Writing as a tool of protest
The Q&A: Mohammad Al Attar
Writing as a tool of protest
by S.B. | BEIRUT
MOHAMMAD AL ATTAR is an acclaimed young Syrian playwright; his work explores social relations, personal conflicts and everyday life. His own life has been peripatetic—born and educated in Damascus, he also studied in London and now lives in Beirut. He wrote his first play, “Withdrawal”, after graduating in 2007. It follows the experience of a couple who leave their families and move in together, and has since been adapted for performances in America, Europe and across the Middle East.
Recently his creative attention has turned to the turmoil in his home country. His play “Online” follows the web-based discussions of three friends, which range from the intimate to the political. His most recent play, “Could You Please Look Into the Camera” (pictured above), is based on interviews with Syrians detained during the uprising. Directed by Omar Abu Saad, an emerging Syrian talent, it recently arrived in Beirut after productions in Glasgow and Seoul.
What is the meaning of the title of your new play, “Could You Please Look Into the Camera”?
I have done two drafts of this play. The first was a verbatim narration of the experiences of five people I interviewed when they were released from detention. For the [final] draft, I rewrote the text and portrayed it as a fictional story in which Noura, an upper-middle class amateur film-maker in her 30s, wants to make a film about detention experiences in Syria.
The title comes from a scene in which Noura is shooting with the detainees. She repeats this instruction: “Could you please look into the camera?” I felt that when the former detainees were telling me about their experiences and memories they were going deep inside themselves and challenging their fears, asking what shall we say, and what not? The act of narrating or re-narrating is very laborious, and there is the same difficulty when looking at a camera.
What role then does Noura play?
The play is now more about Noura’s journey than the detainees. You see her conflicts, fears and questions about the meaning of her work and its limitations. This is the dilemma of many people like her in Syria today. People are trying to liberate themselves—we have to explore questions we have postponed and examine our political positions. There is a lot of the personal behind our political standpoints. The play poses these questions without delivering answers, which is a sincere reflection of the situation in Syria with all the ambiguity of the future, the worry and the tensions.
When did you decide to write about what was happening in Syria?
At the start of the uprising I was totally detached from writing because it seemed like a luxurious act. I was obsessed by participating directly in the protests and activism on the street. I feared that writing could be an expression of withdrawing from public participation. I was then commissioned to write a play, “Look at the Street. This is What Hope Looks Like”, which was based an article by Ahdaf Soueif after Hosni Mubarak fell in Egypt. I started to see that writing could be a contribution rather than cowardice. We all have different tools, and writing is mine. I’ve written three plays in the period since, which is a large output for me.
So writing is a necessary part of the protest.
Yes. I never thought I’d see what is happening in Syria and it amazes me. Another reason I wanted to write is that many Syrians are bitter that a decent number of intellectuals were afraid to speak out or slow to criticise what the regime was doing. Each person has his or her own reasons for this. Some were shocked or felt it was not their time. They felt this is a youth revolution, which it is in its terminology and the tools it uses, such as the internet. Others had adapted to living with the rules and were scared of radical change.
I hope that my act of writing shows that there is a young generation of artists and intellectuals who won’t repeat this superior attitude of the older intellectuals. My writing at the moment has many faults because there is no distance or time to absorb what is happening and reflect on it. But I feel an urgency to write now rather than later.
Where does your inspiration come from?
I am inspired by so many people, from classical playwrights such as Chekhov—his are the first plays I read—to Ibsen and Brecht. I love absurd theatre such as Ionesco’s work, even though I haven’t tried to write any. I read American writers such as Arthur Miller whose realism I admire. I admire many modern playwrights such as Sarah Kane and Caryl Churchill from Britain and Michel Vinaver from France.
Sometimes I feel closer to a Spanish or an Iranian playwright than to a Syrian one. You have schools of theatre here but there is no particular theatrical tradition by country in the region. My work is of course influenced by being Syrian, as I was born and lived all my life in Syria, but my plays explore global themes.
Before the uprising in Syria, were you trying to challenge the political system or push boundaries in your work?
I think theatre is political by default. But I do not directly write statements or propaganda. I tried to push boundaries before the uprising, both in the subjects I dealt with and the form I used. Starting with “Withdrawal”, the first complete text I wrote, all my work has been in colloquial Arabic dialect, notfusha [formal Arabic] that is normally used. I am not saying that is good or bad, but one of the obstacles for writers in Arabic is the dilemma of thinking in one language and writing in another.
People often criticise the lack of artistic output from the Middle East or Arab world. Do you think this is a fair criticism?
We have some great artistic figures in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Morocco, Tunisia, Lebanon, but the arts are still not very strong. There is no culture of readership, which is a product of the totalitarian regimes in the region. It is not that these regimes target the arts, but the lack of a healthy, strong culture affects everything else. We have a great Syrian playwright, for example, Sa’adallah Wannous, but you can count on one hand how many of his plays have been performed in Syria. Sadly, with the exception of my work with juvenile prisoners and a street performance, I haven’t presented any of my plays in Syria. To put on a play is a long, complicated, collective process that needs funding and that is a struggle. Art breathes with freedom.
I really want to emphasise that it is not about a lack of talent. We have so many talented people in the region. During the uprisings in Syria and elsewhere we have seen so much art, and that is a very promising sign of the thinking and capacity that exists. I am optimistic that more young people will emerge as artists. If we achieve better situations in our countries in the near future, many things including art will improve.