Cynthia Kreichati
Last updated: 1 March, 2016

In praise of revolutionary art: theater and the Syrian Revolution

For art that is larger than life: Grenier Neuf interprets three texts by Syrian playwright Mohammad Al Attar in a work-in-progress performance at Mansion in Beirut. "Art in this region is vital, today more than ever before," writes Cynthia Kreichati.

Omar Amiralay’s Flood in Baath Country (2003) is a timeless masterpiece. If there is one film to watch nowadays, this should be it. Amiralay’s film concludes his trilogy on the Tabqa Dam, an earth-fill barrage built by the Assad regime on the Euphrates between 1968 and 1973 and located 40 kilometers upstream from the city of Raqqa. When the Syrian Revolution started in 2011, thousands of people who were displaced from the neighboring regions of Aleppo, Homs and Idlib found home in Raqqa. First controlled by the forces of the Baath Regime, the city then falls, in turns, into the hands of the Free Syrian Army, Al Nusra Front and finally the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Since then, the military intervention against ISIS has almost every country in the world bombing Raqqa every day. 

In his first film on the Tabqa Dam Film Essay on the Euphrates Dam (1970), Amiralay expressed his admiration for the Baath Party’s modernizing project in Syria. Amiralay’s subsequent films on the Dam, Everyday Life in a Syrian Village (1974) and Flood in Baath Country (2003), are an act of contrition in which he critiques the government’s failed policies and the refusal of the Baath Regime to assume responsibility. In Flood in Baath Country, Amiralay explores the deep and disquieting consequences of 40 years of rule of the Baath Party in Syria through the tribulations of the inhabitants of the village of Al Machi in the region of Manbij, and its public school. Flood in Baath Country is poetic, beautiful, and terrifying all at once. It is also premonitory. It absorbs the tragedy and propels it onto the viewer who is captivated, who feels with the children of Al Machi, and realizes that something is boiling beneath the seemingly calm surface. Amiralay died in February 2011, a few weeks before the Syrian Revolution erupted. The man and his art stirred and continue to stir intense social, political and cultural debates in Syrian circles, and in Arab and Middle Eastern societies at large.

Recently, Leyla Rabih’s Grenier Neuf, in collaboration with Zoukak Sidewalks, concluded three weeks of residency at Mansion in Beirut, by presenting their work in progress on texts by acclaimed young Syrian playwright Mohammad Al Attar. This is not the first time Beirut hosts adaptations of Attar’s plays on the Syrian Revolution. Attar’s performances in the city started in May 2011, with Look at the Streets, This Is What Hope Looks Like, on the occasion of Beirut Art Center’s hosting of the Meeting Points 6 Festival. As the Revolution was in its early beginnings, Attar had worked on a collage of Facebook posts and pictures of Syrian revolutionaries. The posts were accompanied by passages from articles by Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif.

Copyright: Leyla Rabih

In 2012, one year or so after the Revolution had started; Attar staged his play Could you look into the camera please at the Tournesol Theater in the city’s Tayyouneh neighborhood, for an exclusive one night performance. In 2013, he also worked with director Omar Abu Saada on Intimacy, which premiered at the Babel Theater in Hamra, part of the Homeworks Festival of Ashkal Alwan, the Lebanese Association for Plastic Arts that promotes and produces contemporary art practices in Lebanon. Intimacy followed the life of a black Sudanese actor who flees the violence in Damascus after 2011, and goes back to his home country after 20 years spent in Syria. In 2014, Attar’s Antigone of Syria also ran for three days at Al Madina Theatre in Hamra. Using Sophocles’ tragedy as its starting point, Attar, a practitioner of the Theatre of the Oppressed, explored themes of the Syrian War by bringing forward, and on stage, Syrian women refugees now living in the camps of Sabra, Chatila and Bourj. 

Two weekends ago, Grenier Neuf’s Chronicles of an Orphan Revolution brought to an avid Beirut public, pressed on makeshift benches in Mansion’s impressive main hall with its powerful acoustics, an hour and a half long interpretation of three seminal texts by Mohammad Al Attar: Online (2011), Could you look into the camera please (2011), and Youssef was here (2013). Chronicles of an Orphan Revolution was presented in two languages: French and Arabic. Characters were simultaneously translating monologues and conversations from Arabic into French during Online’s performance. However, French was almost the sole language of the interpretation of Could you look into the camera please and Youssef was here, alienating many in the audience who got up and left before the performance ended. 

Online is a series of emails between Sherif, a revolutionary, and Salma. The period is April 2011. Sherif relays to his friend, and seemingly estranged lover Salma the debuts of the Revolution in Damascus. He confides in her about his fears and feelings of guilt over abandoning his comrades who got arrested. He tells her he misses her. She responds warmly and worryingly. She doesn’t want anything to happen to him, and she loves him. Sherif and Salma are an atomized couple. Separated by distance, they both live in torment in the midst of the nascent Revolution. Their email exchange is brought to an abrupt end when Amir, another friend and revolutionary, informs Salma that Sherif has been arrested.

Copyright: Leyla Rabih 

Could you look into the camera please tells the story of Ghassan, Noura, Farah and Zeid. Noura is an upper class young woman who recently got divorced. An aspiring filmmaker, she is trying to capture the experiences of those jailed, detained, and tortured during the early days of the Revolution in Damascus. Her brother Ghassan is a powerful lawyer who stands firmly on the side of the Baath regime and disagrees with his sister’s project and aspirations. Farah and Zeid are revolutionary activists. Farah is a Christian young woman who was arrested near Bab Touma, Damascus’ historical Christian quarter, for distributing tracts, while Zeid is an English educated, tech-savvy young man capable of making fun of his jailers. He even tells Noura that his jailers couldn’t understand the password to his computer because it was English, a language they neither speak nor understand. 

