by Yana Meerzon*
This dialogue between a Syrian theatre director, Ayham Majid Agha, who is currently residing in Berlin, and a theatre scholar, Yana Meerzon, focuses on the challenges and advantages of working in the multilingual performance context of a cosmopolitan metropolis such as Berlin. The artist discusses the notions of encounter and care as leading mechanisms of communication that such a multilingual and multicultural environment presuppose.
Keywords: Exil Ensemble, Maxim Gorki Theatre, Heiner Müller
Ayham Majid Agha is a Syrian theatre maker currently living in Berlin. He was trained as an actor at the Academy of Performing Arts in Damascus. After a successful career at home, including his work as a member of Theatre Studio and as a teacher, Ayham left Syria. He has been affiliated with Maxim Gorki Theatre since 2016, when he participated in their iconic production about Middle Eastern politics and migration, The Situation.
A member of the Exil Ensemble, also hosted by Maxim Gorki Theatre, Ayham participated in developing and producing the 2016 Winterreise (Winter Journey) رحلة الشتاء , together with Yael Ronen. His play Skelett eines Elefanten in der Wüste premiered in the 2017/18 season at the Studio Я of Maxim Gorki Theatre. In 2018, Ayham took part in the staging of Die Hamletmaschine, based on Heiner Müller’s masterpiece. To this work, directed by Sebastian Nübling, Ayham contributed both as a writer and as an actor. The present dialogue took place in Berlin on June 20, 2018.
What was your journey to the West, Ayham? And what is your experience with multilingualism?
As a theatre artist, I have been traveling to the West since 2007. But after 2011, my life changed drastically. I left Syria because of the war and now my family, my wife Olga Grjasnowa, an immigrant writer, and my two children, live here in Berlin. My family is already a multilingual “theatre.” At home, we speak four languages: Arabic, German, Russian and English. I am lucky that way, I escaped. But when it comes to my relationships with the past, it is very complicated. I cannot remember how my city looks. I can only imagine it, as there is nothing left to see. So, even if I wanted to go back, there is nothing for me. I have only fragments of memory, short sentences and flickering images.
I can relate to this experience too, Ayham. Of course, my native city of Moscow was not destroyed, but time has changed it so unrecognizably that I also feel there is nothing for me to return to. I think theatre and creative work can become these places of refuge and memory.
Exil Ensemble started like that. The name and the idea come from Brecht, his work in Switzerland, when he was in exile. Brecht’s theatre was political, and we knew ours was to be political too. We imagined it as a space for exilic professional theatre makers to work together. For us, exile defines both the artist-migrants who had to move into another country and those who found themselves in internal exile in their own countries, like the Russian director, Kirill Serebrennikov, who is now under house arrest and cannot practice theatre. As a theatre artist who has escaped to safety and is free now, I feel a responsibility to others to create an opportunity for them to work professionally again, to continue to better their skills.
How do you define the term post-migrant theatre? And at what moment does one become a post-migrant?
I don’t like this term and I don’t believe in it. I am a refugee from Syria who lives in Germany. I will never become “a German” in my entire life. But Maxim Gorki Theatre works under this title, as it is a company dedicated to presenting the work of migrant artists. Before, it was very difficult to find a venue like that, to work in many languages. We could only act in German. But if you are a professional artist, you should be treated like that, not like an immigrant or a refugee who wants to tell their story.
Your opinion resonates with many artists in exile that I have talked to, both in Europe and in Canada. Many of them think of the rehearsal hall or the dance studio as their only home country, a place where they belong. Theatre—or rather doing theatre professionally—becomes this metaphor for home that can be transported from place to place and be rebuilt again and again in a new language or culture. This idea, however, does not sit well with funding or other bureaucratic institutions.
The problem is the bureaucratic language that we need to use when it comes to grant applications. Very often, the funds are made available because the work focuses on migration and promises to bring real refugees on stage, not because they are professionally trained artists. I don’t think it is a good idea. As theatre artists, we’re not really trained to help people to deal with their trauma; they need professional help that they are often denied, so, suddenly, theatre becomes this place for psychological recuperation.
The other problem is that if we don’t support professional artists in exile, in many countries, like Syria, the skill of theatre-making will be lost. We have already lost many artists and art works because of the war; now, in exile, we continue destroying these artistic traditions, because we don’t provide them with enough support. This is the responsibility of the state—to support the exilic artists who already have skills in making art and who should continue developing them. That is why Exil Ensemble was imagined as a special platform for professional artists who are migrants to do their work.
Our first project was Winterreise—a collectively devised road play. The company took a trip through ten German cities and Zurich to visit the archive of Brecht’s Exil Ensemble. After that, we staged my play Skelett eines Elefanten in der Wüste and a set of improvisations based on Alice in Wonderland. In February 2018, we produced Die Hamletmaschine (with Maryam Abu Khaled, Mazen Aljubbeh, Hussein Al Shateli, Karim Daoud, Tahera Hashemi and Kenda Hmeidan) and, in April 2018, Kharm’s Elizaveta Bam.
