When Empathy Isn’t Enough

What it’s like to follow your dreams in Damascus

An Interview with Hoor Malas

Hoor Malas lives and works in Damascus, Syria as an exceptionally talented and inspiring dancer, choreographer and teacher. A few days ago I was able to catch up with her over Skype while she was at home. She lives with her husband Ibrahim and is involved in many projects as a choreographer and dancer both in Syria and internationally. She also works as a dance teacher at the Higher Institute for Dramatic Arts in Damascus.

We met this past April at the Beirut International Platform Of Dance (Bipod) Festival. Actually, we met in the back of a mini bus that took our dance crew from Beirut to the Chouf region, deep the Lebanese mountains, where we were to rehearse for an upcoming performance. My plane touched down not even 12 hours before that moment and all of us were already bouncing to the rhythm of potholes and traffic jam honks in the middle of the morning rush hour craze of Beirut. Inching our way out of the city to get to the studio.

Between the buzzing of the streets and wanting to stare out the window to see Beirut for the first time I introduced myself to Hoor and Sina, two new members of the cast. The dancers and choreographer had all met a couple of days earlier, but being the producer and technician my work was concentrated around the few days prior to the show. “Hi, I’m Christina. I’m from Canada”, “Hi, I’m Hoor. I’m from Syria”. The chit chat went on and there was lots to see out the windows, but wait… what!? Did she just say Syria? That country is in the middle of a war.

Yes. Syria is in the middle of a full-scale civil war. And yes, Hoor is a Damaceane woman, living in Damascus, trying to follow her dreams.

Hoor was very eager to tell me her stories, and I am even more eager to share them with you. But where do we begin?

Performance of “Regression” by Hoor Malas. Photo: Jo Grabowski.

Empathy is the capacity to understand somebody else’s situation from their frame of reference. We use empathy in different ways and for various reasons, for example to relate, acknowledge and comfort.

Empathy plays a crucial role in everything from parenting to healthcare and from politics to journalism. The capacity to see from someone else’s point of view helps us build bridges of understanding and compassion. We also use it in our everyday lives when we casually toss off a “ya know?” at the end of a sentence, often unwittingly, inviting the other to share our perspective. The question is usually answered with a standard “yeah”, or a nod to acknowledge that yes, we get it – even if we really don’t. We do it out of habit, politeness, or both. However, what do we do when we just can’t imagine ourselves in the shoes of someone else?

Hoor Malas

Thankfully, people have many facets to themselves and therefore multiple frames of reference. We can often identify easier to one aspect of someone than another. Let’s call it, common ground. But, when somebody’s frame of reference is too far from your own, their situation needs to be told – from their perspective. When empathy isn’t enough, experiences must be shared.

A dedication to art and dance and the appreciation of a cold beer after a long day are among many frames of reference that Hoor and I share. I know and understand what those worlds are like. What I don’t know however, is what it’s like to live in a country devastated by war. I can try my best to understand what it must be like, but I simply do not know. With the humbleness and immense courage one can only aspire to have, Hoor told me about her life as an artist in Syria. Her stories helped me understand her world and imagine what it’s like.

Christina: When we last saw each other you were performing in Loïc’s piece “SENSES” at the Bipod Festival. You had 4 days to learn the choreography, how was that for you?

Hoor: I enjoyed the performance so much. But it was a total brain fuck, Christina. Sina [another  dancer new to the cast] and I stayed up one day till 12am trying to figure out the paths in the performance. It was crazy. I had to watch the video three times before I could sleep, for 3 days straight, just so I could get it in my head. But, it was really good. It was a lot of fun.

Rehearsal of “SENSES” in an ancient synagogue in Chouf, Lebanon. Choreographer: Loïc Perela. Dancers: Bilal Bachir, Arina Lannoo, Johannes Lindh, Hoor Malas & Sina Saberi

C: Some context: “SENSES” is a critically acclaimed 45-minute performance for five dancers. For the entire time, dancers move constantly along set pathways on the stage, weaving through one another. Running, walking, rolling, giving the illusion that every step and interaction on stage happens by chance, which in fact, couldn’t be further from reality. This complex yet touchingly delicate ‘movement math’ performance was originally created in 2015 over many weeks. Hoor and Sina joined three members of the original cast for the performance in Beirut. They had 4 days to learn the entire performance. They nailed it.

