Aleppo. A Portrait of Absence
Aleppo, a city destroyed by war, rises from the ashes in the stories of its inhabitants. Precious tales told to one spectator at a time, a testimonial and a bequest.
Aleppo, a beloved city, a city destroyed. But remembered by its exiled citizens. Their stories bring back to life a hill, a mosque, a popular restaurant, all reduced to ruins. Aleppo. A Portrait of Absence conveys the cruelty of war but also the fundamental power of memory in the face of destruction.
The Syrian playwright Mohammad Al Attar gathered ten stories from ten inhabitants of Aleppo and then entrusted them to ten Montreal actors. Seated at the same table in the touching vertigo of one-on-one, an actor tells one of the precious tales to one spectator. Against a backdrop of an oversized map of Aleppo and in the intimacy of a theatre space, a city is reborn, a culture and a past brought back to life. A look at a Syria that goes beyond the clichés of the bombarded country portrayed in the media, Aleppo gives voice to those who resist, who forcefully reconstruct with words the beauty of a place now buried in rubble. Necessary.
Produced by HKV-Haus der Kulturen der Welt (Berlin) + Zürcher Theater Spektakel (Zürich)
Concept and Text Mohammad Al Attar in collaboration Omar Abusaada + Bissane Al Charif
Directed by Omar Abusaada
Performed by Éloi ArchamBaudoin + Larissa Corriveau + Lyndz Dantiste + Nicolas Desfossés + Mohsen EL Gharbi + Ariel Ifergan + Simon Landry-Désy + Frédéric Lavallée + Bruno Marcil + Alice Pascual + Mattis Savard-Verhoeven
Set Design Bissane Al Charif
Director Assistant Elaine Normandeau
Production Manager Meret Kiderlen
Interviews by Sadik Abdul Rahman + Marcell Shehwaro + Odai Al Zoubi
Map Design Alia Ramadan
Translation Katharine Halls + Reem Harb + Lina Mounzer (English) + Nathalie Bontemps (French)
Presented with the support of Cole Foundation+ Goethe-Institut Montréal + Ministère fédéral des Affaires étrangères d’Allemagne in association with Fonds GB
Written by Elsa Pépin
Translated by Neil Kroetsch
Mohammad Al Attar (Damas + Berlin)
A new name in Syrian theatre, the writer Mohammad Al Attar, born in Damascus, now lives in Berlin. A prolific writer since the start of the Syrian uprising in March 2011, his works focuses on the social and political role of theatre, and the Syrian revolution.
In 2006 he joined, as a playwright, the Studio Théâtre founded in Damascus in 2001 by Omar Abusaada. He wrote his first play, Withdrawal, in 2007.
It is set in a small Damascus apartment where a couple lives and finds refuge from the social control mechanisms of society. After the first large wave of arrests in Syria in 2011, his play Could You Please Look into the Camera? (2012) has people speaking directly to the camera, describing how they were tortured in prison.
Those two plays, along with Look at the Streets… This Is What Hope Looks Like (2011), Online (2011), A Chance Encounter (2013) and Youssef Was Here (2013) were presented in London, New York, Seoul, Berlin, Athens, Tunisia and elsewhere. His play While I Was Waiting made its début at the kunstenfestivaldesarts in Brussels in 2016, and was selected as part of the 70thAvignon Festival before going on to tour Europe.
For the past 10 years, Al Attar has been collaborating with the director Omar Abusaada, originally from Damascus.
Omar Abusaada (Damas)
For the past 10 years, Al Attar has been collaborating with the director Omar Abusaada, originally from Damascus. Together they create theatre that is intimately linked to social and political changes, works that hover on the boundary between fiction and documentation.
Adapting Greek tragedies, they created a theatrical trilogy dedicated to the lives of women seeking refuge from war, the geographical and psychological journey of Syrian women, first with Trojan Women (2013) in Jordan, and then Antigone of Shatila (2014) in Lebanon, followed by Iphigenia in Berlin (2017). In 2017 too, they presented in Berlin Aleppo. A Portrait of Absence, working with the set designer Bissane Al Charif, a frequent collaborator. A native of Damascus now living in Paris, she also has been using her art in support of the Syrian people since 2011. The trio gathered the stories of citizens of Aleppo, bringing a destroyed city back to life through the power of memory.
Bissane Al Charif (Damas + Paris)
In 2017, Mohammad Al Attar and Omar Abusaada presented in Berlin Aleppo. A Portrait of Absence, working with the set designer Bissane Al Charif, a frequent collaborator. A native of Damascus now living in Paris, she also has been using her art in support of the Syrian people since 2011.
Interview with Mohammad Al Attar
Why did you, a native of Damascus, choose to create a piece about Aleppo?
The tragic bombardment of the city of Aleppo began while I was preparing a project for HKW in Berlin. I was working on another topic, but I felt then that I couldn’t think about anything else. So I shifted my focus to Aleppo. Later I also realized that the reality of Aleppo would resonate with a lot of people across the globe. The piece represents the current reality of Syria, but also similar contexts such as war zones or other places where people no longer have access to their homes.
Aleppo speaks about all those diasporas across the world, with the hope of bearing witness to the meaning of memory, the power of narration and our relationship to where we live, which is affected not only by the destruction of war but also at times by gentrification. How do we perceive our place of origin when it is no longer quite the same? The story of Aleppo also poses the question of what remains once the dream of democratic change has been crushed.
Each story in the piece is told to only one spectator at a time. Why that choice?
That form came in response to the central theme of the work. These people told us their stories about places in Aleppo that are important to them, engaging in a conversation where we slowly earned their trust. Those intimate encounters allowed them to give us something quite precious.
Their stories are all they have left with which to fight, to resist. When you’ve lost everything, what remains is your voice, your story, your memories. We wanted to reproduce the intimacy of those revelations by engaging the spectators in the process. We create a situation where they feel they are welcoming and receiving precious testimony that they can then tell to others, or keep for themselves. That intimate context invites the audience to listen carefully to each story.
Ten sites in Aleppo inspired these tales. What image of Aleppo do you wish to convey with this piece? Are there any stereotypes you wish to deconstruct?
The official story of Aleppo and of Syria can be deconstructed by centering each tale around a specific site. The way we respond to a place is very subjective, which is why the sites become quite important. The stories told in this piece capture the social, political and anthropological history of the city from an intimate point of view. The stories describe specific sites, however, they become a way of understanding life in Syria and how it has changed over the past three or four decades–till the moment of the revolution and then the war. We hone in on the ethnic complexity of the city, and its different social classes. Some people want to return to places that are important to them, but the majority are afraid that they’ll find them forever changed, that they will have become unfamiliar. Most prefer keeping the memory of before, rather than seeing its new face.
I wanted to challenge stereotypes about Syria, which is too often perceived only as a horrendous war zone, a land of ugliness, of destruction and refugees, and even before 2011 it was seen by many who never visited it as a vast and uncivilized desert. Yet there is a rich and sophisticated life in Syria. Aleppo and Montreal are much closer than one might think. The resemblances are not a matter of fashion or language. We resemble each other in our emotions, our dreams, challenges and political commitment, which is much more important.
Wherever this work is shown you choose local actors to tell the tales. Why?
Symbolically, we’re building bridges, connecting the stories of the inhabitants of Aleppo with the stories of others in the city where it is being presented. The central point of the performance is the power of storytelling, not presented to an audience but generated by a process that we establish first with the actors. We are interested in how the actors build a relationship with these tales, how they transmit them and what they add in terms of emotions and reflections, how they embody the story. Each actor finds connections to his own history and stories.