North Central College welcomes Syrian writer/director Riad Ismat as visiting scholar-in-residence

Oct 27, 2014

North Central College welcomes Riad Ismat as scholar-in-residence for the 2014-2015 academic year. Ismat will serve as visiting professor of arts and letters. He will teach courses in playwriting, acting and directing, besides lecturing on Syria, Arabic literature and drama.

An acclaimed dramatist in the Arab world with 34 books to his credit, Ismat served as Syrian minister of culture from 2010 to 2012 and also served as Syrian ambassador to Pakistan and Qatar, director general of State Radio & TV and rector of Syria’s Academy of Dramatic Arts. He read English literature at Damascus University, Syria, earned a postgraduate diploma in theater directing at Cardiff University, United Kingdom, and received a certificate in television production and direction from the BBC. He was trained briefly at Drama Centre, London, as professional instructor of acting and was trained in mime. He was a Fulbright fellow and was awarded a doctorate in Shakespeare studies from Greenwich University. Ismat was awarded the Best Arabic Short Story prize from Germany’s Deutsche Welle and was honored at several Arab theatre festivals.

Ismat directed extensively in Damascus, especially plays by Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams, and is noted for his adaptations of “The Arabian Nights,” “Shahryar’s Nights,” “Sinbad” and “The Game of Love & Revolution.” He also wrote seven television serials, broadcast from many Arab satellite stations, notably the award-winning “Holaco” and also “A Crown of Thorn.” In his career, Ismat has emphasized bridging the gap between cultures, drawing from Arab heritage in a modern approach, advocating humanitarian values that stress democracy and tolerance, while condemning totalitarianism that represses freedom and degrades the dignity of human beings.

Ismat’s residence at North Central occurs as the College is establishing an innovative academic program in Middle Eastern and North African studies that will include language courses in Arabic.

Amid the turmoil in his homeland, Ismat left Syria in 2012. During 2013-2014 he served as visiting professor at Northwestern University’s Buffett Center for International & Comparative Studies in Evanston before arriving at North Central College. He recently responded to a series of questions about his experiences as an artist and the situation in Syria.

·    What is the value of a liberal arts education?
RI: It’s the remedy to many sufferings and atrocities facing societies. The values and the awareness that liberal arts bring are boundless. Whether in Pakistan, where I served as ambassador, or in the vast Arab world, I witnessed their effect against extremism and ignorance. I see liberal arts as the salvation that will bring back peace, harmony and democracy to many parts of the world.

·    How will you be involved at North Central College during your time here? Any work with theater students?
RI: I want to extend my thanks to President Troy Hammond and to Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of Faculty Dev Pandian for allowing me a wide spectrum of talks to students of varied disciplines, including political science, literature, psychology and music. I started teaching a course on acting in great classical films. In the near future, I will be teaching courses in playwriting and acting. Also, I will be directing a play; the choice ranges from Shakespeare to Syrian drama.

·    What is the state of culture in Syria? Is it still a place where culture promotes the values of tolerance, diversity, democracy and freedom of expression?
RI: This is a difficult question to answer, because I left Syria two years ago. In the past, Syria was a very enlightened and diverse country in the Middle East; its theatrical productions and, especially, its television drama serials, swept the Arab world and gained awards and respect. Under my patronage as minister of culture, many productions were done: Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons,” Corneille’s “Le Cid,” Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” and Strindberg’s “Miss Julie,” beside Syrian and Arabic plays, including a play adapted from Sultan al-Qasimi, and I encouraged a new generation of artists to contribute, too. Nowadays, I am afraid culture is very much cornered; it can address only some issues bashfully, although Syrian drama used to be politically daring. Simply, it isn’t in a healthy condition because of many prevailing restrictions and censorship. But I would say that television drama is still operating regardless of the situation; theatre has declined because people are simply afraid of falling as collateral damage for the sake of a cultural evening.

·    How has the violence in Syria impacted ancient culture there?
RI: Syria is nicknamed “a cradle of civilizations,” which is very true. It was one of the safest countries in the world and its people are very hospitable. Ethnic minorities co-existed for many centuries and were quite tolerant. Since fighting began between the regime’s forces and the opposition, then the insurgents flooded in, it inflicted damage on some archaeological sites and citadels. I must say that the authorities tried to stop harming those historical monuments and the theft of valuable pieces. Unfortunately, their success was limited though, because chaos prevailed and fierce fighting escalated to make things out of control in several provinces.

·    How much have you been able to experience Chicago theater since becoming visiting professor at Northwestern in 2013? Were you able to participate in seminars or workshops?
RI: I had some enlightening experiences, but less than I wished for. For example, I’ve seen a professional production of “Evita” and a Northwestern student production of “Cabaret.” I attended “King Lear” at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Also, I attended a number of dramatized play readings at Silk Road Rising—especially a very good play by Robert Myers about drone pilots—besides participating in a panel discussion titled “Dramatizing Resistance” as a tribute to the late Syrian playwright Saadallah Wannous in which the artistic director of that theater, Jamil Khouri, moderated. My most important accomplishments though were publishing a creative dramatic work in Lebanon titled “A Crown of Thorn,” writing a new play titled “Chemical” and also a manuscript of a book on actor training, which will appear soon in its Arabic version under the title “Dream Is Life.”

·    How much should the international community intervene to address the humanitarian disaster in Syria, in your opinion? What should the United States and others do?
RI: It’s hard to tell. I am not a politician, but a creative writer and artist. I feel strongly that there is an ethical responsibility upon the international community not to let this tragic situation continue, after its reluctance to take any tangible action for so long. Now, it might be late, but it’s never too late to stop the bloodshed and terrorism in all its forms and to regain peace in that part of the world. I must say that action was initiated due to the threats of the repercussions of the Syrian crisis on the Western world. Therefore, the international community should exert a serious effort to put an end to this human catastrophe and suffering affecting half of Syria’s population. This cannot be achieved without some concessions and even sacrifices from all conflicting parties to reach a democratic and plural form of running the country. I believe in the freedom of religious beliefs. Culture should fight sectarianism and extremism as dangerous diseases, advocating unity instead of division, love instead of hatred. Syria scarcely witnessed any terrorism before this crisis erupted in mid-March 2011 with the crackdown of protests by excessive force which caused an armed retaliation. If violence has to be eliminated, and definitely it should, there must be an end to fighting, blasts and indiscriminative shelling by all sides. The international community can enforce an ultimatum for a ceasefire under the supervision of the United Nations. The process of reconciliation starts with a goodwill to resolve the conflict, bring to justice whoever committed any crime and find a comprehensive and permanent solution. Syria has paid a very high price already and it needs decades to reestablish its material and spiritual stability inspired from wisdom.

·    What can North Central students and people throughout the world do to help the people of Syria?
RI: To be brief and practical, I guess the best any educational institution could do is to help the Syrian students in exile to continue their studies without having to pay the expensive cost of tuition and, maybe, to send teachers for short terms to the refugee camps as well. Young Syrian men and women are the hope for rebuilding the new Syria that would evolve from its ashes, like a Phoenix in the Middle Eastern myth.