Stories from Syria
The Fear of Breathing: Stories from the Syrian Revolution
Rarely has theatre responded so swiftly to pressing current events as with the production of the play The Fear of Breathing, playing at the Finborough Theatre in London until 11 August.
A work of great moral urgency, it is based on interviews conducted in Syria by Paul Wood of the BBC and Ruth Sherlock of the Daily Telegraph. The play gives voice and form to the testimonies of Syrians of diverse backgrounds as they struggle to survive despite civil war, mass killings, torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, and physical and psychological abuse.
The testimonies are harrowing, frightening, distressing, and startlingly direct.
Individuals express their anger, sorrow, and pain with intensity and conviction. The result is a play that is less a mediated dramatic production than a direct conduit for the immediate experiences, thoughts, and feelings of Syrians surviving in an atmosphere of constant violence, and political and social collapse.
The play gives voice to individuals who have lost children, siblings, friends, and relatives. Many struggle with their relative powerlessness in the face of the Assad regime’s massive military and police control to terrorize and attempt to clamp down on a population in rebellion.
Remarkably, despite the depth of pain and suffering and the diversity of experiences represented, there is little despair and despondency here. They are indefatigable. The tone of defiance is consistent and unwavering, and the protesters are bold and proud. They speak of their use of Facebook to mobilize, their adaptability, and the great risks they take to demand their rights.
To its credit, the play gives voice to a wide range of voices—including Syrians who fear the break down of the Assad regime, the new violence that may ensue as a result, and who for reasons of sect or class or religious affiliation or independent reasons feel safer under Assad than with the unknown.
It does not idealize and romanticize the anti-Assad activists, giving voice to their desire for revenge even against the innocent who may be associated with the Assad regime, but who are not responsible for its actions. They are instead depicted in their complexity and contradictions, human beings whose rights have been horrifically violated striving for human rights. But they remain fallible and multifaceted, eager to liberate their land and its people, but ready for revenge and not necessarily in accordance with principles of justice.
Despite giving voice to the widest range of Syrians possible—include Assad and Assad supporters—the play never obfuscates the truths of the causes and context of violence, and the massive violations of human rights and massacres that the Assad regime has perpetrated and continues to perpetrate.
The play includes clips from a video interview with Assad conducted by Barbara Walters, in which he denies all allegations of human rights abuses on the part of his government and military. Assad states, unbelievably, “We don’t kill our people. No government in the world kills its people unless it is led by a crazy person. For me as president I became president because of the public support. It is impossible for anyone in this state to give orders to kill people.”
In response to Walters’ queries about the violence against civilians, torture, and killings by government forces, Assad calls them “false allegations” and says, “I cannot answer about fake pretences. I can only talk about reality.”
The gap between rhetoric and reality has rarely felt greater.
Although there is a sectarian element to the uprising and conflict and to Assad’s oppression of the Syrian people—which the play addresses—it also includes the voices of individuals such as Omar, who states, “I’m Sunni. But I don’t care if someone is Sunni or Alawi or Christian. It’s not about the sects.” He also says, “We are asking for something very precious, we are asking for our freedom. This is not easy.”
But this same Omar also states, regarding Assad supporters, “So what if we kill two or three thousand? Sometimes you have to accept the truth. What you people think is very nice ideals but in the reality it is totally different… They had no mercy for us and we will have no mercy for them.”
The individuals who give testimony in the play include teenagers and adults, a doctor, members of the Free Syrian Army, journalists, activists and their relatives, students, a soldier in Assad’s army, and several Assad supporters.
One particularly piercing section in the script is of a man who dedicates himself to giving individuals who have been killed in their rebellion against the government a decent burial, by cleaning their bodies and shrouding them in accordance with Muslim tradition. He has had to do this to his own son. “Of course it is a very difficult job, but it is something that has to be done and I feel I owe these people something. The least I can do is shroud them.”
This is a disturbing, challenging play with ferocious urgency, content, and tone. It offers no answers and raises many questions problematizing facile assumptions about the conflict and one-dimensional explanations of its causes and culprits. It offers a holistic sampling of the reality in Syria now, the perspectives and experiences of different individuals and communities, and the horror of violence and the murder of innocents that has overtaken Syria and continues on a daily basis. It is a protest, both angry and dignified: an act of memorialization and a call to action.
It leaves a searing mark on its audience, making it impossible to be unaffected by these testimonies and the power that is unleashed when they are assembled together in a tragic—but by no means defeated—chorus of hope, hostility, and a howl of rage transformed into defiant action.