Naila al-Atrash Discusses Theater, Censorship and Exile

Damascene director and actress Nalia al-Atrash talks about the challenges of dissidence and censorship under Assad, the changing role of theater throughout the Syrian conflict, and coming to terms with a life in exile.

Written by Alexander Schinis Published on Read time Approx. 9 minutes
Syrians gather in a coffee shop in the ancient bazaar known as the Hamdiyeh souq in Damascus, Syria, Monday, Oct. 27, 2014. AP/Diaa Hadid

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Naila al-Atrash is a Syrian actor and theater director from Damascus. She graduated from Bulgaria’s Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts in 1978. From 1989 to 1991 and again from 1995 to 2001, she chaired the acting department at the Higher Institute of Drama in Damascus, Syria. She currently teaches art, theater and film studies at New York University with the support of Scholars at Risk, a New York-based NGO.

Muftah sat down with Ms. al-Atrash to discuss her career, her time in Syria and the role of art and theater in the 2011 Syrian revolution.

Alexander Schinis: How did your career as a theater director begin?

Naila al-Atrash: Right after I graduated in Bulgaria I went back to Damascus. I directed my first production in Syria six months after I graduated. I did it with the University of Damascus, which sponsored the work. The production was Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, as adapted by Syria playwright Mamdouh Adwan. It was a play that addressed the very hard economic situation faced by the Syrian people, who were hoping for economic, political and administrative reforms. These hopes and promises of reform were just like the hopes of Estragon and Vladimir in Waiting for Godot. It was very provocative and we performed the play for three months.

You have worked with Syrian playwrights like Sa’adallah Wanous, whose work criticized the Assad regime. When did you first begin working on theater critical of the regime?

You know, it was from the very beginning. It was with the adaptation of Waiting for Godot, which was a very critical production, because the message behind the play was that promises of reform will not be fulfilled, and that another solution was needed. As I said, that was very provocative. I did this work from the beginning because, really, why does one do theater otherwise?

Tell me why.

Because there is a message — usually a political one — that you want to deliver. Theater and art is opposition. Art is always opposition. What is the benefit of art? What is the value of art if it is not opposing reality? Or if it is not going to add something to this reality? And living in a country such as Syria, let me tell you this — you get involved in politics. Politics is everywhere. You practice politics even in private, at home. You can’t avoid it. So in the theater, it can’t be ignored. On the contrary, I think theater is the vessel to tackle the political order and other issues.

Of course, in Syria, censorship may obstruct the messages you want to convey through theater. Can you talk about those challenges and how you overcame them?

Yes, certainly. In the very beginning, I wasn’t aware of what the government’s exact criteria in permitting or banning a work was. So, early on, two of my plays were banned. One of them, written by Mamdouh Adwan, called Night of the Slaves, spoke about when the Prophet Muhammad started to call for Islam. In the play, the Quraysh, who were the dominant power in the Arabian peninsula, adapted their beliefs to serve their own interests. So, the message behind the play was that your leaders before Islam are the same as during Islam. There is no change. When I directed the play on the stage, I was referring to the Ba’ath Party, which once presented itself as representative and defender of the people, but transformed into a coercive force after it took power.

I was preparing for the opening night when I received a call from the Secretary of Culture. He asked me to join him in his office for an important message. I went there and he told me to stop the play’s opening. He gave me a list of 57 names, including Syrian ministers, members of parliament, and some military generals, all of whom would watch the play instead. They came and banned the play.

They banned it before you put it on?

They banned it on the opening night. They viewed it on opening night, and their decision was to ban it.

They liked it that much?

Yes, they liked it that much. The Minister of Religious Endowments went out into the corridor of the theater, screaming and shouting, “We should hang her!” From that time, I was banned from doing theater in city theaters.

This was your second play?

It was my second play. I was banned for almost eight years from doing any directing in the city. Later, the Minister of Culture wanted me to join the newly established High Institute of Drama. She received permission for this because they were in desperate need of faculty. Inside the institute, I could, of course, direct plays for teaching purposes. After eight years, I did a play that was an adaptation of the Spanish play, The Double Case History of Doctor Valmy by Antonio Buero Vallejo. It was banned before the opening night. It was my third production, after which I didn’t produce anything for three years. The fourth production was also staged in the High Institute of Drama, but it was eventually shown in the National Theater in Damascus, because it was a great success. Its message was no less dangerous than the others, but I had learned the lesson.

What was the lesson?

How to make sure that the audience understands what I have to say but the censors do not. The message in this play was, don’t ever, ever compromise your rights. You have to pursue your goals, no matter what the circumstances are. In order to be able to reach some of what you want, you have to ask for everything. The message was very well understood and received by the audience. I was able to perform the play for three weeks, if not more, and from that time I started to strike a balance.

What is more effective for our society: to be very provocative and aggressive towards the regime and address it directly, or to mask messages and go through different ways? Which is more effective? I believed it was to make the message understandable to the audience while obscuring it for the censors. So that’s what I started to do. It’s not easy because you don’t want to compromise your beliefs, but at the same time you must maintain a high level of artistic discourse, so it’s a kind of balance.

