Interview with Mohammad Al Attar, Antigone Dramaturg

24 October 2014

Tabitha: How did you become a playwright?

Mohammad: I did my BA in English literature at Damascus University.  During my studies, I developed an attachment to theatre, in particular.  I’d been an avid reader since I was a kid – but I was reading literature in general, not particularly theatre. Then I started thinking specifically about theatre, and I decided I wanted to join the theatre institute in Damascus. I almost gave up English at the end of my second year, but I didn’t. However the minute I graduated I immediately became a first year again in the Institute of Dramatic Arts.  So it was a bit crazy, after four years of studying to become a first year again for another four years study.  

But to be honest, I hadn’t yet taken the decision to be a playwright, I just wanted to be closer to the world of theatre, and of course the Drama Institute was at the core of this.

Then moving gradually within the institute, writing and analysing texts became my main passion. The institute is an umbrella for different fields – for example Omar (Abu Saada) moved towards directing, others would go more towards set design.

I like words and expressing yourself through writing, thinking and reflecting through writing. Sometimes writing enables me to think about subjects I cannot think about by contemplating them, I need to put them on paper.  So it wasn’t exactly a decision, but this is how I found my way to being a playwright.


T: Tell us a bit more about your work.

M: I joined the Drama Institute in 2002 and started writing for experiments within the institute.  In 2007 I finished my first completed text to be published, Withdrawal – this was also published in English as it was done in collaboration with the Royal Court theatre in London.  It was published in an anthology with six others from the Arab world.  I have to give the Royal Court credit as one of the important mentors in my work.  

From that point on I started to do creative writing and dramaturgy simultaneously.


T: What exactly is dramaturgy?

M: Dramaturgy is a different technique to creative writing that involves working alongside an existing text to produce an adaptation.  You deal with a classical text, for example, and you try to create a contemporary vision, working with a group collaboratively. Dramaturgy could also include devising new theatrical pieces with a group.

One of the main things I’ve worked on since I started this as a career has been using theatre as a way to work with marginalised groups.  Working with people in remote villages in Syria, refugees, young people in juvenile institutes.

Dramaturgy is a creative process but it’s different from writing your own play when you don’t have any boundaries. For example, our Antigone, we’re working with the group, with their stories, and it’s like weaving a textile.


T: How do you start going about re-imagining Antigone with a group of Syrian refugee women?

M: You start by preparing for the group you want to work with.  You study that group as much as you can before you start. You must have an idea of who you are working with.

I tried to think hard about the situation of the refugees we would be working with.  I had worked before in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon - Sabra, Shatila, Borj al Barajne - where now many Syrians are also living.  I knew people there, I knew a bit about the environment, the context.  And of course I am a Syrian in exile myself.  

The other thing was to think particularly about the situation of the women, and for that I had to assume and imagine things.  I didn’t know these women, but I knew other women living in similar circumstances, so I started to think what are the dilemmas, the challenges, for women living in tough conditions in these camps?  

This was part of the process of thinking about what a Syrian Antigone means, of imagining ‘who is Antigone today?’  


T: And what did you come up with?

M: Some of the things I imagined have come true.  Others have not.  I’ve come to new realisations.

One of the things I missed was to what extent the everyday life conditions or the current context here in exile, are present in their definition of oppression and adversity.

I thought that Syria and what happened to them in Syria should remain the dominant topic.  It is dominant, but after a few years here – because some of these women have been here that long – the situation here became the main challenge.  How to challenge the new form of oppression in exile?

Syria is still present, as I thought it would be, but what surprised me a bit is how the tough life, the economic and social challenges in Lebanon, are creating a new form of suffering for them.  


T: I too thought that the displacement from Syria would be the major breaking point and tragedy in their lives.  But talking to them, hearing their stories, I’ve come to feel that their lives have contained many tragedies, although they don’t call them that.  So it’s not just that the difficulties today are present in their sense of the struggle against adversity, but also many of them lived very hard lives before the revolution and displacement affected them.  Were you expecting that?

M: There is no Syrian today who is not affected by what is happening.  But those who are suffering the worst, in any struggle, are always those who were already socially oppressed and poor. They pay the highest price.  I am lucky to have worked in Syria, in the kind of communities many of these women come from – remote and poor and tough.  It is the people from those same communities who are, in many cases, now living in the Palestinian refugee camps of Beirut – because the camps are the hardest places to live here, and people only go there if they have very few options and cannot afford to go somewhere else.

Knowing the context that they come from, does not make me less shocked by each story.  They are heart-breaking.  With each story I am forced to remember how their lives have been a journey of survival and overcoming obstacles.


T: What process are you now following in the workshops, to draw out the stories that will become part of the Syrian Antigone?

M: You start by knowing your text very well.  You have studied it and deconstructed it extensively, and interpreted it in different ways.  Because a good piece of theatre like Antigone can be interpreted in many different ways.

