Cultural scene

Doing theatre during the Syrian revolution – an interview with Wael Kadour

Wael Kadour | Photo (excerpt): private

Syrian playwright and dramaturg Wael Kadour came of age in Damascus a decade before the revolution. His plays speak of life in his home country and social tensions across the Middle East. In 2015, he resettled in France as a refugee, and now contributes to French, German and international projects.

Where did you grow up?

I was born in Damascus in 1981. My parents weren't involved with theatre at all: I come from quite a conservative and religious family. My father was a driver, my mother was a nurse and then a housewife, and I had two brothers and one sister – a typical middle-class family. My parents worked and got married in Damascus, but they both came from a village in the countryside, about 100 kilometres away. I have roots in their village, I visited it many times, but I spent most of my life in the city.

What was theatre training like in Damascus?

I studied theatre and criticism, which was a little theoretical, but we still had good access to the practical side: we worked with students from other departments on projects and attended many performances. I was involved with theatre in the country for ten years, and this decade was important for Syria because before 2000, theatre in the country used to be dominated by the Ministry of Culture. It was entirely funded by the government. When my friends and I graduated in 2005, however, there was a window of opportunity for us, as a new generation, to work independently. We were able to get some funds, small regional grants, from here and there. We didn't want to work with the Ministry of Culture for so many reasons, from bureaucracy to censorship and the very low wages – the artistic conditions weren't good.

Did you still have to go through censorship?

Yes, both to publish books and for public readings. I had to submit my plays. It went fine for me: there was another small window at that point in time, the censorship was a little less harsh.

What did you write about during those years?

I wrote two plays before the revolution: The Virus and Out of Control. Both are about fear, social fear, and focus on the middle class. Out of Control deals with the honour killings that happened in the Middle East, including in Syria and in Lebanon: it was a story about a young man who comes from the countryside to the city looking for his sister in order to kill her, because she married a man from a different religion. The play was a journey with him as he saw Damascus for the first time. Our laws usually didn’t punish such killings if the lawyer could show honour was a motivation for the crime; people would only be jailed for six months to three years.

Were your plays also a form of political activism?

In general, before the revolution, I focused on social issues, not on political ones. At the same time, when you read my plays now, you can detect and analyse the political conditions of the time. They are really simple stories about people who love, hate, are motivated by social factors, but underneath, they were political, too.

Before the revolution, did you feel independent theatre was reaching an audience?

Generally speaking, the cultural scene in Damascus wasn’t that rich. We had three or four theatres, and that was it, with shows playing for maybe one or two weeks, a maximum of three. There were very few of us theatre-makers and other cultural actors. And the audience by default was also small. You used to see the same faces, as if we were just one group taking the same bus, moving from one theatre to another. In 2008, however, Damascus was chosen to be the Arab Capital of Culture, and it was a national event. There were huge funds for that year, and a committee was established to organise it: they didn't rely on the Ministry of Culture. We worked with them, and were able to get funding. The regime wanted to show the whole world that we had culture, art, a vibrant scene. Suddenly, in 2008, we had hundreds of concerts, exhibitions, theatre performances, film screenings... It was a little fake, and after that, everything was gone. There wasn't any kind of sustainability.

What was people’s reaction to the rise of new plays?

People observed us, sometimes attacked us. Now I look back and think: maybe it was an indicator of deep changes in a society. It's not a coincidence that ten years before the revolution, we started writing. When we decided to write new plays about Syria, here and now, we were the result of a long social and political process, but we didn't realise it at the time.

Were you surprised when the revolution started?

I can say that everyone was surprised, but at the same time, it was accepted that we needed a revolution. We were not a secular country, as Bashar and his father used to say. Sure, our president had studied in the UK, shaved his beard, spoke languages, but at the same time, the regime didn't build any theatres. They just allowed people to build more and more mosques. They let ignorance happen, with a very poor education system. I studied in the government system, and it wasn't a healthy place to send your children to school. After the revolution, Bashar tried to convince the world that he fought terrorism. People in Europe are afraid of Daesh now, and so am I, but we can’t forget that everything was done gradually, over many years, to turn Syria into an incubator for Islamists, extremists, ignorant people. When we started the revolution, we were just peaceful protesters in the street; now we still have a dictatorship, and so many groups of extremists.

Did theatre play a part in the early days of the revolution?

In the areas controlled by the regime, no. When the revolution began, I was working on a piece by Samuel Beckett, Ohio Impromptu, and we kept going. In the areas that were liberated in 2011 and 2012, however, so many people made theatre. They created very straightforward plots about the revolution. People just wanted to talk about their stories, about the regime. I never went there, because I had to flee: my military service was approaching, I would have had to fight for the regime, and I was really afraid. The revolution started in March, and I left in November for Jordan, where my wife followed me after a couple of weeks.

You worked on theatre projects with refugees. How did they come about?

