Preparing Why Are We Here Now. Photo: Joachim Dette.
Articles, Reviews, Volume 7

Why are we here now? Mohammed al Attar’s work Aleppo. A Portrait of Absence

Why are we here now? Mohammed al Attar's work 
Aleppo. A Portrait of Absence
By Christel Weiler
Arab Stages, Volume 7 (Fall, 2017)
©2017 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center Publications

For a period of three weekends in the fall of 2017 the Berlin Haus der Kulturen der Welt offered its audience the chance to explore a variety of performances, lectures and films created and produced by artists who are actually based in Berlin, and who, originally, come from Lebanon, Syria and Palestine. What unites them is that they all have escaped these conflict zones and now live in a kind of exile in Berlin, using their art to ask questions, which we all have to deal with, as for example: Why are we here now? It is because not only that here in Berlin they find protected spaces and some modest support for their art, but also that they have something to communicate, which seems to be of utmost importance in view of a world that is constantly breaking down. And of course, these artists do that in various ways and with various formats.

The question above also finds a variety of answers – individually and collectively – not only among the artists who are involved in the HKW project and, whose performances, lectures and works deal with the consequences of colonialism, ways to travel, and concepts of time among others. “Why are we here now?” also has to be responded to by every single member of the audience, who is making their decision to be part of the series of events, among which was Aleppo. A Portrait of Absence, a work by Mohammad al Attar, in collaboration with director Omar Abusaada and stage designer Bissane al Charif.

The “now” – this seems to be quite clear – refers both to the present moment as well as suggesting a past and, also possible or even necessary links between the two. So when we read the second part of the performance-title, the Berlin audience might think of Aleppo as a place that is not only far away from here, but also as a place that does not exist any more. Aleppo seems to be absent in many ways. When we listen to all the news that come from Syria, from this ongoing war, first of all Aleppo seems to be a place where we can’t imagine any people living there a daily life, let alone making art. How, above all, do people who have once lived there and now are in exile, refer to this place where they might have been born, have spent many years of their life, know each and every corner, have left friends and also enemies and probably will never go back. Even if they would ever get a chance to do so – where would they arrive? Their former Aleppo would most probably in fact be absent, non-existing. Aleppo thus seems to be the name for a lost home, a lost belonging, something that is – as time goes by –transforming itself into a shadow, an afterimage, gradually fading.

The Berlin Haus der Kulturen der Welt, in short HKW, invites its audience in the afternoon at 2 pm. Al Attar’s work is presented itself as a series of one-to-one-performances, which take place from 2 pm to 9 pm, in each case starting on the hour and thus taking their time to create very particular encounters. Already at the very beginning, the atmosphere feels somehow special. A small group of 10 people gathers at the entrance hall.  Some of them know each other; some may feel lost, as the how and when and where of the performances to come still seems to be a riddle.

Nevertheless, everybody understands at a certain point that now the group is complete.  They are invited to come closer and look at an amplified map, which is said to represent Aleppo. The map is covered with ten blue cards, which are labeled in both Arabic and English. As a second request, everybody is asked to take one of them, or rather choose a place, which piques one’s interest and curiosity. As I am one of the last people to do so, I take what is left. The letters say Old Souk. Then on we go, perhaps guided by someone from HKW, not only with the blue card in hand but also equipped with a voice recorder, which we are given and asked not to use before we are asked to do so.

The person in charge leads us through backdoors to a place where most of us most probably never have been – that is to say: onstage. Here we are, in the light, in a place that seems to be empty and silent. Could there be anybody in the darkness looking at us? Gradually the light fades and changes to let us see the space in front of us. At the same time, we listen to a male voice coming from the far back of the room, talking about memory and the loss of it – obviously a kind of an introduction to what follows.

Their blue card leads each person to a special place – the arrangement here in the auditorium being equivalent to what we looked at before – Aleppo and its places of interest, shaped by ten island-like rostrums, each with a table and two chairs.

