Algeria at a Crossroads: Borders and Security in North Africa by George Bajalia

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

The militarization of border crossings throughout North Africa and the Sahel has intensified recently, as a result of security concerns over weapons smuggling, terrorist networks, and armed violence in Libya. Algeria’s border lies at the center of many of these developments.

As of May 2014, Algeria has closed 6,385 km (3,967 miles) of its borders with Mauritania, Mali, Niger, and Libya, and placed its border crossings under military control. Algeria’s southern border with the Sahara is also incredibly vast and difficult to monitor. It has long been a major crossing for thousands of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa traveling through Agadez, Niger to the southern Algerian city of Tamanrasset.

It is in response to the decades of illegal smuggling and international calls to eliminate terrorist networks operating out of this relatively ungoverned “no-man’s land” that the Algerian government has now increased patrols and militarization of this border region. According to sources cited by Al-Monitor, “the army banned access to the desert corridors in the southeastern border region without a prior security permit. These measures will further tighten the noose around the neck of terrorist groups in desert pathways….these strict instructions will eliminate terrorism in the Algerian Sahara.” To the east, Algeria must manage a vast border with Libya, which has been nearly overtaken by armed militias that threaten to spill over into Tunisia, Algeria, and Egypt.

In light of these various threats to regional security, it is tempting to view the Algerian government’s actions as a direct consequence of militant activity. But, Algeria’s recent border closures represent more of a continuation, rather than a rupture, in its regional policies.

Algeria’s total closure of nearly all its borders (only the Tunisian frontier remains open) is a concerted effort to maintain and secure its economic and political relations with EU and NAFTA countries, at the expense of potential trade and, perhaps, long-term partnerships, with neighboring states. From the perspective of the Algerian government, this isolationist stance functions as a potential buffer against the uncertainty surrounding it.

It also parallels Algeria’s continuing border closure with its neighbor to the west, Morocco. Since 1994, Algeria’s border with Morocco has been officially closed. The Algerian government has historically had frosty relations with Morocco over issues ranging from drug smuggling to territorial conflict over the Western Sahara. The question of borders and territory represents a key area of contestation between Morocco and Algeria. An inability to cooperate on political matters not only plagues the two countries, but also rules out any hope for bilateral or regional economic integration through the Arab Maghreb Union (UMA), a regional institution founded by the leaders of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Mauritania in 1989, which sought to coordinate economic, political, and security issues through greater coordination between the five states of the greater Maghreb.

Monitoring the 1,559 km (969 miles)—or 1,601 km including the Western Sahara—borderline between the two countries has been difficult for the two regional rivals.

The recent border closures, and their intended consequences, are not isolated events. Rather, they are reflective of the Algerian government’s standing policies on dealing with the preexisting networks of trade, formal and informal, and trafficking that run through the country.

These three particular nodes of pressure give important context to Algeria’s recent border closures, and reveal the disconnect between the regime’s historical aims and the day-to-day circumstances of the Algerian people.

Point of Pressure 1: the Moroccan-Algerian Rivalry and the Western Sahara

The source of Moroccan-Algerian tension is often attributed to the Western Sahara conflict. After Spain left the territory in 1975, a dispute arose between two groups in the area. An indigenous movement known as the Polisario Front—which is fighting for independence and a referendum for self-determination—and the Moroccan government—which claims to have historical ties with the land—have clashed over the territory. The Moroccan government has proposed a regional autonomy plan for the Western Sahara, while Algeria has consistently backed the Polisario and supported a referendum for self-determination in the region.

But disputes between Algeria and Morocco pre-date the Western Sahara question, which became a regional preoccupation only in the 1970’s. While this conflict is an important obstacle to improving relations between the two countries and increasing the likelihood of regional economic integration—currently next to nonexistent—Yahia H. Zoubir, Professor of International Relations and Director of Research in Geopolitics at Euromed Management, argues that:

“Algerian-Moroccan relations have always been at odds, the existence since 1989 of the Arab Maghrib Union (UMA) notwithstanding. In fact, the UMA has not been operational due precisely to tensions between the two countries. Strained relations derive from a historical and post-colonial evolution – dominated by power politics – of which Western Sahara is only one, albeit major, aspect. Thus, a definitive resolution of the Western Sahara conflict will not necessarily mean a definitive ending of the distrust that exists between the two neighbours.”[1]

Following independence, Morocco and Algeria went to war over a border dispute that was left unresolved by France. The border war of 1963 was bloody and ended with a cease-fire in 1964 brokered by the Organization of African Unity (OAU). It was not until 1972, however, that the Moroccan-Algerian border was officially demarcated by a bilateral treaty. Algeria immediately signed the convention, which dealt with both border and economic cooperation, but Morocco did not officially recognize the agreement until 1989.

