Halfway through watching acclaimed Scottish playwright David Grieg’s latest production “Damascus on Sunday at the Sawy Culture Wheel, I came to a rather startling realization: This is a rare occasion for Egypt to host a foreign, non-experimental theatrical production.
Perhaps that’s why the play felt vigorously fresh at first, especially in the humor department, its forte. By the third act though, the initial novelty of the experience was replaced with a slight feeling of predictability; the impression that I’ve seen it all before strongly resonated with the last incongruous scene.
I couldn’t fully make up my mind about the play until the post-performance discussion openly uncovered its primary shortcoming. “Damascus – which debuted in Edinburgh in 2007 before rolling to London and New York (where it didn’t go down well with the audience) – is an admirable, genuine and ambitious work that, alas, treads at too safe a distance to strike at the heart of its subject matter.
It’s Valentine’s Day. Scotsman Paul (Ewen Bremner) would rather spend the day in the company of his wife and two children. Instead, he’s in Damascus on a business trip, filling in for his boss. From almost the first moment, Paul envisions Syria’s capital a war zone, failing to make any distinction between it and any other Arab nation.
Paul is the author of an English textbook catering to Britain’s current multi-cultural society. Upon his arrival, he meets up with two representatives of a Syrian educational institute who are interested in purchasing his book: Wassim (Alex Elliott), a political activist-turned-subservient- bureaucrat and dejected poet who was once imprisoned for his ideas; and Muna (Nathalie Armin), his strong-headed and sophisticated assistant, former student and ex-lover.
There’s also Zakaria (Khalid Laith), the 25-year-old overly congenial receptionist aspiring to have sex with Western girls and to sell his autobiography in Hollywood. Commenting on the hotel guests is Elena (Dolya Gavanski), a Marxist, Christian, transsexual Ukrainian KGB spy who functions as a Greek chorus.
Paul halts further negotiations regarding the acquisition of his book in order to catch the earliest flight home. To his dismay, his flight is cancelled when Beirut airport is shut down following the assassination of a Lebanese politician. Paul, in the most sidesplitting and inventive sequence of the play, returns to the table with Muna, revising and modifying his book to become socially acceptable to Syrian students.
The conversation grows somehow intimate. The two dance and eventually kiss. In Act II, Paul, propelled by that kiss, sets out to discover the wonders of Damascus while soliciting Muna for more.
What’s an “Arab ?
“Damascus arrived in Cairo as part of a regional tour organized by the British Council. Prior to Cairo, the play was performed in Damascus, Beirut and Amman, receiving, unsurprisingly, a mixed reception.
In Egypt, however, the reaction to the play was warm and according to Grieg, “possibly the warmest response the play has actually had, this is even outside of Scotland.
“I think in Cairo, it’s a little less sensitive, 40-year-old Grieg, one of the most acclaimed young Scottish playwrights, told me in an interview the next day. “People don’t obviously think it’s so direct, and so perhaps they’re able to feel more open to listen and see.
This is partially true. “Damascus is too polished, too polite, to elicit actual denunciation, especially in these soils. It is a play about communication impediments between cultures. The focus of the play, and its key target, is emphasizing the West’s ignorance of the Arab world.
Throughout the play, Grieg pushes western audience to demolish their pre-held conceptions of what an Arab country is like, hence the choice of Syria and the characters. Syria is an atypical Arab state; a nation, like Tunisia, where secularism is enforced. Muna, for example, is not the stereotypical, veiled religious Arab woman. A Palestinian refugee from Jafa, she’s liberal, independent, tenacious and, unlike Paul, is well-informed.
“Very few people realize, in Britain, that a country could be almost aggressively secular, he said. “For me, by choosing that country, it helped me fulfill a number of aims . it was instinctive.
The choice of the city of Damascus also carries a Biblical connotation. As the play progresses, Paul’s discovery of the city and its people parallels, to a great extent, the chronicle of St. Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus; a story “so famous in our country, so deep in our bones that the word Damascus means change, internal change, Grieg says.
