COULD YOU PLEASE LOOK INTO THE CAMERA? by Mohammad Al Attar, directed by Omar Abusaada. © Omar Abusaada / Mohammad Al Attar
Volume 1

Where Theatre Has Failed—The Syrians Omar Abusaada and Mohammad Al Attar

Where Theatre Has Failed—The Syrians
Omar Abusaada and Mohammad Al Attar
by Rolf C. Hemke
This article first appeared in
Theater im arabischen Sprachraum/Theatre in the Arab World
Edited by Rolf C. Hemke, Theater der Zeit, 2013
It is reproduced with permission from the publishing house, THEATER DER ZEIT, Berlin, Germany.
 Arab StagesVolume 1, Number 1 (Fall 2014)
 ©2014 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center Publications

“Can we talk about football?” Mohammad Al Attar’s ironic question at the beginning of our conversation pointedly sums up the situation. Author Al Attar, and his congenial director Omar Abusaada, obviously cannot stop themselves from reflecting on the conflict in their homeland Syria and its impact on their lives and art. But it is their mix of artistic endeavor, staunchly-formulated political opinion and joie de vivre, often turning into sneering, anarchical humor and loud laughter, that fills my encounter with these two extraordinary theatre-makers, and gives it its charm and depth—even if at times one cannot help feeling it is them laughing at the absurdity of life. It is exactly this foundation that gives dimension to Intimacy, which premiered at the Homeworks Festival in Beirut in May 2013.

The play outlines the life story of the main actor Yaser Abdellatif in snatches and by association, as well as providing us with a portrait of his character: following the 1989 military coup d’état the black Sudanese actor emigrated as a student from Khartoum to Damascus, where he became a star. More than 20 years later the conflict in Syria forced him to return to his former homeland as a stranger. For all this time he was considered a Sudanese in Syria, but in the eyes of his compatriots he has become Syrian.

Despite, or exactly because of such absurdity, Intimacy tells the story of an actor’s life as a comedy or rather as a life-farce. It could not be otherwise, given the mischievous and impish character that Yaser portrays on stage. He turns up drunk to rehearsals on more than one occasion, whether he is acting or directing. Whether the story of this unreliable, egocentric, but also charismatic and somehow lovable survival artist is a true representation of Yaser Abdellatif’s life, or whether it has been imaginatively fictionalized by Mohammad Al Attar, remains one of the secrets of this production.

At any rate, Omar Abusaada examines the various possibilities of interpretation in his staging of this (pseudo-?) biographical text. The play consists mainly of interviews and is structured through several dialogue scenes: on the empty stage the two actors—the interviewer Ayham Agha and the interviewee Yaser Abdellatif—start with a reading, as is commonplace at the beginning of the rehearsal process. A particular emphasis provides their reading of the stage directions with the necessary rhetorical quotation marks. The next scene is a conversation at a large wooden table in a workshop. The black curtains are removed from the walls before Abusaada plunges us into yet another scene of a reading, only to put his actors at two microphones like pop singers.

What ensues is a litany of questions from Ayham without answers from Yaser. After another entertaining scene, Ayham lapses into a monologue: he asks questions and also provides Yaser’s answers. This reduced and concentrated textual exercise stands in appealing, even provocative contrast not only to the flippancy of Yaser’s lifestyle in Damascus, but also to the changeful, revolutionary events that force him to open new chapters in his life. The choice of form can be described as a conscious reduction of means, given the impossibility of a realistic depiction of events. The intensity of the actors, however, and the ironical force of the text, give even greater power to the pictures in the audience’s mind.

Intimacy is the third project of this author/director team since the revolution started in Syria in March 2011. Their collaboration began in 2008 with a project about juvenile prisoners in Damascus. They presented the project Look at the Streets, This Is What Hope Looks Like in May 2011 at the Meeting Points 6 Festival in Beirut. It was based on a collage of Facebook entries of Syrian revolutionary activists and excerpts of articles from the Egyptian novelist and journalist Ahdaf Soueif, who reported on the events on Cairo’s Tahrir Square for the Guardian.

Mohammad based their second production Could You Please Look into the Camera? on interviews with arbitrarily detained and sometimes tortured victims of the Syrian security forces. He dramatized them in the fictional story of a female Syrian documentary maker who is trying to make a film on the basis of corresponding victims’ stories. The play had its premiere in April 2012 at the Bo:m Festival in Seoul, South Korea. In this context Intimacy represents a retreat into the private sphere. It is the reflection of the conflict within the framework of its impact on the life of an individual who stands at the edges of it. Yaser’s life—like that of many Syrians—is turned upside down without his being directly involved in the political debate, let alone in any acts of war.

