Staging Taboo Issues on a Damascus Stage

After a ban on all performances for the last nine years, a provocative piece by the Syrian playwright Saadallah Wannous is finally being brought to the stage in Damascus thanks to a German-Syrian theater project. Ann-Katrin Gässlein attended the rehearsals

photo: Ann-Kathrin Gässlein
The prostitute Warda (Fadwa Suleiman) fears for her life in Wannous' play "Metamorphoses"

​​"Theater must remain alive, otherwise the world would be a far lonelier, uglier, and poorer place." So wrote Syrian author Saadallah Wannous in 1996 on the occasion of international World Theater Day. Nine years later, his work "Metamorphoses" is finally receiving its opening performance in Damascus.

The German director Friederike Felbeck took on the challenge of this controversial work and she also plans to bring the German-Syrian theater project to German stages.

The richness of Arab literature

Director Friederike Felbeck is quite blunt when addressing the issue of Arabic theater in Germany. "I have always been plagued by a kind of phantom pain, because the richness of Arab literature has not been awarded with the significance it deserves."

Raised and fed on a steady diet of stereotypes from "A Thousand and One Nights," the public pays too little attention to the Arab world, and practically nothing from this region gets played on German stages.

Friederike Felbeck studied direction under Jürgen Flimm in Hamburg and first worked a year in France as an assistant before returning to Germany in 1994 to the renowned "Theater an der Ruhr" in Mülheim. Since 2000, she has worked as an independent director and has staged performances in Cologne, Wiesbaden, Düsseldorf, Oberhausen, and Bielefeld, as well as in Kazakhstan. She has also been on tour in Iran, Egypt, and Turkey.

For years, Felbeck has been specifically looking for an Arab author whose work she could make accessible in a German translation to audiences in Cologne and other cities. Three years ago, she became acquainted with the work of Saadallah Wannous via a French translation and was completely taken by the Syrian playwright's material.

During her first trip to Damascus, she was introduced to Saadallah Wannous' widow – he passed away in 1997 – and she gave Felbeck the rights. His complete work has now been translated into German by Regina Karashouli under the title "Metamorphoses."

A provocative piece

"When I was still in Syria, a new idea occurred to me. Why not form a mixed group to work on ‘Metamorphoses' and create a German-Syrian theater project?" The thought was that both sides could benefit from a mutual exchange of ideas and we could bring out new dimensions to the play that would otherwise remain hidden.

Friederike Felbeck shares direction with Syrian director Nawar Bulbul, who also plays the role of the mufti in the piece. The group receives additional support from Nabil Haffar, former assistant rector of the Academy of Theater Arts and editor-in-chief of a journal for drama theory. The costume designer is Syrian, while the set designer comes from Germany.

This fall, Felbeck plans to have German actors in Cologne join the team to perform Saadallah's play. Her plans, however, go a step even further. The director dreams of a guest performance in Germany featuring a Syrian cast, followed by a workshop with German colleagues.

"Metamorphoses" is the final work by the Syrian author. Written in 1994, Saadallah Wannous lived to see its debut performance in 1997 in Beirut. In his native land, however, there was only a guest performance of the Beirut production held in Latakiya, in northern Syria. To date, no director has dared to stage the play in the country's cultural center, the capital city of Damascus.

"Without a doubt, the play is very provocative," admits Friederike Felbeck. A young wife decides to abandon a life of high status and esteem, demands a divorce, and becomes a prostitute. Her husband Abdallah, once a womanizer and devoted to the pleasures of the flesh, falls victim to the political intrigues of a mufti. As he loses control over his life, he turns more and more to Sufi religious ecstasy.

In a sub-plot, a young man entangled in a homosexual relationship commits suicide in despair over his rejected love – a taboo topic that is highly contentious in the Islamic world and subject to censorship, at least for the Syrian performance.

A catalyst for reform?

The printed edition of the play is nevertheless freely available in Syria – uncensored and unabridged. That different rules should apply for the theater is seen by Felbeck as stemming from the varying natures of the media. "Theater has another kind of volatility. Paper is, in the truest sense of the word, more patient."

Since January, the young director is on the move in Damascus and extremely busy searching for actors and suitable spaces. The daily rehearsals take place either at the Al-Qabbani Theater or in Al-Hamra', where the dramatist Wannous frequently held rehearsals and many of his performances were staged. The premiere is scheduled for April 2, followed by a 15 day run.

Director Felbeck sees the play as offering unique possibilities and opportunities. "I hope that with this play we succeed in appealing to the audience's wishes, dreams, and interests."

Theater should also play a greater role in the professional working life of the actors; all of them graduates of the theater school. Most of the actors find their main work with Syrian television, and this is primarily due to working conditions in theater. "If this production can act as a catalyst for reform in Syrian theater, then an important goal will have been achieved."

Hope for the young generation

Felbeck characterizes the cooperation to date with her Syrian colleagues – directors and actors – as exciting and enriching.

"We all share the ardent desire for seriousness and are committed to the dream of defining life through art."

The "Metamorphoses" theater project is financed on the Syrian side by the national theater and the ministry of culture. The German Fund for the Performing Arts provided resources for the German translation. The performances planned for Cologne in the fall of 2005 will be financed by Cologne's municipal department of culture, as well as by the North Rhine-Westphalia Foundation for Art and Culture.

Why is it that only now, in the spring of 2005, a performance of the controversial play is possible in the Syrian capital?

According to Felbeck, one reason might be the guise of international cooperation, but she also thinks that the public is ready for the play. "Society here is changing at a very rapid pace," she observes. Perhaps the author also anticipated that a later generation would accept and enact his "Metamorphoses." "Saadallah dedicated the play to his daughter – a representative of the young generation to whom he was reaching out."

Ann-Katrin Gässlein

© 2005

Translation from German: John Bergeron

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