For the first time in its history, the Lincoln Centre Festival stages a Syrian play

While I was Waiting focuses on an ordinary middle-class Syrian family and how they are coping with the civil war, life under the ruling regime of Bashar Al Assad and the threat of ISIL.

Reham Kassar performs on stage in While I Was Waiting. Courtesy Stavros Habakis
Reham Kassar performs on stage in While I Was Waiting. Courtesy Stavros Habakis

When the cast of While I Was Waiting takes to the stage at the Lincoln Centre Festival in New York on Wednesday, it will be the first time a Syrian play has been part of the event’s proceedings in its 21-year history, and something of a minor miracle.

Obtaining visas to enter the United States from Syria has become increasingly difficult as a result of US president Donald Trump’s restrictions on travel. But the challenges are perhaps a sign that staging such a work anywhere, especially in the US, is more essential than ever.

While I was Waiting focuses on an ordinary middle-class Syrian family and how they are coping with the civil war, life under the ruling regime of Bashar Al Assad and the threat of ISIL.

The play centres around Taim, a young man who finds himself in a coma in hospital after being badly beaten at a checkpoint in Damascus.

We see Taim standing separated from his unconscious body, watching his family avoid or confront uncomfortable truths about their lives.

Taim’s condition is a metaphor for how people are living in Syria, says playwright

Mohammad Al Attar.

“Neither alive nor dead, this grey zone somewhere between hope and despair”, is how he describes it in his programme notes.

Speaking to The National on the phone from Berlin, Al Attar says he wanted to focus on an individual family because he felt it would be a more effective way of humanising Syrians.

“You tend to think about those people that you see through reports in the media as characters, not as human beings,” he says.

“You see fighters, orphans, refugees, they are categories. Sometimes it comes with good intentions, but you do not see them as people who do bad things, who lie, who love, people who can have fun, and these kind of things are important.”

He goes on to say that “if you are missing these parts you are not able to communicate with the problem”.

“You are not even able to understand what is going on there … you will not understand how come this situation arrives.

“I’m not saying the play will answer all these questions but by trying to focus on one family you see that Syrians are much closer to you than you think.”

Hanan Chkir, Nanda Mohammad and Reham Kassar in While I Was Waiting. Courtesy Yasuo Inokum

For 27-year-old Syrian actor Mohamad Alrifei, who plays Taim, the play provides an opportunity to do something even more straightforward – speak his mind freely.

“We can’t say our opinion in Syria, even if we’re sitting down with friends because it’s risky,” he says.

“If somebody calls the police they come and arrest you. Inside the play I feel like I’m giving my opinion, so for me I’m enjoying this.”

While I Was Waiting premiered at the Kunsten Festival in Brussels in May last year and has been touring since. It won the ZKB Patronage Prize in Zurich, with the judges calling it “historically urgent” in the context of the crisis in Syria. The play was also selected for the 70th edition of Festival d’Avignon in France.

Waiting was a collaboration between Al Attar and Omar Abusaada, a director and close friend, who is directing the New York production.

The idea came to Abusaada two years ago when he heard about a friend of his who went through an ordeal identical to Taim and died after spending two months in a coma, the director says.

He visited the friend and met other people who had gone through similar experiences and then took his material to Al Attar who penned the play.

Abusaada, 40, splits his time between Berlin and Damascus. About three years ago in Syria, people began feeling that anything could happen to them when they were walking in the streets, he says.

“From that point, the whole concept of life and death started to change,” he says. “I started to feel myself walking a very thin line between life and death most of the time. I wanted to present this concept in my work. I want to explore the whole idea by theatre.”

The narrative takes place between late-2015 and late-2016 and parallel events that were happening in Syria at the time.

Taim remains on stage for the duration, blurring the boundaries between reality and dreams as the wider situation deteriorates around him.

[Missing Caption]

“This was one of the many questions for me about the coma; when you visit somebody who is in a coma, you think about if he is feeling what is happening, is he listening to us,” says Abusaada.

“You don’t know exactly what he is feeling. For this reason I put Taim on the stage all the time because I think he can see, listen and feel what is happening – but he can’t react to what’s happening around [him]. Somehow this was very similar to a lot of young Syrian activists who participated in the revolution in 2011; most of them were very effective in the first two years and later started to feel out of the real decisions as they couldn’t do anything. They can see and observe but they can’t do any reactions.”

Abusaada seems content to let the spotlight fall on Al Attar, 36, who has been called one of the most talented playwrights of his generation. He studied literature at Damascus University before taking applied drama at Goldsmith’s, University in London.

His works include his 2012 play Could You Please Look into the Camera? which was staged for one night in Beirut and which dealt with claims of torture by the Assad regime.

The play’s subject matter also explains why Al Attar lives in Germany, where he has been granted asylum due to concerns for his safety.

Nigel Redden, director of the Lincoln Centre Festival says he first saw Waiting in Paris nine months ago.

“Syria is something we read about and have no visceral feel for,” says Redden. “It’s hard to get a sense of turmoil in the lives of people who come from very similar backgrounds – middle-class – and in the middle of this extraordinary maelstrom. The one thing theatre does, with due respect to journalists, it makes it vividly present in front of you when you see the people to whom this is happening.”

While I Was Waiting will be staged from July 19 to 22 at the Lincoln Centre Festival. For more information go to

Published: July 17, 2017 10:05 AM


Editor's Picks
Sign up to:

* Please select one