Interview with Syrian playwright Wael Kadour

A vehicle for integration

Syrian playwright and dramatist 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. Interview by Laura Cappelle

Mr Kadour, where did you grow up?

Wael Kadour: I was born in Damascus in 1981. My parents weren′t involved in 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?

Kadour: 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.

Symbolic image of violence against women and honour killings showing a man with his hand around a woman′s mouth (photo: Fotolia/detailblick)
Honour killings and violence against women in Syria: paragraph 548 of the Syrian Penal Code, which once conferred impunity on perpetrators of honour killings, was changed in 2009. Now the minimum sentence is two years, yet many grave crimes committed against women continue to go unpunished. It's just one of the topical themes Wael Kadour addresses in his plays

Did you still have to go through censorship?

Kadour: 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?

Kadour: 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?

Kadour: 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?

Kadour: 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?

Kadour:  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?

Peaceful protests by supporters of the Free Syrian Army against the Assad regime on 4 March 2016 in Marat Numan, Idlib Province (photo: Reuters/K. Ashawi)
A rallying cry against the Assad regime: "I can say that everyone was surprised by the uprising, but at the same time, it was accepted that we needed a revolution. 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,″ says Kadour

Kadour: 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.

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?

Kadour: 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?

Kadour: 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.

How was theatre received in this environment?

Syria′s president, Bashar al-Assad (photo: picture-alliance/AP)
Feeding the monster: "There are extremists in Syria today because of the regime. I′m sure of that. In the first year of the revolution, the government released hundreds of extremists from jail,″ recalls Wael Kadour

Kadour: 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?

Kadour: Of course it did. I continued to focus on social stories, but the dramatistical 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.

Having come to France, what do you find is the reaction of European audiences to Syrian theatre?

Kadour: 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?

Kadour: 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.

Interview conducted by Laura Cappelle

© Goethe-Institut 2018

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