In Beirut, play about Syria’s war gets as close to home as it can

Actors perform during a rehearsal of the play called ‘While I Was Waiting,’ at Dawar Al-Shams theater in Beirut, Lebanon. (Reuters)
Updated 22 October 2017
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In Beirut, play about Syria’s war gets as close to home as it can

BEIRUT: A play about Syria’s war, told through one family’s tragedy, made its Lebanon debut on Friday, the closest it will ever get to being staged on home soil, its Syrian director said.
“It would be impossible to perform it in Syria. There are red lines, and the censorship that was there before 2011 is still there today,” said Omar Abu Saada, one of the country’s best-known theater directors.
The play — called “While I Was Waiting” — is based on the real-life story of a young man found beaten unconscious near a hospital in Damascus in 2013, but the circumstances of his beating and subsequent death remained unclear. Abu Saada knew the man and his family.
“When I thought about working on a new project, this was the story that came to my mind. It pretty much imposed itself,” he said.
In the play, the man oscillates between life and death and the lack of answers unnerves his family. His suspended state is a metaphor for the state of waiting that all Syrians share, whether inside the country or abroad and regardless of their political views, the director said. Another thing all Syrians share is loss, he added.
The Syrian conflict, which began with a popular uprising against the state, has raged on into its seventh year. The war has killed hundreds of thousands of people, made more than half of Syrians homeless, and created the world’s worst refugee crisis. “Syrians today are not in a single place, they are suspended. Waiting is something that we all have in common,” Abu Saada said. “Most people lost someone close, either by death, emigration or imprisonment. Everyone lost something.”
This has changed the way Syrians think, their social fabric and even the way they make art, he said.
The play charts the disenchantment of young Taym, the comatose patient, from his hope for change at the start of the 2011 uprising to his despair as it spiralled into a war.
Syria’s young generation, active in organizing and documenting the mass protests, lost the most in the violent turn of events, he said. “The state of coma is more of a metaphor for the lack of power to change things,” Abu Saada said.
The play made its debut in Brussels in 2016 and has since been staged in France, the United States and Japan among other places.
The six cast members said they could not meet anywhere in the Arab world for rehearsals because of visa restrictions.
“So in the end, we rehearsed in France which under normal circumstances would have been the harder place to go to,” said Nanda Mohamed, a Syrian actress.
The writer, who has previously lived in Lebanon, had to leave Beirut in 2015 when the Lebanese government imposed stricter conditions on Syrians in the country. But he said being forced to leave Lebanon helped him view the war differently.
“Sometimes the geographical distance helps create the gap for critical thinking and I tried to take advantage of that,” said Mohamed Al-Attar, 38.
“What happened to us was tragic but what would be more tragic is if we could not review things. It would be disastrous if after the heavy price we paid and we continue to pay that we also do not have the courage to think about what we lost and boldly criticize it,” Attar said.
Attar previously worked in Beirut with director Abu Saada on an adaptation of the Greek myth Antigone performed by an all-female cast of Syrian refugees.
Both agree the play is about fueling debate about a war that is not yet over.
“The idea of creating a play about something that you are living in the middle of and still being affected by and probably have not yet processed is difficult,” Abu Saada said. “But I know that there is no running away from it.”


Malaysia mosque bans tourists after ‘sexy dance’ goes viral

Updated 25 June 2018
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Malaysia mosque bans tourists after ‘sexy dance’ goes viral

KUALA LUMPUR: A Malaysian mosque has banned tourists after a video of two female visitors in skimpy outfits dancing in front of the Muslim holy site went viral online.
The pair, of East Asian appearance and believed to be foreigners, were filmed doing the dance in skimpy shorts and tops exposing their midriffs on a wall outside the main mosque in the city of Kota Kinabalu, a popular site for visitors and tour groups.
Residents and local Muslim groups were incensed by the risqué moves outside the holy site on Borneo island, which is renowned for its huge blue and gold dome and ornate minarets.
An outraged onlooker can be heard in the video saying: “Why don’t they just fall off the wall?”
Mosque chairman Jamal Sakaran at the weekend slammed “the unacceptable behavior by foreign tourists” and announced a temporary halt to any tourists visiting the mosque in Sabah state, adding the move was to preserve the sanctity of Islam.
The nationality of the women involved was not clear.
State Tourism Minister Christina Liew told The Star newspaper legal action would not be taken against the pair as they were likely unaware of the severity of their actions. But authorities wanted to track them down to explain “that something they deemed as ‘fun’ was actually disrespectful and not right in Sabah.”
Large numbers of tourists — both local and foreign — visit the mosque, often during a brief stop in Kota Kinabalu before heading into the jungles of Sabah to see the jungle-clad state’s abundance of wildlife.
Tourists can usually visit mosques in Muslim-majority Malaysia, where most practice a moderate form of Islam, but are advised to wear modest clothing.
It is not the first time that foreign visitors have landed in hot water for disrespecting local culture in Sabah.
In 2015 four Western tourists pleaded guilty to obscenity charges for taking nude photos on popular peak Mount Kinabalu, an act some in the country blamed for causing a deadly earthquake.