Mohammad Al Attar is a Syrian playwright who is facing a few challenges in his life right now balancing his art with his activism. That is an interesting question for many artists but few have it painted for them in such stark terms as Mohammad does. In this article from the Financial Post he answers questions about this challenging dilemma, as well as other characteristics about writing in Syria today. That is followed by an article in the New York Times about his work.
The Q&A: Mohammad Al Attar
Jun 10th 2012, 12:05 by S.B. | BEIRUT
MOHAMMAD AL ATTAR is an acclaimed young Syrian playwright; his work explores social relations, personal conflicts and everyday life. His own life has been peripatetic—born and educated in Damascus, he also studied in London and now lives in Beirut. He wrote his first play, “Withdrawal”, after graduating in 2007. It follows the experience of a couple who leave their families and move in together, and has since been adapted for performances in America, Europe and across the Middle East.
Recently his creative attention has turned to the turmoil in his home country. His play “Online” follows the web-based discussions of three friends, which range from the intimate to the political. His most recent play, “Could You Please Look Into the Camera” (pictured above), is based on interviews with Syrians detained during the uprising. Directed by Omar Abu Saad, an emerging Syrian talent, it recently arrived in Beirut after productions in Glasgow and Seoul.
What is the meaning of the title of your new play, “Could You Please Look Into the Camera”?
I have done two drafts of this play. The first was a verbatim narration of the experiences of five people I interviewed when they were released from detention. For the [final] draft, I rewrote the text and portrayed it as a fictional story in which Noura, an upper-middle class amateur film-maker in her 30s, wants to make a film about detention experiences in Syria.
The title comes from a scene in which Noura is shooting with the detainees. She repeats this instruction: “Could you please look into the camera?” I felt that when the former detainees were telling me about their experiences and memories they were going deep inside themselves and challenging their fears, asking what shall we say, and what not? The act of narrating or re-narrating is very laborious, and there is the same difficulty when looking at a camera.
What role then does Noura play?
The play is now more about Noura’s journey than the detainees. You see her conflicts, fears and questions about the meaning of her work and its limitations. This is the dilemma of many people like her in Syria today. People are trying to liberate themselves—we have to explore questions we have postponed and examine our political positions. There is a lot of the personal behind our political standpoints. The play poses these questions without delivering answers, which is a sincere reflection of the situation in Syria with all the ambiguity of the future, the worry and the tensions.
When did you decide to write about what was happening in Syria?
At the start of the uprising I was totally detached from writing because it seemed like a luxurious act. I was obsessed by participating directly in the protests and activism on the street. I feared that writing could be an expression of withdrawing from public participation. I was then commissioned to write a play, “Look at the Street. This is What Hope Looks Like”, which was based an article by Ahdaf Soueif after Hosni Mubarak fell in Egypt. I started to see that writing could be a contribution rather than cowardice. We all have different tools, and writing is mine. I’ve written three plays in the period since, which is a large output for me.
So writing is a necessary part of the protest.
Yes. I never thought I’d see what is happening in Syria and it amazes me. Another reason I wanted to write is that many Syrians are bitter that a decent number of intellectuals were afraid to speak out or slow to criticise what the regime was doing. Each person has his or her own reasons for this. Some were shocked or felt it was not their time. They felt this is a youth revolution, which it is in its terminology and the tools it uses, such as the internet. Others had adapted to living with the rules and were scared of radical change.
I hope that my act of writing shows that there is a young generation of artists and intellectuals who won’t repeat this superior attitude of the older intellectuals. My writing at the moment has many faults because there is no distance or time to absorb what is happening and reflect on it. But I feel an urgency to write now rather than later.
Where does your inspiration come from?
I am inspired by so many people, from classical playwrights such as Chekhov—his are the first plays I read—to Ibsen and Brecht. I love absurd theatre such as Ionesco’s work, even though I haven’t tried to write any. I read American writers such as Arthur Miller whose realism I admire. I admire many modern playwrights such as Sarah Kane and Caryl Churchill from Britain and Michel Vinaver from France.
Sometimes I feel closer to a Spanish or an Iranian playwright than to a Syrian one. You have schools of theatre here but there is no particular theatrical tradition by country in the region. My work is of course influenced by being Syrian, as I was born and lived all my life in Syria, but my plays explore global themes.
Before the uprising in Syria, were you trying to challenge the political system or push boundaries in your work?
I think theatre is political by default. But I do not directly write statements or propaganda. I tried to push boundaries before the uprising, both in the subjects I dealt with and the form I used. Starting with “Withdrawal”, the first complete text I wrote, all my work has been in colloquial Arabic dialect, not fusha [formal Arabic] that is normally used. I am not saying that is good or bad, but one of the obstacles for writers in Arabic is the dilemma of thinking in one language and writing in another.
People often criticise the lack of artistic output from the Middle East or Arab world. Do you think this is a fair criticism?
We have some great artistic figures in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Morocco, Tunisia, Lebanon, but the arts are still not very strong. There is no culture of readership, which is a product of the totalitarian regimes in the region. It is not that these regimes target the arts, but the lack of a healthy, strong culture affects everything else. We have a great Syrian playwright, for example, Sa’adallah Wannous, but you can count on one hand how many of his plays have been performed in Syria. Sadly, with the exception of my work with juvenile prisoners and a street performance, I haven’t presented any of my plays in Syria. To put on a play is a long, complicated, collective process that needs funding and that is a struggle. Art breathes with freedom.
