Create Syria: Ossama’s story

This is part of a series of stories we are featuring from artists involved in Create Syria – our project with the British Council and the independent cultural organisation Ettijahat - Independent Culture that empowers Syrian artists in exile to build resilience between refugees and communities across Lebanon.

"I constantly ask myself: why should I do arts and how important are the arts in this climate?" said Ossama Halal, theatre director and actor.

What prompted Ossama’s self-questioning was the fact that many of the conflict-affected communities in Syria still need basic humanitarian assistance.

"What does it change or mean when you offer arts to people who have no electricity, water?" Ossama continued.

For Ossama, the answer lies in working in and with the street. For him, the arts should not be limited to the elite, which was the case in Syria before the uprising-turned-conflict started in 2011: "We are performing for the street and our themes are taken from streets."

In order to further explain the value of arts in conflict-affected communities Ossama cited the Italian theatre director Eugenio Barba describing the necessity of art: In the Greek myth, Antigone defies the royal order that prevents the burial of her brother. Feeling helpless but defiant, she throws a handful of dust on her brother’s corpse, signifying a symbolic burial.

"Like Antigone, we are also throwing a handful of dust as a symbolic ritual. For us, theatre is a symbolic ritual that we fill with questions," Ossama explained, stressing that all Syrians can play a positive role during conflict, be they doctors, blacksmiths or artists.

Before leaving Syria in 2013 and moving to Beirut, Ossama was a popular actor and theatre director in his home country. He starred in many television series including Bab al-Hara, one of the most popular television series in the Arab world, loved by people of all ages, religions and ethnicities.

The Syrian soap opera is set in Damascus and addresses Syrian social history and traditions.

Ossama also founded Koon Theatre Group and directed Syria’s first street performance. The group consists of independent artists from diverse artistic backgrounds. Its members include dancers, singers and theatre performers.

Living in Lebanon, Ossama and the group of artists teamed up to create a theatre space for creativity, hope and imagination in the midst of despair. They performed their recent play: Above Zero. "The performance Above Zero talked about war and fear. It applies to anyone who may have experienced war, anywhere," Ossama said.

Scenes from 'Aboze Zero' by Koon Theatre Group.

While Ossama and his group of artists have managed to keep performing and working in a challenging environment, the journey has not been plain-sailing. Challenges include limited funding and resources. These are needed in order to continue to produce high quality arts in displacement. "I hope that we can perform and train continuously, without having to wait for a new funding opportunity to start a new programme," Ossama said, highlighting the challenge of sustainability for theatre work in Beirut.

Indeed, the need to build capacity to sustain the work was Ossama’s main reason for taking part in the Create Syria capacity development training.

"Create Syria has created a positive environment and enabled us to institutionalise Koon," Ossama said. He added that the training brought other practitioners together and created an opportunity for networking. "It is nice to meet like-minded people. You also see the project turning from an idea to a proposal to reality."

Ossama and his group are currently working on a capacity development ‘train the trainer’ programme, where participants form local communities learn technical skills.

"The aim is to widen the circle of theatre work and the creation of theatre," Osama explained.

He added that by supporting local artists to become trainers themselves, the theatre work becomes more sustainable and has wider community impact.

While appreciating the ‘on and off’ support his theatre group receives, Ossama hopes that he can sustain his work in the arts in the long run. "Theatre work is difficult. I hope we can train and create without being harassed by state censorship," Ossama said, explaining the sensitivity of creating free performances where current issues are publically talked about and often critiqued.

Keeping calm and carrying on, Ossama’s hopes for the future of Syria and the wider world is that the war stops as soon as possible and that peace is established not only within Syria but beyond: "I hope that there will be real peace between –us, human beings."

Ossama's work and story, along with other Create Syria artists, will be showcased at our exhibition in London from 22 September - 2 October 2016. Find out more: talkingpeacefestival.org/create-syria

Photo and video: © Johnny Abed/ International Alert