Laugh­ter in a time of war

Syr­ian troupe’s satire has its fans, but Pres­i­dent As­sad is far from amused

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Abby Sewell Sewell is a spe­cial cor­re­spon­dent.

SARAQEB, Syria — Every time he gets the chance, Ay­ham Hi­lal, an In­ter­net cafe pro­pri­etor in the Syr­ian city of Saraqeb, squeezes into a small com­mu­nity cen­ter with about 200 fel­low the­ater­go­ers and loses him­self in a com­edy show.

The sketches are pro­duc­tions of an all-vol­un­teer per­for­mance troupe known as the Saraqeb Youth Group, which has been bring­ing its brand of satir­i­cal theater to the small city east of Idlib through the most bru­tal chap­ters of the coun­try’s civil war.

Some­times the play­ers per­form at a com­mu­nity cen­ter, other times at schools and at camps for in­ter­nally dis­placed peo­ple, and even on the street.

The troupe formed in 2006, five years be­fore the “Arab Spring” up­ris­ings swept into Syria. Protests metas­ta­sized into a pro­longed and bloody con­flict that has left hun­dreds of thou­sands dead and mil­lions dis­placed.

At the time of the troupe’s found­ing, Ah­mad Khatab and Walid Abu Rashid were a pair of ar­tis­ti­cally in­clined teenagers. Khatab played the oud, a pear-shaped stringed in­stru­ment used in tra­di­tional Ara­bic mu­sic. Abu Rashid had am­bi­tions of be­com­ing an ac­tor.

Along with their love of per­for­mance, they shared a dis­taste for Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad.

With three of their friends, the boys be­gan writ­ing and per­form­ing short plays pok­ing fun at As­sad.

Their au­di­ences were amused, but the gov­ern­ment was not. Soon af­ter the troupe formed, Khatab said, se­cu­rity forces ar­rested him.

“I was only 16 years old, and they hit me many times,” said Khatab, now a school­teacher and fa­ther of two. “Every six months they took me to jail for four or five days, like, rou­tinely.”

Saraqeb — a pri­mar­ily Sunni Mus­lim town of about 30,000 in north­west­ern Syria that is sur­rounded by farm­land — be­came an early cen­ter of antigov­ern­ment protests dur­ing the Arab Spring. Af­ter the war be­gan, it be­came a bat­tle­ground be­tween the Syr­ian army and Free Syr­ian Army rebels, but the troupe con­tin­ued per­form­ing.

Some­times plays were in­ter­rupted by the sound of planes over­head and the au­di­ence and per­form­ers ran to take cover. Two orig­i­nal mem­bers of the group were killed, Khatab said. A third joined the ex­o­dus of Syr­i­ans flee­ing the coun­try.

As the con­flict es­ca­lated, the per­form­ers had to worry not only about the gov­ern­ment but also about mil­i­tant Is­lamist groups in­clud­ing Is­lamic State and the group then known as Al Nusra Front, which were fight­ing for con­trol of the area and con­sid­ered the per­form­ers to be un­be­liev­ers.

Af­ter one per­for­mance, as the group mem­bers were break­ing down the stage, Khatab said, some­one lobbed a hand grenade at them. The grenade ex­ploded, but the per­form­ers scat­tered and no one was hurt.

“We don’t know who threw it — maybe Daesh,” Khatab said, re­fer­ring to Is­lamic State by its Ara­bic acro­nym.

For a while, the group went un­der­ground, per­form­ing with­out us­ing its name or ad­ver­tis­ing its shows. It reemerged pub­licly in 2014 and be­gan post­ing videos of its per­for­mances on Face­book and YouTube, as well as shorts the troupe pro­duced for the Web. The sketches of­fered comedic takes on the daily strug­gles of life in wartime, such as food short­ages and ris­ing prices.

In one sketch, Abu Rashid plays a man in­fu­ri­ated by the sky­rock­et­ing price of to­ma­toes. Af­ter the lo­cal pro­duce seller tries to charge him $1,500 for slightly more than 3 pounds, the cus­tomer takes a po­tion hop­ing to travel back in time to buy the fruit at the old, lower prices, and re­turn to sell them at the new price.

In­stead, he mixes up the po­tions and finds him­self trans­ported to the fu­ture, where his vil­lage has been de­stroyed by bombs, As­sad has been suc­ceeded by his son, prices have risen even higher, and the now-an­cient for­mer pro­duce seller in­forms him that he died 20 years ago. In an at­tempt to re­turn to the past, he goes back too far and finds him­self in a tent full of irate tribal war­riors in the year 620.

The num­ber of per­form­ers has grown to 12 from five. In ad­di­tion to plays for adults, the troupe now puts on per­for­mances for chil­dren fea­tur­ing play­ers dressed as the car­toon catand-mouse duo Tom and Jerry.

