An Interview with Riad Ismat on Art, Syria, & the Diaspora / by George Bajalia

This article was originally published in and has been reprinted here with permission.

Dr. Riad Ismat

Riad Ismat, Buffett Center Visiting Scholar at Northwestern University, is an award winning Syrian short-story writer and an acclaimed dramatist/critic in the Arab world, with 12 plays and 6 collections of stories and several books of criticism on arts and literature to his credit. He was Syrian minister of culture (October 2010 – June 2012), and also served as ambassador, director general of State Radio & TV, and Rector of the Academy of Dramatic Arts. He read English at Damascus University and completed graduate studies in theater direction at Cardiff University. He was trained as a television producer at the BBC, and was a Mime instructor with Adam Darius in London. Subsequently, he went to the United States as a Fulbright scholar, where he worked as an assistant to Joseph Chaikin, and wrote a dissertation on improvisation and theatre games in actor training. Ismat also directed extensively in Damascus, especially plays by Shakespeare and Williams, beside his versions of the Arabian Nights, Shahryar’s Nights, Sinbad and Game of Love & Revolution. He wrote In Search of Zenobia, Abla & Antar, Mata Hari and Was Dinner Good, my Sister, as well as a book on the Nobel prize laureate Naguib Mahfouz. He also wrote 7 television serials, broadcast from many Arab satellite stations, especially the award winning Holaco. In his career, Ismat has emphasized bridging the gap between cultures, drawing from Arab heritage with an experimental approach, advocating humanitarian values and condemning totalitarianism that represses freedom of expression, stressing democracy and tolerance.”

-Official Biography from Northwestern University

I recently had the pleasure to meet and get to know Professor Riad Ismat and hear about his work as a playwright, short story & script writer, and literary critic & theater director. His storied career both fascinated and impressed me. Of course, what stood out, initially, was his tenure as Syrian Minister of Culture from October 2010 until June 2012, when he requested to be relieved from his post in solidarity with the Syrian non-violence movement. After leaving this position, Dr. Ismat spent a year in Paris before arriving in Chicago as a visiting professor at Northwestern University. His work as an author and artist began long before this, however.

Dr. Ismat has graciously agreed to allow our conversations to be reproduced, in abridged version, here.

George Bajalia (GB:) Let’s start by talking about theater in the Middle East, in general. Often, we hear there is no history of Arabic theater, or that Islam somehow prohibits theater. That’s wrong though, isn’t it? Today, many academics and theater artists point to Egypt in the early 1900s as the birthplace of contemporary Arabic drama. Is that right?

Riad Ismat (RI:) It’s agreed among scholars that theater in the Middle East began in 1848 in Beirut by Marun Al-Naqqash. Soon after, it flourished in Damascus thanks to Sheikh Abu Khalil Al-Qabbani, who soon immigrated to Egypt. Because of its dominance in cinema, many believe Egypt also pioneered theater in the Arab world; but, historically speaking, theatre flourished first in the Levant region. Since the 1960s, there have been remarkable performing arts achievements in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Tunisia, Morocco, UAE and Qatar, as well as in Egypt. Nobody can deny, though, that in the first half of the 20th century, Cairo was an artistic hub in which Arab theatre ripened due to its significant distance from the dominance of the conservative Ottoman authorities.

In fact, there is no clear statement in the Quran that prohibits theater, because it did not exist in the pre-Islamic era for social and geographical reasons. For a time, misinterpretations by some fanatical members of the clergy led to banning performances that included women. Until today, in Saudi Arabia, only men are allowed to perform. Since the mid 20th century, the rest of the Middle East has enjoyed a varied quantity and quality of theater, with many male and female artists, who perform on stage, as well as in film and television.

GB: You have studied theater in quite a few different places – how have you seen theatrical trends develop over the past 20 years or so?  Have you seen a particular influence in places like Damascus?

RI:  There are some major differences between the “advanced world” and “developing countries”; they include disparities in resources and facilities, on addition to differences in the process of production in big theatre companies as well as in fringe theaters. In most of the Arab world, theater practice still relies on individual talent and effort, although there are government subsidies for national theater companies and experimental projects.