In 1988, diplomatic relations between the two countries were reestablished. 1989 marked the founding of the UMA. A UN brokered cease-fire in the Western Sahara finally took hold in 1991. Against this backdrop, the beginning of the 1990s was a hopeful time for regional relations and potential economic integration in the Maghreb.

Then, in August 1994, the Moroccan-Algerian border was officially closed, as a result of a“guerrilla attack” at the Atlas Asni Hotel in Marrakech, which Moroccan authorities believed Algeria had supported. After the incident, the Moroccan government deported thousands of Algerian tourists and official residents and applied new visa regulations to Algerians traveling to the country. In response, Algeria closed the border. Despite periods of warming relations between the two countries, the border has remained shut ever since.

The border closure implicates many issues, including the management of migration flows to Europe from sub-Saharan and North Africa, the existence of vast illegal drug smuggling as a result of Morocco’s approximately 57,000 hectares of cannabis production, and the increasing rise of armed terrorist groups, including Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM). There are also concerns that, if the border was re-opened, Morocco would use it to pressure Algeria into withdrawing its support for the Polisario Movement.

While both countries have officially stated their desire to open borders and increase regional integration, the larger impact of such a move remains unclear, since the Arab Maghreb Union has not officially convened since 1994. Morocco and Algeria’s formal trade continues to be with EU countries, and “Trade within the AMU (UMA) quintet accounts for a paltry 2% of what the region conducts with the whole of the rest of the world.”

Point of Pressure 2: Formal and Informal Trade

Algeria’s formal trade networks virtually ignore its North African neighbors. According to data compiled by the MIT Observatory of Economic Complexity, Algerian exports of crude petroleum and petroleum gas make up 82% of its net exports. Refined petroleum (14%), and coal tar oil (1.2%) increase Algeria’s total mined exports to 97.2%, with the remainder of exports split among chemical exports and agricultural products. Most of these exports go to Italy (15%), the United States (15%), Spain (12%), France (7.5%), and Canada (7.4%). Algeria’s imports come from many of these same countries, in addition to China and Germany.

Like Algeria, Morocco’s import and export patterns also do not include its fellow North African countries. Only 1.3% of Morocco’s exports go to Algeria and 1.5% of Algeria’s exports go to Morocco. But forgoing regional trade relations comes with high opportunity costs. Over three billion dollars in Moroccan imports (8.45%) consist of crude petroleum, which comes primarily from Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Russia. With further instability in Iraq and potential economic sanctions on Russia, Algeria’s crude petroleum exports could find a home in its old rival.

Informally, smugglers on both sides of the Moroccan-Algerian border have a much friendlier relationship. There are no official statistics on how much hashish is exported by Moroccan traders via Algeria, nor how much medication and gasoline enter Morocco from Algeria. In 2013, however, The Guardian claimed the illicit gasoline trade generated income for 3,000 to 5,000 families in Morocco’s eastern province.

Algeria’s border crackdowns will surely have an impact on these long-standing informal trade relations. Measures taken by Morocco along the border will also have a negative effect on these networks. All in all, it is hard to tell which will have greater ramifications for these economic forces, Morocco’s proposed 450km long wall along the border or Algeria’s envisioned 700km long trench.

Point of Pressure 3: Migration

One of the primary routes into Europe from North Africa begins in the Nigerien city of Agadez, continues through southern Algeria, and goes up toward the coast. From there, many migrants follow the road west toward Maghnia, Algeria, and cross from Maghnia directly into Morocco, near the city of Oujda.

EU pressure to stop the flow of migrants from North Africa into Europe, combined with a seeming lack of cooperation between Algeria and Morocco, have resulted in more and more migrants being shuffled back and forth between the two countries with an alarming disregard for human rights.

On its eastern border, Algeria is dealing with a stream of migrants and refugees from Syria, Libya, Egypt, and Eastern Africa. As a result of these increased pressures, the Algerian government has pursued what appear to be contradictory policies. In mid-August, Algeria announced it would open portions of the border with Libya to facilitate the return of refugees from Egypt. Just a few days later, the government arrested 300 Syrians heading for the same Libyan border. It remains to be seen how these policies will play out.

Public Response

While Algeria’s borders continue to be the subject of domestic political debate, it is important not to conflate this conversation with popular consensus on the issue. Despite the closed borders, Algerians are able to travel to neighboring countries via air or by entering through another country. In August, the Algerian paper L’Expressionreported that the top four tourism destinations for Algerians were Turkey, Tunisia, Morocco, and Spain. Both Royal Air Maroc and Air Algiers offer regular flights between Algiers and Casablanca, though the cost is often prohibitive for residents looking to see family just across the border. The price of air travel, coupled with the time the journey requires, drives many families to make other arrangements.

