A call from Damascus

Alors que j’attendais’, a theatre piece from Damascus currently touring European festivals, makes us understand that the people whose lives are being destroyed are exactly like us. Review.

Yudit Kiss
15 September 2016


The last time Nada saw her brother’s name displayed on her cell-phone screen she was out having fun with her friends. She didn’t feel like answering. ‘I’ll call him back later’, she told herself. When she called back, there was no answer any more. He was found on the back seat of his car in a coma, savagely beaten up. She would never know what happened to him. Or what he wanted to tell her that evening.

Like Nada, most of us, outsiders, try to keep at bay the Syrian catastrophe. It’s too terrible to deal with. There are too many deaths, too many complicated actors, factors, fractions, unknown historic facts and conflicting interests. There are upsurges of solidarity, particularly when the media brings us images of child victims, but then the conflict is pushed to the back burner again.

But get a little bit closer, reading books like In praise of hatred or Burning country, seeing documentaries like Return to Homs or Silvered water or following the work of Omar Abousaada and Mohammad Al Attar, and one can easily understand that those people whose homes are destroyed, whose country is looted and levelled, who arrive in masses at our increasingly hostile shores, are exactly like us, with our dreams and desires, with our baggage of unresolved problems, hidden conflicts and unanswered questions.

Nada is a character in Alors que j’attendais (While I was waiting), a play written by Al Attar and directed by Abousaada that has been presented in festivals in France, Germany & Switzerland to great acclaim. The piece presents a typical middle-class family: a well-positioned father, member of the nomenklatura, who makes his fortune by some dubious means to provide a livelihood for himself and his family. One day he is found dead with his lover and a pile of money of suspicious origins. The mother sells most of the family’s assets to pay his debts and silence the gossip, becomes deeply religious and imposes her harsh lifestyle on her children. The children, having enjoyed the privileged life of an educated elite, are at a loss; they refuse the values of their parents, but are unable to follow goals of their own. The Revolution that breaks up in 2011 is like a wake-up call for them. The son, Taim gets actively involved in political struggles; the daughter, Nada takes off her veil, moves to Beirut and throws herself into self-fulfillment. He ends up unconscious in a hospital bed; she fails to take his last call.

The play consists of four snapshots of the life of mother, children, Taim’s girlfriend and one of his older friends, a representative of the previous lost generation. The events take place in 2015, in a hospital room and in Taim’s rented flat in Damascus. At the beginning of the play, while, next to his bed, his mother recites the verses from the Quran, the young man takes off the tubes that tie him to the machines and gets out of bed. He moves to the upper half of the divided scene illuminated by a sharp, cold light; the zone between life and death. Up there he meets another young man who also had a fatal ‘accident’ and together they observe events down on earth.

Strangely enough, the two young men seem to be more alive than the living. They keep looking for things to make sense; they still want to understand, to contribute, to take part in the transformations of their country. Taim has participated in the protest and resistance movements until he realized that his dream of a pacific, secular democratic revolution had become completely marginalized. The majority of people he fought with have opted for armed struggle. He decides to withdraw and to film the everyday events of the chaotic and devastating aftermaths of the Revolution. He realizes that to understand what is happening on the streets he should understand himself, and the history of his own family as well. He starts to work on a documentary that would relate his personal story to the changes of his country, when the ‘accident’ arrives. His sister tries to continue his work, but it is not at all sure she’d be able to achieve it.

The young man Taim encounters in the zone between life and death had also thrown himself into the Revolution with enthusiasm. But he chooses armed struggle and passes through the ranks of various warring factions to end up disenchanted with all of them. Similar to Taim, he finally decides to bear witness, by becoming the ‘DJ’ of the city and capturing its multiple sounds.

Not at all exotic

Down on earth, the living who surround the young man’s bed seem to be numbed by the escalating violence and chaos that became part of their everyday lives. They are lost in the labyrinths of their own contradictions and the increasingly complicated political and military situation. They move around in slow motion, in a sort of painful pantomime, as if the coma that paralyses Taim - and their country – afflicts them as well.

Beneath this logjam, however, each of them struggles to figure out what to do with one’s life. Should people stay at home mourning, trying to survive, documenting the events for a future, if there is one? Should they choose exile in close-by Lebanon or in Erdogan’s Turkey, or risk the passage towards fortress Europe, using the rest of their resources to buy a chance of drowning at sea or ending up in a refugee camp? They all feel responsible for what happened to Taim and gradually they become able to talk about it to each other. The simmering tensions of the beginning of the piece start to surface one by one, in violent arguments, discussions and confessions. Gravitating around Taim’s empty bed, his people start to communicate with each other, trying to understand themselves and the other.

The theatre, as Al Attar puts it, is a unique space of resistance and hope in the midst of despair. It’s also a place to look into the mirror and start posing questions to ourselves. Is our Syria approaching? Not in the form of refugees, devastation and lethal terrorist attacks – Syria has its own historical and geopolitical particularities to be sure – still, the ingredients of its current crisis are very much present in our societies as well.

We all know too well what the unrestricted power of money and privilege, social injustice and increasing inequalities mean. A lingering economic crisis, mass unemployment, particularly for the young have accompanied us for years. Hostage to corrupt, demagogic and inefficient political structures that lean towards increasingly authoritarian methods of governing, we are too weak to push through people’s demands for a more equitable, just & free society.  We too watch mesmerised the brutalization of politics, the impact of unscrupulous manipulation, the ever radicalizing political movements…

We had better start to address those issues one by one, before it gets too late.

It’s high time to take that call from Damascus.

Alors que j’attendais (While I was waiting), written by Mohammed Al Attar, directed by Omar Abousaada, is playing next at the Paris Festival d’Automne, 12-15 Oct 2016.

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