Iante Gaia Roach 08.02.2013
As the violence in Damascus intensifies, Syrian artists have been taking to the stage of Beirut’s Sunflower Theatre as part of Miniatures: A Month for Syria (April 4 -May 4 2013). The exciting and varied program, devised by a group of mostly Syrian artists and activists, includes dance, theatre and music performances, film screenings, exhibitions, book signings, staged readings, and an open stage event. It has been organized with the support of Shams Cultural Association (which owns and runs the theatre under the direction of theatre authority Roger Assaf) and other Lebanese, Syrian and international institutions.
The initiative is remarkable in many ways. From a curatorial perspective, it is the first platform of such scale in Lebanon (the closest perhaps being Dar al Musawwir’s recent tribute to Syrian culture). Many works presented thus far as part of Miniatures have stood our for their high artistic merit, beyond the urgency of their often implied subjects and references. Shams’ choice to offer independent Syrian artists a platform over the course of one month, free of charge, deserves praise, especially given Lebanon’s geographical proximity to the country at war, and the fraught and controversial historical relations between the two. It resonates with the association’s mandate to promote performance and audiovisual arts and cultural exchanges, to endeavour to tackle the lack of state funding, public facilities, and advanced training courses, and to nurture a multi-confessional society. The association’s strategic location at the theatre in Tayyouneh, on a sectarian faultline, is symbolic of its mission (even though its original headquarters were located at Theatre Beyrouth in Ain Al-Mreisseh, which has now shut despite an ongoing struggle). Miniatures is funded by the British Council, SIDA, Ettijahat, Al Mawred Al Thaqafy and Shams.
Syrian playwright and member of Miniatures team Abdullah Al-Kafri illustrates the artistic selection criteria: “it is a platform – not a festival – for Syrian independent artists to present works related to the current situation in Syria, even indirectly (for instance, Wael Qadour’s play Small Rooms is set in 2010, before the revolts began).” He continues, “it provides a forum for artists to show and develop their work – some of the scheduled events are still works-in-progress, and others have only just been completed – and meet other artists, aiming to stimulate artistic discussions.” Kafri stresses the fact that not all artists included in the program live in Syria or Lebanon, and indeed not all are Syrian: Qadour lives in Jordan, the band Hewar is based in the US, and playwright Alfares Alzahaby in Egypt. Lebanese musician Fareeq El Atrash and Lebanese actress Hanane Hajj Ali will also perform. Kafri is delighted that the performances and exhibitions have so far attracted a mixed public (Lebanese, Syrian, Arab, European, international), including the Sunflower’s regular audience, which is varied by definition. “This is great, as we did not wish to solely target the Syrian community”.
Asked about the current state of the arts in Damascus, Kafri explains that “the media paint Syria as a black box, in an unrealistic way. Whilst the situation is extremely difficult, there still are great artists and artistic initiatives taking place – as our program demonstrates: some of our shows came directly from Syria [with artists returning there after a short stint in Beirut].” He mentions a number of ongoing theatrical projects in Damascus, ranging from rehearsals for a new, Syrian version of Harold Pinter’s play The Homecoming directed by Ousama Ghanam, to the developing documentary theatre project Now T…here by Ettijahat, scheduled to debut in Beirut on the closing night of Miniatures (May 4), along with another play presently being performed in Damascus, which might make its way to Beirut. “There is not much going on, but nonetheless artists and people are still finding ways to present their work, and we all have the responsibility to show their work. Supporting Syrian artists has become more urgent than ever now, inside and also outside the country.”
Unsurprisingly, all interviewed artists agree on the difficulty of performing or showing their work. This applies not only in Syria but also in Lebanon where many of them are currently residing, often with financial restrictions, and deprived of their previous work and support networks. Not all agree about the situation of the arts in Damascus, and the performing arts in particular, although a number of artists state that it is impossible to perform now, and seem to dismiss whatever may be happening in the cultural sphere in Syria.
Alaa Kreimd, the founder, choreographer and manager of Sima Dance Company, who is currently residing in Beirut, talks about the company’s most recent work, Cellophane. After a run in Damascus, the dancers debuted this touching dance show in Beirut on April 7 and 8. The dynamic performance, which was accompanied by live music, dealt with issues such as exile (symbolized by suitcases), the masks imposed by society and auto-imposed by individuals on themselves, violence, and love. It was created, rehearsed and performed in Syria, at Damascus’ Hamra Theatre, under inexplicably hard circumstances. “We worked on it over one month’s span, rehearsing in an extremely difficult venue,” Kreimd says, “but the actual amount of rehearsal time did not exceed ten days. The concept of the show came from the realization that all our friends had left Syria.” The piece, which was funded by Mawred and AFAC, marked the first collaboration between Kreimd and theatre director Osama Halal.
Perhaps symptomatic of the current cultural environment in Damascus, six dancers from Kreimd’s 45-strong company have now moved to Beirut and set up the new quarters of the Sima Dance Studio – which offers a variety of dance classes – at Babel Theatre in Hamra (thanks to theatre director and playwright Jawad Al Asadi’s warm hospitality and assistance).
Wasim Ghrioui has also moved to Beirut from Syria. Chiefly a mosaic artist by training and vocation, he cannot work with mosaics at the moment as a workshop would require extensive equipment, so he has taken up painting. An exhibition of Ghrioui’s paintings has just opened at the Sunflower. In these works he sets out to expose extreme human behaviours, which come to the fore under extreme circumstances of survival, death, and escape. “Human behaviour in such cases is animalistic: people fight like animals, and escape like animals”, he says.
It is extremely complicated if not impossible to gauge the situation from abroad, with the majority of reporting focusing on political and military news, much of which is incomprehensive and biased. Miniatures thus helps to raise important important questions on life in Syria and the arts there – whether they are flourishing, as has been known to happen elsewhere in times of war and revolt; whether they are witnessing unprecedented freedom due to pressing political concerns outweighing cultural politics, or perhaps due to the state’s desire to appear more liberal in this regard; whether commercial performances have been helping to distract people from constant tragedies, or whether it is at all possible to focus on artistic creations at a time when most are concerned with their own survival and that of their families and friends, and with the fate of their country.
Forthcoming highlights from Miniatures include rock (Tanjaret Daght), hip hop (Fareeq El Atrash), rap (LaTlateh) and jazz (Hewar) concerts, Ettijahat’s performance and a rehearsed reading by Hajj Ali.
An edited version of this article was published online on NOW Lebanon on 22nd April 2013.