One group of Algerian and Moroccan youth is following the example of residents of Naco, Mexico and Naco, United States, and arranging a cross-border volleyball match in October. Their aim is to draw attention to the individuals and families impacted by two decades of closed borders, and inspire dialogue focused on these affected people, instead of government political posturing.

Colonialisms’ Continuing Legacy

Ultimately, it is impossible to separate North Africa’s current borders from the recent history of European colonialism. While lines drawn on a map by colonial cartographers mean very little to the region’s social fabric or the lives of residents on either side of these borders, they have a strong impact on both. In the period following independence, Algeria and Morocco embarked upon parallel, but ultimately divergent, paths toward post-independence reformation. Morocco embraced its favored status with NATO and its member countries as a “model” for slow-paced reform after King Mohammed VI’s muchlauded constitutional reforms in 2011. Although many have criticized these reforms as strictly cosmetic, others have declared the measures as appropriate and reflective of Morocco’s history as a kingdom invested in tolerance and civil society.

At least rhetorically, Algeria has been a bastion of support for resistance and anti-imperialist movements. In contrast to its neighbor, Algeria pursued a largely socialist system until economic problems and political pressure caused it to accept IMF loans and economic restructuring in 1989. The country’s traumatic experience during the Black Decade of the 1990s, a period of great bloodshed fueled by armed conflict between government forces and militant Islamist groups, has remained in the backdrop, as the government watches instability in neighboring Libya and Mali unfold.

All in all, Algeria’s border closures are a function of its isolationist stance vis-à-vis regional neighbors, as well as the government’s efforts to keep out any potentially destabilizing external forces. This issue is not just about regional and domestic security for Algerian authorities, but also inherently connected to regime survival.



[1]Yahia H. Zoubir (2000) Algerian‐Moroccan relations and their impact on Maghribi integration, The Journal of North African Studies, 5:3, 43-74, DOI: 10.1080/13629380008718403

Language, Theatre & Morocco’s February 20th Movement by George Bajalia

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

[Fatima El Zohra Lahouitar and Mouna Rmiki performing in the author’s piece F7ali, F7alek/Like Me, Like You in Tangier, Morocco. (Photo credit: Omar Chennafi)]

Morocco’s King Mohammed VI has successfully maintained a reputation for being a business-friendly, reform minded monarch, despite the wave of unrest that spread across North Africa in early 2011. The country’s February 20 Movement, also know as Feb20, which emerged at that time, called for “an end to autocracy and … corruption.” Since then, the king has taken advantage of positive international media attention to showcase Morocco’s comparative potential as a commercial hub and access point for new African markets. Quick cosmetic reforms to the constitution, followed by new parliamentary elections in November 2011, further solidified King Mohammed VI’s progressive image.

Despite a seeming decline in revolutionary sentiment in Morocco, the performing arts community has assumed new importance as an extension and continuation of the February 20 Movement’s ethos and objectives. Certain theatre groups in the country maintain Feb20’s ideological goals, and address themes of governance, reform, and secular politics in their work. But, even more important is the changing linguistic landscape of performance art in the country. Today many young performing artists in Morocco are, quite literally, altering the language for sharing and communicating their experiences. The usage of formal Modern Standard Arabic and French— traditionally the languages of high theatre in Morocco—has given way to more performances written and staged in conversational Moroccan Arabic.

This is symbolic on a number of levels. Darija is an ever-changing dialectical mix of Arabic, French, Amazight, Spanish, and English. Many Moroccans only learn Modern Standard Arabic, which bears little resemblance to the local vernacular, in school. As such, by using Moroccan Arabic in their performances, artists are signaling an overt shift in their focus. Instead of seeking  out artistic conversations with cultural elites, these theatre practitioners are actively looking for audiences among the general public.

Moroccan Theatre in Context

Prior to Morocco’s independence from France and continuing into the King Hassan II era, Moroccan theatre acted as an outlet for spreading dissident messages. Low literacy rates and the prominence of storytelling traditions, such as halqa, made theatre into a tool for activating public discourse. In response, the state took an increasingly hands-on approach to theatre and established university festivals and municipal theaters. This encouraged the development of dramatic studies, while also offering government institutions the opportunity to regulate the types of performances taking place across the country. The dissident theatre of the early independence era was all but extinguished, and theatre became an emblem of high art, with performers and writers primarily using Classical Arabic or French.