Youssef was here retraces the journey of Fares, a Syrian émigré who’s been living in Dubai. Fares comes back to Syria to search for his friend gone missing in Raqqa. He travels near the Turco-Syrian border, alongside the lake formed by the Euphrates’ dam. He visits Manbij, Aleppo, and finally Raqqa before he decides it is time for him to leave and never come back. 

The challenges in presenting such works in Beirut today are many. Aside from the social, sectarian, economic and geopolitical tensions reflected throughout the city, Rabih and her team had to navigate different formats and contents. Their portrayal of Sherif and Salma’s email correspondence is brilliant and heart-wrenching but only at times. Their use of the Lebanese accent (and not Damascene for example), and the simultaneous French translation dilute its potency, and are reminiscent of the dialect of Beiruti Francophones. 

The choice of keeping Arabic in the performance of Online seems to serve a specific purpose. Rabih attempts to convey that Salma, who watches the unfolding Revolution and worries about her comrades from the safety of her home in Paris, is caught between two worlds. The rendition of the other two texts in French exclusively becomes questionable. The works are clearly intended for a non-Arab, French audience. What is the purpose then of staging this performance in Beirut and calling upon the audience to interact. Which audience are we talking about exactly? 

In Could you look into the camera please, the use of cameras directed at Zeid, Farah and the audience, and incorporating a live projection on Mansion’s sky high walls is captivating. It pulls the audience into Noura’s disownment. However, the French script pulls us out again. Noura and Ghassan’s family ties are eroded as she sides with the Revolutionaries and he continues to support the Regime. In the film she’s trying to make, she still does not know what is the story she wants to tell, and her conversations with previous detainees reveal more about her struggles than theirs. She is rebelling against her father and her brother before anything else.

Copyright: Leyla Rabih

Rabih’s interpretation of Youssef Was Here asserts that Grenier Neuf’s work is really still a work in progress. Rabih says in writing that she did not live under siege, bombs or the brutality of the regime. A camera captures what she is writing and her short messages are projected onto Mansion’s walls for the audience to read. Rabih cannot travel to Syria’s northern regions to relive the journey of Fares. Like him, she is a stranger in Syria. With her colleagues, she questions her legitimacy and their right to tell the story of the Revolution now turned Civil War. 

While Grenier Neuf’s performance is laudable, its shortcomings are also of considerable importance. Their selection of texts and adaptation do not go beyond the mainstream claims of journalists and scholars alike. It adopts the prevalent expositions of the circumstances, causes and outcomes of the Arab Revolutions. These are reduced to three dominant notions: breaking the barrier of fear, the battle over narrative, and the subjectivities of middle class educated Syrians and the religious minorities. While all three concepts are of utmost importance, the Syrian Revolution and the subsequent Syrian Civil War are much more socially, culturally, politically, and economically complex. Geographically, the texts are reduced to Damascus, Assad’s fief, and the triangle near the Syro-Turkish Border that is now mostly under the control of ISIS. Art could probe, discover, and recognize. 

At the end of the performance, I couldn’t stop thinking about the Al Machi village; featured in Omar Amiralay’s masterpiece Flood in Baath Country (2003) and located exactly in the region where Fares’ friend had disappeared in Youssef was here. In addition to Fares and Grenier Neuf’s struggles with questions of legitimacy, and their right, as strangers, to reflect on this Revolution turned Civil War, I wanted to know what had happened to the family of Diab Al Machi, the world’s longest serving parliamentarian from 1954 until his death in 2009, his 16 children, 300 grandchildren, and his teacher nephew and the primary school he ran for the regime in Manbij. 

Prior to the Revolution, Manbij was home to a very diverse population including Naqshbandis, Kurdish, Circassians and Arabs. Diab Al Machi himself was the leader of a tribal order. I wanted to understand how art and artists viewed, imagined and recreated relations and society in this part of the country, and how they think these changed since 2011. What happened to the members of Al Machi tribes? How did Manbij move from living under Assad to ISIS? Are the Al Machi still with the regime? Did they revolt at any point? What happened to the school? In an article entitled The Emancipation of Speech, published in the quarterly Arabic Magazine Bidayat in the spring of 2013, Attar himself remembers the principal and the children of this school. He had seen through Amiralay’s film that taming them was an impossible task and that it would not be long before the Revolution comes.

In times of crisis, any art goes; especially when it is produced by collectives of Arab artists and caters to a non-Arab, Western audience. Art in this region is vital, today more than ever before. In its social and political functions, one can hope for art to speak to the inhabitants of the region first and foremost. Beirut in that sense couldn’t be more appropriate. These past few years, times have never been worse. Somehow the city has been spared for now. Those fleeing have sought refuge, or at least passage, here. Apart from the Lebanese, there are Palestinians, Yemenis, Tunisians, Bahrainis, Egyptians, Libyans, Iraqis, and Syrians, whose own people disallowed them onto Beirut. Its intellectuals, writers, artists, journalists, pariahs, city dwellers, people with broken dreams, broken hearts, broken everything are thirsty for art, impetuous passion and beauty. In a recent report, the Syrian Center for Policy Research estimated that 11.5% of the Syrian Population was killed or injured during these past 5 years. That is the equivalent of 8 million people in Britain. The magnitude of the tragedy is incommensurate with any work of art these days. But then again, art can be larger than life.