Syrian dramatist, human rights activist, Scholar at Risk gives lecture on campus

By Clarissa Grunwald, staff writer ||

Last Thursday, in the keynote address of International Women’s Week, entitled “Theatre for Social Justice in Syria,” Naila Al Atrash, Syrian theater director and human rights activist, discussed women’s rights, the Arab world, and the importance of the arts, last Thursday. The talk was sponsored by the Alice Drum Women’s Center and the International Studies program.

Al Atrash is visiting the College through the Scholars at Risk (SAR) program, an international organization that provides aid to scholars who face censorship or discrimination in their home countries. She is the first SAR scholar F&M will host following the College’s renewal of the program last Fall.

SAR organizes events and creates networks of interested colleges and universities around the world that are willing to host scholars who have been forced into exile. Faculty, staff, and students compose F&M’s SAR chapter, which is chaired by Mikaela Luttrell-Rowland, director of the  Women’s Center.

“Naila Al Atrash’s visit shines a very personal and human spotlight on a troubled country,” said Lisa Gasbarrone, professor of French and chair of the International Studies program. “Her focus on women in the arts, particularly the theater, in [Syria] will be of interest to multiple groups on campus: students in [women’s and gender studies], international studies, and theater, among others.

Born in Syria, Al Atrash became interested in activism as a teenager. As a Syrian theater director, she became known for her challenging plays, which explored society, economics, and politics.

“It is fitting for our first SAR scholar, Naila Al Atrash, to visit campus during International Women’s Week and to remind our community of the importance of human rights work and academic freedom both here and abroad,” Luttrell-Rowland said in the article “Scholar at Risk Naila Al Atrash to Give Talk at F&M’s International Women’s Week” on the College’s news website.

In the 1970s, after directing the play The Slaves’ Night by Mamduh Duwan, Al Atrash was officially forbidden from directing more plays, as the play explored the Arab world both before and after the rise of Islam and was interpreted as an attack on religion by the Syrian government. She acted in cinema for some time afterward and eventually began working as a drama coach at the new Damascus Higher Institute for Music and Theatre (DHIMT).

However, after years of directing, acting, teaching, and activism, pressures in Syria became too strong and Al Atrash was forced to leave in exile.

During her talk, hosted in the Schnader Theater within the Roschel Performing Arts Center, Al Atrash discussed the difficult decision to leave her country and the struggles of her exile in America. Even as she was preparing to escape Syria, Al Atrash recalls feeling guilty about leaving so many loved ones behind. Arriving in the U.S, she felt out-of-place among her American students, most of whom had never been affected by the struggles in Syria. This feeling of displacement, along with the ever-present guilt of her exile, made it difficult for her to work, and her focus on the theater decreased. The stage, which had once been her life, now seemed unimportant to her.

But in actuality, Al Atrash concluded in the talk, difficult times make theater and the arts more important than ever. Through the arts, people living under oppressive regimes can find hope, and those living in freedom can visualize and empathize with the lives that these people lead. While she made a difference in the lives of Syrians while living in Syria, she hopes she can make an even greater difference abroad.

“A stray sound outside a country can be better than a few voices under the oppression within,” Al Atrash said.

Following her lecture, Al Atrash attended a public reception in Weis College House; additionally, she met with students from the class “Acting for Social Change” taught by Carol Davis, professor of theatre, where she discussed the intersection of theatre and human rights.

The international nature of Al Atrash’s activism gives an alternate perspective on both women’s rights and Syrian politics.

“Speakers of different nationalities share on-the-ground experiences of places that many of us will never have a chance to visit,” Gasbarrone said. “Without speakers from abroad, we hear only American voices on these issues, and that limits our perspective and our understanding to an American filter.”

First-year Clarissa Grunwald is a staff writer. Her email is cgrunwal@fandm.edu.

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