Nabil Haffar: Syrian Theater’s Stalwart Steward

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After completing his degree in German Literature, Haffar was determined to study theatre.

By: Anas Zarzar

Published Sunday, September 9, 2012

On the slopes of Mount Qassioun, in the Muhajirin area of Damascus, Nabil al-Haffar sits at his usual table at the Journalists’ Club and lets his memories roll free. “I have spent many years of my life here, translating and researching,” he says.

It was in the Bazouriyyeh souk in Damascus that Haffar first began to experiment with his imagination. His father was one of the biggest merchants in the souk, but his own passion lay elsewhere. His curiosity propelled his imagination and at the age of eleven he became fascinated by the first theatrical performances he watched. They were by the Hakawati (traditional storyteller) in the cafes of Damascus.

He became enthralled by the theater group Free Theatre, directed by the late Abdul-Latif Fathi at the Aida Theatre. This was before it was demolished and replaced by government offices. Haffar’s father used to take his wife and eight children to every Thursday night show.

Under the guidance of his eldest sister, Haffar devoured books and magazines. He was hugely influenced by his teachers at school, who played a large role in encouraging his curiosity and passion for knowledge.

His aptitude in English encouraged him to later study the subject at Damascus University. Then, “After the disengagement between Syria and Egypt and the rise of political movements, I decided with a group of friends to leave Syria and continue our studies abroad,” he explained. Waiting for his papers for travelling, he carried on at the English Department, but then he turned to philosophy. He was influenced by the writer and thinker, Antoine Makdisi, attending all his lectures and lessons. A few years later, this admiration evolved into a very close friendship.

Haffar finally reached Germany, where he spent a whole year studying the language. However, a phone call from his father compelled him to return to Damascus to apply to the Ministry of Higher Education for a scholarship to study cinema or German literature. “I won the competition, but because of my ability in German and English, the examination committee decided that I should study German literature when I really wanted to study cinema.”

Haffar arrived in Leipzig in East Germany to study German Literature at the Karl Marx University (now Leipzig University). The professors at the university soon discovered their student’s keen interest in theatre, so they put him forward for work experience stints with famous German directors during his holidays. “I used to spend the whole summer in different theaters and cities in Germany, watching, learning and taking notes.”

After completing his degree in German Literature, he was determined to study theatre. He later completed a masters degree on the subject. He enrolled at the Arts Institute in Leipzig and was taught by Germany’s most prominent teachers on the subject, such as Erwin Piscator (1893-1966), before becoming influenced by the documentary theatre movement and the work of Peter Weiss (1916-1982). He later translated some of Weiss’ works into Arabic. His masters degree was on “European Documentary Theatre,” where he made use of his knowledge of both Swedish and Finnish. “Perhaps learning languages helped me to read and become aware of almost everything that had been written on documentary theatre in Europe,” he mused.

The German culture ministry offered him a full scholarship to study for a doctorate on documentary theatre. “Sadly, the Syrian embassy in Berlin refused to allow me to extend my stay. The Consul told me: ‘You have been in Germany for too long, you need to return home very soon.’” So, he returned home, not by choice, to complete his military service. After that, he travelled with his Finnish first wife to Finland to write his doctorate thesis, which was not registered in his name for reasons to do with the university. After that he returned to Syria to carry out many postponed projects.

With the late Saadallah Wannous, he published the magazine Theatre Life. At the beginning of the eighties, he became friends with the late Fawwaz al-Sajer, and together with Wannous, they produced some experimental theatre work. Haffar taught at the Higher Institute for Theatre Arts in Damascus and played a huge role in establishing and then producing the curriculum for the criticism department. He produced many translations of plays and theoretical studies from various languages. Haffar was also able to return to Germany and argue his doctoral thesis.

Politically, he aligned himself the Arab Liberation Movement which was very popular at the time: “But the movement was dealt a painful blow in 1985, when support from Arab governments was withdrawn and censorship became more widely practiced. The effect on cultural activity was palpable immediately, and it continues to decline to this day.” During that period, Haffar translated the play Turandot or The Whitewashers’ Conference by Bertolt Brecht. He presented it before the culture ministry and collaborated with Fawwaz Sajer on producing it for the theatre. However, the censors were watching and the show was banned. The translation was also banned and removed from bookshops.

His evaluation of the theatre these days, and the work produced by the Theatre Institute where he taught for so many years, is not optimistic. “Sadly, the Theatre Institute has become a bridge to achieve stardom in television series.” To this day, the Syrian academic adheres to the leftist ideology he first came across in his readings, even before he travelled and studied in socialist Germany. “In my youth, I was hugely influenced by the thinking and writing of the scholar Salama Moussa, whom I consider to be the most important influence on my intellectual maturity. I also read many books by prominent Marxists in their original language.”

After retiring from his job at the Theatre Institute, he worked on the Arabic Encyclopedia as a member of its consulting board. In 2005, he became the director of the language and literature department there, and is exceedingly proud of the 24 volumes now available to the Arab reader.

Today, Haffar devotes himself completely to translation. He has translated ten plays. “When you translate, you have to stay vigilant, aware of every word. You have to look for the meaning between the lines. It is not a matter of transcribing the text from one language to another, it is a huge cultural and cognitive duty. Translation is an act of transmission from one culture to another.”

Haffar follows news of the violent events in his country today. He closely follows their political, economic and regional repercussions. When asked about the future, he replies, almost choking: “I wish a future for Syria with no blood and killing at all.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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