Posted by Joshua on Tuesday, December 2nd, 2008
by Ketan Gajria (kindly sent to SC by Ali Khan)
December 1, 2008
Early this week one of my teachers from the Institut Français du Proche-Orient (IFPO) invited us to what he had called “the best play currently showing in Damascus.” Through his contacts in the Syrian theater, he was able to arrange a private showing for the students of the Institut to be performed on a Friday evening. He promised it would be an experience that we wouldn’t forget.
That Friday I received instructions from the Professor to gather with the rest of the class in advance of the play at “Maqbarat al-Dehdah,” a cemetery for Syrian war martyrs. After arriving at the graveyard, our teacher led us deeper into the area surrounding this necropolis, down dark alleys further and further away from the main road. You see, in order to arrange a private showing of the play on a Friday, which is a Syrian holiday, the only available space for the performance was in the “Maljah,” or local shelter. We arrived outside an anonymous, non-descript brick building where a small crowd had already gathered. Apparently this private showing was to be attended by a few non-students as well. After several minutes of waiting in the chilly night air, the door of the shelter creaked open and a scruffy, bearded man in a cheap olive-drab suit beckoned us to enter. The entrance opened directly to a long, cement staircase enveloped in darkness which stretched downward below to the ground, and we did our best to cram ourselves in and as we waited for our permission to advance further into the shelter. After several more minutes we were made to continue down the stairway before taking a sharp left past graffiti adorned walls into an empty cement room devoid of lighting, which then led into another room lit only by a single tungsten bulb. As we entered the room the first thing I noticed was the soft tune of a French song playing in the background, the kind that wouldn’t be out of place at a Parisian café. To my left was a beaten-up pull-away bed occupied by a second man with an equally-scraggly beard who was thumbing through a novel and apparently paying no attention to us whatsoever as we shuffled past him. At this point I began to wonder if I had correctly understood the meaning of the word “Maljah.” The word comes from a three-letter root (“lah-jah-ah”) which is used not only to describe those seeking shelter, but also for those seeking refuge. Therefore, “Maljah” in addition to shelter, can also describe a house for refugees. I was beginning to think that this private showing had been arranged with little or no budget and that this unfortunate man was going to have to put up with French students invading his house to watch a play which we had been told was a lengthy 160 minutes long.
I quickly realized that my assumptions had been totally off-track. We were split into two groups and seated opposite each other on a set of couches in the corners of the room, both facing this old man who seemed to remain oblivious to our presence. I then realized that the living room which we had walked through, and what we were now facing, was in fact the stage for our play. To be more accurate, the room we were in was the stage, meaning the audience and the actor (the old man on the couch) were existing in the same space without separation. Quite brilliant actually, as you will see. I also figured out, finally, what the meaning of “Maljah” meant in this place. We had descended into a bomb shelter. As this dawned on me, a second light suddenly lit up and a second man, obese and drenched in sweat, stormed into the room. And thus began the play.
“The Two Emigrants” takes place in a single-room as a continuous conversation between two impoverished laborers who room together on the basement floor of an urban building, a setting which is essentially identical to the location in which we had gathered for this private showing. In these 160 minutes, which are unbroken and without intermission, the men discuss their lives, the society in which they live, and their hopes for the future. The older man is a failed writer who considers himself the more educated of the two, but is petrified by his fear of an omnipresent “authority” and has yet to complete a single work. The obese man in contrast, is illiterate, slow to understand and quick to misinterpret, but dreams of earning enough money to escape the country they live in and to return to his unnamed homeland. Their conversations touch on topics of their daily lives and struggles and their Joyce-worthy paralysis in achieving their goals, all the time surrounded by the constant specter of a totalitarian government whose purely-physical absence does nothing to diminish its effect on how these men behave and think.
The mood of the play is a constant alternation between moments of comedy interspersed with unsettling eruptions of violence, frightening uncertainty, and despair. Despite the differences in the education of the two men, the conversation between them allows each one to slowly expose the other’s hypocrisies, lies, self-deceptions and delusions of future success, hope, and escape. As the play winds down, it becomes clear that the men are prisoners of a society that won’t allow them to succeed, and the only power they have is the decision to destroy their own dreams. Although the original script seems to have origins in Eastern-European, leftist literature, it has likely been adapted to describe the conditions of the Arab worker who travels away from his home and family to earn money and give them a better life, only to find that fortune is unattainable and his return is impossible.
While the play itself was quite good, the talent involved in putting it all together did quite a bit to restore my hope in the future of the Syrian theater. The two actors are, without exaggeration, truly excellent in their roles and demonstrated the utmost professionalism. One of the Institute teachers who attended the showing informed me that both actors had done some work in Syrian television, but were unsuccessful and had only played a few small roles. Watching the countless, indistinguishable soap operas that run on television, one would think that there is barely any talent amongst Syrian actors, who are often doing little more than yell indecipherable phrases and overact even the simplest moments. However, watching these two actors perform 160 minutes straight, it is seems that it may be television that does not suit the talented actor rather than there being a lack of skilled performers. Furthermore, at the end of the play, the actors went “backstage” in the adjacent room to bring out the crew that made the play possible. The direction and the technical credits, despite the play’s low budget, provided a completely enveloping and convincing experience. The single set, even in its extreme simplicity, evolves as the play progresses as a reflection of the characters discussions, with lighting cues occurring at just the right moments (and it must be added that a long section of the play takes place in near-total darkness lit only by a candle), in addition to a clever use of multi-directional audio cues representing the unseen inhabitants of the rest of the building and the city outside, and even the physical break-down of the apartment as pipes burst out leaking and the electricity comes and goes. Due to all these clever flourishes, I was surprised at the end when the crew turned out to be just two men, one of them presumably being the director. It is perhaps the only four-man play I have ever seen, but had I not seen this crew, I would never have known it.
As it seems, there is indeed a promising artistic culture in Damascus, underground though it may be (in more ways than one), and I must admit that seeing this play produced a measure of respect for Syrian dramatic arts in me that hadn’t been present before. However, we still have to ask ourselves, how many Syrians are going to see plays such as “The Two Emigrants”? Is its audience a cross-section of Syrian society, including Damascenes as well as viewers from the villages, or is it (more likely) attended almost exclusively by Damascus’ upper-middle class? The messages in the play are important for all Syrians to consider. In truth however, my concern is that these messages will go largely, if not exclusively, unheard.
Article and photographs by Ketan Gajria, Monday, December 1st, 2008: Ketan Gajria is an American student and graduate of Tufts University who is currently studying in the yearly-program at the Institut Français du Proche-Orient (IFPO) in Abou Roumanneh. The “The Two Immigrants” (المهاجران) is currently playing in Damascus.
Also see Ketan’s blog: Ketan Sessions