It is all about freedom and that is what we are trying to teach our children

Salman Ibrahim – Theater Director & Manager of Bread way Group

A medium-sized, makeshift tent stands proud in Al-Bab, Syria. Scrawled across its inner canvas are brightly colored, hand-painted pictures. This is the work of a group of local schoolchildren aged 12 to 15, who gathered here regularly throughout the week to learn the dramatic arts, as part of director Salman Ibrahim’s theater group, “Bread Way”. “Each child drew what he thinks, loves or dreams of,” Ibrahim said. “Some of them painted homes, some painted the Syrian revolution flag and freedom motto.” They did this to fit the theme of their new play, Dreamers Theater, in which these same children share their ambitions, circumstances, and memories of war. 

Al Ibrahim explains that theater recovers children and people from war-trauma. “It gives them the platform to express themselves and collectively overcome their shared anguish by giving them the place to see, talk, take part in theater plays. He explains

Interplay between Al-Ba’ath perception of Theater and civil society’s negligence

Civil society looks to the theatre as a mediocre unnecessary activity to which they think to include in their to-do list for school children.

The root cause of this the overlook position of theater by the civil society can be traced to the inherited Ba’athist approach in Syria. Al Ba’ath utilized theatre and controlled its content scrutinizing word by word that is being said on the stage.” Said Al-Ibrahim 

Theaters’ role in Syria has always been to support the totalitarian regime. The inelegance personnel acknowledged that theater’s role in the society is to stimulate people’s thinking towards freed and liberated society.

 “Theater boost people’s to questions about the social, political and local state of their country, and who is responsible…etc” the director added 

“The theater stage metaphorically displays in a sarcastic or ironic theme sometimes the state of corruption inequality, discrimination in the country making people both laugh, think and question,” Al-Ibrahim said 

One of the old rare initiatives in Syria was following 1967, the defeat of the [six days war] with the Israeli occupation, when. Sa’adallah Wanos directed a play that shadowed how the Syrian authorities were the reason why the war was lost. After the theater play ended, people sparked to the street demonstrating calling for freedom and overthrow of the regime which was ruled by Hafez as a minister of the defense and Salah Jadid who the president of Syria (1966-1970) who repressed and arrested many of the protesters.

Theater was stripped from playing its fundamental role in any community

Salman Ibrahim – Theater Director & Manager of Bread way Group

The Syrian regime established the ministry of art and theater, ostensibly to amplify and empower artwork in Syria opening up broader dimensions for actors, artists, writers to be more creative. However, this body was utilized to cater to and instill Al-Ba’ath’s rule and ideology of so-called resistance. The Ba’ath regime amplified the view of being the Arab first forefront in the Israeli occupation ultimate battle for freeing Palestine and consequently oppress any initiative that would not suit the criteria that do not suit.

After the revolution in March 201, despite the insecurity circumstances, broader dimensions to run artwork to which was introduced and conducted by revolutionary and self-funded from the actors and friends’ network who believes in the message and value of theater add to the society. 

‘Dreamers Theater’

“Dreamers Theatre is freedom of speech, writing our scripts and conducting plays our way,” the 37-old director explains.

He’s been penning plays since he ­graduated with a degree in Arabic literature from the University of Homs in 2005, but, for censorship reasons, it wasn’t until 2014 that one finally made it to the stage.

Dakaken means (shops), Ibrahim’s first play was performed in Aleppo that year by local activists and volunteers, but ensuring a nightly run became difficult due to instability in the city at that time. This uncertainty saw him move to Idlib in 2017, to focus on teaching, before he moved to Al-Bab in 2018. Since then, he has been able, despite the barriers, to work with children and introduce them to the theater.

Children Bread Way group, a space of imagination and stretching creativity

One of these young actors is Nesren Al Ward, 14, who came from Erben, in East Ghouta, where her two brothers, Ahmad and Ala’a, were killed in an airstrike. “I was sieged and deprived of going to school or playing because of the bombing,” she says. She spent three months living in a basement with her parents and two surviving brothers, Aref and Bara’a, before moving to Al-Bab. “We were unable to do anything at home, but with my mother and brother we spent time acting in the sleeping room of our house, inspired by local actors I used to see on TV which was how I started acting.”

In Al-Bab, Nesren is able to study again, although she has been moved back by two grades. “It makes me feel sad to have lost those years, but I am studying now again and that is what matters,” she says. 

 When I came here, I finally found somewhere to sleep without [the sound of] bombs every night. It feels normal now, but for years, I could not have peace like this or at least no fear of being bombed or killed and losing my family.

Nesren 14 years old member of Bread Way theater Group

Children like Nesren, who have been most affected by the war, that both Ibrahim and NGO worker Clare Payne wish to help heal through theatre.

Payne, who is from Northern Ireland, works in Romania and is supporting Ibrahim independently, helping him to raise money for his plays. They first met at a ­peacebuilding course in Turkey last year. “One of my main purposes with Salman is to restore social dialogue, via theatre, as it’s the first brick in the path of new generations that should not keep paying the price of war,” she says. “Theatre is a way that ­communities can express themselves and find relief from the oppression they are living under.”

