Syrian exile Mohammad Al Attar on The Factory – an indictment of Western multinationals’ role in his country’s war.
Both from Damascus, playwright Mohammad Al Attar and director Omar Abusaada have been working together since 2008. They’ve since developed an international career together, despite the civil war and Al Attar’s exile to Berlin almost three years ago. Recently, Abusaada’s staging of Al Attar’s While I Was Waiting, in which a comatose patient is treated as a metaphor for Syria, received enthusiastic reviews in New York as part of 2017’s Lincoln Center Festival; their Iphigenia, the first theater work presented by Chris Dercon’s Volksbühne last September, was the final part of a trilogy exploring the suffering of Syrian women. They’re back on the Volksbühne stage with The Factory, which traces the history of a cement plant in Syria opened by French manufacturer Lafarge in 2010 – a factory that stayed open long after international sanctions mandated its closure.
Was it unequivocally wrong for Lafarge to have kept its factory open?
It’s hard to escape the conclusion that Lafarge should have closed the factory. Workers were repeatedly exposed to severe danger, time after time; nothing was done to protect them.
To what extent is this documentary theatre? What are the sources that you’re using for the text?
We mix the documentary with some fictional lines. The case is still in the court; many facts are unknown. In theater we can jump on that. We can think beyond these things and throw out questions to provoke the audience to dig deeper and try to see a larger picture. For us, Lafarge is a metaphor for the war economy in Syria and for the whole alliance between capital and the power in Syria – before, during and after the uprising.
Do you think there is a risk that people see The Factory and think, “That’s interesting, but it has nothing to do with me”?
Lafarge proves there have been interventions by Western or foreign capital in the burning of a country. In the last three years or so, we’ve started to think about the Syrian dilemma as part of a political degradation across the globe. You have the rise of the right wing and fascism; stronger calls for isolationism, crazy leaders from the U.S. to Russia to Turkey and Saudi Arabia. For me, Syria is a mirror for these dark times. And Syria is not only the problem of the Syrians.
How do you feel in Berlin? After three years living in a foreign country, some people start to redefine what they think of as home.
When you are displaced, it’s a different experience from that of expats because you didn’t choose to be here willingly. I knew Berlin before I moved here because I’d been here for work. I like the city, but I never wanted to live here and this makes a big difference.
How has the dismissal of Chris Dercon affected your work?
It’s unfortunate to work for the second year in a row under this kind of political and ideological debate. Last year, the spotlight was on appointing Chris; this year it’s on dismissing Chris. We would have loved to work under normal conditions where discussions were focused on the productions themselves. I’m not a Berliner, so I cannot claim to know how sensitive this issue is for many people here. But I just hope this will not lead to a counterargument that closes big cultural institutions off to new generations or to mixed cultural experiences. Berlin is a cosmopolitan city and is changing a lot.
The Factory, Sep 27, 29, Oct 6, 14, 19, 19:30 (Arabic with German and English surtitles) | Volksbühne, Mitte