C: When we met in Beirut, it was all about the show. Now that we have a little more time, can you tell me about your background as a dancer?

H: Sure. I started dancing ballet when I was 8 in Damascus. When I was 18, I went to an art academy. The Higher Institute for Dramatic Arts. While I was there, there were lots of international companies coming and giving workshops, the city was very alive. That was how we got introduced to contemporary dance.

Higher Institute for Dramatic Arts in Damascus, Syria. Photo: Hoor Malas

After I graduated in 2007 I went to Leeds, U.K. to the Northern School of Contemporary Dance for one year, where I got a diploma. Then I came back to Damascus and I started a dance company here with a friend of mine. We had a few full-length theatrical performances in our repertoire. We also made quite a few commercial works, like a piece for the opening ceremony of the cinema festival in Damascus. We worked together until 2013, when I left the company. Well, they left. Since the war started, pretty much everybody left. Afterwards, I started to work by myself.

At the beginning of 2016 I applied for an international solo dance competition in Stuttgart with my piece “Regression”. I got in, I went to Stuttgart and I reached the finals. I didn’t win, but it was still a really good experience for me. I did a tour with that solo. Then I went to the Bipod Festival in Beirut in 2016, where I worked with the Alias Dance Company from Geneva. Working with Alias was extended into being invited to be a part of their French tour, together with Charlie Prince, a dancer from Lebanon.

Now I am working on a small video dance project that will be finished soon. I am also part of a physical theatre company Leish Troupe. I am also going to Chouf, Lebanon for a 20-day residency with Charlie, which is again an offshoot of the Bipod Festival.

Since 2009 I have been teaching at the Higher Institute for Dramatic Arts. But, so you know, this is a very short, concise summary.

C: Can you give me a bit of an idea about the dance and arts scene in Damascus?

H: In Damascus, before the war started, we had a number of dance companies. Mostly, the work they did was traditional folk dance combined with modern and ballet. The company that I started with my friend was one of the few that did contemporary dance. Before the war, one of the best art scenes was the music scene. The jazz festival was one of my favourite events in the city. We had lots of bands, lots of venues, lots of vey talented musicians and vocalists working here, but lot of people left. This meant that the symphony also suffered from many people leaving. We also had a visual art community, although it was a bit smaller than the other arts scenes. The acting scene was also heavily affected by the war. But, it’s always the same, most of the older generation of good actors left.

There is so much to tell you to give you the full idea. And, I would like to give you the full image without being biased to one side or the another.

C: Where did your colleagues and peers go?

H: People really scattered. Most people went to Lebanon and a couple of them left in boats to go to Germany. There were also people who went to other European or Middle Eastern countries. There are very few that actually got visas to travel. The people who left with the boats have refugee status, so they cannot come back. Some of the people who left with visas can come back. But I think they don’t want to, that’s the thing. I think that they would just want start a new life.

C: How is the relationship between the people who left and the people who stayed?

H: I think a lot of the people who left were a bit younger. They were still students when they left. That was one part, and then there were the directors of the companies who also left. These people started their own companies elsewhere, some in Dubai or in Qatar and in Doha. But for us, for the people who stayed, it was very hard in the beginning. Of course you miss your friends and colleagues. But in terms of work, that’s when I started working by myself. That’s when I choreographed my first solo. It was a weird phase that we were going through, you know?

C: What do you think is the role of art, especially in times of war?

H: It has so many aspects. First of all, in shitty times like this, people need somewhere to go and see something different, to have a bit of fun. Maybe they want to hear really good music or see a really good play. It is essential for the sanity of the people. It gives a balance. It is a contrast to what is happening outside and it helps keep people going. Life will go on. This is the first thing that comes to mind.

Secondly, I think that we can talk about things that we want to talk about but aren’t talking about. I think it can be a place for revealing secrets, if you want to call it that – a place to talk about the difficult things. You need courage to do that and we artists are known for our craziness and courage. We are just a bit bolder than others. So that’s why I think art has a humanitarian purpose and it’s not only entertainment. We need it. I don’t know how much we can change. But looking back at history people have changed some things with art and theatre, or with a ballet or a symphony. It was possible. And I think we can do that now too, in a different way. Maybe.

C: Can you tell me a little bit about the work you create and where you get inspiration?

Solo – “Regression” for the Stuttgart Solo Dance Competition, 2016 Photo: Jo Grabowski

H: My inspiration is always personal, something that I’ve been through. Sometimes it might be too personal. I think I need to have more courage in the future to talk about more things that could concern a larger number of people.

In the Middle East we have… I don’t want to generalize, but in Syria we have lots of taboos; politics, sex and religion are the main ones. I would like to dig into those a little bit more, just to break them up a bit. I think we have to or else we are not doing anything to develop the dance scene, or the art scene.

Because of the war, everyone wants to talk about the war. I feel that it gets to a point where you get pressured or choked by all the war talk. It’s been almost seven years, that’s a long time. But I think it is important to talk about other issues as well. Mostly they just talk about how many deaths there are; how many houses are ruined; if it is rebels or the government; if you are with the president or against him. At a certain point, I get the feeling that some people don’t care about how the people feel. Or how it makes them feel. I feel that they forget that it is human beings that are affected and emotionally suffering from war, and not only being… They forget the psychological impact of it, on people. That is not to make us sound like we need sympathy – I don’t want that. But, we are all affected in the end. 

C: You said you think it’s important to talk about other issues in your art work. Can you give me an example?

H: One of my students, Fadi Giha, just graduated and made a piece called “Siege” about body image. It was about how we see ourselves versus what reality is. It was a very interesting idea, and I encouraged him a lot. The work was challenging for the audience. Towards the end of the piece the dancers were touching themselves, which for us in Syria, is very courageous and bold. You know what I mean? We haven’t reached the point where we can actually be that free onstage. There are still lots of restrictions.

“Siege” by Fadi Giha. Dancers: Angela al Debis,Mahmoud Touhan, Fadi Giha,Rand Shahda & Lara Bhkssar.  Photo: Luis Atoum.

Body image for me is a very interesting idea. Starting from myself, how I see myself, as a woman and a dancer. And how people see us. The body is something that is very sensitive for Arabs and especially a woman’s body. That’s why, when my student put on this performance, I thought “wow, at least somebody is starting to talk about these things”. I was really proud of him. He actually talked about the things that we didn’t talk about when we were students. He had courage.

C: Do you see it as your responsibility to shed light on these types of topics?

H: Yes. With art, if you don’t arouse a question mark in the audience’s brain, then what are we doing it for? We are not only entertainment. We are supposed to be doing something, changing something. That was a main concern in my head for the past couple of years. We should have done something. I can’t put my finger on what exactly, and I don’t have an answer. But whatever it is, we should be doing it.

C: You say that artists are able to talk about things that other people cannot. Are there topics in Damascus that still cannot be raised?

Performance with Leish Troupe, Damascus. Performers: Hoor Malas, Nawras Othman, Naghan A.K. Maala.

H: Yes, of course. For example. If you want to go on stage and be naked it will not be socially acceptable.

C: What do you mean? What could happen if someone did that?

That’s the thing, nobody has ever tried. There is no law forbidding it so I don’t know what would happen. But the first person that would try would be the black sheep and could probably suffer consequences. It’s still a conservative society. Even though we try to look as open minded and free as possible, there is a big part of society that is still very conservative. But there are also of course people who are really open-minded. And conservatism or open-mindedness doesn’t have to have anything to do with religion.

There are also some taboos in politics that you cannot raise or else you will be hurt, somewhere or somehow. Even though our government tries to send out the image of a being a very liberal and secular government and society.

C: You said earlier that you are curious about body image. How would that play out, if the body is such a sensitive issue? Where is the line between your interests and what cannot be discussed?

H: You know it’s always interesting to actually break one of these ‘red lines’ that society puts around us or religion puts around us. We are very curious to do something that is not accepted. But I think it is always about how we approach these sensitive matters. I think we can somehow get to the people with the right approach. Then we can help each other talk and think about these sensitive issues. If you approach it in the right way, then you won’t just get the automatic reaction “it’s forbidden, you shouldn’t do that.” Having said that, I always think it is good to have a debate after a performance. It means that we reached the audience somehow. And I think we will always get that. But we need to think carefully about the approach in order to reach as many people as possible.

C: What is the reputation of artists in Damascus?

Higher Institute for Dramatic Arts in Damascus, Syria Photo: Hoor Malas

H: There is this image about artists in Syria – that we are free minded, we are crazy, we wear whatever we want, and we do whatever we want. Sometimes we are frowned upon because we all smoke, we all go crazy, and we all drink even though half of us are Muslim. But there are always two sides of the coin. There are also people who look up to us, who see artists as the heartbeat of society.

