A flood of plays by Middle-Eastern writers are revealing the dark side of the Arab Spring
The plays bring a taste of the repression, torture, and revolution of their homelands to our stages.
A new wave of plays by Arab writers is hitting the British stage. Some are being seen first at Glasgow's Òran Mór and then at Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre as part of this month's One Day in Spring festival.
Others, such as the immersive 66 Minutes in Damascus, will premiere south of the border as part of this year's London International Festival Theatre (Lift) season.
Meanwhile, Notting Hill's Gate Theatre will host Hassan Abdulrazzak's Egypt-set The Prophet, the first major play by the Iraqi-born writer since his debut Baghdad Wedding caused such a stir in 2007.
The play features a writer with writer's block, explains its director, Christopher Haydon. "A writer who is creatively blocked is a strong metaphor for a country that is culturally blocked," says Haydon, sitting in a west London cafe opposite Abdulrazzak, the author of the first play Haydon will direct as the Gate's new artistic director. Among the questions suggested by The Prophet's title is the extent to which Egypt's spontaneous revolution now needs a unifying voice. "I haven't made up my mind," says Abdulrazzak, who spent 18 months of his childhood in the country and has been a regular visitor ever since. "It's a question that keeps coming up," he says. And it is a question no less relevant to the revolutions in other Arab countries.
Those who catch more than one of the coming plays, which also includes a Tunisian Shakespeare at Riverside Studios that casts that country's deposed dictators as the Macbeths, will get an impression of the sheer complexity, bravery and humanity encapsulated by the term "Arab Spring".
The phrase, whose roots go back to Czechoslovakia's Prague Spring of 1968, has lately been co-opted by anyone wanting to give a cause some revolutionary kudos. The mooted changes in the way British scientific research is published have been dubbed the Academic Spring; the winner of a recent by-election in Yorkshire declared a Bradford Spring. They may seem unworthy appropriations after watching works by those who have been a part of events in the Middle East ever since Mohamed Bouazizi burned himself to death in Tunisia on December 19, 2010, sparking a wave of revolt.
When pro-democracy protests reached Bahrain's Pearl Square two months later, Bahraini journalist Nazeeha Saeed witnessed the killing of a man who was shot in the head at close range by a policeman. Her immediate response was to tweet what she saw. She later described the scene during a broadcast for one of her employers, a French television station. Now Saeed has written a brief dramatisation based on what she experienced that day. It's one of 24 short pieces by as many authors that make up One Day in Spring, the play that in turn has given its name to the season of six works about the Arab Spring curated by Scottish dramatist David Greig.
"If you ask me why I tweeted, I don't know," says Saeed, speaking from her home in Bahrain where she lives with her mother. She is speaking on Skype, and Saeed's Skype picture is of a young woman with long black hair and a beaming smile. "Maybe I wanted to tell someone about the cruelty in front of me," she says. "I paid for it later on."
About three months after Saeed reported the killing, she experienced what many people in the region fear most since the revolutions began. She was detained. Her testimony to Reporters Without Borders describes how female police officers blindfolded her, and beat her, often on the soles of her feet, with a plastic tube as she was made to kneel on a chair. A liquid, possibly urine, was poured over her face, which resulted in a violent rash. After being released – possibly because of pressure brought by the French – she received medical treatment in Paris and, after refusing offers of political asylum, returned to Bahrain. Normal life has since been difficult. "Especially the first few weeks. I couldn't sleep. Any noise, any voice outside, I thought: 'They are here. They have come.'"
Detention is a theme that emerges from much of the Arab material that will be performed over the next few months. In 66 Minutes in Damascus, devised by Lebanese director Lucien Bourjeily, the audience is plunged into a recreation of what it might be like to be detained in Syria. The production comes with warnings about physical and emotional discomfort. For the 31-year-old Bourjeily, who pioneered improvised and immersive theatre in Beirut, the plight of the detained and disappeared deserves much more attention than it gets.
"They make thousands disappear," says Bourjeily, of dictatorships in general and the Syrian regime in particular. "[This] number is 10 times the number of people who are being killed. They are turning any underground facility that they can find into a detention centre because they cannot find places to put [all the] people. These people are being forgotten and they are disappearing from the face of the Earth."
Bourjeily took risks to get the material for his show. He and a colleague went to Wadi Khaled, a restricted area in north Lebanon which serves as a temporary home to many Syrians fleeing conflict or the Syrian regime. It is a place, says Bourjeily, that is stalked by Syrian agents who have been known to snatch wanted Syrians and take them back across the border. It is also the area from which many foreign journalists enter Syria.
"We risked our lives to go there and get this material," says Bourjeily, who filmed as many as 35 interviews with Syrian refugees while he was there. A similar technique was used by Syrian writer Mohammad Al Attar for his play Can You Please Look Into the Camera, which received its world premiere as part of the One Day in Spring season.
"I was interested in writing a piece about the current detention that is happening in Syria," says Al Attar. "I was haunted by this idea mainly because I have many friends who were detained during the uprising." The opinions Al Attar encountered while conducting several interviews with people detained by the Syrian authorities have been condensed into four characters, "all... united by one dream. Freedom."
Although his English is excellent I ask him to spell out the name of the heroine of his play (Noura), the woman behind the camera of the title. "N for newspaper", he begins. "O for..." and he pauses until a word beginning with O comes to him. "O for opposition," he says. Bourjeily is going to use the interviews he filmed to make a documentary. "But I am not going back to Wadi Khaled," he says, in a way that suggests that the very idea is laughable. And as if to prove his point, the day after we speak, Lebanese journalist and cameraman Ali Shabaan is shot dead in Wadi Khaled by Syrian forces.
From Wadi Khaled you can see Homs, the home town of 28-year-old researcher Soumer Dagestani who, like Saeed from Bahrain, has written a sketch for One Day in Spring. It is set in Homs and features two friends talking on Skype. "What's so sad about Homs is the sectarian tension in the city," says Dagastani. "Everybody used to live together and enjoy life regardless of their [religious] affiliation."
The city became divided when police checkpoints appeared between Sunni and Alawite areas. Most of the recent destruction wrought by the Syrian army has been directed towards Sunni neighbourhoods. In Dagestani's playlet the Skypers are old friends. Omar is in an area being shelled, while Kinan is in a safer zone, one of the areas from which the shells are being fired at Omar's district.
"All this sectarian tension really hurts me," says the softly spoken Dagestani. He worked with Greig in Damascus on theatre projects before the uprising began. He was in Britain studying when Syria's revolution began and he has been here ever since. Life here is punctuated by emotional telephone and Skype conversations with his relatives in Homs or parents in Damascus. "A lot of my friends are from different religious groups. So I thought about two characters who are friends and how their relationship has been affected by the violence."
"Have you ever thought of how it may feel to be free, to say the things that you want to say, out loud, without having to censor your words, without pretending – without fear?" asks Kinan, the character in Dagestani's playlet. It's a question with which Saeed has been grappling ever since she was released.
"I lived in total fear", says the 30-year-old. "I wasn't the normal me. Usually I'm strong and outspoken. That's why I write. That's why I tweeted that day. So I've decided to speak out lately. I feel it is part of getting myself back. Maybe it's going to help me to get back to normal."
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