Playing it safe
Yet for all the effort put into presenting a different picture of the Arab world, it plainly fails to stimulate, especially for the Arab denizens surviving the sordid political and social reality the play shies from confronting.
The conversation between Paul and Muna regarding the crafty censoring of his book is a prime example. The conversation coyly underscores the distorted worldview Muna and her superiors convey to their students, emphasizing the fact that behind every decision are a firm set of rationalizations that make for sound arguments.
Yet, none of the Syrian characters fully own up to their nation’s contraventions which are vaguely hinted at but never delved into or even enunciated.
Zakaria – who, as Grieg indicates, is based on a real desk clerk he met in Damascus – in particular appears to be a personification of modern Syria; a young man trapped in an illusion and vying for the West’s acceptance and understanding.
The most intriguing character of the play remains Wassim, a character that constantly points to the uncertainty of truth, morals and the world. In the last act, Muna asks him about what to tell their students of the truth they’ve continuously modulated. “I don’t know, he says. “That’s too easy, she replies.
“Doubt, hesitancy, uncertainty . these are the ways in which we go towards the truth, in the dark, feeling our hands to find the walls of the cave, slowly going towards the light, Wassim says.
In a play populated with tentative characters, Wassim emerges as the most speculative figure. Wassim despises Paul, regards him as another bigheaded ignorant Brit. Yet beyond the resentment lies a wrecked soul torn between his actual concealed convictions and the nationalistic front he projects in public. It’s in this inner conflict that we realize the image of the Arab world carried in this play; regardless of how untraditional it might be, it remains simplistic and unrealistically coherent.
The guilt syndrome
Like several British theatrical productions with leading Arab characters produced in the past decade, the play is laced with post-colonialist guilt; a fact that Grieg doesn’t deny.
“I think it’s absolutely true, and if I’m bold enough to say so, the play is an attempt, one amongst a few now, to take one step beyond where we are with post-colonial guilt.
“I think the first phase with post-colonial guilt with the left-wing in Britain was not to portray any [non-white] characters at all, and it’s still deep, deep, deep within me that portraying a character is an act of colonial aggression. Now I think that has exhausted itself. I think that isn’t useful anymore. I think it creates a sort of ridiculous kind of hypocrisy, and I think people can smell it.
“I think me and a number of writers in Britain now started to say, ‘Well hang on, London is 50 percent non-white people, even Scotland now has large minorities of Asians. We can’t write about our world if we can never put people into our place who aren’t precisely us.’ And therefore, however painful it is, we have to give it a try. Of course the important thing, I think, is if you only did that, it would be exploitive; if you did that whilst at the same time your theater infrastructure is trying to hear the voices of Asians, Arabs and so forth, and encourage them to be heard, then I think it’s fine.
For a foreign writer to attempt such a feat seems like a lose-
lose situation, since the space for depicting an authentic representation of the other with all his virtues, fears and, most importantly, transgressions is exceedingly difficult if not impossible. Grieg agrees, citing a Syrian lady who sarcastically told him, “I want to thank you because I now know what you really think of us.
This kind of oversensitivity and duplicitous is precisely what prevents sincere and talented western writers of Grieg’s ilk from producing worthwhile works about Arabs, and a play like “Damascus from disclosing something truly revelatory.
It’s quite patronizing that it has become acceptable for Arab writers and artists to criticize the West whereas if commendable westerners attempt to do the opposite, their works are instantaneously branded political propaganda. I’d rather be offended and challenged by a play than sit through one of the dozen recent productions that “try to bridge the gap between cultures. Communication is not as effortless or straightforward as the tens of publications, seminars and events organized every year attempt to show.
To his credit, Grieg doesn’t pretend it is.
“I recently had this theory that I must put all the effort into cross-culture communication because I think some part of me, deep down, is afraid that it’s impossible, Grieg said. “And I have to sort of compensate for this by proving to myself that it’s possible.
“To put it very simply, I think communication between two human beings is incredibly difficult, when they speak the same language and come from the same culture. Communication between two human beings from different cultures and different languages, the gulf is even wider. “