Courting Controversy (profile of Syrian writer Naila al-Atrash)

Photo Manaf Hassan

He grabs a knife to kill her. His sister stretches out, allowing him to wash the family’s honour clean of her sins. In a moving love scene, the brother retreats and his sister throws herself into the river to spare him the grim task. As the curtain falls, the auditorium fills with rapturous applause.

The recent production of Saadallah Wannous’ Miserable Dreams (Ahlam Shakeyyah) by Naila al-Atrash offers a pointed criticism of the patriarchal structure of Syrian society. The play is constructed around beautifully built, juicy scenes. It tells the story of two women – one Christian, the other Muslim – so oppressed by their husbands, families and society at large that they are denied the right to even dream. The play, presented in June 2008 in the framework of Damascus the Arab Capital of Culture, was a completely Syrian production, with a Syrian director, Syrian actors and, crucially, a Syrian script.

Atrash’s theatre productions are renowned for tackling controversial topics. While studying at the High Institute of Dramatic Arts (HIDA) in Bulgaria in the 1970s, she directed Fire and Olives (Al-Nar wa al-Zaytoon) by Egyptian playwright Alfred Farag. The play examined how the relationship between Palestinian Jews and Muslims changed after the creation of Israel in 1948. It conveyed the message that Palestinian Jews were also misled Hassanwhen Israel was founded, just the same as Palestinian Muslims and Christians. Directed shortly after the notorious Black September gang killed 11 Israelis at the 1972 Olympic games, Fire and Olives tells the emotional love story of two Palestinians, one who grows up to become an Israeli officer and the other a liberation fighter. The play ends with a moving love scene in which the Israeli officer holds a gun to her lover’s head, claiming she no longer knows who he is.

Photo Adel Samara

“The play formed a turning point in my relationship with my Bulgarian colleagues,” Atrash said. “Although some students turned their backs on me, the majority began to show more of an interest in the Palestinian-Israeli situation, wanting to know more about the Palestinian side of the story.”

Atrash says her membership in the Communist party as a teenager, which ran into direct conflict with her aristocratic background, has strongly influenced the choices she has made as a director. During her time in the party, she became interested in political, social and justice issues, an experience which shaped her world view from an early age. Atrash also points to her rebellious grandfather Sultan Basha as a source of inspiration. As a prominent Druze leader, Basha fought for Syrian independence from the French in 1925 and campaigned hard for a unified Arab army to liberate Palestine in 1948.

Atrash’s commitment to pushing the boundaries almost ended her career as a young artist when she took the decision to direct The Slaves’ Night’ (Layl al ‘Abeed), written by Syrian playwright Mamduh Udwan, in the 1970s. The play, which explores the founding of the Islamic faith, was banned by the Syrian government for attacking religion.

“The Slaves’ Night was completely misunderstood by the Syrian authorities,” Atrash said. “It was not meant to be viewed as an attack on religion. It was about the game of power before and after the rise of Islam in the Arab world.”

While Atrash was never formally banned from working, she was no longer welcome at the National Theatre, the only theatrical stage in Damascus at the time. Effectively exiled from theatre, Atrash turned her attention to cinema, winning the best actress award at the Tunisian Carthage Film Festival in 1986 for the film Facts from the Next Year (Wakae’ al ‘am al Mukbel).

“I always loved acting,” she said. “When I applied to study theatre directing in Bulgaria, I was asked to consider acting instead. But I knew there was no shortage of talented actors in Syria; good theatre directors were what the country needed.”

After a seven-year absence from theatre directing, the opening of Damascus’ Higher Institute for Music and Theatre (DHIMT) in 1977 brought new opportunities Atrash’s way. She worked at the DHIMT as a drama coach until 2004 when she moved to the US to teach at the Tisch School of Art in New York University. During her time in the US, Atrash directed several plays, many of which were put on stage at Ohio State University. In 2000, she also became a committee member of the Cannes Theatrical Institute in France.

Despite the lack of funding for plays in Syria, Atrash believes there are a number of talented young directors in the country. She also praises the Directorate of Damascus Capital of Arab Culture for reopening some of the country’s disused playhouses and for planning to restore the Roman-style open air theatre, al-Kanawat.

While Atrash’s interpretation of Miserable Dreams won much praise for being a 100 percent Syrian production (Syria boasts only a handful of great playwrights and such directors have little other choice than to put foreign plays on stage, prompting some critics to complain that a lack of theatre productions culturally relevant to Syria alienates audiences) for Atrash a play has meaning regardless of its origin.

“Creating a powerful working relationship between the actors and the director and ensuring that the audience connects with the issues we present as a team is what defines theatre for me,” she said.

After almost 40 years in the theatre industry, Atrash has travelled the world directing plays, coaching young talent and holding workshops. Today, she lives and works back in Syria with that same spirit of the 18-year-old rebel who once secretly distributed communist leaflets and fought hard to have her voice heard.

This article was published in Syria Today magazine.

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