I was asked by NGOs to run workshops for refugees, including children and teenagers, in the camps or outside. Sometimes I also worked of my own initiative, on both Syrian and Jordanian projects. I tried to work with both sides, because I didn't want to victimise myself. We learned from each other, but legally, it was very difficult, because I didn’t get any work permit. I applied three times, but my application was rejected with no explanation. It was very rare to see a Syrian with a work permit in Jordan.

How was theatre received in this environment?

My main goal was to help Syrians and locals live together. I believe that theatre can help people understand each other. At one point, there was real hatred between the locals and the refugees. All of them were poor, and the locals didn't want Syrians to take work from them. I used the “oppressed theatre” methodology created by Gustavo Boal, the famous Brazilian director. We used interactive theatre, games, and we wrote together, based on daily life. It went really well: people just wanted to have a good time together, to feel safe and trust people. So many friendships grew out of it. It was a way to integrate.

Did that period change you as a writer?

Of course it did. I continued to focus on social stories, but the dramaturgical treatment was completely different. I gained more depth, more understanding of context. For me, it was necessary to re-evaluate what I saw as the Syrian identity, what that means exactly.

How did you arrive in France?

When we learned that my wife was pregnant, in 2014, we realised that it wasn't a good choice for our baby to stay in the Middle East. It was an emotional decision for us, but we applied for humanitarian asylum at the French embassy in Jordan. At the time, only the French and Australian embassies accepted refugee applications. It took a long time, around a year and a half, to get an answer. Suddenly, in November 2015, they called and said: your application is approved, please let us know when exactly you want to leave Jordan. We had one month to get ready. It was really crazy.

Have you been able to work in France since arriving?

Not yet, but my wife and I still work: we do translations online, and I’ve kept on working for a Syrian cultural institution in Beirut as a communications officer. In France, I need to learn the language first, but one of my plays, The Small Rooms, was translated into French and published three years ago. It has been given public readings in France, so when I arrived, I already knew some theatres and festivals. My translators also live in France, so I met them. The Maison Antoine Vitez has commissioned them to translate another one of my plays, The Confession (L’Aveu), which is about the revolution, and I was able to send it to some festivals. The Goethe-Institut in Munich also funded a translation in German, and presented it last November.

Europe hasn’t uniformly welcomed refugees. Have you felt any negativity?

Not yet. On a personal level, everything has been very positive. We have some fears about what will happen after the presidential election – like French people. Even the left is moving towards the right gradually, year after year. I don't have answers: maybe we need to communicate more, to work together more, to listen to each other.

Have you had the opportunity to see theatre performances in Paris?

I attended some French performances, but I was selective, because they had to have minimal text, so I could understand some of it. It was a really good experience, because theatre is more advanced in Europe than in the Middle East. As a theatre-maker and playwright, it's really important to watch new productions, to update my knowledge.

Are you working on any new plays?

I’m starting to. I collaborated with a French-Syrian director who lives in Marseille in February and early March: we worked with seven Syrian women, all of whom were in Syria during the revolution. The director met them all in Turkey three or four years ago, in a camp, and after that he followed them. They now live in different countries, in France, Germany or Turkey, and they were invited for a one-month workshop. Some of them are religious, some not, some wear the hijab, some don't... I worked with them as a dramaturg, and will then write a script to go into production, perhaps with professional actors. I will also be the dramaturg for Mudar Alhaggi’s Your Love is Fire, a new production that will be presented at the Recklinghausen Festival in Germany in May 2017.

What do you find is the reaction of European audiences to Syrian theatre?

Most of them focus on the political questions, not on the artistic dimension. They are afraid of Daesh, they ask me: what would happen if Assad leaves? They talk to me as a politician. It's completely understandable, and I try to answer, but I'm just a playwright. I can talk about my own experience, and I can say that there are extremists in Syria because of the regime. I'm sure of that. In the first year of the revolution, the government released hundreds of extremists from jail. The regime fed the monster.

As a playwright, how do you handle these expectations?

You have to challenge stereotypes. People always have expectations, clichés, and it’s important to tell another part of the story, to be brave and ask questions instead of giving old answers. That’s what art is about: asking questions.

How would you define your style?

My work has a very classical structure, like the British school. I’m influenced by British writers and playwrights. I create a story and characters before building the plot, the structure, and then I write the dialogue. It’s a learning process, so digging deep in a realistic way might lead me to discover new things – maybe I’ll use other techniques in the future. I'm not in a hurry: I produce art and I learn at the same time.

Laura Cappelle conducted the interview. She is a journalist and a sociologist. She writes on dance and theatre in France and Europe, for the “Financial Times”, “La Terrasse” and other topical magazines.

Copyright: Goethe-Institut France
April 2017

    Funny stories about horses and soccer-players – read out on Arabic and downloadable as a podcast to be listened to anywhere!

    Where to? 21 questions on migration and refuge

    Learning German for Refugees

    Arriving App

    The guide for your first weeks in Germany

    My way to Germany

    Videos and practises for German learners