The Last Page

But There <em>Is</em> No Theater in the Islamic World

By Anne Campisi '95

“You are a tourist here in Syria?” It was a dusty shop on Palmyra’s main drag, with faded textiles and Afghani necklaces hanging on the walls. No other foreigners in sight. January is off-season for visiting the expansive desert ruins. And with a war going on in Iraq, just 150 kilometers to the east, business here has slowed. “I’m a tourist today,” I answered. We’d taken a few days off to explore the temples and colonnade of the ancient Roman city. “My husband is working in Damascus for two weeks.”

“Ahh,” the proprietor guessed: “Iraq?” He said this with a sudden veil of sobriety, an inclusive tone allowing that the two of us, anyway, lived at the whim of larger powers.

“Hardly,” I laughed. “He’s a professor—” A surprised, open smile. “—in drama. Theater. Do you know Mohammed al-Maghut?”

“Maghut? Of course!” he said with a huge grin now. “Everyone know Maghut! Very good. Very, very good!”

Well, everyone might know the poet and political satirist Mohammad al-Maghut in the Arab world—author of the collections Fan of Swords and Joy is Not My Profession—but in the States he’s not so well known—and that was part of the project. I’d traveled to Syria with my husband, Evan Winet ’93, to research a play —Maghut’s 1968 farce The Jester—which Evan was preparing to direct at Macalester College in Minnesota. The goal was to consult in person with the reclusive playwright, investigate the local arts scene, and research two classes, including one titled “Theater and Islam: The Voice and the Veil.” Before we left, American colleagues would squint at this project and protest, “But…there is no theater in the Islamic world.”

We tend not to think of Syria in terms of its arts scene, especially not these days, but it’s more active than you might think. There, for example, a poet like Mahmoud Darwish doesn’t perform for coffeehouse open mics but at sold-out football stadiums, to cheering audiences of all ages.

Given the global preoccupation with regime change and weapons programs, a mission to explore the Damascus arts scene brought us a warm welcome. We were invited to meals with the politic vice minister of culture (who slipped us a copy of his short stories) and for pots of thick coffee with a struggling theater troupe performing an original adaptation of Hamlet. We heard the Syrian National Symphony in the palatial Dar al-Assad opera hall and attended a rehearsal of Syria’s spectacular, independent (and half-bearded) modern dance troupe, Enana, whose invitation to perform at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, was revoked after 9/11. We spoke with an upright bassist and an earnest children’s television songwriter, both trying to make it as stage actors. As guests of the vice minister, we sipped pineapple juice from frosted glasses beside glamorous Egyptian movie stars at a film festival opening. Later, we accompanied two down-to-earth Syrian film stars on a couch-shopping expedition. Hardly the den of fanatics and terror that some friends feared we’d find.

The greatest privilege of the trip was meeting the playwright Maghut. At 71, he’s a good old rogue, with gypsy tattoos and a penchant for watching his guests drink whiskey. In the 1950s he was a political prisoner in Syria, later self-exiled to Beirut, where he grew renowned as a columnist, screenwriter, and widely read poet. He has spoken against tyranny with surprising candor and ferocity, shielded in part by his fame. Counter to what you might expect of Arabic theater, The Jester is both a timely comedy and self-critical—one of the only Arab plays to be produced in the United States in recent years.

Bringing this project back from the Middle East to the Midwest was exciting. Learning about Arab nationalism and literature as a student is one thing, but an actor has to take the lesson much further. She must not only understand, but then embody and communicate an essential truth with an engaging perspective, to people who might not be part of the choir. And it’s no small task for, say, an American, female, Jewish student to inhabit the role of an Arab man criticizing Arab history, especially when she knows that Syrian Muslims from the Minneapolis community will be in the audience.

Theirs was not the partisan activism of the soap box, on which people shout Blue and Red slogans to the crowd, but the fundamental activism of the arts—and of a liberal arts education: to improve and then employ one’s knowledge of the world in order to make it a better place.

Campisi is a freelance writer in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Her novel The Lime Tree, currently in progress, just received the James Jones First Novel Fellowship.