Syria: Aleppo Defeats Death With Theater

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Rebel fighters stand on top of a tank confiscated from pro-regime fighters in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on December 21, 2013. (Photo: AFP - Mohammed Al-Khatieb).

By: Suhaib Anjarini

Published Friday, January 3, 2014

While the warring parties were busy raining death down on Aleppo, the capital of northern Syria, many Aleppans came together to organize an eight-day theater festival to celebrate life in a time of war.

Organizing a theater festival is a worthwhile endeavor anytime, anywhere, but organizing an amateur theater festival in a city where death lurks around every corner means that you are in Aleppo, the city that has conquered death.

The afternoon scene on December 24 in the Jamilieh neighborhood was surreal in every sense of the word. Only a day before, armed groups had declared the neighborhood a “military zone” and designated it, along with other neighborhoods, a “legitimate target,” thus intensifying the rate at which it was targeted with mortar shells.

This, however, did not stop audiences who flocked to the Actors Guild Theater, which hosted the closing ceremony of Aleppo’s amateur theater festival. “I attended the festival from day one. The sounds of shells were blasting outside, but a strange sense of security hovered inside the theater hall,” said Ahmad. “It was a fantastic week. Long live the theater.”

Seven performances were presented during the festival. The Directorate of Culture, the City Council, and the Aleppo branch of the Fine Arts Association worked together to organize the festival. Over a hundred people participated in the shows, between actors and technicians. The credit goes mainly to them for the success of the festival, according to Abdel-Halim Hariri, head of the Fine Arts Association in Aleppo.

He told Al-Akhbar, “When 80 young men and women take to the stage over the course of a week in the midst of all this destruction, despite everything that the city is going through, this is proof that Aleppo is able to overcome all obstacles. They insisted on resisting death in their own way, and we did our job by embracing them …”

The theater hall, which accommodates nearly a thousand spectators, repeatedly filled up for the seven performances and the closing ceremony. Hariri said, “We were surprised by the size of the audience. On some days, dozens attended standing up, while dozens more waited outside.”

The Story of the Festival

Months earlier, theater director Moataz Sigri issued an invitation to his fellow thespians in Aleppo to attend a preparatory meeting to organize an amateur theater festival. Some responded to the invitation with cynicism, others with disapproval. But most recipients were quick to accept the invitation, including actor Hazem Haddad, who was appointed general coordinator of the festival.

Haddad told Al-Akhbar, “Our main goal was to turn on the lights of the theater at a time when darkness had engulfed Aleppo completely. We love life, and theater makes us feel we are still alive.”

He stressed that the festival’s official sponsoring parties approached it from a purely artistic and cultural standpoint. They did not interfere in the content of the plays or in the identity of the participants. He said, “The only standard that imposed itself is the artistic quality of the show. No one interfered in the work of the reading, selection committees, or the jury.”

Actress Abir Bitar, winner of the festival’s best actress award, said, “Organizing an amateur theater festival was a dream that did not materialize during the days of prosperity, but it was finally realized despite all that we are going through. Even death that has been lying in wait for us has not managed to stop us from unleashing our cry: ‘We love the theater, and we deserve life.’”

When Ghassan Makansi Cried

The artistic committee chose to end the festival with a simple performance, summarized by the slogan “a salute from the amateurs to the professionals.” As such, a play traced the history of theater in Aleppo, beginning with the first performance of a play in the city over a century ago. The play celebrated the pioneers of Aleppan theater, such as the late director Ahmed Seif, the late actor Ahmad Haddad, and actors Omar Hago and Ghassan Makansi, the latter of whom starred, along with Hazem Haddad, in the closing play.

At the end of the show, Makansi choked up in tears as he addressed his audience. “I cannot describe my joy as I see the Aleppo Theater lit up, even though Aleppo is submerged in darkness.” Makansi’s sudden tears reverberated in the applause and tears of the audience, prompting Haddad to kiss his hand.

Just a few steps outside the theater, we were once again confronted by a scene that is repeated daily in Aleppo. A shell fell on a nearby street, prompting some to run and others to maintain their casual pace.

History Repeats Itself

Sheikh Mohammed Ragheb al-Tabbakh al-Halabi (1876-1951), a prominent scholar and historian from Aleppo, recounted in The Lives of Noble Figures: History of Aleppo the events of 17th century Aleppo:

“The people of Aleppo refused to give obedience to the governor Sidi Ahmed Pasha, who was transferred from Konya (Turkey). after he became known for his despotism. So its people revolted against him and held on to their governor Mustafa Pasha, supplying him with money and men, and fortified themselves in the city.”

Tabbakh added, “The new governor besieged Aleppo, destroyed and burned its surroundings, cut off its water and kept on bombing it.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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