Today, the linguistic landscape of Morocco’s official performing arts scene reflects this effort to control theatre discourse, especially at the many government-produced theatre festivals held in partnership with drama and performance studies departments at public universities. Although there is a great deal of progressive work happening within such festivals, audience members come mostly from among fellow theatre producers, academics, and critics, and not from the general public.

Since 2011, a new kind of theatre has taken hold in Morocco. A younger generation of artists, distinct from those who dominated the scene through the later part of King Hassan II’s rule, have started to form and lead theatre groups. Performance troupes such as DabaTeatr, Spectacle Pour Tout, Daha Wassa, and Theatre Aquarium favor a theatrical form called “devising.” Unlike standard script-based performances, “devising” is an improvised form of theatre where the text is developed in cast rehearsals, and then performed by the same group. Such performances use mixes of Moroccan Arabic, Amazight, French, and Classical Arabic, with codeswitching occurring constantly, based on cultural context and dramatic intention.

Unlike their more formal, state-sanctioned counterparts, these groups enjoy audiences that hail from across Morocco’s social and political spectrum. Because their language is less formal, these performances are accessible to all members of the public regardless of education level. That is to say, while not everyone understands everything, everyone understands something.

Besides their symbolic deployment of language, many of these new theatre pieces take up issues publicly championed by the February 20 Movement, as well as hot-button issues like sex tourism, secular politics, religious freedom, and freedom of the press. Often these are the same issues that cause controversy in the Moroccan press and have resulted in government crackdowns on independent publishers such as Ali Anouzla of and former Tel Quel and Nichane editor Driss Ksikes.

Theatre Group Profile: DabaTeatr

Driss Ksikes in particular has been instrumental in converting Morocco’s February 20 Movement into artistic creations. As a playwright, he has tackled subjects such as sexual repression and child abuse in Morocco. Both as a playwright and publisher of news-journal Nichane, Ksikes has strived to provide an outlet for Moroccan Arabic discourses. Since Nichane closed down in 2010 after being banned by the government, Ksikes has channeled his impulse for Moroccan Arabic-centric art and literature into the theatre company, DabaTeatr.

DabaTeatr began in 2004 under the direction of Jaouad Essaouni, an artist and mentee of Ksikes. Since 2006, Ksikes and Essaouni have maintained the monthly DabaTeatr Citoyen symposium, which features improvised scenes, circus, dance, and multimedia performance art. Today, Essaouni continues to direct DabaTeatr as a vehicle for the company’s devised texts as well as Ksikes work. For the second year in a row, the company is producing its ArtQaida festival to coincide with the anniversary of the February 20 Movement.

Many of DabaTeatr’s performances end up on the group’s YouTube page. Essaouni describes this project as an attempt to create a space for “citizen’s theatre.” Encouraging a mix of Morocco’s many spoken languages is a distinct part of that mission.

Digital Dissemination

Digital media also enables theatre groups to disseminate their performances through online outlets and even email list-serves. This has two major implications for these organizations. In creating their work, playwrights generally keep their target audience in mind—the public they envision will attend their performances and consume the content. Traditionally, audience members have been limited to those who are physically present at a performance. Now, however, writers can target people beyond their physical borders. In fact, DabaTeatr has actively sought out collaborators and audience members within the Moroccan diaspora; because of its active media presence, the group has also been able to partner with a number of German and French theatre companies.

But, digital media has been a double-edged sword for Moroccan arts. It has certainly reinvigorated parts of the performing arts scene by providing access to new audiences and funding sources. At the same time, though, it has created a situation wherein artists may find it more profitable—both in terms of fundraising and gathering cultural capital in the arts community—to seek out international audiences at the expense of local consumers.

Disseminating theatre scripts through digital media has also proven to be more difficult. Often these scripts are written using Latin characters and Arabic numerals, combining romance languages, Amazigh, and Arabic into one alphabet. While this allows a diverse array of people to enjoy these texts, it does not enable easy reproduction. On the other hand, this linguistic diversity gives artists the freedom to work without fear of censorship. It is no coincidence that foreign embassies and cultural institutions play a crucial role in funding these companies’ work. By seeking out financing from foreign institutions, theatre makers can be more subversive and need not worry about obtaining approval for their work from the Ministry of Culture.


It is clear that Moroccan Arabic language theatre is on the rise in Morocco. The emergence and persistence of artists, such as Ksikes, and groups like DabaTeatr, working with and in the tradition of, Feb20, demonstrates the movement’s potential long-term effects. An increase in improvisation, devised-texts, and multi-media performance has also served to re-energize a medium many veteran actors considered lost to television and film production. Through their emergence, these theater companies are providing a very real outlet for a new kind of public discourse in Morocco.

*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 Twitter @ageorgeb.

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.