Throughout six years of war, hundreds of thousands victims and millions displaced, Syrian director Ma'moun al-Khatib never stopped directing theatrical performances, despite growing difficulties in his hometown of Damascus.
Of these al-Khatib lists: “power outages, possible injuries from mortar fired by opposition forces on certain parts of the city, and the inability of actors to commit to the daily rehearsals”.
Adding to this are the paltry financial returns from theater productions, in light of stifling economic conditions. Moreover, each theatrical production takes place against the backdrop of the distant sound of shelling raining down on the opposition forces on the suburbs of Damascus.
Amid such conditions, one might think it impossible to continue production. But al-Khatib explains to Raseef22 that “we are still alive, and we have hope that the war will end, and we will be part of this history. We didn’t remain passive throughout the suffering, as others did.”
Utilizing artistic production as a form of resistance, al-Khatib and others like him have replaced weapons with props, fighting for the survival of the art form before their own survival, lest the war wipe out all vestiges of culture altogether.
Amid the campaign of destruction of the Islamic State, which caused the demolition of the Roman Theater in Palmyra, a select few have upheld their efforts for self expression. Among these are the Tariq El-Khebez group in Aleppo, which remained active during the siege, as well as ongoing efforts among the Syrian diaspora.
Art as resistance: staging theater productions in war-torn Syria.
Theater in Syria: an unnecessary luxury or a vital essential?
The Theater of War
Syrian actor Yamen Sleiman believes that efforts to breathe life into theatrical production are indispensable, noting that these efforts have proliferated with the outbreak of war. Amid the worst security conditions, Sleiman notes that Syrians maintained their commitment to the Damascene theater movement, filling out theater seats and keeping the art form alive.
“I remember during the performance of Nabd [Pulse], the audience filled the theater as mortar fire fell everywhere,” Sleiman tells Raseef22.
However, Sleiman contends that the real issue lies in the topics broached by the productions. Theater productions have managed to push some boundaries by discussing politics, sexuality, religion, economic and social issues, and pre-war history.
In certain cases, some works have successfully addressed the difficulties of daily life, albeit within a limited framework. The most prominent manifestations of this trend were in the works of Muhammad al-Maghut, and Nuhad Qal’i with Duraid Lahham, focusing on corruption and theft.
But the outbreak of war in 2011 would ultimately limit all topics of theatrical production to the conflict itself, its causes, and its consequences. Syrian actress Rama Eissa says: “A viewer attempts to escape the war only to watch the war enacted in the theater as well.”
In her opinion, for the hour that they spend within the walls of a theater, citizens are in desperate need of a breath of fresh air amid all the destruction. Moreover, she contends that now is not the time for documenting the war, noting that “history should be left to take care of this task”.
What Remains of Syrian Theaters?
While Damascus and the Syrian coast have thus far been largely safeguarded against the destruction of the war in other cities, elsewhere, the notion of discussing theater is a nonexistent luxury. In cities where opposition forces have actively mobilized, the destruction has been overwhelming, as has been the case in Aleppo, in which many live performances and film theaters have been destroyed.
Between 2012 and 2013, the Old City in Homs was ravaged by an intense siege that saw one of the city’s oldest theaters, Al-Kindi Theater, turned to rubble.
The theater was erected in the 1920s as part of the Al-Rawda Cultural Complex, which included a café, summer garden and winter restaurant, and a theater. Numerous concerts and performance were held in the theater, featuring such greats as Egyptian veteran singers Umm Kulthum and Mohamed Abdel Wahab.
Meanwhile, the war has resulted in over two million deaths and injuries, according to UNESCWA estimates, while the number of displaced Syrians has reached 12 million.
Moreover, more than 80% of the residents live under the line of poverty, many of whom cannot access basic necessities. This begs the question; are Syrians still capable of visiting the theater?
Theater tickets have maintained their pre-war prices at 100 to 150 Syrian pounds ($0.25), despite the collapse of the local currency. In the meantime, the average income in Syria is approximately $50, according to local reports, making theater-going a somewhat affordable activity.
However, in a family of five, with an approximate income of $80, theater becomes a luxury that is better dispensed with, or at the very least cut down to a bare minimum.
On the Margins
Eissa claims that theater has been under attack during the war, as actors are not paid sufficiently for their efforts. “It’s not enough for transportation to and from the theater for the performances that last several days,” she says.
Theater is denied government funding in light of the dire economic and political problems resulting from the war. Moreover, it lacks the adequate talents to achieve its targets. “Much of the acting elite in Syria has migrated abroad or to the silver screen. Others have retreated into hiding,” Sleiman notes.
Though theater is widely viewed as a marginal activity, it is precisely this that Sleiman believes allows it a degree of freedom in expressing views that run counter to the overarching discourse. It remains, according to him, an open, unrestricted space.