Damascus // In the down-at-heel backstage area of the Ramita Theatre in Damascus, the actor Humam Hout smokes a cigarette, passing the time until the curtain comes up once again on his biting political satire. The play, Academic Corruption, has been showing to packed audiences nationwide for more than 10 months. Deliberately unsubtle and unashamedly aimed at ordinary working-class Syrians, it throws a harsh spotlight on some of the country's internal problems.
"We criticise the security apparatus, big business, bribery, corruption of the judiciary, customs corruption, low salaries, high inflation, corruption in culture and journalism and academic corruption," explained Hout, one of Syria's most recognisable theatre actors and directors. "I intend it as a warning to us all, that we should not let domestic corruption ruin us." At almost four hours from start to finish - a length that has not put off thousands of viewers - the play has plenty of time and space in which to make its point.
A key part of the plot centres around the collapse of a building in a poor area of town, killing and wounding hundreds, a comment on Syria's vast network of shabby illegal housing. Angry residents begin to complain about government mismanagement but, confronted by secret police officers, they change their criticisms into over-the-top testimonies of praise for the wisdom and generosity of the authorities.
"It has been successful because we have our fingers on the pulse of people's lives and their problems," Hout said in an interview. "We don't have lavish stage sets or scantily dressed dancing women. What we have is a script that ordinary people can connect with." Previous satires by Hout's troupe of actors have been far less critical of domestic issues, looking instead at wider regional concerns including the failure of the Arab-Israeli peace process and Washington's reviled foreign policies.
The shift of focus in this latest work has come about as a result of Damascus's improved political standing on the world stage. "Between 2003 and 2009, Syria was under pressure from the US, from Europe and the so-called moderate Arab countries," Hout, 51, said. "I didn't want to be like a dagger in my country's back. Now the external pressures have eased up, I am looking at domestic issues." The outspoken nature of Academic Corruption has prompted rumours that it has been co-opted by the government, designed as a way of harmlessly defusing the tensions festering int he country without actually bringing about changes to society; a management strategy the Syrian authorities have long been said to deploy by their critics.
That the president, Bashar Assad, attended one of Hout's previous plays - government ministers have also watched Academic Corruption - has done little to stem the whispers. Hout laughed off suggestions he was in league with the authorities, saying he was protected from censure by a mixture of his own fame, confusion among officials - each of whom assumed he had more powerful friends than was really the case - and an easing of restrictions on freedom of speech.
"The government has launched a campaign against corruption, so it wouldn't look good if I was arrested for criticising that same corruption," he said. "But I did have some senior ministers here and they were shocked by how outspoken we were. They asked me: 'Who allows you to say these things?' "The truth is that in the 1990s if you did something like this, the police would arrest you, give you a lesson and stop your work. Today if someone tries to block your show, you can put out a recording of it on the internet and it would be everywhere in 24 hours, so there's just no use in trying to stop things." Although he is trying to inspire domestic reforms, Hout said he doubted the play could prompt the changes he wanted to see.
"This one play will not change everything," he said. "But we hope it will lead to other dramas, that journalists will talk about it, that public opinion will then form against corruption. But in Syria we cannot achieve that goal because Syrian artists are either afraid of the regime or take money from the regime not to talk. The same is true of journalists and TV producers." There is, in the final acts of the play, heavy criticism of Washington and an attempt to ram home the message that, among most Arabs, groups such as Hamas and Hizbollah are considered legitimate resistance movements, not terrorist organisations as they are classified by the United States and Israel.
"For 80 per cent of the script, we are talking about domestic corruption, but 20 per cent must look at the United States government and their history," Hout said. "The Americans stand behind the corruption in the Middle East; it is their policies that support dictatorships in the region. They are therefore the root cause." Academic Corruption has been frowned on by members of Syria's cultural elite, who dislike its common touch and its naked appeal to the masses. Hout dismissed such criticism as absurd snobbery.
"The cultural elite in Syria used to be so concerned with high Russian dramas that directors would carry an umbrella in Damascus during the summer if it was raining in Moscow," he said. "The cultural elite appeal to 3 per cent of the population and see the other 97 per cent as ignorant, illiterate savages. "Well I say let them, I'm with the 97 per cent." @Email:email@example.com