All God's Chillun (pace O'Neil)
Nehad Selaiha has her intellectual wings clipped at the lately revived Damascus International Theatre Festival
One forgets how similar young artists are everywhere; whatever their ethnic, national or cultural provenance, they seem to be hounded by the same persistent dilemmas and to passionately share the same rebellious urge to transcend what they regard as an oppressive, restrictive, conservative heritage and a stagnant, repressive status quo. We met in Damascus to ponder the future of Arab theatre in the shadow of globalisation and the new world order. The motto of the festival, sported in bold letters on gaudy banners spread all over Damascus was: "Youth, the Future of Arab Theatre"; ironically, though, the three-day central seminar, the focal event round which the whole festival was supposed to revolve, featured very few "youthful" speakers. The few "senior" speakers who had looked forward to a serious, reflective debate and had planned to lay out ideas and suggest courses for future action culled out of hard-earned experience for the benefit of their junior "partners in crime" were allowed only 10 minutes in which to squeeze their ideas anyway they could and no time was given for discussion and exchange of views. Consequently, one of the hottest issues currently debated in theatrical circles all over the Arab world, particularly among young, fringe artists -- namely the question of foreign funding vis-à-vis state-sponsorship, an extremely sensitive issue that invariably triggers veiled or open accusations of "selling out" to the West and treasonable collaboration, and counter charges of implicitly endorsing the secret agendas of totalitarian regimes -- was left dangling in mid air. Predictably, the session in which this thorny issue was raised, the stormiest and most vividly real in the whole festival, was hastily terminated and discreetly omitted from the festival's daily bulletin. It was as if it had never happened. No wonder the young artists present felt deeply resentful, as if they had been dragged there to function as stage props, as a silent chorus at best, in a premeditated, carefully planned political performance. Likewise, the senior speakers were deeply dismayed at having their "precious" ideas, the wings onto which they had hoped to carry the young fledgling artists to vast, limitless horizons, so ruthlessly clipped and wantonly squandered and adumbrated; it felt as if they were inadvertently cast in the role of officious pontificators. Rather than colluders in the fight against the egregious ramifications of globalisation, we were ignominiously ditched into the niche of the old guard.
All we "senior citizens" wanted was to transmit hard-won lessons and valuable strategic information to the young and establish a real dialogue with them. But this was not part of the festival's agenda. It was meant and designed, as it soon transpired, as political demonstration, and one terribly mortifying for the Egyptian guests. It was as if we were meant to pay for what the Syrian system thinks were the faults of our political regime. Egypt's solo peace accord with Israel was a major theme in the opening address of the Syrian minister of culture and sounded like a severe, humiliating admonishment. Funny that Jordan's similar pact was never mentioned! On the very first night, the Egyptian guests, and they included some of our most prestigious theatre and cinema stars, felt as if they had walked into a trap that meant to align them with the ideological predilections of the current Syrian regime regardless of their own allegiances. Many of them were deeply offended by this crass political manipulation of a theatrical event, even though some of them, given a different context, would fundamentally go along with the officially disseminated Syrian rhetoric vis-à-vis the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. What really rankled was the use of the festival and its guests -- Egyptian and otherwise -- as a tacit ratification of the shameful record of the Syrian regime's flagrant abuse of human rights and terrible coercion of intellectual dissidents.
Of course the Damascus theatre festival, like all Arab theatre festivals, has always been a politically manipulative event with a specified undercover agenda. It was started in 1969, after the disastrous 1967 June war and the loss of the Golan Heights, with the pronounced intention of making it into a forum for Arab nationalism to counter the mind- boggling revelations of the corruption (in both Egypt and Syria) that led to the June defeat. The documentary record of the festival's central seminar lists the names of lots of honest, progressive, left-wing intellectuals who, unwittingly or otherwise, pandered to the Syrian dictatorship in the name of "national resistance" and preserving "Arab unity". In 1990, when the Gulf War erupted, the festival stopped. Naturally, since Syrian troops, along with Egyptian contingents, were fighting side by side, under US leadership, to expel Iraqi soldiers from Kuwait. It took 14 years for the Syrian regime to decide that culture, particularly theatre, could be a face- saving façade in a process of transition. Syria now, internationally beleaguered, wants to white-wash its political image and present itself as a "decent" nation in today's liberal world.