Sometimes I failed to do that, and the censors quickly understood and banned the project. The Horse, a play about Caligula appointing his horse to the senate, was an example of that. The horse becomes la mode, the fashion. People begin to emulate it, because it is the horse of Caligula. The play was banned. But after a year and a half, I changed the title of the play and it passed through the censors. We performed it for three weeks.

It’s a game, like hide and seek, between us and them, the artists and the censors.

Do you think theater, or the arts in general, played a role in the demonstrations that took place in Syria in 2011?

Theater in Syria, as I told you, has always been critical of the status quo and affected the political scene in Syria. When the uprising started, I can’t say whether theater made a direct contribution. Since it is an eye-opener when it comes to politics, theater undoubtedly contributed in some way to the uprising, along with the work of all Syrian intellectuals. So, in an indirect way, yes, of course it contributed.

In your view, has the importance of theater, or opposition through art, changed since the revolution began?

It hasn’t changed. Again, theater opens people’s minds, raises awareness about their condition, across political, social and economic levels.

The kind of the theater that is practiced now is more therapeutic, theater for therapy. There have been three or more theatrical projects with women refugees in Lebanon and Jordan, with children in Jordan’s Za’atari camp, and in the camps in Gaziantep, Turkey. That kind of theater now is very popular, because it helps people to assimilate to their conditions. When you’re able to tell your story, it balances you. And if you’ve suffered trauma, it can, perhaps, help mitigate that trauma.

A number of our TV directors have also tried to talk about the conflict, about what is happening in Syria, to turn it into a debate in a TV series of 30 or more episodes, while having actors from both the pro-regime and anti-regime camp work together. I haven’t seen all the episodes, but I think it was not a bad attempt at using art to bring both sides together and debate what is happening.

It sounds like theater could potentially help heal civil society once the war is over?

Yes. After the war is over, I think it should play that role. I want to remind you of the YouTube series, Top Goon, for example, which raised people’s awareness, but also encouraged them to express their opinions. It deconstructed the conventional idea of the dictator and gave his power to the people. When you turn Bashar al-Assad into a character and satirize him using dark humor and irony, you debunk his image. You make it possible, in the minds of all Syrians, to defeat him.

You were eventually forced to leave Syria. Can you tell us about those circumstances?

My story with the security apparatus began with my arrival in Damascus airport when I came back from Bulgaria. I was detained for four hours because I had demonstrated in Sofia together with other Syrians and Lebanese against the Syrian invasion of Lebanon in 1976.

The second incident came when I was at the High Institute of Drama, leading the acting department. Two agents from the security apparatus were looking for one of my students because he had been accused of anti-government activities. I refused to hand him over, and demanded they leave. They left, but the security apparatus began summoning me for investigations.

I have never been imprisoned, but I have been investigated and interrogated many, many times. They would ask mundane questions and keep me waiting for hours. They were not seeking information. They had the information. They were using intimidation tactics. They wanted me to know I was under surveillance. That they were in control of every step I took.

Security officials became more harsh with me in 2000, after I signed a document called the 99 Statement of Syrian Intellectuals and Artists. The statement called for the end of martial law, the end of emergency law, the release of political prisoners, and more liberties, including for free expression. The statement was published in Lebanese newspapers. Those of us who signed the document and were not already under direct government surveillance came under it.

In 2001, I was accused of supporting a student-led strike and was dismissed from my job at the High Institute of Drama. In 2005, I joined a coalition of pro-democracy activists called the Damascus Declaration, which pushed for urgent administrative and political reforms as first steps towards establishing a civil, pluralistic, democratic state. This body was harshly pursued and attacked. In the wake of these developments, I was banned from traveling and put under house arrest.

This continued until 2009, when I received help from Scholars at Risk, a network that helps scholars work freely, and secretly left the country. I went back to Syria in 2011 because I wanted to support my friends in the uprising. It was three months into the revolution. I started, as everyone else did, by demonstrating. But due to the escalating crackdown, the revolution turned from a peaceful movement into an armed one. It became harder and harder to work peacefully within the revolution. I had helped to initiate volunteer relief groups, which aimed, among other things, to provide education to children and distribute humanitarian aid. But even this kind of work was not permitted, after a while. Soon the threat of becoming imprisoned became very direct, and I decided to flee.

How have you been personally impacted by the decision to finally leave Syria?

The decision wasn’t easy. You’re plagued with thoughts of what it means to see to your personal safety when everyone back in Syria cannot. During my first period of exile, I was very conflicted. I woke up almost every morning to questions ranging from, “What am I here to do?” to “Does what I’m doing contribute in one way or another to the just cause of my people?” And there were times where I felt I wanted to go back. I regretted leaving.

Now it’s easier, but it doesn’t disappear. You still feel it so sharply inside you sometimes. After four years in exile I still ask, “What is your responsibility, what can you do?” And I simply continue to do what I’ve been doing until now. I do art. I do theater. Because you know what? Doing art and being active in doing this is demonstrating your ability, which the regime fights tooth and nail to take from you. And you come to realize that one voice outside of the country can be more powerful than many voices under the weight of oppression inside the country.

Sometimes I even doubt these conclusions. I don’t know. Am I certain of this or not? I don’t know.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Syria Deeply.

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