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La tragédie du théâtre syrien PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Sami Moubayed   
Tuesday, 31 August 2010 10:57
Long life, good health, Saber! Social security for Syria's treasures

by Sami Moubayed

I recently returned from a visit to the home of Tayseer al-Saadi, Syria’s longest living comedian, one of the pioneers of Syrian theater and radio, who I visited at his home in Dummar with my friend, Sami Arnaaout. Once a comedian—always a comedian Saadi, at 93, still made us laugh from the bottom of our hearts. He still had a remarkable ability to act, tell jokes, make funny faces and remember events with meticulous detail, dating back to the early 1930s. In the 1950s, during the pre-TV era, he had rocketed to fame with a brilliant 350 part radio show called Saber & Sabriya, performed with his wife, also an actress. By the time TV started in 1960, Saadi was already a household name in Syria and he continued to act until retirement in 1992 after performing in the memorable social drama, Ayyam Shamiya.

The Tayseer al-Saadi of 2010 is a very, very angry man, strangely enough, in excellent health. His pension from his career as an actor currently stands at 6,000 SP ($127 USD), barely enough to buy him medicine. For years he used to live in the posh Abu Rummaneh district—an apartment rented for peanuts back in the 1940s, when real estate was cheap in Damascus. He was recently evicted when landlords were allowed to upgrade their rent or get rid of tenants who had overstayed their welcome. His suitcases were bundled up—along with priceless movie posters, records, and photographs of the entire Syrian art scene—and thrown on the sidewalk.

Tayseer’s story is not uncommon for several veterans of the Syrian screen. A year ago, another comedian—famous from the 1970s onwards—called Yassin Bakoush, appeared on Syrian TV in a very rare interview, literarily asking to be cast in a role, pleading in fact, because he had no money. According to a friend who works in a private TV station, Bakoush—famous for the role of Yassino the waiter—asked for 5,000 SP ($106 USD) for a cameo appearance eulogizing his lifelong friend (both in life and on screen), Naji Jaber. Abu Antar (Naji’s stage name for three decades) lived for many years in very difficult financial conditions until private production companies ‘remembered him’ and hired the aging actor for lead roles in 30-episode epics, towards the final years of his life. By then it was too late; Naji Jaber died from cancer in March 2009 at the age of 69.

Their stories reminds us of pathetic TV commercials performed in the 1990s by veterans like Mohammad Tarajki (famous for the role of the night guard Abu Zaki) and Samia al-Jazairi, for the sake of extra cash. Long before that, Syria’s giant comedian Nihad Quali—who was incapacitated from work after suffering an accident in 1976—had to write cartoon stories for the Lebanese children magazine Samer, in order to continue making a proper living.

To understand the influence and magnitude of these men, it is safe to compare them to Charlie Chaplin, Laurel & Hardy, and The Marx Brothers. The picture of the “founding fathers” of theatre and cinema, however, is not all grim. There are pioneers who are treated with red carpets wherever they go, ranging from Syria’s tenor Sabah Fakhri, to actresses like Muna Wasif and actors like Duraid Lahham and Rafiq Sibaii. These figures mastered the show business game far better than their colleagues. They maintained an excellent relationship with the media, are well acquainted with the rising generation of artists who now dominate the scene—and most importantly, remained close to the people. They refused to become secluded with the advancement of age, refused to stop singing or acting, and simply put: refused to step down.

The late Nihad Quali received the Order of Merit, Excellence Class, in February 2008, 15 years after his passing in 1993. Pioneers like Abdul Latif Fathi, one of the founders of Syrian theatre, also received post-mortem honors from the Syrian government. More recently a collector’s stamp was issued by the Department of Posts and Telegraphs, carrying their photographs.

After a three-hour conversation on the history of the Syrian art scene, Tayseer al-Saidi looked up at me and said “I made people laugh for 40 years. I danced, I sang, and I told jokes about their day-to-day life but now, I live day-by-day, waiting to die. Old age is such a repulsive aspect of life. I hate it yet I miss my friends and I miss my wife…”

Tayseer al-Saidi, or Saber as the Syrians knew him for years, and so many others of his generation deserve the honors of Sabah Fakhri, Duraid Lahham, and Rafiq Sibaii. They deserve to be honored in their final hour, and to die in dignity as founding fathers of the Syrian art scene.

Last Updated on Sunday, 19 June 2011 15:58
 

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