Regarding your other question, influences on Arab theater varied a lot during the last two decades, in general, and on Syrian theater, in particular. For instance, in the 1970s there was a strong influence from Brecht’s epic theater[1] and from documentary theatre [2] Absurdist theatre[3] also had an impact. In later phases, there was a strong tendency toward director’s theater[4]. In recent years, these influences have declined and given way to other tendencies, mostly group playwriting and production. In the last twenty years, there were parallel influences going on simultaneously; some trends in performance even came from Tunisia.

I believe playwrights dictate where theater is going. Unfortunately, playwriting is in decline in the Arab world as many good writers focus on television, instead of theater. The standard for  stage plays have retreated and fewer good pieces have appeared.

GB: What about your work in Mime? Are there particular benefits of physical theater in places such as Syria, where there is often a disconnection between the written language and spoken dialect?

RI: I studied with the American Mime, Adam Darius, in the early 1980s in London and was also exposed to different training methods in French Illusionary Mime. I found this experience to contribute to the Stanislavski-based method of acting instruction I used with my students at the Syrian Academy of Dramatic Arts, years before I became its Rector (2000-2002). A mixture of psychological realism and corporal performance worked like magic for me when I directed several Shakespeare plays. In fact, the substance of my latest manuscript on actor training draws on this experience.

Your other question touches on a very sensitive issue. Syria insisted for too long on using standard Arabic in its national theaters, while commercial theater companies, mainly producing low-brow comedies, liberated themselves from this requirement, which created a gap between good theater and the general public. It took a long time until I was able to start dismantling this obstacle and adapt Western realistic plays to   the spoken dialect in Syria. I directed some of these plays myself, including  A Streetcar Named Desire, The Glass Menagerie, Spring Awakening, and Death & the Maiden. I did not, however, use the spoken dialect when I directed Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

I wrote some adaptations of Western plays in the spoken language for other directors, including   All My Sons by Arthur Miller and Miss Julie by August Strindberg, but did not do this with Hamlet or Macbeth or with the verse plays of Pedro Calderón. The majority of my own plays are written in standard Arabic, because of their historical nature, especially my adaptations of The Arabian Nights.

GB: You’re not just a writer, but a politician and diplomat as well. Of course, those experiences have influenced your own work as an artist, but how has your artistic career influenced your political life?

RI: I am a dramatist and creative writer who tackles politics in his literary works, but I am not really a politician. I have, never in my life, joined a political party and I was always proud that I expressed my conscience freely. I did hold some official posts due to my professional career in arts and literature, and I admit I benefitted substantially from my experience in drama in my work as a diplomat and minister of culture; but these jobs did not influence my literary and artistic career much.

To elaborate on this point a bit more, in drama we have a high goal and vision, (you may call it “intention” or “dramatic action”).  We also have a mission and, eventually, a “concept” so that we should know how to overcome obstacles (which you may call “beats” or “activities”.). If all this is applied to politics and diplomacy much would be achieved.

GB: With the so-called “Arab Spring,” many people are talking about the role of state media and independent media in generating public discourse.  You are no longer affiliated with the Syrian government because of disagreements with the acts of Bashar al-Assad’s regime over the past few years. What role do you see film and theater playing in Syria over the next few years?

RI: I hardly see many truly independent media institutions in the Middle East, although some claim to be. Each is subsidized by one party or another. As a matter of principle, we have to realize that media is one thing and culture is another. My strong conviction is that culture exists to unify a nation, not to divide it. During my tenure as minister, I emphasized the role culture should play in promoting values of tolerance, diversity, pluralism, democracy, and freedom of expression.

On the other hand, it is the duty of any humanitarian writer or artist to disapprove of violence; therefore, I was against the so-called military/security solution, which was used instead of engaging in a political dialogue in response to the demands of demonstrators for tangible and quick reform. I thought it was the wrong choice to unleash the brutality of the intelligence apparatus based on a conviction that Syria is facing a foreign conspiracy. I grew up with conspiracy theories so there is nothing new in that. It resulted into counter violence. My advice was that such seeds would yield a poisonous harvest. In my view, regimes cannot engage in negotiations with an opposition considered to be a terrorist group. Any government must recognize the legitimacy of the opposition in order to start constructive dialogue that seeks a political solution through a compromise. It is a needed sacrifice in such hard times. Those extreme factions among the Syrian opposition do not represent the majority of the opposition. In fact, many of the artists and writers I met in the opposition believe in secularism, reform, and democracy, not in terrorism and dismantling the state.

