The Syrian Theater: Exile, Tyranny and Extremism
The ferocity of the challenges facing theater, at the level of the world, is always on the rise. Threat is not posed by techniques alone, or by its strong competitors, cinema and television, for politics also are enhancing the siege circulating its freedom, at every possible opportunity.
The World Theatre Day Message for 2018, offered by five authors who represented Asia, the Arab world, Europe, South and North America, might be inspired by the discrimination that took over the scene after the expansion of the far-right politics in Europe and the domination of tyrant regimes, as well as Islamic extremist militias in the Arab countries.
Social media and its consumption-based policy’s hegemony on the world’s cultural presence and the hatred it had in store for the “other”, any other, backed by the political situation, have all added another brick in the wall facing theater and dramatists, Arabs on a particular term, for their countries were the main stage of many critical happenings.
This fact-like situation complicated theater and its composers’ response to existential questions about the humanitarian and the cultural climate; the wall and the obstacles, generated by the set of factors mentioned above, are neither clear, nor fixed. They are in a state of a cunning change, the intensity of which increases in proportion with the tragedy crushing innocents down, thus, landing theater in a blind spot, which fails to see the society in which it exists.
Theater as an action in itself, however, is a simulation of a better reality that the human being wishes to construct. Despite the fact that what is presented on stage is “acting”, the bond between the dramatist and the audience is none but the bond between an image and its reflection on a mirror’s face, and if the two parties in this bond were able to believe in the “illusion” performed in front of them, the chance to actualize it would be “real”.
Based on this introduction that is derived from the world’s tragic political circumstances and the speeches of the two authors_ Maya ZBIB from Lebanon and Werewere-Liking from the Ivory Coast_ for the World Theater Day’s message this year, Enab Baladi tries to find answers for some of the theater-related and suspended questions in Syria, the country that seized international news headlines in the past a few years.
From Tyranny to Extremism
“A tyrant is the brother of a tyrant,” says the Syrian dramatis and journalist Hussian Berro, commenting on the political frame surrounding theater in the country.
For decades, the Syrian theater failed to acquire a space of freedom and the situation remained thus until the period between 2011 to early 2013, which witnessed a few artistic experiments in the liberated areas, a period which Berro refers to as “the phase between two phases.”
According to Berro, this period of “liberty” links between theater’s subjugation to the Syrian regime, which imposed the necessity of extracting security and unions’ permissions to present any play, in all its life phases, starting from Al-Talayi (a category that includes the different stages of elementary school) to the grave, and the appearance of Islamic extremists, who dominated the Syrian scene and prohibited all forms of theater.
During the phase of liberty, many adventurous and art lovers had the chance to experiment with theater through presenting performances in the opposition-held areas; these works expressed the Syrian society and refrained from adopting the discourse of a specific authority.
Although the opposition forces did not prevent any theatrical performance back then; they were not convinced that it was the time for art, due to the fierce attack that the regime conducted against them. They, accordingly, considered art-related work an unaccepted luxury, as Berro put it.
“Tyranny cannot be divided; liberty, similarly, must not be divided,” says Berro, the man who practiced theater during the three phases, reaching the point in time, where this activity was banned in the areas under the control of Al-Qaeda and the “Islamic State” (ISIS).
While some of the “alternative” media outlets made a mistake by depicting the regime and the Islamic extremists as two contradictory forces, they both sought to fight the Syrian identity and the ideas of change which Syrians where trying to instill.
Theater in Exile
After the regime managed to tighten the grip of the militias around the areas it controlled, and the Islamists dominated some of the opposition’s areas, the people were left with a single option, to escape. Naturally, artists were among the escapees.
“In the countries of exile, there was not a real effort to establish a theatrical state to cope with Syrians in their many exiles,” and it seems that there was no way to avoid committing this mistake, based on the situation of the Syrian dramatists in Turkey, as Berro told Enab Baladi.
Theater did not offer the people involved a sufficient income, as to help them gather and be dedicate to long initiatives, especially in case of talented people and the teams that lacked support from establishments, which forced many of them to work in other fields. Berro found in journalism, which he formerly practiced, a shelter to fend for himself and for his family under the cruel conditions of being refugees.
Some of the dramatists who worked in the television field were compelled to participate in weak productions, depending on their financial situation, while theater held to its position as a “beautiful ritual”, and it is almost “forsaken”.
The neighboring countries, nonetheless, witnessed a few serious and distinct attempts, such as the ones presented by Omar Bakbook in Lebanon, Hala Omran and Walid Quwatli in Turkey and Nawar Bulbul in the refugee camps in Jordan.
“Psychodrama” Gives Up on Psychological Support
With all the hardships that faced Syrians in their lives, which impacted their livelihood and psychological status, psychological support organizations appeared, and the chance rose as to utilize the theatrical experience to network with the Syrian happenings and calamity. But, none of these took place actually.
“Psychodrama” (the psychological theater) usually plays a role in the different stages of psychological treatment, and it is commonly used in Europe and some of the Arab countries.
The Syrian organizations limited their actions to acts such as playing, drawing and watching movies. Despite the “massive” funding they received, they did not interact with any theatrical initiative within their programs, as Berro said.
Psychodrama is the third and most complicated phase in psychological support, following the two stages of playing and drawing. It is based on a workshop, usually organized by a specialized dramatis, who starts from general guidelines. After training, with the participation of the afflicted people, the dramatists rewrite the script starting from the children’s experiences and in cooperation with them, to finally produce some sort of an interactive theater. In case of failure, a psychiatrist intervenes, Berro said.
The specialized organizations have, nonetheless, isolated dramatists from this form of action, for expediency’s sake or to invest in other fields. Any of these organizations did not show interest in this form of drama, even on cases where it was proposed as volunteering or a free of charge project on part of some dramatists.
The Syrian schools in the Turkish city of Gaziantep, as well, refused Berro’s proposal, despite the fact that he offered to do it entirely for free. One of the schools’ directors demanded crucial modifications on the script built with children, seeking to remind them of their Syrian identity and Arabic language, to direct the whole work as to serve the interests of a certain entity, which Berro did not name.
Syrian dramatists and those involved in the field are being accused of absence, for limiting their productions to a single class of intellectuals, elitist class, and their inability to confront with the Syrian question. These accusations are what viewers generally see. Nevertheless, the backstage of the experience which Berro offered as an example shows the difficulties that faced the Syrian dramatists, both intellectually and financially, which after all shackled their movements and emptied them of meaning.