How to speak out in Syria

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.

In one scene, members of the feared Syrian secret police (known as the “mukhabarat”) interview a young college graduate who is applying for a government job. Hout plays one of the two officers. When he appears on stage with a Hitler mustache and a Hawaiian shirt, the audience shrieks with laughter. Sustained applause follows.

The play also calls out ministries by name and overtly accuses the country’s vice president of corruption. One scene illustrates how economic mobility in the country is based more on social connections than talent. Another makes fun of conservative dress among women in Syria.

The U.S. also takes heat.

“In order to satisfy 5 million Zionists, you are fighting 1 billion Jews,” Hout’s character, an air conditioner repairman at the U.S. Embassy, says while scolding a photo of Barack Obama.

Then again, the U.S. is an easy punch line in Syria.

As with all things in the tightly controlled Syrian state, the play wouldn’t be allowed to run without tacit approval from the government. The script still had to pass the censors.

“Since President Assad came to power in 2000,” said Hout in an interview, “he has pushed the line for criticism. He has asked for criticism.”

Several government ministers had attended the play, Hout said. Assad himself attended an earlier production of Hout's.

The government still keeps an iron grip on the country, allowing no official opposition to the ruling party and tightly controlling the local media. “Academic Corruption” is, perhaps, part of the government’s efforts to allow some small outlet of dissent in the public square.

“My aim is to put in front of the audience controversial issues, whether they are political, religious, or even sometimes sexual,” Hout said, pausing. “But in a very thoughtful and careful way.”

Asked whether he thought his future works would take an even tougher line, Hout smiled.

“So long as women are giving birth,” he said, “so long as the Security Council is issuing decisions, so long as the U.S. is supporting Israel, so long as the U.S. is preventing Iran from obtaining peaceful nuclear power, we will have issues to tackle.”