Then you start to match all this with the stories that are being unfurled in the workshops, and you start to think that ‘these lines, these people, are similar to these characters, and these elements are similar to these elements in the text’.

It is very important that you do not impose this on the participants.  You pass the text to them. You open up to their readings of the text.  Of course you help them, you facilitate this a bit, because some of them have technical problems – reading, writing, they are not familiar with theatrical texts.  You facilitate and support, encourage them to read and reflect.  What happens automatically later is that they themselves start to realise some similarities between their stories, their dilemmas, and the stories of different characters in the text.

It’s not necessarily the case that, for example, one of the participants is exactly Ismene, or Haemon, or Antigone.  But they know that at some point they were in a similar situation, for example having to challenge authority, or defend a losing case, or what seemed to be a losing case, or they were oppressed unfairly. We know that the text is rich and it really gives us a very good frame story that is fantastically relevant to our situation and today’s conditions, and that gives the participants this feeling that ‘yes, I have been in this situation, yes I have felt what Ismene is feeling, I feel what Antigone or Euridice is feeling..’

These women are hardworking, they are clever.  And they are capable today, more than I think they were ten days or two weeks ago, of grasping how to tell their own stories in a way that will resonate with the characters of the text.

The contradiction of our work would be to hide their voices behind those of the characters. We want to find the points where their unique voices are relevant to one of the characters in the text, and we are nearly there.


T: Something Omar has mentioned a couple of times is that you might cast it in an unorthodox way, where you might have two Antigones, or three or four.  How might that work?

M: That is one of the benefits of working with such an amazing group as this one.  Because what I called the “process of identification” doesn’t mean that at the end of the day we have one Antigone among the participants, one Ismene.  What makes the work brilliant, and what makes it really rich, is that though sometimes a few participants identify with the same character, they present different interpretations of the same character.  This is very interesting, and gives us more space to work with, not less. And I think it’s something that makes you, as a participant and also as an audience, look at the story from different angles, even for each character.  Because every character has different dimensions and the participants are giving those.  This tells a lot about the multiple discourses of our Syrian condition today.

There are different discourses, even among people in almost exactly the same position.  And this is important.  To acknowledge that there are different voices and not one side of the story.  This is important for us as Syrians today, and this is an important element in the text itself.

In Antigone, as discussed endlessly over centuries, there is a confrontation between two points of view – and we can’t say that one is entirely right and the other entirely wrong.  This is what made this text for me, years ago, long before we started thinking about putting it on.

That is why there have been so many adaptations over the years, by so many amazing playwrights.  It has this capacity to carry different perspectives within the text itself.  So it is normal to expect that, when working with a big group of more than 30 women, there will be different interpretations even for the same characters.

Nothing is final as to how we will stage it, but for me, as a playwright, fascinated with words and stories, this is something we must encourage.  And if we want to translate how rich this process has been for the participants, it is fair to have different women playing the same part.  


T: The stories that the women are bringing are often very sad ones. It’s actually incredibly brave of them because there’s so much pain, and they’re not afraid to go and face that pain.

M: They are very brave. In similar work that I’ve done, and in this work in particular, which for me is very special, it’s always confusing and sometimes embarrassing, because you feel you are taking more than you are giving. Although as ‘experts’ with experience of theatre, we are technically giving too. Of course we’re receiving a lot as well.  

And one of the major things I learned from these women is how powerful they are, their determination to keep going despite everything.  This is not easy and we shouldn’t take this for granted. And this is how Syrians are going on now.  I think here we have a mini Syria.


T: Syrian women particularly I think – they seem to be the ones holding everything together, taking care of children and the home, often working..

M: Syrian women are paying the heaviest price in this tragedy, but they are the strongest at the same time.  They are the mothers, the sisters, the daughters, and they are also the ones who are fighting on different fronts, and that is important too.  Plus being an important part of fighting political oppression – I’m talking about the revolution – women played a major role, from demonstrating to being part of the activist movement, and I’m talking about facts here.

That’s one thing, but they are also fighting patriarchal oppression.  They are not just fighting the Assad regime, or ISIS, or whatever.  But from within their own communities they are facing patriarchal authority.


T: Do you think they understand that, even if they don’t express it in those terms?

M: They understand that.  Not that way of putting it, but instinctively.


T: And that is so relevant to Antigone. Ismene says to Antigone something like ‘I am just a woman, who am I to challenge the authority of the state?’, while Antigone’s own attitude is that it doesn’t matter that she’s a woman, she will fight for what she believes is right regardless.

M: Yes of course.  And actually, the struggle against patriarchal authority will be harder than the struggle against the state.  But this has begun.  And the Syrian uprising has played a large role in this.


T: And do you think being part of this play is also part of that struggle against patriarchal authority?

M: Of course this play is part of helping them think about it, but I do not want to make big claims. We only have them for two months – it needs a lifetime to change this.  But of course we hope for that.