People are surprised, they always think I’m Christian because I wear short skirts, smoke and drink. But I am not. I am a Muslim girl. My husband is Christian though. But our marriage is not recognized in Syria, so we went all the way to the U.S., got a civil marriage licence and then came back. If I get pregnant the child would be considered an illegitimate child.

The thing is that this society is going into extremes now because of the war. So you have people going REALLY crazy and you have people going in the opposite way of becoming very conservative. So if you were conservative before the war, you are extremely conservative now. And if you were a bit open, now you are extremely open. There used to be a gap, but for me I think that the gap is even bigger now.

It causes tension, of course. Some people say it is a natural path that we have to go through extremes until we reach a balance. Sometimes you are surprised by comments or by the things that you hear on the streets. But then you cannot say that the people who say those things are wrong and we are right. Because that would be denying their right of having an opinion, which is what this period is about. It’s about allowing everyone to have an opinion and letting people say what they want without fighting. But the way I see it, it will need more time for this to happen. Yeah. I mean, not only politically, but also socially. There has to be a change in society.

C: What do you want to do with your art in the future?

H: Well, the new generation of artists is different from those of us who have been around a bit longer. They are bolder than us, and I admire that. So I would obviously think about working with them.

But you know Christina, I feel that I have something inside me that hasn’t been out yet. And I don’t know how to get it out. I feel that I have lots of energy that I am not using. During my last trip to Lebanon, when we met, I was so hyper for the whole 10 days I barely slept, I barely ate, I had so much energy. It was because I felt that there is something that I wanted to do. I don’t have the same feeling when I am in Damascus. I am a bit… Life is different here. You need to cope with the rhythm of life. This might sound like an excuse, but it does affect me somehow. But I still have this feeling that I have this thing inside me, and I want to know how to get it out. I need the tools to know how to express it and I don’t think the tools I have now are enough.

That’s why I have been trying to travel. When I do workshops, learn new things and see new performances I see how the world works and what the rest of the world is doing compared to us. And when you go out there, you feel like you are part of something bigger and connected to the rest of the world. It’s not about being famous, it’s just about being part of a society, of a dance society. Then when I come back I give my students everything I learned. But I need somebody to give me something in order to give it back. It’s like a cycle.

For us to go back to the way it was before the war, with lots of arts a culture, will need a bit of time. I am not sure if we can or should go back to what it used to be. It will be something different in the future. It won’t be the same. I am not sure if it will be better or worse. I cannot tell, but it will be different.

The people who are just graduating now are different as well. They were raised in a war. Their teenage life was lived in a city that was suffering from war. Damascus is the safest city, it is the least harmed of all the cities in Syria. But many of the people that live here now came from other cities. And I don’t want to tell you that I’m not really expecting that much. I’m not so optimistic. I don’t know…

C: You had the chance to leave Damascus, why did you decide to stay?

H: This is always what I’ve done. I had an opportunity after finishing my diploma in the U.K. to do auditions and work there but I always wanted to come back. Sometimes I feel it is my biggest regret. I get these double feelings of “Oh it was really good that I came back.” Then I think, “What the fuck have I done?” I applied for 2 masters programs in dance therapy in the U.S. and I was accepted into both. And then I decided to stay here. My mom was like, “What?! What are you doing?” I thought, “I don’t know, why, I just need to stay”. It’s crazy. I’m a crazy person. But it’s my home here.

I also think Damascus has more to give than we think. I always feel that this city has a certain charm. Even though it’s not clean, it’s crazy, it’s crowded, everything is slow, there is bureaucracy, and there is all that %*^@. At the same time, this city has something special. I don’t know exactly what it is, but it has something.

Everything I learned, I learned here. Most of the time people say, oh, you graduated from England, and I say no. I graduated from here, and everything I learned was from here. I only went to the UK for a year. There is always this image of Europe or the outside world, that it’s better than us, because we are a third world country. But there is an underestimation of what we can do here.

Syrians are very smart and we are survivors. We can live anywhere. Wherever you put us, we can manage.

July 7, 2017

A special thank you to Dansateliers in Rotterdam, who supported SENSES and its tour to Lebanon, where this story began.

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