The place that represents the Old Souk is at the center, right in front of me. A friendly young woman welcomes me, offering a seat, taking the voice recorder, switching it on and asking whether I could speak Arabic. No. Nevertheless, I now listen to another female voice, a recorded speech ringing out from the device in her hands. Slowly the woman in front of me starts translating what we both are listening to, and the longer she tries to make me understand what the absent woman is talking about, the more the words turn into her own story. Her story of the Aleppo Souk, which used to be one of her dearly beloved places, with all its wonderful smells and fragrances, the traders, the crowded bustle, the noise. She used to go there every day to enjoy the atmosphere, to feel safe. All this changed when she realized one day that the traders did not support people who wanted to hide from the governmental security forces. From this moment on, she did not want to buy their goods anymore; the place had lost its beauty, the feeling of being safe had vanished. Still, the image of the Old Souk exists. Would it remain the same? Would the place be the same, once she would have the chance to return? Would the image itself turn into something else, change with time passing? What is left of dearly beloved places once we leave them behind, be it under duress or voluntarily?

Once the recorded story comes to its end, the woman in front of me passes the voice recorder to me, explaining how to use it, how to switch it on and off and gently inviting me to tell the story of my beloved places, whatever they might be, and why they are precious to me. Then my story would be delivered to the woman whose speech we have been listening to so far. She for her part would leave me now. This is a bewildering moment all of a sudden. Being left alone with a story to tell, not knowing where and if it would be heard at all. Maybe this is what we share with the majority of people coming from Syria or still living there.

In the program we can read that the team deliberately chose an all-German cast in order to “explore the idea of how much in common we have when we speak about such themes: loss, absence, nostalgia, places we hold dear, and the layers behind them.”

It might be due to in art to language problems that we know so little about what is really going on in Syria. But not speaking Arabic seems to be a minor problem in consideration of the fact that – to quote al Attar – “the story of Syria has been told on behalf of Syrians but rarely has it been told directly by Syrians.” Thus, the German cast in a way is repeating and of course, mirroring this situation. Meanwhile, as we find ourselves in theatre it does not matter that much whether the woman sitting in front of me is a “real” Syrian woman. The actress is telling the story as if it were hers. The value of it does not depend on the background of its narrator; it is the story as such that counts. Or to express this in al Attar’s words: “Our memories and stories help us keep the places we have left behind, or that become estranged from us, fresh and alive. They also help us safeguard our relationship with our home against huge distortions. Perhaps we can say our stories preserve beauty in the face of spreading ugliness.”

Why are we here now? Why am I here now? To tell a story? To think about places I hold dear? To keep this story in mind?

It would have been great to get the chance to listen to more than one story, to explore more than one place of an absent Aleppo. If there would be something to be criticized, it would be that.

Christel Weiler has been Professor at the Institute for theatre studies at the Freie Universität Berlin since 1996, with a focus on research and teaching in theory, aesthetics and analysis of contemporary theatre, and theoretical and practical investigations on acting. Her recent publications includ‚ Performance Analysis. An Introduction’(2017, together with Jens Roselt). Since August 2008 she has also been the Program Director of the International Research Center “Interweaving Performance Cultures.” Since 2017 she has served there as Senior Advisor.



Arab Stages
Volume 7 (Fall 2017)
©2017 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, Hala Nassar, George Potter, Juan Recondo, Nada Saab, Asaad Al-Saleh, Torange Yeghiazarian, Edward Ziter.

Managing Editor: Ruijiao Dong

Assistant Managing Editor: Alexandra Viteri Arturo

Table of Contents


  • From Street to Stage: Hip-hop, the History of an Artification through the Example of Farid Berki by Omar Fertat
  • The 1919 Revolution in the Eyes of Modern and Contemporary Egyptian Theatre Directors: A Reflection of a Generation Gap by Hadia abd el-fattah Ahmed
  • The Theatrical Work Mchouga-Maboul: A Plunge into Moroccan Memory by Lalla Nouzha Tahiri


  • The 2016 Journées Théâtrales de Carthage by Marvin Carlson
  • Jawad Al-Assadi’s Women in War: Troubling, Troubled and Troublesome Female Refugees by Hadeel Abdelhameed
  • A Drama of Unlived Stories: Old Child by GalataPerform by Eylem Ejder
  • Shahid Nadeem’s Acquittal in New York by Marvin Carlson
  • The Mysteries Behind a Silenced Voice: Review of Betty Shamieh’s The Strangest by Juan R. Recondo
  • Why Are We Here Now? Mohammed al Attar’s work A Portrait of Absence by Christel Weiler
  • The 24th Cairo International Festival for Contemporary and Experimental Theatre by Marvin Carlson

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

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