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Culture

Terrifying accounts of Syria’s uprising fuel London play

Actress Sirine Saba in a scene from “The Fear of Breathing.”

LONDON: Harrowing first-person accounts of life and violent death from Syrians during their 16-month-old uprising provide the dialogue for a new play, which is now up at London’s Finborough Theatre.

Comprised of filmed footage and stories based on hundreds of hours of undercover interviews conducted by 26-year-old director Zoe Lafferty and two British journalists, “The Fear of Breathing” immerses the audience in the everyday lives of people caught up in the bloodshed of the revolt against the rule of President Bashar Assad.

“People are a million different things and theater allows all of that to be encompassed,” Lafferty told Reuters. “This piece allows a Western audience to relate to what is going on.”

The play follows the experiences of Syrians involved in the conflict which, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights activist group, has killed over 17,000 people.

A few torn posters of the Syrian president are plastered on the set and in the darkness, flashed up on screens are the words, “The stories are true. The characters are real people. The words spoken verbatim.”

Quataba, a fresh-faced student and activist, is shown tortured and beaten in prison for carrying videos supporting the uprising against Assad’s rule.

Mohammad, a Sunni Muslim soldier, recounts the discrimination he encounters in Assad’s army and the civilians he witnessed killed at peaceful protests.

Sunnis make up the majority of the Syrian population, while Assad is from the country’s Alawi sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, adding a sectarian dimension to the fighting.

“Of course it’s heavy,” Lafferty said, “but it’s also fun. There are laughs and jokes, exciting and positive moments.

“One of our characters starts off telling us about his love of Manchester United [football club] and finishes with his house being bombed.”

The Syrian state’s ban on foreign journalists meant that Lafferty along with the Daily Telegraph’s Ruth Sherlock and BBC’s Paul Wood, both currently Syria correspondents, had to move covertly around the country spending a total of seven weeks collecting the material for the play.

The piece has particular relevance now that the Syrian capital has seen intense fighting for the first time since unrest began in March 2011, prompting suggestions that the government’s control of the country may be slipping faster than predicted.

Giving a largely revolutionary perspective, some of the stories touch on the conflict’s most sensitive issue: Syria’s sectarian fault lines.

“It’s always in the background in Syria,” explained the BBC’s Wood, “but faced with a television camera, or even just someone writing in a notebook, people don’t want to address it directly. Or if they do, they say what they feel they are expected to say to foreigners.

“That was why these meandering late night conversations were so valuable, the recorder placed on the floor in the middle of the group, but soon forgotten. After a while, in the normal back-and-forth of discussion, people began to say what they really thought.”

“The Fear of Breathing” runs at west London’s Finsborough Theatre until Aug. 11.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 25, 2012, on page 16.

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