Syria's brutality echoes through the ages

Syria's brutality echoes through the ages
You Know I Do Not Remember, a play by Wael Ali, brings to life the experiences of dissidents held in Assad's prisons before the revolution began.
4 min read
28 November, 2014
Abd Alrahman recounts the horror and banality of life in prison [supplied]

During his eight years in the notorious Sednaya prison near Damascas, Hassan Abd Alrahman fashioned a simple oud from shards of carton and dough. But starving and desperate, a cellmate did what he needed to survive - he ate it.

Abd Alrahman, a musician and political dissident of the Assad regime, recounts the story of the oud and how, after they were both released, the cellmate confessed his desperation. In fact, Abd Alrahman says, people would eat the dough that held benches together, chess pieces made of plastic - anything that might combat the gnawing hunger.

Sednaya prison is still operational. More than 1,500 political dissidents rot there in appalling conditions. It is controlled by the Syrian military and is used as a pre-trial jail for those held by the mukhabarat intelligence agency. 

Those lucky enough to survive have described cramped and filthy cells, and torture sessions where they were stripped naked, beaten with pipes and cables, and blasted with freezing water.

Abd Alrahman's tale and those of many other prisoners are the subject of Wael Ali's play, You Know I Do Not Remember, which explores through fading memories the pain and trauma of victims in a haunting way that draws in the audience.

     Sednaya prison is a still operational. More than 1,500 political dissidents rot there in appalling conditions.

Its performance in Berlin, as part of Maxim Gorki's theatre festival Voicing Resistance, is the first time it has been translated from Arabic.

Abd Alrahman was imprisoned for eight years for his activism in Syria and managed to escape as a refugee about 15 years ago, moving around Europe before finally settling in Paris.

Ayham Majid Ali, the charismatic narrator of Abd Alrahman's story, sits at a desk with his subject opposite to recount his experiences. Their dialogue is translated into German and displayed on a screen, and mixed with shots of Syrian state TV propaganda of Hafez al-Assad, Bashar's brutal father, blurry reels of the 2011 uprising and - most importantly - the protagonists' faces.

The screen also shows recorded footage of Abd Alrahman talking about his eight years in prison. At various points, the fourth wall between actors and audience is broken, as actors make humorous asides in Arabic, sending the translators rushing to get their joke on screen.

This embodies the "distancing effect", attributed to German playwright Bertolt Brecht, of how the audience is drawn in as a critical participant that doesn't just sympathise with Abd Alrahman. The audience is not allowed to forget that the unspeakable horrors of authoritarian regimes cannot be simply encapsulated in a one-hour play.

"In an authoritarian context, dialogue is so dangerous it must be repressed," notes Miriam Cooke, a renowned academic in the field of Middle Eastern studies at Duke University in the US, in her study of Syrian artists. "Dialogue creates an arena for subversive activity where individuals communicate the subjective experience of anger and rejection."

Wael Ali's play captures this. Abd Alrahman says that stories were the currency of survival in his prison, and often repeated. Each repetition was iterated with an exaggerated detail or an inflected emphasis.

This lived history extends into the aesthetic sensibility of the play where other everyday stories make an appearance in the text - whether it's a touching anecdote about a cat named Lucy, or about an advertisement for a car on the French island of Mayotte where Abd Alrahman settled for four years in his exile.

Towards the end of the performance, Majid Ali maps out for Abd Alrahman and the audience the many homes that Abd Alrahman has been uprooted from and how prison remains his most formative experience.

These oral prison notebooks are important reminders that the current violence in Syria was also felt long ago by exiles such Abd Alrahman and Majid Ali. As the carnage continues with more deaths and the largest refugee crisis in the world, You Know I Do Not Remember is a living testimony of resistance in the face of vanishing memories and lives.

Berlin's Voicing Resistance series focused on revolutions and uprisings in places such as Athens, Cairo, Istanbul, and Tehran timed with the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.