I really want to emphasise that it is not about a lack of talent. We have so many talented people in the region. During the uprisings in Syria and elsewhere we have seen so much art, and that is a very promising sign of the thinking and capacity that exists. I am optimistic that more young people will emerge as artists. If we achieve better situations in our countries in the near future, many things including art will improve.
And this from the New York Times
Published: June 16, 2012
BEIRUT, Lebanon — The Syrian playwright Mohammad al-Attar considers the common wisdom about the uprising in his country — “the fear is gone” — somewhat overstated.
The fear endures, but the type that kept Syrians cowed into silence for decades has morphed into something different, he said over a beer in a Beirut cafe. “Fear is a human instinct, but the fear is no longer preventing people from doing things,” he said.
That is one theme he explores in his play about the uprising, “Could You Please Look Into the Camera,” which was staged last month at the Sunflower Theater in Beirut.
It was a remarkable event for several reasons: There was only one performance. It aired its accusations of torture and other abuse by President Bashar al-Assad’s government in Beirut, where a small clandestine community of Syrian activists lives in dread of the long arm of his secret police. A chunk of the audience came from Damascus.
Many playgoers emerged electrified by the experience of seeing the uprising examined publicly in a work of art. “It was cathartic because it was no longer kept inside everybody, or a whispered conversation,” said one woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she was going back to Damascus. “I could imagine other people were having the same conversation, but I had no real idea — everyone is keeping their circles tighter because everyone is afraid.”
The Syrian government has struggled to give the impression that life in Damascus remains serenely unaffected by the upheaval throughout much of the country. “You turn on state TV and it just talks about the issue of Palestineconstantly, or that normalcy is being undermined by outside actors,” the woman said. “We are all bit players in the government’s facade.”
The play focuses on the lives of four young Damascenes. Noura, a divorced woman whose well-to-do family has long flourished because of its government connections, decides that her part in the uprising will be filming the testimony of tortured activists. Her brother, Ghassan, a prosperous lawyer like their father, considers the project madness. Zeid and Farah are the two activists participating in her film.
The play’s director, Omar Abusaada, staged a complicated piece that included video testimonials from other activist characters. They were projected onto the walls of the set, with an empty former law office on one side and a small jail cell on the other.
Mr. Attar, a handsome, unshaven 31-year-old with a black ponytail, said the play started as verbatim testimonials drawn from about 10 people who had been jailed. “I was listening to their stories, and I was obsessed by them,” he said.
But as a Damascus native with a theater degree from England, he let his instincts to produce a drama rather than a documentary take over. He created the conflict between the two siblings as Noura edges away from her family, a difficult step in the Arab world, to find a role in the opposition.
“No more fooling around anymore; the whole country is sitting on a boiling volcano,” Ghassan barks at Noura at one point. “Believe me, if they learn about this project it won’t go away peacefully. Neither me nor Father can do anything then.”
Noura shoots back a little later in the argument: “This is what we’ve always been good at all our lives. As long as our business is doing well, nothing should bother us, not even for a moment. Nothing can affect our lives.”
Ghassan warns that the events have gone beyond that. “I’m talking about issues bigger than me, you and the family,” he says.
Long stretches of the play still resemble a documentary. Among the most stomach-churning parts come when Zeid and Farah describe what happened to them in jail, although there are injections of humor.
Social media have played an enormous role in the uprising, so Zeid’s torturers want his Facebook password. He jokes that he would have happily given it up for a cup of coffee, but even after he tells it to them, his jailers rough him up repeatedly because it is a complicated English word that they cannot type correctly.
Farah was arrested when government supporters told the security police she was distributing antigovernment pamphlets in their neighborhood. She is Christian, a choice for the character Mr. Attar made to underscore that not all minorities support Mr. Assad. “I am already thinking that everyone should see who I am; some people are still dormant, and maybe they’ll wake up,” Farah says in deciding to be interviewed. “Show my face.”
When the inevitable happens to Noura as well, she frets about what silly remarks others might be writing about her on Facebook. In reality, when activists are arrested, their friends put up a “freedom page” for each on Facebook.
Nanda Mohammad, the actress who played Noura, laughed in a telephone interview about how some comments had been repeated to the point of parody, like “They stole our light” and “Will you ever see our smiles again?”
Ms. Mohammad thought moments like that were the play’s strength. “It seems like it is simple and not deep enough, but a couple hours after you hear the line, you are deeply touched,” she said from Cairo.
Not everyone agreed.
Maher Esper, 32, who was released from prison in Syria last year after serving five and a half years of a seven-year sentence for setting up a Web site critical of Mr. Assad, said he thought the play focused too much on issues like torture — an old story after 50 years of dictatorship — rather than the profound changes Syria is experiencing.
“It focused so much on pain and suffering,” he said after the performance. “I have yet to see any work of art that reflects what is really happening in Syria. This was a good attempt, but it was not profound enough. Maybe we are asking too much of art.”
The hurdles involved in creating uprising art are part of the problem. The director and all but one actor live in Damascus, where they rehearsed for six weeks. They decided that doing it in secret would be more dangerous than hiding in plain sight, so they met at a theater and kept the script to themselves. (The play has also been performed in English on the festival circuit, in Edinburgh and Seoul, South Korea.)
The rehearsals in Damascus were “difficult and strange,” Ms. Mohammad said, but the director and the actors all decided it was worth the risk because the play distilled what they were thinking and feeling.
“We must talk about these issues and deal with it — most families have different points of view,” Ms. Mohammad said. “We will all have to live together after the regime falls, and we need a basis for our next life together.”