Abdul Razak Kharar, 13, was bussed out of Aleppo with his two brothers, one sister and parents in December 2016. Just like Nesren, Abdul Razak had found it difficult to go to school regularly due to the bombings. Thankfully, his whole family survived and now, in Al-Bab, he is able to live normally, returning to his studies and learning how to act in his spare time.

Acting for me has become a way to express so many feelings I have

Abdul Razak – 13 years old member of Bread Way theater Group

For two months, four days a week, Abdul Razak headed to that tent, rehearsing the play, watching theater on TV and talking through the script, ahead of the show’s opening night, which took place last month in Al-Bab. “I have enjoyed working with Salman and my friends together every day,” he says. “I was shy, partially still now if I am honest, but I am hoping to stay longer with them because I do not have many friends from my city, as all of them are scattered across northern Syria and some were killed, too.” Before he joined Ibrahim’s theatre group, Abdul Razak used to watch shows on YouTube and TV, and particularly enjoyed the work of Egyptian actor and comic Adel Emam and Syrian actor Abdul Rahman Eid. “Acting for me has become a way to express so many feelings I have,” he says. “I want to become an actor because I want to make people smile.”

Theater is a key for peace

While Payne strongly believes theater offers light moments of relief, she also sees her involvement in this initiative as an opportunity to build peace, which, she says, is complicated in Syria. “The communities have become shattered and unable to integrate with one another; thus, the process of peace will take time.”

However, if we invest in more work with children … we will advance quicker 

Salman Ibrahim – Theater Director & Manager of Bread way Group

One of the ways Ibrahim ensures the children are always learning is by giving them opportunities to ­discuss sensitive subjects and ethical dilemmas through the content of their performances. For example, at certain points in the play, he gets the guests involved. “This manifests when the actors on stage ask the audience’s opinion and what to do to solve this problem, [sparking] a public debate about local matters and making the society itself come up with a solution.” An example of this is when Abdul Razak, who portrays the father in the play, tries to prevent his daughter from going to school. “The actors move this conversation to the audience and try to find solutions and reasons behind this behavior from the parents,” says Ibrahim.

Addressing this scene, Abdul Razak, who knows well the pain of not being able to study, says: “I liked my role but not the idea of preventing anyone from going to school.”

As a result of Ibrahim’s teachings, Nesren and Abdul Razak both say they have seen a marked difference in their confidence levels. They now want to pursue careers in the arts. “I want to become an actor,” says Nesren, “because I love and enjoy watching and acting. I want to make people happy and smile, and to make my family proud of me.” 

Abdul Razak wants to be both an actor and a director, just like Ibrahim. “I want to perform my own ideas, which is what ­Salman is teaching us to do, and become famous in the future,” he says.

Ibrahim is convinced that this confidence has been built as a result of giving the children the freedom to develop their own ideas. He simply points them in the right direction. “People were deprived of freedom’s tools and it’s my quest to bring it back to life,” he says.

It is all about freedom and that is what we are trying to teach our children: to learn, practice and do it as a lifestyle, and that is what will bring Syria back

Salman Ibrahim – Theater Director & Manager of Bread way Group

Individual initiatives overlooked by civil society

Funding limitations did not stop Salman’s plans who altered into different ways to keep his plays running. By recycling unused useful materials that can be used to make puppets that children will later use in the new coming plays.

Trainers are teaching children how to create from scratch their own characters and help them to develop first of all a new skill of design and crafting their favorite puppet then use it to come up with a sketch that will use the puppet in the performance in a later stage. There are different versions of the game to make it more fun to play.

Nawar Bulbul, a 46-years old, Syrian TV and Theater actor, writer and director explains that throughout his work, he has been trying effortlessly to contribute, work and propose for theatrical projects in and outside Syria to the civil society organization across Turkey, Europ, however, their contribution had done more harm than good.

Disappointment of the large continuous negligence that this sector is struggling from. Working within the capacity and scale of individualists might not serve the cause to the extent we endeavor to make, but it is better than nothing, that is the least we can do

Nawar Bulbul, Theater actor, writer and director

“The civil society has failed the theater movement in Syria and, intentionally neglected the artistic movement despite the importance and value it holds to the people and Syria.”

Both Al-Ibrahim and Bulbul work have relied on donations from a small circle of people who believe in the theater message and its principal value to the Syrian society.

Al Ibrahim notes that civil society ought to realize and ultimately adopt these small projects and merge them in their educational programs at school to develop children’s skills and creativity.

While Bulbul believes that the civil society’s funds will always be biased and relying on them will not contribute to the improvement of theater in Syria. However, Al Ibrahim envisions in the future that civil society would work to support independent theater bands that organize artistic theater. 

“The content of the plays does not need to be professional, the key thing is to establish an organized body that is devoted only to produce regular theater plays that engage with the people and reflect their life,” Al-Ibrahim said

“The fruits of the support will contribute to the long term an artistic experience that will eventually make the coming generation involve children and people to practice, through theater, freedom and heal from the trauma,” Al-Ibrahim said

Theater is like the bread we eat to survive daily… we need theater to live democracy and develop liberties and render society members to be actively engaged and citizens in the future of their country… in the future of better Syria

Salman Ibrahim – Theater Director & Manager of Bread way Group

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