Omar comments, “The most important change in this conflict occurred a long time ago and is irrevocable. I mean the change in the minds of the people. All Syrians have changed.” Mohammad continues, “As a Syrian you don’t have the choice of ignoring the developments in our homeland. It would be nonsensical. We’re trying to observe how the situation evolves, how our lives change. We try to reflect on it with our means, with the means of theatre. The theatre is one of the methods to observe from a distance what is happening to us. On the basis of the objectification through one’s own work we can try to understand what changes have occurred and how the crisis is affecting us. Although we’re just small pieces of a large puzzle, we can describe this puzzle much more accurately when going into detail. The theatre is also a means of survival, of staying productive, and of not despairing.”

Omar Abusaada still lives in Syrian capital today—the summer of 2013. He explains, “Damascus is my city. I don’t want to leave my hometown. All these disasters that are coming upon us are an important experience for me.” Mohammad lived through the first year of the revolution in Damascus. Afterwards he would have been drafted in for military service but he refused. Today he lives sixty kilometers away from Damascus in Beirut. At any rate, the Lebanese capital is the Syrian bridge into the free world. The Assad regime will not grant him entry to his homeland. He says, “Our country will witness even more difficult situations if we are truly willing to throw out a regime that has been ruling us brutally for more than four decades. A new start will have to follow: this will not be the end of the story for the Syrians, they will rise up again.”

Translation from German: Silvio D’Alessandro

Rolf C. Hemke is a freelance writer and works as dramaturg for public relations and marketing at the Theatre an der Ruhr in Mülheim, Germany. He has been curating the Theaterlandschaft (Theatre Landscape) festival in Mülheim since 2007, currently with an emphasis on Arab theatre. From 1992 to 2002 , he was a freelance cultural journalist for Frankfurter Rundschan, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Der Standard from Vienna, and public radio broadcasters, amongst others. Besides numerous other publications, in 2010 he released the research volume Theatre in Sub-Saharan Africa, published by Theater der Zeit.


Arab Stages
Volume 1, Number 1 (Fall 2014)
©2014 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center Publications

Founders: Marvin Carlson and Frank Hentschker

Editor-in-Chief: Marvin Carlson

Editorial and Advisory Board: Fawzia Afzal-Khan, Dina Amin, Khalid Amine, Hazem Azmy, Dalia Basiouny, Katherine Donovan, Masud Hamdan, Sameh Hanna, Rolf C. Hemke, Katherine Hennessey, Areeg Ibrahim, Jamil Khoury, Dominika Laster, Margaret Litvin, Rebekah Maggor, Safi Mahfouz, Robert Myers, Michael Malek Naijar, George Potter, Juan Recondo, Nada Saab, Asaad Al-Saleh, Torange Yeghiazarian, Edward Ziter.

Managing Editor: Joy Arab

Table of Content

  • Brecht’s Theatre and Social Change in Egypt (1954-71) by Magdi Youssef
  • Re-orienting Orientalism: from Shafik Gabr’s “What Orientalist Painters Can Teach Us about the Art of East –West Dialogue” to Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced by Fawzia Afzal-Khan
  • ‘Now I will believe that there are unicorns’: The Improbable History of Shakespeare in Yemen by Katherine Hennessey
  • Radhouane El Meddeb’s Experiments With Gender: In Search of New Bodies by Omar Fertat
  • Coptic Christian Theatre in Egypt: Negotiations Between The Minority and The Majority by Mohammed Musad
  • A New Perspective on Mikhail Ruman’s Smoke in A President of His own Republic? by Anwaar Abdelkhalik Abdalla
  • Kheireddine Lardjam, Traveller Between Two Shores by Marina Da Silva
  • Where Theatre has failed Syrians by Rolf C. Hemke
  • The Arab Aristophanes by Marvin Carlson


  • Solitaire by Dalia Baisouny
  • The Imam and the Homosexual by Jamil Khoury


  • Struggling Against Insurmountable Odds: Theatre in the Arab World/Theater im Arabischen Sprachraum A Book Review by Michael Malek Najjar


  • Malumat: Resources for Research, Writing/Publishing, Teaching, & Performing Arts compiled by Kate C. Wilson

Martin E. Segal Theatre Center
Frank Hentschker, Executive Director
Marvin Carlson, Director of Publications
Rebecca Sheahan, Managing Director

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