Over sixteen months into the unrest in Syria a true picture of events on the ground is still hard to ascertain. This is partly due to the pace at which the situation is developing. The conflict, inspired by the regional ‘Arab Spring’, was sparked by children writing graffiti on the walls in the southern town of Deraa. Today it has morphed into a complex civil conflict with both ethnic and sectarian dimensions. The ‘Free Syria Army’ (FSA), largely made up of army deserters, launched an attack on the capital city, Damascus, in July and observers have started estimating the survival of the Assad regime in months rather than years.
The limited access of independent media has meant that much of the conflict has been communicated through social media: panicked YouTube clips and horror stories from Facebook. The lack of information from the country has resulted in several innovative attempts to communicate events here in the UK. The interactive theatre experience, 66 Minutes in Damascus, gives Londoners a vision of being under Syrian detention, based on a series of first-hand accounts. Likewise, The Fear of Breathing takes the increasingly popular verbatim format to the stage at the intimate Finborough Theatre in Chelsea.
The play attempts to tell the story of the revolution to date. It starts with idealistic youngsters full of hopeful imagination for a peaceful transition. Students, radio DJs, hotel owners and the ubiquitous ‘activists’ innocently speak of the ‘Facebook revolution’ and their networked organisation of demonstrations and protests. In a country where previously it was illegal for more than seven people to gather, the political oxygen that was blowing across the region is intoxicating and infectious. It is told well by the energetic performers who interestingly choose to speak mainly with Welsh and Scottish accents rather than attempt an Arabic impression.
The stories were gathered covertly by theatre director Zoe Lafferty and two journalists who had sneaked themselves into the country. The single outstanding personal tale is that of Quataba, a twenty-two year-old student, who gets picked up by the security forces. His subsequent torture makes for uncomfortable viewing, although it still appears bizarre that he was asked ‘how many facebook friends do you have?’ by his sadistic captors. Meanwhile a hotel owner in Damascus provides the counter-narrative of fear of the unknown that would follow the demise of the regime. His comfort and success in business, not to mention his love of sushi, are all at risk in the uncertainty of a ‘new Syria’.
Sectarianism is an underlying theme throughout, with a particularly sad moment coming when the tortured student promises revenge against his former captors. The verbatim format works generally well, although at one point a Syrian FSA fighter appears to deliver a lecture whilst ducking and diving from incoming fire which appears unlikely. It would also have been interesting to understand why these particular characters were chosen for their stories; as one says, ‘this is the first time I’ve told my story in English’.
The Fear of Breathing is a brave and important contribution to better understanding the darkness that is continuing to envelope Syria.
At the Finborough Theatre until 11 August: www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk
James Denselow is a writer on Middle Eastern politics. @jamesdenselow