The fact that global attention has recently been directed exclusively to the experience of the Civil War in Syria that started in 2011 has led to a lack of recognition for contemporary Syrian cultural works that were produced prior to 2011. Today’s review is about one such work by Mohammad al-Attar. Mohammad al-Attar is a young Syrian playwright who received a BA degree in literature from Damascus University. He also studied Applied Drama at Goldsmiths University of London.
Written in 2007, his first play Withdrawal (translated by Clem Naylor from the Arabic original “Insahab”) is a short play with two characters: Ahmad (man) and Nour (woman). They are both 26 years old and, as we learn in the opening scene of the play, they are a couple who both live with their parents. They are renting a room in Damascusto be able to spend intimate time together. Ironically, the rest of the play, which consists of 12 scenes in the form of short vignettes, reveals their inability to spend intimate time together even when they are separated by the four walls of the room from the controlling presence of their respective parents and the suffocating social atmosphere of Damascus.
The play takes place in a barely furnished room; there is only a bed, a table and two chairs in the room. The first scene starts with them in bed; they have apparently just had sex for the first time. The opening dialogue already gives us a glimpse of their lack of real communication:
AHMAD. Maybe it’s time now.
NOUR. That was so good. It was the best I’ve ever had.
AHMAD. It was the first I’ve ever had… What time is it?
NOUR. Thank you for waiting until now for me. I wanted to, too.
AHMAD. I’ve got to get up, he could be here any minute now.
Throughout the play, as in the opening dialogue, we see that the two characters are mostly talking at each other rather than talking to each other. While Nour is focused on maintaining the intimacy of the moment, Ahmad is already preoccupied with what he needs to do next. We learn later that he has decided to leave the country, which comes as a surprise to Nour as she hopes to build a relationship with Ahmad.
This seemingly “normal” relationship of two young people of opposite sexes in their mid-twenties has unconventional gender dynamics. First of all, Nour is the one who is paying for the rent of the room as Ahmad is unemployed and he uses the room during the day to concentrate on his writing. While Ahmad is uncomfortable with this arrangement, Nour tries to comfort him and justify his unemployment by saying, “Now you are focusing more on your writing.” They cannot spend the night together because Nour does not know how to explain that to her parents. Secondly, as we see in the opening dialogue, when they finally have sex, it is Ahmad’s first time ever while Nour has had boyfriends before. While it is unusual for a 26 year-old man to be virgin in Middle Eastern cultures, it is also unconventional for an unmarried woman to have had multiple sexual partners. Thirdly, throughout the play till the final moment of sexual intercourse, it is generally Nour who tries to tempt Ahmad to have sex while Ahmad is mostly preoccupied with distressing thoughts.
There are both personal and political reasons why Ahmad feels unfulfilled in Damascus and decides to leave. On the personal level, his parents belittle his ambitions of becoming a writer. His father thinks that, like his older brother, Ahmad should go to Dubai because he can earn a lot of money there. So his parents’ insistence on not taking his writing talent seriously is a crushing burden on him. On the political level, Ahmad feels that the only thing that is encouraged in Syria is “chanting the Party slogans.” The political atmosphere is suffocating for free thinking and he is experiencing its paralyzing effect as a writer. This paralysis is also present in his relationship with Nour. The more Nour attempts to “normalize” the relationship by trying to draw Ahmad into the conversation, the more Ahmad withdraws into himself, which, I think, is where the title of the play comes from.
The end of the play is inconclusive. Even though Ahmad has made up his mind to leave the country, he has not left yet and there is always a chance that he might change his mind. Watching this ending in 2007 might have given some hope for the Syrian audience. However, looking retrospectively from 2018, perhaps there was not really much of a hope that things could get better for Ahmad or for any free-thinking Syrian.
Turgay Bayındır is an English instructor and translator living in Istanbul. He has studied English literature at Boğaziçi University in Istanbul, Turkey and at Purdue University in IN, USA. He translated a collection of Virginia Woolf’s essays into Turkish titled Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid, and is currently working on the Turkish translation of Jonathan Swift’s A Tale of a Tub.