Hailed and Haunted: Syrian Playwrights in 2016-2018 Berlin

By Margaret Litvin
Submitted to Session P5564 (Contemporary Arabic Literature and Theatre in Northern Europe, 2019 Annual Meeting
Other; Syria;
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector with Audio Patch or Speakers;
“I know Syria is à la mode these days,” the Moscow-born, Damascus-raised, and Berlin-based playwright and filmmaker Liwaa Yazji told me in 2016. Analyzing the 2016-2018 productions of Yazji as well as similiarly aged fellow displaced Damascene playwright-directors Mohammad al-Attar and Omar Abusaada, Ziad Adwan, and Ayham Majid Agha, this paper examines how this talented cohort of 40-something theatre-makers has responded to the conflicting demands and opportunities of artistic careers in Germany: pressures to testify about the war, to satisfy German audiences’ ethnographic curiosity about Syrian culture, and to make “serious art.” I analyze the professional, ethical, and psychological challenges involved in producing high-profile works for mainstream German and international (rather than exclusively Arabic-speaking) audiences: Adwan’s English-language magazine A Syrious Look (Berlin) and play Please, Repeat after Me (Munich), Yazji’s film Haunted and play Goats (Royal Court, London), Agha’s co-directed play Die Hamletmaschine (Gorki Theatre, Berlin), and al-Attar and Abusaada’s plays Iphigenia and The Factory (Berlin Volksbuehne).
This paper argues that this particular cohort of Syrian playwright-directors in Berlin, although their works differ in theme, scale, and style, represents a new and coherent phenomenon in the history of Arab/ic theatre. Previous scholarship has framed Arab dramatists working in Europe and the United States in terms of the figures of “Sindbad” and “Houdini”, i.e., either entrepreneurial ocean-crossing ethnography peddlers (such as the early work of Anglo-Kuwaiti playwright-director Sulayman Al-Bassam) or immigrant artists repeatedly donning and slipping the handcuffs of local audiences’ stereotypes (such as Egyptian-American playwright Youssef El-Guindi). This paper argues that those contexts, while not wholly irrelevant, fail to explain the precise situation and strategies of Syrian playwrights in Berlin today. Also relevant but insufficient are the century-long histories of exile, migrant, and “post-migrant” theatre in Berlin and the still fragmented post-Cold-War geography of the city itself. Another vital but partial context is the global interest in Syrian cultural production sparked by the 2011 uprising and the 2015-16 “refugee crisis,” especially pronounced in Germany. Juxtaposing all these contexts with the artists’ particular biographies and artistic philosophies, this paper strives to explain why some of their plays have failed to translate the writers’ intentions into production, how others have partially succeeded, and what this portends for the future of Syrian theatre in Berlin and worldwide.