I first met Sulayman in a play at the British Council—Nicholas Nickleby, a light production our English drama class performed in the summer, when the streets of Damascus buckled under the heat and we awoke each night to the hiss of deadened power lines. Sulayman had declined the starring role. “Some heroes are so boring,” he told me in one of our first conversations, preferring to play the shambling orphan boy, Smike. I played Frank Cheeryble, a dull, chivalrous man who ends up marrying the hero’s sister.
Our fathers, Sulayman’s in particular, ridiculed acting as a child’s game; my friend had resorted to sneaking to auditions to preserve a measure of peace in his family. Nonetheless, he managed to gain some fame in the tiny circles of people hungry enough for theater to attend the Council student shows and scattered embassy productions that bobbed up here and there in the city. Over time, we fell into an informal society with other friends from the Council, young men who, like us, possessed sufficient ambition or means, or both, to pay exorbitant fees for the privilege of learning English with native speakers rather than the stuttering functionaries who ran the government institutes.
At our table in the corner of Hamidi’s café, we talked about the international theaters we would tour and the women we would marry, beautiful and as yet unknown, and how the plays we wrote would express truths about our society too trenchant to be said out loud, even in the near-empty coffeehouse. In the privacy of each other’s homes, we imitated Nimr Khaldun and his men from the National Theater, planting our feet and thrusting back our shoulders, barking out lines like half-animate statues. I had not acted in as many plays as Sulayman but was doing a better job of keeping up pretenses off stage. In my engineering courses at Damascus University, I was pantomiming the motions of a man preparing for a life of prosperity and respect, while Sulayman continued his indifferent struggle with his accounting classes. “Master infiltrators,” we called ourselves in secret, declaring acting our true and singular avocation.
The director from London arrived in Damascus in 1999, one year after Nicholas Nickleby. That autumn, American and British planes swooped over Basra and Karbala; the news played endless reports about food sanctions and no-fly zones and skirmishes across the eastern border.
“Hello, hello, and marhaba,” Stephen Greystone said with a broad smile as he shook our hands in the audition room at the Council. He looked exactly as I imagined an important London director should: trim and silver-haired, with thin spectacles and a silk scarf, a man who carried in his gestures the roar and [End Page 94] grandeur of the world’s lit stages. London! The West End! For weeks our friends had spoken of nothing else. Some said the British ambassador himself had invited Greystone to stage a play at the Council involving Syrian and British actors. We had expected life to work the way it always had: the Ministry of Culture—“the Ministry for the Eradication of Culture and Prevention of Fun,” Sulayman called it in a whisper—would cancel the visit at the last moment; the director himself would take one look at our city, its crumbling blocks and soot-filled air, and head straight back to London; or the play, the English-language version of Waiting for Godot, would not travel past the cataracted eyes of the Ministry censors.
But there he was, solid and real, handing out scripts for Sulayman and me to read and giving us peculiar instructions. “You have just caught on fire. You are a bird with one lame wing. You will seduce a woman by reading her this grocery list.” I, a respectable boy from a good Damascene family, felt myself turning crimson at that last bit. Sulayman winked in encouragement, and I pressed on. I was a good enough actor; I could drop or heighten the pitch of my voice and arch my eyebrows in a comical way; I could mince my footsteps and...