Personally, I have a strong belief in what arts and literature can contribute to Syria’s future. If you wish to make predictions, you could examine what many plays, films, and television serials advocated in the last three or four decades. You will realize that, strangely enough, most of the creative work coming out of Syria was daring, although many were subsidized by the government. Writers and artists succeeded in one way or another in transcending censorship – a problem in Syria which the West overemphasized and overestimated – and transmitting independent criticism. They managed this through symbolism, allegory, and political projection. I myself relied on these techniques, in my plays The Game of Love & Revolution, Sinbad, Mourning Becomes Antigone, Was Dinner Good, dear Sister and In Search of Zenobia and, most certainly, in my new play. Chemical.

GB: Today’s art world is more transnational in some ways, but more limited in others. We’ve also seen a marked rise in art movements in the diaspora, especially by peoples from the Middle East and North Africa, who are searching for ways to articulate a shifting-sense of homeland. Has the focus of your work changed since you left Syria?

RI: Yes, there is a certain amount of truth in this. But I must confess that I do not know enough about Arab theater in the diaspora. Personally, I have been under the influence of being in exile over the last twenty months or so. In this period, I have written a play and a novel about the impact of the Syrian crisis, which is happening before the sight and hearing of the world, which is either misinterpreting or ignoring the unprecedented death toll and suffering. I think that by avoiding responsibility, many countries are encouraging the destruction of Syria and drawing it to a very dangerous abyss. I am not speaking out of nostalgia; everybody knows Syria enjoyed remarkable security before the violent suppression of dissent, which has led to the current civil war, ignited sectarian feelings and drove extremists from Sunni and Shiite sects to fill the vacuum and engage in an endless, absurd war on Syrian soil. The reluctance of the West to intervene politically has led to a big and painful human tragedy. Once upon a time, Syria was a rare secular example that prided itself on having many ethnic groups that  co-existed together like  pieces of a beautiful mosaic, but the violent crackdown against the revolution has led to armed conflict that has inflamed the whole country and now threatens repercussions on neighboring countries in the region.

GB: I am curious about your newest play, Chemical. The title seems to suggest a very contemporary, perhaps very political, element to this piece. You have been working on it since arriving in the United States. What prompted you to write this new piece?

RI: I realized that many people in the Western world are not aware of the nuances and complexities of the Syrian crisis; they only know the headline news through media. This motivated me to write Chemical in order to represent all facets and points of view about this devastating tragedy, which is unfolding in what was once one of the most peaceful and secure countries, turning it into hell.


*George Bajalia is a staff writer for Muftah, cultural critic, theatre artist, and former Fulbright research grantee in Morocco. Follow his work at or on on Twitter @ageorgeb.

[1] Brecht was chiefly reacting to the naturalism of artists such as Constanin Stanislavky and Anton Chekhov, who sought to depict the natural world in all its dramas and minutia. For Brecht, the epic theatre was built on a notion that the audience should be aware of its own relation to the performance and included more direct address, projection, and obvious illusion.

[2] Documentary theater refers to theater developed from extant texts such as newspapers, news and academic reports, and interviews. The well known piece The Laramie Projectchronicling the death of Matthew Sheppard in Wyoming is an example of documentary theatre. Documentary theater artists, for example Moises Kaufman and Anna Deavere Smith, often create their work with an explicit intent of advocating for social justice. Internationally, Peter Weiss is a notable artists in the field of documentary theater, and someone Dr. Ismat considers highly influential in his own work.

[3] Absurdist theatre, also known as the theatre of the absurd, refers to a theater trend emerged in Europe in the latter half of the 20th century. Theatre of the absurd depicts the existential, or purposeless, existence. Lyrical poetry, conversation, rampant diversions, and illogical situations replace traditional linguistic connotation and dramatic arch. Well known artists associated with this genre include Samuel Beckett, Václav Havel, Eugene Ionesco, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Harold Pinter, and Edward Albee.

[4] The phrase “director’s theater” refers to the shift in the role of a stage director. Instead of working on the literal directions and dialogue of the author – as was the traditional role of the stage director – some directors began adapting texts to fit alternate circumstances and time periods, or shifting texts into new dramatic genres. Critics of the movement argue that this can, and often does, occur at the expense writer’s original intention. Advocates argue that adapting text can actually better serve the author’s intention, and its original context, to contemporary audiences.