- Syrian Theatre in Berlin
Against a background of civil war, anger, and loss back home, how are Syrian theatre-makers in today’s Berlin navigating their new artistic and political landscape in order to make theatre, make a living, and perhaps eventually make a difference?
My 2018 ATHE paper asked this question against its own background of raw and vivid loss. Our “Arab Theatre after the 2011 Uprisings” panel—comprising Ted Ziter and me, with Charlotte Canning as respondent—was inspired and instigated by our dear friend Hazem Azmy. Hazem was a beloved professor at Ain Shams University in Cairo and one of the most prominent and intellectually honest Egyptian theatre critics of his generation. He loved Boston, having first visited for an ASTR conference ten years earlier, when he arrived on the very night in 2008 that Barack Obama was elected president. Now, in 2018, we were both amazed at all the heartache and the thousand shocks that both our countries had suffered in just ten years.
By temperament and training Hazem, was a dialectical optimist—he liked to resist despair, quoting Orson Welles’s saying that “If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.” His paper was to analyze a recent Egyptian adaptation of Inherit the Wind that won Best Performance at the National Theatre Festival in 2014, and its subsequent revivals: Did the play dramatize the battle between righteous reason and dull conformity, or between an arrogant intelligentsia and a threatened society? This was his way: to turn a text and performance over and over through different historical moments, watching it change meanings as different facets caught the light. But it was not to be. Three weeks before he was to come to Boston, Hazem died suddenly of an apparent heart attack in Belgrade, at the International Federation for Theatre Research conference, on July 10. He was just 49 years old.
In the Egyptian theatre community, Hazem’s death is not a singular grief, but a tragedy upon tragedies. In September 2005, a theatre fire in Bani Suef killed forty-six theatre-festival participants, including the entire jury, wiping out an entire cohort of critics and directors with one blow. In 2017, prominent and beautiful-souled critic Nehad Selaiha, godmother to Egypt’s avant-garde theatre movement, died at age 72. My own mentor, Egyptian theatre critic and award-winning translator Farouk Abdel Wahab Mustafa, died five years ago at 70. Egyptian theatre practitioners live with censorship and untimely death as a constant companion.
The divergent strategies of two recent plays in Berlin—the first by Mohammad al-Attar and Omar Abusaada at the Volksbühne, the second by Ayham Majid Agha at the Gorki Theatre—challenge us to theorize what the work of Syrian theatre artists in Europe can say at this moment, and to whom. Unlike some more typical cases of post-9/11 “Arab/ic theatre for Western audiences,”1 Berlin audiences are diverse, comprising [End Page 447] viewers with different language skills and expectations, including some who are Arab immigrants themselves or know Syria or other Arabic-speaking societies intimately, along with others who do not but want their play-going to be timely. Yet, the Syrian-German arts community is relatively new, compared for instance to the generations-old Turkish-German arts community and the “post-migrant” theatre it has created.2 The Berlin-based Syrian artists do not fit neatly into the “Sindbad vs. Houdini” typology that Johanna Sellman and I recently proposed within another European context;3 they are neither exotic visitors on tour nor Arab Germans.
Iphigenia, a devised play by Mohammad al-Attar (b.1980) and Omar Abusaada (b.1977), is the third in a trilogy of Greek tragedy offshoots with nonprofessional, refugee Syrian female performers directed by Abusaada, the last two written with playwright al-Attar.4 Originally meant for Lesbos, Greece, it ran into logistical problems (the asylum-seeking participants there could not yet legally work in Europe) and moved to Germany, losing its resonance with the specific precarity of many Syrian refugees’ lives in Turkey and then in Greece: in Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis...