For thousands of years, artists have grappled with the problem of how to portray unimaginable loss and carnage. Like many artists before them, playwright Mohammad Al Attar and director Omar Abusaada, who both hail from war-ravaged Syria, have met the challenge by transforming epic-scale horror into human-scale reality centered on individual stories and family ties.
In Al Attar’s play, While I Was Waiting, which receives its North American premiere at Lincoln Center Festival (July 19–22), family and friends gather at the hospital bed of Taim, a 30-year-old victim of a brutal beating who has fallen into a coma. On a tiered stage, which incorporates multimedia visuals and sound effects, the story of the Syrian civil war is told, literally and figuratively, on multiple levels. In a recent interview, the playwright explained that the play is structured as parallel narratives: the imaginative line of Taim, which portrays a mysterious state between life and death, and the realistic plot line, which follows one year in the lives of Taim’s loved ones. “The two plot lines,” said Al Attar, “advance side by side, permanently connected. The realistic line consists of showing how this accident will profoundly transform the lives of his close ones by leading them to confrontations.” One of the greatest challenges, Abusaada explains, was to find a voice for someone in a coma. “How do people in comas think? What language do they speak? What is the relation to time, to life?”
According to Al Attar, the play is driven by an additional meta-narrative concerning the situation in Damascus. It is a place the collaborators know well. Both were born and brought up in the ancient capital city. As the political situation began to shift in 2001, they remained hopeful: “I went to school in Syria at a time when we thought there was going to be a debate about democracy, about freedom of speech,” Abusaada said. After graduating from the Drama School of Damascus, he founded a theater company, but soon learned that censorship and repression made it impossible to create the kind of theater that interested him or his audiences. Inspired by the work of Brazilian director Augusto Boal and his Theatre of the Oppressed, Abusaada came to realize, as he says, “that the theater could be a tool of resistance.” His company became an itinerant troupe, performing in town squares throughout Syria and encouraging audiences to become what Boal called “spect-actors”—participants rather than passive observers.
In 2008, Abusaada embarked on his first collaboration with Al Attar. That work, Samah, created with the participation of boys in reform schools, became the model for subsequent works—staged dramas based on the testimony of people suffering through oppression and war. By 2011, the two men were responding to President Bashar al-Assad and a country at war with itself. Could You Please Look into the Camera (2012) drew on interviews with political prisoners, and Antigone of Syria (2014) used the words of Syrian and Palestinian refugees living in the Shatila camp in Beirut to tell their own stories while commenting on Sophocles’s tragedy.
By the time the two men began working on While I Was Waiting, the civil war was well under way. Abusaada decided to remain in Damascus, close to family and his work, but Al Attar fled in 2012, eventually settling in Berlin. According to Abusaada, the play began to take shape when someone with whom he was close fell into a coma and died. For him that state between life and death represented the limbo that is war. On visits to several Syrian hospitals, he recorded the stories of the families of coma patients. From the safety of exile in the West, Al Attar turned those words into a drama that he describes as “a way of thinking of all those who are not with us and whose fates are unknown, of their mothers, of all who are in doubt, which is one of the biggest tragedies facing the Syrian people today.”
For Abusaada, using the indeterminate state of coma as the play’s central metaphor is an apt representation of where Syria is today after more than six years of war. “The country is neither alive nor dead,” he told Francis Cossu last year. “Five years after the start of the revolution, While I Was Waiting is an opportunity to review the situation in Syria, but also to review my own practice of theater. The question of the coma also shows this new awareness of changes. As for hope, it’s always been there in my creations. Hope is life, with its development and progress.” Both men agree that this play will not be seen in Syria for the foreseeable future—if ever. “It would be dangerous, reckless,” said Abusaada in an interview. “It would lead us straight to prison.”
At a time when political shockwaves are being met with resistance around the world—including the United States—these collaborators who have personally suffered through political repression, war, and dislocation have found their own answer to the question of the artist’s role. According to Al Attar, in a 2012 interview with The Economist, he initially thought that writing was a luxury, but after being commissioned to write a play about the fall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, he said, “I started to see that writing could be a contribution rather than cowardice. We all have different tools, and writing is mine.”