For centuries, theater and politics have worked hand in hand, acting as a mirror to human lives by presenting events inspired by reality. One such theatrical performance is Syrian play While I Was Waiting, which depicts human tragedy through a story of one family. Though it was banned in Syria, the play has garnered international acclaim for representing the silenced voices in conflict countries and warzones. Directed by leading Syrian theater director Omar Abu Saada, the play is inspired by real-life events surrounding a young man who lived in Damascus and was found beaten unconscious in 2013. He later passed away.
“We tried to deliver a work that can describe how we see our situation far from what the media gives people,” Syrian actress Nanda Mohammad, who plays Nada in the play, tells Egypt Today. The project is entirely based on Syrian events, which triggered several questions, Mohamed says. “Those questions were also similar to the questions asked by the character I’m performing in the play including; Where is home? Should I stay or leave? How can I help my family? What can I do for my country? Is there any hope?”
The play, which features a six-member cast, first premiered in Brussels in 2016, and then was staged in different countries around the world, including France, Lebanon, Japan, and the United States at the Lincoln Center Festival Production, among other places. Abu Saada personally knew the late young man, who had high hopes during the Syrian uprising in 2011; the family later decided to portray the Syrian crisis through their story within a factual play, which became Abu Saada’s newest project.
Revolving around a young man named Taim and how his family is disheartened by the lack of answers about what happened to their son, While I Was Waiting mimics the Syrian reality, sending the message that all Syrians have lost someone or something dear to their heart at some point during the past seven years.
“I have specifically chosen to work on this story because I have personal ties with the people involved in it; I visited the patient [Taim] in the hospital in real life, and that later deeply affected me and it continues to resonate in my memory,” Abu Saada explains.
The director recalls how going back and forth to visit Taim in hospital led him to observe other patients also in a coma, and to reflect on their psychological and physical wellbeing. “I was able to deeply understand the state of a coma, which is a prolonged period of sleeping featured in a dream world, and its relevance to the art world. At this point, I began investigating and searching for the artistic and technical elements that I [later] used in the play,” Abu Saada says.
Many Syrians fall into a “coma” in their 20s, Abu Saada says, using the word “coma” both literally and metaphorically to refer to a state of helplessness that all Syrians would experience. Syrians have become observers of the situation in Syria, he believes, rather than actual agents of change, which was the case at the beginning of the Syrian uprising in 2011.
Depicting an undesired feeling of emptiness, the play sheds light on the state of “waiting” that is imposed on all Syrians, not only the ones living a constant battle in their homeland but also those who are living abroad, regardless of their religion, sociopolitical views and socioeconomic classes.
Each scene in the play acts as a metaphor of the infuriating consequences endured by youth, who managed to lead demonstrations and document mass protests yet have lost hope for change following an unexpected and twisted sequence of events. Abu Saada uses Taim’s comatose state as a metaphor for the lack of power to change things.
The play aims to speak on behalf of all Syrians by shedding light on the daily lives of middle-income Syrian families in 2015, zooming in on detailed events rarely discussed or tackled in the media. “Documenting reality from this perspective serves as one of the main functions of art,” says Abu Saada, who teamed up with writer Mohammad El Attar for the play. Attar told the media that despite viewing the Syrian crisis as a tragedy, the greater tragedy is not having the courage to think about the events of the war and courageously criticize it.
This play is the second joint project between Abu Saada and Attar; previously, they worked in Beirut on an adaptation of the Greek legend Antigone, which was performed by an all-female cast of Syrian refugees.
Production challenges: from visa restrictions to artistic value Although the play delivers an undeniable moral value and was popular amongst the audience, having been staged in different places, the cast faced a number of challenges throughout the preparations and production. Visa restrictions made it hard for them to meet all together in one place either for rehearsals or to perform later on.
They ended up rehearsing in France, says Attar. And when they were to perform in the US, they faced another critical challenge. “A few of us had problems with the visa and they had to apply twice; and in the end, we all got our visas, except for our lighting designer. I think that if we hadn’t been invited by a prestigious and well-known culture center, such as the Lincoln Center, it would have been impossible to obtain the visas; the center played a major role in facilitating this procedure,” Mohammad says.
She adds that Syrians are not welcome all over the world, not only in the US, adding that Europe has tightened visa regulations. “Officials in Europe are currently making it hard to travel there, as well as to Arab countries,” she Says.
“There were plenty of challenges other than the visa restrictions, including the fact that we can’t work anymore in our country, which is something I knew, but had a hard time admitting it,” Mohammad adds.
Abu Saada agrees. “We, as cast members, live in different countries in Europe and the Middle East; hence, it was hard to [bring together] one artistic Syrian cast comprising 15 people to produce a theatrical performance.”
Photography courtesy of Stavros Habakis
Another significant challenge that haunted the play’s production was creating an artistic value, one which would shape a meaningful project that could resonate with the audience. “We worked for so long to create an artistic production that would blend imagination with actual documentation of real events, in which the imaginative aspect of the play acts as an extended depiction of our reality,” Abu Saada says.
War-torn Syria changes the way Syrians make art.
Having worked in the field of theater since 2001, Abu Saada has always managed to introduce works mirroring events taking place in society. He believes that since the Arab uprising in 2011, art productions have begun to adapt a sociopolitical angle through ideas that are shared and discussed with the audiences, hence influencing Syrians as well as Arabs in making art.
“We had been placed in a recession period in which any form of expression was stalled in one way or another; however, post-2011 communities of this region became less stagnant and began to explore more ideas, debates, visuals and stories that [emerged] amid the revolutions. This change in behavior and actions has created material worth showing in theatrical performances among other various types of arts,” says Abu Saada explaining that “all Syrians still live trauma, whether their lives were endangered or they lost their loved ones. Death had never been close to us to that extent; most Syrians were forced to deal with death in one form or another; and that itself encouraged them to look at life differently and to value all its little blessings; this change in perception was also mimicked in art.”
Art is radical and so are revolutions, says Mohammad, who thinks that the revolution took art to a new path, in which new artists who were previously unknown are now under the spotlight, specifically those who lived away from Damascus and were barely known to anyone.
She also adds that she invested all the events that occurred within the past seven years of her life into her acting career. “I had a lot of moments when I was weak and couldn’t even think that I can make art anymore.”
Syrian artists are currently going through a process of self-exploration and asking existentialist questions, while experiencing a deep understanding of one’s self, according to the 40-year-old Syrian theater director. This course of exploration has rarely occurred due to the long-term suppression in the lives of Syrians.“ Theater to me is freedom and a means of liberation. I was able to explore and understand myself, as well as create dialogue with society,” Abu Saada says.
While I Was Waiting closely communicates with audiences of the Arab region over others, as it consists of certain dialogues and slang Syrian language that can be easily comprehended by Syrians and Arabs; Abu Saada says he had to modify some of the play’s monologues and dialogues so they could be understood by the European viewer.
Syrians who attended the performances perceived the play differently than others, as they would relate more to the story. However, all types of audience members were able to relate to the state of coma on a broader humane level; and as a result, they would engage thoroughly with several scenes in the play, he adds.
“Audience members were not the only ones influenced, on my part I tried to dedicate all the power of change that is occurring to us now and direct it to my work, which encouraged me to try a new approach in acting,” Mohammad Adds.
She mentions one special scene, in which her character arrives in Damascus to see her comatose brother; she was very afraid at the border between Lebanon and Syria when the officer took a long time holding her passport. The character explains in the play how hard it was for her to go back to Damascus.
“Each time I performed that scene I was jealous of my character that she can go back to her homeland Damascus but I can’t.”