Hence the revival of the biennial Damascus International Theatre Festival in 2004, a kind of a stage rehearsal for the one that was held on 1 November 2006. Now having said all this, and quite cognizant of the seductively riddled, politically-invigorated and suavely collusive message I got from the Damascus Festival, I hasten to ask myself, before you do, why I accepted what I suspected could be a compromising invitation. And there is the crux, or the "butt" as Othello said before he went to strangle Desdemona and disembowel himself. Life in the Third World has taught me the value of intelligent manoeuvring round the hardest of obstacles, of forming secret (honourable) pacts with like-minded people, of knowing how to deal with even the Devil's own secret agenda without compromising my ultimate purposes if that means survival. This is one hard-won lesson I wanted to share with young Syrian artists. Besides, I love Syria, the land, the people, its many mountain villages and monasteries. It has some of the most talented writers and artists you can find anywhere in the Arab world and has always been in the vanguard in the battle for cultural enlightenment. Like Egypt too, in Syria, the past, a scintillating river fed by many cultural tributaries, flows smoothly into the present, inspiring a sense of wholeness, of the unity of all time. You cross one road and suddenly you plunge into a state of total beatitude where all the senses are gratified and your body floats freely in and out of historical time and soars to embrace all times.
I love Syria, its old traditional houses, the quaint narrow alleyways in old Damascus, the old oriental baths, some of them more than a thousand years old and heart-rendingly beautiful, and the courtesy and gentleness of its people, their inherent sense of human dignity and pride whatever their station in life, something you rarely find nowadays anywhere in the world. And where theatre is concerned, Egypt, and every Arab country, owes Syria a great debt of gratitude; it was Syria and its artists who first effected the transition of the old, popular, indigenous Arab theatrical modes into dramatic theatre. But long before I became involved in theatre, Syria had sneaked into my heart and established for itself a firm foothold there. 1958: a girl of 13 in her first year at secondary school, her head stuffed full of nationalist slogans and fit to burst or float like a highly inflated balloon, regularly dragged out of school to cheer the president, the leader, on national occasions and diligently attending a military training course, scoring high on shooting point blank despite her defective eyesight. That was me when Egypt and Syria were united. I remember how startled we felt when the name of the homeland and the very shape and colour of the flag we saluted every morning were suddenly changed. My sister, two years older than me, was sent to Syria on a school trip, cultural exchange they called it, and she came back in a rapturous mood. I worked hard for two years, waiting for the ultimate prize -- the trip to Syria; on 28 September 1960, however, when the preparations for the Syrian trip were actively underway, the merger unity between Egypt and Syria was dissolved. Funny one could still feel the bitter taste of disillusionment more that 40 years on. Strange too that, though Syria is one of the only two Arab countries where an Egyptian does not need a visa (the other country is Sudan), and where the Egyptian currency still has some value, I never, in all my travels worldwide, thought of planning a visit to it. I went there once, though, on a mad, emotional impulse. The great Syrian playwright Saadallah Wannus was sick and dying; and though you could hardly call us friends -- I had only seen him three times in my life -- I suddenly felt an irrepressible urge to see him one morning. I was in Amman, attending a theatre festival, and after a couple of telephone calls to Cairo and Damascus, I mounted a coach bound for Syria. I landed at Garagat Al-Baramka, the central bus station, and was picked up there by theatre scholar and critic, Hanan Qassab. She drove me through what I thought was Cairo in the 1960s and handed me over to her colleague and closest friend Mary Ilias who drove me to Wannus's humble, ground-floor abode in the university housing compound on the outskirts of Damascus. I had just watched the Egyptian premiere of Wannus's Munamnamat Tarikhiyyah (Historical Miniatures) at the National and wanted so much to tell him about its mixed, highly controversial reception. We embraced in the sunny, book-lined study, and though palpably enfeebled by the ferocious chemotherapy treatment he was getting then, he led me into the small diner-kitchen where he forced himself to swallow some soup in a bravado gesture. No wonder I could not swallow a morsel and that his wife dropped the big glass salad bowl she was preparing by the kitchen sink, sending it crashing to the floor into tiny smithereens. At the end of the meeting, our last, I had his wife call me a cab to carry me to Amman and cried my eyes out all the way back.
