A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

a multi-faceted look at the middle east, and the middle west

Damascus in Beirut

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on March 13, 2009

One more reason to wish I were in Beirut: the play Damascus is being performed at Masra7 al Madina next week:

damascus-in-beirut

Darn. I would love to see this play – not because I think it is perfect, but because I think it would be interesting. And I would love to see it in Beirut.

Damascus is a Scottish play about a British man who comes to Damascus to sell English-language textbooks and interacts with various people at the hotel in which he is staying. Parts of it aren’t very realistic: apparently his stay in Damascus is extended because a bomb scare shuts the Beirut airport. (Two separate countries, one wants to remind the playwright; two separate airports. Not to mention that in a pinch he could always use the dumpy-but-getting-better Queen Alia in Amman.) Parts of it are probably a bit pedantic. But really: how often does one run across a play about Damascus ?

Here is the British Council’s take on Damascus‘ regional tour:

The British Council is organizing a regional tour of the British play (Damascus), written by David Greig, during March and April of this year in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia, and the Palestinian territories. The tour is also produced by the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, and Michael Edwards and Carole Winter.

This theatrical tour is organized within the framework of a broader British Council project that aims to explore the growing interest of UK theatre in the Arab culture, while providing an opportunity for the Arab audience to view plays that address their image in the UK and to create platforms for commenting on and debating about these plays directly with the UK theatre makers, critics and journalists who have and interest in the region, and their Arab counterpart.

(You can read the rest here.)

Here is the Times of London‘s take on things:

So, Damascus goes to Damascus. Damascus the play, currently running at the Tricycle theatre, in northwest London, is off next month to the Syrian capital, then to Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and the West Bank. Superficially, it is about a writer of English-language books flogging his wares, but it’s more about the tricky issues of censorship and politics.

Herein lies a problem. The Tricycle’s production uses a huge picture of the Syrian president, Bashar Assad, as a backdrop. But it’s a somewhat mischievous image of only half his face and must be removed for the Damascene version. Also cut will be a crucial line in which the writer, Paul, tells Muna, who represents a language school: “Your government is a dictatorship.” With this taken out, the subsequent conversation between them about their respective countries’ political setups will be invalidated.

The play’s tour is funded entirely by the British Council, which these days targets favoured areas of the Muslim world and China. The Brits, of course, are now trying to be especially nice to Assad, who took over from his not-so-nice father in 2000. In addition, Mrs Assad was born in Britain.

I’m all in favour of as much artistic exchange between countries as possible, but cultural diplomacy can be a double-edged sword. Damascus happens to be a very interesting play, and its writer, David Greig, has done his research, after working in Syria with budding local playwrights. It is, nonetheless, a British take on events in the Middle East. Clearly, when in Damascus, local sensitivities cannot be ignored.

I like reading these two pieces in tandem. The British Council’s piece points out the great and grave need for self-reflexivity in the region, while the Times points out that “local sensitivities” may blunt the full impact of – as Burns would say – the chance to see themselves as others see them.

On an unrelated note, this morning I stumbled across a fascinating account of a visiting tourist’s illicit excursion through Takieddin Solh’s former home, complete with gorgeous photos. Trust me: you want to read this story, and you want to see these photos!

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