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How to speak out in Syria

A new play goes where few dare, criticizing Syria's president and his men.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad
Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, a target of “Academic Corruption,” a play that’s making waves in Syria. (Zohra Bensemra/Reuters)

DAMASCUS, Syria — It’s after 9:30 on a Thursday evening when the lights finally go down at the Ramita Theater. There’s a full house for the three-hour-plus production of “Academic Corruption,” a play that’s making waves in Syria.

Before the evening is over, the cast will have mauled the regime of President Bashar al-Assad with satire and drama. Such displays of criticism toward the Syrian government are uncommon.

The curtain opens, revealing a convention of fat cat government officials. One by one, they take to a podium, lecturing the audience on how to cheat the system and get rich at the same time.

“In Syria, there is a wise policy,” says one unnamed "official." “That policy: make your dog hungry and he will follow you.”

This isn’t fine Broadway acting; lines are delivered with slapstick panache more familiar to fans of Saturday Night Live. But the message is in the script.

One by one, the government officials talk about making money off of contraband driver’s licenses and corrupting upright government officials.

Hearing criticism of the government this severe in a public forum is new for the audience, and it reacts with uproarious laughter and show-stopping bouts of applause.

The show was written by Dr. Abed Al Jabbar Al Abed, who gave the script to Humam Hout, a noted writer and director.

Al Abed is a surgeon in Aleppo, and he writes for Hout on occasion, as “a hobby.”

“There is an intended corruption and unintended corruption in our country,” Al Abed said. “The intended one is from someone who is corrupt by his nature. The unintended one is done by those who are not corrupt by their nature, but corrupt people make them like that. Although the system in our country is developing fast, it's not able yet to control it well ... . The corruption serves the benefit of the enemies of our country.”

Hout typically writes his own work, only occasionally taking on challenges from his friend, Al Abed. Hout, a well-known figure in Syria, has made it his life’s work to push the line of acceptable government criticism through theater.

Hout has become known as a slapstick comedian, and he’s used his brand of comedy to prod the government. No work of his, though, has taken this bold a stance.

“The problems I’m tackling,” said Hout in an interview, “if they weren’t touching the man on the street, I wouldn’t be here. First I try to make the margin of freedom bigger. Second, I tackle very controversial issues.”

Despite a warm reception from the audience, “Academic Corruption” has drawn fire.

“I would not say [Hout] is bold ... nor would I say he is practicing real political satire or humor,” said Sami Moubayed, editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Syria, vowing never to see another Hout production.

“He suffers from real major problems: lack of proper actors, too much clowning on stage, long shows, bad acoustics and a very cheap script, meaning no substantial political dialogue or ideas found in the play,” he added.

The play is really a collection of five scenes, each of which rails on a different aspect of government.