Riad Ismat. Photo: Muftah.
Announcements, Articles, Interview, Volume 12

In Memoriam: Riad Ismat (1947-2020)

By Robert Myers

On May 13 of this year, the theatre, the Arab world and those who care about literature and culture lost a great friend, scholar and brilliant director and playwright, Mohammad Riad Hussein Ismat to the Covid 19 virus. Known to his friends and colleagues as Riad, he was born in Syria in 1947, and graduated from Damascus University in 1968 with a degree in English literature.  His protean career as a writer, theatre practitioner, television director and diplomat led him to Pakistan and Qatar, in both of which he served as the Syrian ambassador, and eventually to Illinois, where he lived outside Chicago after departing from Syria in 2012 with his wife Azzah and their three children, Karim, Noura and Sami, who is a theatre artist in Chicago. When Riad passed away he was a teacher of theatre at Northwestern University.

His most prominent post was as Minister of Culture of Syria, a position in which he served from 2010 to 2012, but he also served as Vice-Minister of Culture and Director of Syrian State Radio and Television, and he was the rector of the High Dramatic Institute in Syria from 2000 to 2003. He is, however, best known as the author of over a dozen plays, including The Game of Love and Revolution, The Banana Republic, Abla and Antar and In Search of Zenobia. He not only directed a number of his own plays, he also directed Arabic-language productions of Shakespeare, Wedekind, O’Neill and others, and he adapted folk tales, myths and stories from The 1001 Nights and also staged classic Greek dramas in Syria. His play Was Dinner Good, Dear Sister appeared in English translation in Short Arabic Plays, edited by Salma Jayyusi. He published close to three dozen books of plays and cultural and dramatic criticism in Arabic,  including The Arab Theater and Sound and Echo: A Study of the Modern Syrian Short Story, and his most recent study, Artists, Writers and the Arab Spring, was published in English by Palgrave Macmillan in 2019. This latter volume, which one inevitably reads for clues about the motives for his own rapid departure from Syria in 2012 (Riad came to Northwestern in 2013 through the Writers at Risk program), is an incisive work of cultural history that finds innumerable calls for structural societal reform and admonitions warning of imminent political upheaval in literary works by Arab writers whose works antedate the so-called Arab spring, sometimes by decades. The volume includes studies of the works of Nizar Qabbani, Naguib Mahfouz, Tawfik al-Hakim and the Syrian novelist Ghada Samman.

I had the good fortune to meet Riad in 2001 when he was the rector of the High Dramatic Institute in Damascus. I had just completed a collaboration with a Jordanian playwright in Amman and was invited to Damascus to meet Riad, whom I found to be one of the most congenial and cultured people I have met in the world of theatre or anywhere else. He gave me a tour of the school, invited me to his home in the hills above Damascus, where I met his wife, Azzah, who showered me with gifts, and then he and I went to a restaurant for dinner, where we planned a collaboration which, unfortunately, never took place. We met again at a panel on political theatre at Silk Road Rising in Chicago in 2015 and resumed our friendship. I was pleased but nor surprised to discover that in addition to teaching, he continued apace writing and directing plays, including a staging at Columbia College in Chicago of the Peter Brook version of the Sufi story Conference of the Birds.  Although Chris Jones of The Chicago Tribune wrote a stirring tribute to Riad’s life and work, this extraordinary figure did not receive the attention he merited elsewhere in the English-speaking press, but according to his son, Sami, Riad’s life and career were celebrated and acknowledged in publications all over the Arab world. Riad Ismat is one of the many fine artists and splendid human beings who have passed away too soon in recent months, and although we mourn the pain his loss causes his family and the fact that he passed away while he was still a vital force in theatre and the arts, we take consolation in his extraordinary achievements and their continuing resonance for those of us who value the cosmopolitan culture and theatre produced by artists from the Arab world.

Robert Myers is a professor of English at AUB, director of the Alwaleed Center for American Studies and co-director of AUB’s Theater Initiative. He is the author of over fifteen plays, which have been produced all over the U.S. He has produced over half a dozen plays in Lebanon directed by Sahar Assaf, including a site-specific Blood Wedding and the world premiere of the English-language version of Rituals of Signs and Transformations. In addition to having written numerous articles on theatre and culture, he is co-editor and co-translator with Nada Saab of Contemporary Political Theater from the Levant, published by Brill in 2018, and Sentence to Hope, a Sa’dallah Wannous reader, published by Yale University Press in 2019. He is co-editor with Sonja Mejcher-Atassi of Sa’dallah Wannous: Syrian Playwright and Public Intellectual, a collection of essays that is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press.


Arab Stages
Volume 12 (Fall 2020)
©2020 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, 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 Editors: Esther Neff and Philip Wiles


Table of Contents:

Young and Critical Voices of Turkey II: We are here as we are and even if we are somehow failing, we keep working. Conversation with Onur Karaoğlu by Eylem Ejder
Refraction, against distortion. Recent tendencies on the Arab stage by Daniela Potenza
“Theatre—It’s Our Only Sanctuary” An Interview by Michael Malek Najjar with Professor Sahar Assaf
Review by Areeg Ibrahim of The Selected Works of Yussef El Guindi edited by Michael Malek Najjar
Review by Khalid Amine of Le théâtre marocain a l’épreuve du texte étranger  (Moroccan Theatre: Experimenting with the Foreign Text) by Omar Fertat
Review by Ashley Marinaccio of Palestinian Theatre in the West Bank: Our Human Faces by Gabriel Varghese
Obituary: Fatima Gallaire
Obituary: Leinin El Ramly
Obituary: Riad Ismat
Nehad Selaiha (1945-2017): On Egyptian and International Theatre. Free PDF’s of Five Volumes of Theatre Criticism + Sample Essays


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