Friday, November 10, 2006

Head of the Ghost

I attended a Syrian play last night called Ras al-Ghoul -- Head of the Ghost. It was part of a government-sponsored theater festival this week, which comprised several dozen plays, mostly from Syria, but also from Palestine, Iraq, Tunisia and Morocco. (Plays, as with literature in general, are written in formal Arabic, so there are no dialectical differences between countries.)

Admission was free, which may not entirely explain the overflowing, enthusiastic crowd. When the seats were filled, people crammed into the aisles. The audience skewed young – next to me were three students in the college of mechanical engineering at the University of Damascus – and secular. Very few women were wearing head scarves and none were wearing the more conservative niqab, which covers most of the face. In introducing the play, the director honored the Syrian who wrote it, and died earlier this year.

I found the play itself very good – I understood it as an impressionist painting; I didn’t catch everything, but took in many of the principle points. As well, the guys next to me called it moomtaz. Excellent. It was a montage of social commentary and political criticisms, mostly addressing Arab leadership in general, but leaving some ambiguity as to the target of the critiques.

It addressed a pervading Syrian sense of uncertainty about the future, a lack of personal freedoms, as well as a fading sense of Arab nationalism. It criticized Arab governments’ treatment of Palestinians, the borders between Arab countries – an oft repeated theme in contemporary Arabic literature and film – and it put violence on trial.

In the end, the characters, who were frightened of most everything, were afraid of liberty as well. They wouldn’t allow her to join them. This clearly invoked a rising fear among Arabs, especially since the Iraq War, of democratic reforms. The status quo, though unappealing to many, is known. “Democracy,” as the experiment in Iraq has proven, can be much, much worse.


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