Freemen of the City of London famously enjoy the right to drive a herd of goats or sheep across its bridges. In Syria, where Liwaa Yazji grew up, goat herding is still a familiar sight. So there is something fitting that her new play opens on stage in the Royal Court this month with eight live animals.
Goats is a landmark attempt by the 40-year-old playwright to interpret the conflict that has swept her homeland since 2011. Over time, violence is reduced to a series of images of death and destruction. Yazji has sought to tackle the fundamental question of what impelled the uprising in the first place.
As with Anton Chekhov, Brian Friel, and countless others, she looks at her homeland through the prism of a village. The premise of the play is that as the coffins of conscripts arrive in the area the Baath Party mayor serves up the platitudes of patriotism. The power of words fades as the coffins pile up and the apparatchik decides on a scheme to hand out goats for each son martyred. The goats serve in lieu of the truth.
“I became interested in following how surreal things can get,” Yazji says. “How far they can go?
“In a totalitarian atmosphere it is about how much each person has to lose to pursue their views. We are all under the big umbrella and accept that everything is related to everything else. But these people have nothing to lose. When they have lost a son, they want to know how he died.
“Dying for the nation is very important. They want a clear answer. What is the compensation for?”
The theme of the play is that war is generational. It exposes the silence of the elders who participated in the previous uprising in the early 1980s.
“I believe that a piece of art enlightens,” she says. “It deserves to be read or to be seen, not banned. It might be useful even if you don’t agree with me.”
The playwright views events through the perspective of the roiling turmoil that has spread much further than the Middle East. She now lives in Germany, not as a refugee, but as a documentary maker who is looking at those Syrians who are forging a new life there.
“I look at Germany, indeed, the world, through the prism of what has happened in Syria,” she says. “There is stranger danger everywhere. And just look at what that creates.
“Look at (Donald) Trump, isn’t he surreal? And it’s not just America. In Germany during the election, I saw one election poster with a pregnant woman and the slogan ‘Real Germans start here’. I had to ask people is this really normal in this country?
“Of course not, but there is a severe situation and people are not really talking about it.”
While not banned from travel to her homeland – as far as she knows – her visits back to see her mother, a doctor, are now infrequent. Damascus, one feels, is a project she will one day tackle. State of siege or not.
The setting of the play is based on villages Yazji knows well. It provides the insight into relationships in the small places that she wanted to explore. "It's not somewhere in particular but there are copies of these communities in different ethnic areas of Syria," she says.
“There are the same tactics between the generations, the people who had experienced the first time in 1982 and then see the new generation paying the same price.”
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Goats also serves a purpose that the daily journalism that emerges from Syria cannot fully exploit. Seeing past the image of the dead infant on the beach or the battle-scarred city landscape becomes impossible at this point. Often it falls to the playwright to explore the origins of the war and the trials faced by those trying cope in a time of turmoil.
“I don’t want to overload people with guilt, to make them feel pathetic or go home as if they have just watched TV,” says Yazji. “I want them to ask more questions about the past and see the story doesn’t start here.
“History gives us the lesson that war creates the facts on the ground in Syria. It is a pattern that swallows everything.”
Goats runs at the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, London, from this Friday until December 30 (royalcourttheatre.com)