What is the unifying artistic idea that defines these projects?
It is always about negotiating past and present. We know and always remember that we are coming from a different place. In Heiner Müller’s short sentences, there is the knowledge of many generations and literatures; his play presents the soul of the German people in 1977, one of its darker periods. Müller asks an important question of how to be an intellectual in his time.
In the play, you speak as Hamlet and call yourself “the third clown of the Arab Spring”:
I am the third clown of the Arab Spring. / Surviving does not mean living. My friends and I, we died eight times, yet we survived. / At the same time, the old dictator lived the last eight years of this life despite actually being dead. Dying is the edge of death. / We dug for the dead, we buried them and bade them farewell. But we survivors died without having been given the calm of a grave. The dead beneath the earth belong to the future because only those who rest in a grave will be reborn. We, however, live as the unburied dead without a future and without a past. Give us our weapons, our daily war and our chests full of bullets. Amen.(Agha 16)
How did you arrive at these images?
This was inspired by Müller. The first clown is Shakespeare’s fool, the second is Müller’s, as his text is full of quotations from Shakespeare and other classical texts, the third clown is me.
I find this connection very fruitful. You did not adapt or rewrite Müller’s text; you attempted to put a layer of new historical reality onto the existing canvas. This gesture made this production multi-dimensional and very urgent.
And this is my point. As an artist, whether a refugee or a migrant, I feel a responsibility to be in dialogue with the great minds of world literature, not to fall into the traps of identity theatre. For Exil Ensemble, it has always been my goal to produce the repertoire. So, if I want to tell my own story, I will use the work of Brecht, Müller or Turgenev. I will use Müller’s text to talk about women’s fate during the war, about my aunt, who was a twin to my father and who died because she was a woman and she could not escape. Now, I am adapting the Gilgamesh myth, as politics and history are deeply intertwined, they come together, hand in hand.
Berlin is of course a city where you feel this sense of historical urgency—there is the Jewish history, the Berlin Wall history, the history of a current refugee crisis …
And yet, theatre producers often refuse to notice it. They talk about the expectations of the audience, their need for entertainment. To me, this is a form of artistic cheating—to give the audience what they expect. Theatre must surprise and provoke, not give people what they already know. In Berlin, there are cemeteries from many wars, way before today’s migration. These are the sites of interrupted lives that I dig into. Politicians and funding will change; human nature will not, and so artists must work on universal themes. Working on Müller’s material was ideal for me—I was very cautious and grateful for this opportunity to dialogue with his text. I could only offer a historical frame to bring this icon closer to our own time.
I call this approach “dramaturgy of encounter”; when you place different texts in different languages next to each other and make audiences seek the connections between them.
The dramaturg Ludwig Haugk was very helpful in this process. He had the courage to accept the challenge of shaking Müller’s text from within. In our text, there is Müller’s German,Ophelia speaks in Farsi, and when we improvise, we speak English. My inserts are in Arabic; I call them “AyHamlet.” It is my personal call to Heiner Müller, and it must be done in my mother tongue.
And then the entire show is surtitled in English. What is this gesture? Catering to tourists?
This is a gesture of hospitality, our desire to communicate with others. Most of the audience in Berlin doesn’t speak German; it is a phenomenon of a city in which three million people speak international English. Members of the Exil Ensemble are either migrants or international workers, so they need help in translation too. But I prefer to speak Arabic on stage.
So, such multilingualism becomes a signifier of today’s history, when moving from place to place and speaking many languages can estrange people but can also give them a false sense of equality.
Equality is a difficult idea. As a Syrian actor I should speak in Arabic to feel equal, but my audience is here, so I must switch into German. I also speak English and believe in the diversity of identities and languages, as my own identity is multiplied. My family is from Dagestan, but they moved to Armenia, then to Syria and now I’m in Berlin, and all this because of ethnic wars and religious conflicts. Politicians use words to make people accomplices in the genocides they create; they make us bystanders to injustice. We approve violence by simply not protesting it. As an artist, I cannot keep silent and I must speak against this violence, but I also want to use great works of the past, like Heiner Müller’s, to address today’s issues.
This brings me back to the question of language: is theatrical multilingualism already a political statement?
I grew up in an area where people spoke many languages: Kurdish, Armenian, Arabic, Turkish and many others. I am used to that, and I speak three dead languages. For me, multilingualism is not political. I publish in German now, but my Arabic is broken, as I’m writing for translators, constructing my Arabic sentences to help those translating them into German or English.
Does this mean that you imagine how your sentences might sound in another language while writing in Arabic? Is this a form of self-censorship?
Not really, because language comes with the context. If you’re writing about cold weather, your reader can only imagine what he or she knows about it, so you need to be careful about what words and adjectives you use. When I write my texts in Arabic and know that they will be translated into German or English, I make my sentences shorter. In theatre, when we use surtitles, they become a separate character that you need to think about from the very beginning. Actors used to pay no attention to the surtitles, but, for me, translation is not an added feature of the show; it is a character. As a writer, I must think of the audience, who should be able to follow the text. But reading cannot take longer than acting, because the actor’s work is as important as the text.
