isn’t a trial, but it’s my first step to seek redress.”
Recently, I have stopped keeping up with pandemic-related news. I have accepted that we will be living with the virus for a period of time. Theatres won’t be up and running any time soon and independent playwrights like myself will face difficulties in producing new works. Still, I find myself thinking about new projects that excite me. But how will this enthusiasm and belief in our need for theatre endure? Yet again, I do not have an easy answer. I know that we create theatre as witness in this posttruth era of declining politics and rising fascism. We create it as a space in which performers and audiences explore and deliberate on issues and questions to better understand ourselves and our world — and yes, we create theatre for the pleasure we experience during rehearsals or sitting there in the dark watching the stage. But I am also confident, that times of great uncertainty and change, like the ones we are living today, will bring new challenges to our understanding of the role and importance of theatre, and with them new answers — answers that can only come through experimenting and rumination.
Mohammad Al Attar is a Syrian playwright and dramaturge. He is considered an important chronicler of war-torn Syria. He works between the border of fiction and documentation. His plays like ‘Withdrawal’, ‘Could You Please Look into the Camera?’, ‘Antigone of Shatila’, ‘While I was waiting’, ‘Aleppo. A portrait of Absence’, ‘Iphigenia’, ‘The Factory’ and ‘Damascus 2045’ have been presented around the world.