Despite the ongoing civil war which has resulted in more than half the population displaced, a Syrian performance troupe named Saraqeb Youth Group continues to thrive in a small Northwestern town in Syria. The theatre company, named after the town of Saraqeb, encompasses an all volunteer troupe of local actors. Fans say that they find the satirical plays cathartic. “What makes it special is that they are dealing with sad topics like bombing and bloodshed and war — tragic topics — and at the same time they are presenting it in a satirical fashion,” says Hilal, a theatre enthusiast. “We laugh and cry at the same time.”
The troupe was founded in 2006, five years before the start of the war. Founders Ahmad Khatab and Walid Abu Rashid were then artistic teenagers — Khatab played the oud (a stringed instrument used in traditional Arabic music) and Abu Rashid had dreams of becoming an actor. The teens, along with some friends, began writing and performing short satirical plays, with President Assad often at the receiving end of the joke.
Early in the war, the town of Saraqeb was at the center of anti-government protests. Khatab was arrested by security forces and later released. Performances continued throughout the war though were often interrupted by the sound of planes overhead — the audience and performers often having to run for cover. Tragically, two original members of the group were killed during this time, a third joining the exodus of Syrians fleeing the country. In one performance, a grenade was thrown onto the stage – luckily it didn’t explode and no one was hurt.
The latest cease-fire agreement between the government and the rebel groups has recently calmed down the situation in Saraqeb (though rebel factions are still said to be fighting). Despite the horrors of war, troupe members say there was never a question whether they would continue performing. “We believe in the power of the word,” says Khatab. “A rifle or a weapon can liberate a place, but the word can liberate the mind.”