Dur­ing the height of the fight­ing, when many schools closed, mem­bers of the troupe also be­gan to run a makeshift in­for­mal school in Saraqeb.

Khatab said he sees the ef­fects of the war in his daugh­ters, ages 1 and 3.

“My daugh­ter, even if we’re fry­ing pota­toes and it makes a noise, she some­times thinks it’s an air­plane and she runs to the bath­room, be­cause this is where we used to hide,” he said.

With the plays, he said, “we have an obli­ga­tion to change their lives a lit­tle and also to give them hope, maybe put a lit­tle smile on their tired faces.”

There’s an­other pur­pose for the per­for­mances, Khatab and Abu Rashid said — to fill the chil­dren’s free time so that they don’t drift into armed groups, as many of their class­mates did.

Mean­while, adults find cathar­sis in the plays. Hi­lal first saw the group per­form in 2012, a year af­ter the war be­gan, in a cul­tural cen­ter that would later be de­stroyed in an airstrike.

The play of the day was called “Ev­ery­thing Is Fine.” It was about a tribe of Be­douins who are vis­ited by a tele­vi­sion crew. The tribal leader, afraid of gov­ern­ment se­cu­rity forces, tells the clan mem­bers to make no com­plaints and sim­ply say, “Ev­ery­thing is fine.” Some of the tribe mem­bers in­stead de­mand elec­tric­ity and wa­ter and san­i­ta­tion and are taken to jail. Upon their re­lease, the gov­ern­ment prom­ises they will get the things they asked for, but noth­ing changes. The play ends with a call to protest.

Hi­lal was hooked. Now he never misses a lo­cal per­for­mance and some­times trav­els to see the group per­form in other ar­eas. On the third day of the Eid al-Fitr hol­i­day, he and a group of friends from Saraqeb went to watch the troupe per­form in Atarib, a town in the west Aleppo coun­try­side.

“What made it spe­cial was that they were deal­ing with sad top­ics like bomb­ing and blood­shed and war — tragic top­ics — and at the same time they were pre­sent­ing it in a satir­i­cal fash­ion,” Hi­lal said. “We used to laugh and cry at the same time.”

The sit­u­a­tion in Saraqeb has calmed — the lat­est cease-fire be­tween the gov­ern­ment and the rebel groups that con­trol the area has held, and now, Hi­lal said, “for the first time in six years, we don’t hear planes.”

But this month, clashes broke out be­tween rebel fac­tions in the Idlib area, in­clud­ing Saraqeb. Ac­cord­ing to the Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights, a pro-op­po­si­tion mon­i­tor­ing group based in Bri­tain, one ac­tivist was killed and oth­ers in­jured in Saraqeb when forces of the Or­ga­ni­za­tion for the Lib­er­a­tion of Syria — an al­liance that in­cludes in­cludes the group for­merly known as Al Nusra Front un­til it re­nounced ties with Al Qaeda — opened fire on a de­mon­stra­tion against the rebel group.

Re­cently, the group and ri­val rebel fac­tion Ahrar al Sham an­nounced they had once again reached an agree­ment to end the fight­ing.

Over the years, Khatab said, he thought about flee­ing the coun­try, as some of his friends have done. But in the con­flict’s early days, when it was still rel­a­tively easy to get across the bor­der to Turkey, he still hoped that the gov­ern­ment would be top­pled quickly and the war would end.

Af­ter Rus­sia in­ter­vened in the war, Khatab said, he be­gan to lose hope. But by then the bor­der with Turkey had been closed and es­cape had be­come too ex­pen­sive. To make the jour­ney, he would have to sell his house and would not have a home to come back to.

Abu Rashid, for his part, said he didn’t con­sider leav­ing.

“Those who do sim­i­lar work are very few,” he said. “If we all go to an­other coun­try, who will be left?”

Troupe mem­bers said there was never any ques­tion whether they would con­tinue per­form­ing.

“We be­lieve in the power of the word,” Khatab said. “A rif le or a weapon can lib­er­ate a place, but the word can lib­er­ate the mind.”

Hus­sein Has­san Saraqeb Youth Group

MEM­BERS OF the Saraqeb Youth Group en­ter­tain a young au­di­ence in Saraqeb, Syria, with a per­for­mance fea­tur­ing the car­toon char­ac­ters Tom and Jerry. The all-vol­un­teer troupe, which was formed in 2006, has con­tin­ued per­form­ing through­out the Syr­ian civil war.

Saraqeb Youth Group

AH­MAD KHATAB, cen­ter, and Walid Abu Rashid, right, founders of the troupe, per­form a sketch. Their plays have poked fun at Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad.

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