In Die Hamletmaschine, this was very clear: German and Arabic texts were projected on the transparent screen centre stage and the English surtitles appeared on the sides. We had no troubles following the action.
Translation is our way of taking care of the audience, of showing them that, in our violent world, there can be a space of safety. In theatre, translation creates this space of safety; it invites the audience into the action, it allows dialogue to take place. So, if I know that we will use surtitles, I will create a dialogue between them and the actors. I would also place surtitles centre stage to give the audience a chance to read the text and to follow the action at the same time. Sometimes, we add movement: the text and the action overlap and create conflict.
I noticed this. As you were reciting your monologue in Arabic, you kept still and spoke slowly. This gave me a chance to read the surtitles and follow your actions. But, often, people don’t think this way, so the audience is forced to choose between watching the actors and reading. This creates a strange sense of disconnection.
This is the primary challenge of working in a multilingual context. We need to be more patient. We need to remember that the audience does not speak all our languages, and hence we should adapt to their pace, be more hospitable toward them. When they get used to watching a play with surtitles, when they become more familiar with this foreign language, we can start to speak more quickly. But when it comes as a surprise that the actor speaks Arabic, we need to wait for audience to adjust. We need to be more tolerant.
Should we say that multilingualism demands new methods of acting?
Not new methods but new work on rhythm. We use multitasking on a daily basis. It has prepared us for dealing with theatre surtitles, so we adapt for this new rhythm of reception very quickly. Ludwig Haug was very conscious of this. He introduced the cuts and worked on the montage of language sequences, asking how these changes and juxtapositions would influence the levels of reception. For me, as a writer, it was very important through these cuts and changes to find the two histories of the text: one of Heiner Müller and one of our time. We used Müller’s words, such as “revolution” or “guns,” and phrases like “a cocaine on her lips” to speak about our reality. In the original, these phrases were abstract images; today, they have become very concrete.
The play begins with an image of Europe in ruins; the image that invites a politically urgent interpretation and speaks to the uncertainty of today, the way Europe is trying to re-imagine itself as a culture of hospitality but also of genocides. Your own history, as someone who witnessed destruction firsthand, makes Die Hamletmaschine very concrete.
The original DieHamletmaschine was informed by Müller’s own biography; so, when I am working with this material, I feel a need to bring myself into it. This way the play remains open for interpretations, for other perspectives. I see my work as co-writing, creating a dialogue with the past. Because of my family name, accent and looks, and the languages I speak, I am often invited to play Syrian or Arabic refugees; or prepare cultural parties with authentic food and music. It has become a cliché, exploiting a stereotype. I’m very grateful for the safety that Germany has given me, but I cannot assume the role of a victim. To expect me to speak only as a Syrian refugee is another form of colonialism. When I talk about myself, I talk as someone tightly connected to the history of my people and my land. For that, I need the text of Heiner Müller.
Ayham speaks in Arabic, while German and English translations are projected on stage:
Dear Ophelia,(Agha 19)
At noon on the 3rd of February, my drama took place in Damascus in front of the houses of parliament. I stood alone on the square like a spot of light searching for the demonstration that had been announced.
A security official, in a suit as dark as the night, instructed me to go to the car park and to sit in the red car, the car with its doors open.
In that car, I confessed everything they wanted to hear. I reported of “computers”, of “secret locations” and of “foreign secret services”. I performed the show they wanted to see.
My drama took place before the first bullet was shot at demonstrators, before the masses were stood at the windows of their homes and followed a war on their screens, as if it were far away.
Berlin is a harbour city on a sea of blood that reaches as far as Damascus. I have begun digging a hole on Alexanderplatz. Perhaps it will be a grave, perhaps a tunnel under the sea.
As long as this machine belongs to him, your Hamlet.
Agence France-Presse. “Renowned Russian Director Serebrennikov Freed from House Arrest.” The Guardian, 8 Apr. 2019. Accessed 13 May 2019.
Agha, Ayham Majid. Die Hamletmaschine, 2018. Unpublished
 On April 8, 2019, a Moscow city court ended Serebrennikov’s house arrest that began in August 2017. At the moment, Serebrennikov is allowed to work in his theatre as long as he stays in Moscow. (Agence France-Presse)
*Yana Meerzon is Professor at the University of Ottawa. She has published on theatre of exile and migration, cultural and interdisciplinary studies. Her books include A Path of the Character: Michael Chekhov’s Inspired Acting and Theatre Semiotics (2005) and Performing Exile – Performing Self: Drama, Theatre, Film (Palgrave 2012). She has also co-edited several book collections and special issues of journals on these topics. As of this issue of Critical Stages, Yana is the editor of the journal’s “Essay Section” (www.critical-stages.org).