Samer Omran: A Syrian Artist, Not a Politician

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Omran's first months at the institute were a culture shock for the amateur thespian.

By: Anas Zarzar

Published Thursday, August 16, 2012

With hearty laughter, Samer Omran begins the interview in the garden of the Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts in Damascus by remembering his early connection to music as a young child.

The Syrian theater director and actor would listen to his father, a military officer, sing while his diplomat uncle played the oud during family parties and gatherings.

"If my father had not been a military man, he would have definitely been a musician," he says.

Omran, director of The Two Immigrants, recalls how he was only six years old when he began hiding in his father's car for hours to listen to tapes. These moments were his first link to the world of music, which remains one of his passions.

As a teen, Omran learned to play the guitar and collected all the songs by Um Kalthoum, Fairouz, and Abdul-Halim Fafez, as well as Western classical pieces. "A friend once gave me a stick resembling the one a conductor uses as a gift," he remembers. "I would lead an imaginary orchestra for more than eight hours a day as I listened to Bach, Beethoven, Joseph Haydn and Vivaldi."

Due to his father's work, his family often moved to different parts of the country, but their longest stay was in Aleppo. While a student at the al-Hussein Bin al-Haitham middle school in Aleppo, one of his teachers asked him to present a comedy play "after some of my classmates and I drove him crazy in class."

The teacher's request became a real obsession for the young Omran, who was always searching for something new and unusual to tame his uncontrolled and undiscovered energies and talents.

He rented a video tape of the famous Egyptian comedy School of Troublemakers while he worked with five of his trouble-making schoolmates on writing scenes similar to the film. The scenes evolved into a complete – and hugely successful – play called Are We Students?

"I didn't really know the value of what I was presenting, as I saw the experience simply as a fun game," says Omran. "But the incredible reaction from the audience encouraged me to make the ultimate decision to pursue theater as an actor, writer and director."

When Omran was 17, playwright Nader al-Akkad invited him to direct the play The Cause and the Solution by Salman Qataya. The show was widely successful and won second prize at the Youth Theater Festival.

He explains that his obsession with art, theater, and music was the reason he failed high school, triggering his family's rapid intervention.

"My father told me calmly and diplomatically that I had two choices: Either to study for the Baccalaureate and live with the family, or pursue theater but live on the street. Of course, I chose the second," he says.

Omran recalls that his mother’s attempts to mediate failed when he was drafted into compulsory military service's toughest units – the Special Forces.

When his military term was about to end, Omran decided to travel abroad to study theater, but this required a high school diploma. After completing his service, he had 21 days before sitting the Baccalaureate exams. His zeal and determination convinced his mother that he would pass, so she bought him all the textbooks he needed to study.

"For 21 days, it was boot camp of reading and studying for the high school diploma," says Omran. "No one believed it when I passed, even though I got a low grade."

By chance, Omran read an advertisement in a local newspaper for an acceptance competition to enter the Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts. His friend, Mohammad al-Turk, helped him prepare a scene from the play House of Madness by Tawfiq Fayyad before he rushed to Damascus.

His first months at the institute were a culture shock for the amateur thespian.

"I needed six whole months to tear down all the false knowledge and concepts I had formed in the past about the theater," says Omran. He adds that the late Sajer taught him "the real meaning of life, philosophy, art, literature and psychology; he also taught me theater direction more than the art of acting."

Omran the acting student could not comprehend his teacher's death during his second year at the institute. "I was haunted by his presence, guidance, and charming teaching style for a long time," he says.

In the following years, he was taught acting by Fayez Qazaq, Naela al-Atrash and Jamal Suleiman until he graduated with high marks. He was the top of his class, which qualified him for a scholarship to pursue his career in the arts.

While waiting for his scholarship, Omran worked as an assistant at the institute with director Akram Khuzam. Director Haitham Haqqi recommended him for a leading role in the TV series Khan al-Harir. He missed the opportunity because the shooting of the series started at the same time as his scholarship in Poland began.

Upon arriving in Poland, Omran was surprised to find that he would have to study theory. There, he met Professor Joseph Apolaski, who helped him apply for an entrance exam at the prominent Ludwik Solski Academy.

"In a very short time, I managed to learn Polish – writing, preparing, and directing a theater scene that I presented before the admissions committee, which qualified me to study the specialty that I wanted," he says.

After six years at the Polish academy, Omran returned to Damascus armed with a PhD. He began teaching at the Higher Institute, "despite his shock at the lack of an educational and academic curriculum there."

Omran rejects the idea that the turbulent situation in Syria today is responsible for the cultural movement's recession and lethargy. He notes that "the greatest artistic and cultural works in history were created during crises and humanitarian disasters similar to what we are living today."

Omran says that most of his artistic productions presented over the past year and a half were "a clear declaration of my existence – that I'm still alive…And I try to present my view of what is happening around me in an artistic manner, nothing more."

The Syrian theater artist responds to the sharp criticism he has come under from cultural circles for continuing his artistic work and projects in the wake of what is happening in his country.

"Maybe I have a political view, but I'm not the head of a political party; I'm an artist and thespian," he explains. "I announced my position several times, which is: I'm against extremism and intolerance of opinions being expressed by all parties today…Syria was, and still is, a rainbow containing all spectrums and views."

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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