I love Syria, and despite the big fiasco of the central symposium, I was lucky to meet some wonderful young artists and watch some lovely shows. Visiting Mai Skaff's Teatro, an old Arab house up a flight of stone steps just outside the portals of the old city, at the back of the ministry of justice, which she rented and plans to transform into a multi-purpose theatrical-cultural centre, pouring whatever money she earns as a television actress into it and seeking funding wherever she can get it, was a rare, uplifting experience. Indeed, All God's Children Got Wings as Eugene O'Neil believed. Equally inspiring was meeting Moroccan actress Touria Jabrane and watching her treading, under the guidance of her husband and director, the magnificent Abdelouahed Ouzri, a fine line between politics and aesthetics in a visually intriguing, emotionally engrossing solo rendering of Jean Genet's Quatres Heures à Chatilla in Mohammed Berrada's translation. Driss Sanoussi's scenography, composed of rags, cut out carton figures, sand bags, metal buckets, water and candles, was earthy and breathtaking. Jabrane's musical, emotionally hushed rendering of Genet's shocking testimony as she methodically handled the elements of the set to finally confront us with a startling image, was absolutely shattering. Needless to say, I cried throughout most of the show and when she, surrounded by sand and candles, dipped her head into the bucket and came out with her hair glistening with bright baubles of water, I wanted to jump on stage and embrace her. Many years ago, for those who don't know, Jabrane was abducted by Islamic fundamentalists who shaved her hair off and released her with a threat of physical liquidation if she dared go back to acting. She did, and is doing well and thriving, I am happy to say.
Other highlights of the festival -- like Gihad Saad's Syrian Antigone, the Palestinian Ashtar company's Safad/Chatilla Vice Versa, and Jawad Al-Asadi's Bath of Baghdad -- were plays I had already seen in Cairo in the past two sessions of the Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre. New memorable items included the Iraqi Hazr Tegwal (Curfew), featuring two down-at-heel vagabonds, à la Beckett's Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot, trying to survive in the terror of present day Baghdad, and an enchanting Palestinian staging of Mahmoud Darwish's long, philosophical poem, Jidariyyah (Mural), which he wrote after a touch-and-go heart operation and reviewed in it his whole history as both poet and freedom-fighter with poignant existentialist anguish. The poem, adapted by Khalifa Natour, directed and designed by Amir Nizar Zuabi, with music by Habib Shehadeh, lighting by Phillipe Andrieux and costumes by Hamada Attalah, featured some very fine singing, superb vocal delivery and haunting, disturbingly bizarre visual effects vividly reminiscent of the work of René Magritte.
Nothing, however, could match the thrill I felt as I stepped into the 1,200-year-old Al-Zaher Bibars oriental bath. The world looked different through the thick clouds of white steam and as I was diligently scrubbed, I felt as if everything that had been inscribed on my body since birth was being rubbed away. I emerged through the thick curtains and wood and glass door into the narrow lane a new woman, a new-born babe. Outside, lots of black- clad women obstructed my passage. They looked at my wet hair and trousers and smirked into their chadors. I thought the procession was a funeral, but my companion explained they were Iranian Shias back from visiting a nearby shrine.