When the protests of 2011 in Syria turned into armed revolution, and the country slipped into civil war, poet and playwright Liwaa Yazji began filling her notebooks with the bizarre, painful details of what had become daily life in her home country.
Yazji had been fascinated by war’s tragic absurdity, the cruel compromises it demands of those who want to stay alive, the warping effects of violence, long before it became personal as a student in Damascus. Years later, she realised the stories she had collected from news reports and conversations with friends asked the same questions – about “how we accept and why” – as the works she loved by writers such as Edward Bond and Hungary’s István Örkény.
She began shaping them into her latest play, Goats, now at the Royal Court in London. “It started with a very local accumulation of details,” she says. “Then I realised all of a sudden that what I was following was how we normalise surreal happenings in war. So that was the urge.”
Dark and bitterly funny, Goats is set in a small Syrian village where the eponymous animals are handed out by authorities to families who lose fathers, sons and husbands in the endless civil war. It is staged with real goats, the most unruly of divas to direct, their bleating as much a distraction and lament to the audience as it is to their village owners.
All the major, shocking events are drawn from details Yazji had compiled over years of war and exile. From the grotesque compensation of goats for dead men, to a late, cruel twist that drives home the old truth about war: that the violence you wreak on enemies comes back to haunt you. Every painful, farcical moment has been lived by a Syrian family somewhere – Yazji only used her imagination to anchor the unfolding events in fictional characters and families.
The normalisation of the surreal and the unacceptable edged into Yazji’s own life as well. She remembers friends telling her they had written the sounds of conflict into their staging of a play, so it could continue as battles raged outside.
Born in Moscow, where her Syrian parents were studying, she grew up in Aleppo and Damascus, studying English literature and theatre. She has published poetry as well as plays, has made documentaries and is working on a thriller series for German television. Many of these works explore the lives of both refugees and Syrians like her, living in unexpected exile: Yazji left Damascus to pursue artistic projects in Germany and is no longer sure she can return.
Her book of poems, In Peace, We Leave Home, was published in 2014, the same year she finished an Arabic-language translation of Bond’s Saved, and directed Haunted, a documentary about people’s relationships with their homes during war. It traces why people stay or leave, what they try to save when they flee, what home means when a city or neighbourhood is being ripped apart.
In contrast, the people whose lives unfold around the goats of her play live far from the frontline, in areas that have never slipped from the control of President Bashar al-Assad’s government. The suppression that helps keep the government in power makes it hard for outsiders to visit these areas – and it is dangerous for their inhabitants to be open about their opinions in public.
In many ways, that makes this play all the more powerful and important, because Syrians living under the government – and those fighting for it – are no more uniform supporters than citizens in any dictatorship. “After six years of fighting I guess the more people know, the more they maybe understand that there is a way to live in this country and we have to stick to it,” says Yazji who has friends and relatives who live in such areas. “I don’t mean by that we have to be collaborators, of course not. I fight against everyone who says that anyone inside Syria is that. It’s just that you have to understand the code.”
Goats explores the villagers’ painful choice between accepting the official version of how the war is playing out, or challenging it at huge personal cost. “Has anyone ever told the truth?” asks the persuasive villain of the play, Abu al-Tayyib, chair of the local party and the most powerful man in the village. “Has anyone ever demanded it? Does anyone want it? Does anyone even need it?”
Much of the propaganda that plays out during Goats – ceremonies performed for the watching cameras of the national TV channel and formal party meetings – seems almost silly, a spectacle of patently empty devotion or happiness. But for Yazji, who grew up inside the system of censorship and control, that falsity is not a design flaw but a key aspect of how propaganda not only twists reality but also breaks resistance. “When the dictatorship makes you accept trivialities,” she says, “it’s a sign of power. So it’s not only about humiliating you, it’s about ruling you by making you repeat stupid things.”
A character in the play puts it more bluntly. “If we keep learning stuff that’s the exact opposite of the last thing we learned,” says a teenager called Jude, “how am I supposed to know which one’s right?” Jude asks this of his teacher, a grieving father, when he backtracks on years of patriotism and says the war is not worth dying for.
Yazji does not offer easy answers, least of all to herself. She even questions her own horror at the handover of goats. At first glance they seem to cheapen the lives of the dead but may be a lifeline for families who have lost a breadwinner, or helpful consolation to those worried a sacrifice will be forgotten. “Who am I to decide if this is right or wrong?” she says. “What background am I coming from? I am someone sitting on sofa in a house that was not destroyed, saying that people should not take that goat. Who am I to bring the ethics of peace and apply them to people under war?”
For villagers whose suffering has no obvious end, party leader Tayyib offers an argument for pragmatic accommodation with the government, describing resistance at one point as contagious madness: “The war swallows up everything that came before it. All we can do now is see which of us manages to stay alive. What’s on the inside doesn’t matter.”
Yazji says: “In no way did I want to justify evil, but I want to create a character and give him the resources to justify himself. I’m not going to create a dictatorship within my work – where the bad character is not given the right to speak.”
Goats is also an attack on stereotypes that too often reduce Syrians to ciphers, Isis fighters, or the most vulnerable of refugees adrift at sea. Those images are alienating, says Yazji, even the ones designed to evoke pity. “You cannot imagine yourself in a boat in the middle of the sea, no matter what happens now with your life,” she says, of her audiences beyond Syria. But a drama of families grappling with death and loss is familiar anywhere. “We can reposition ourselves in that place, because that might happen to us. Even if my son is fighting somewhere else, that story could still be the same.
“Syria is not the first war and will not be the last. So I’m not always looking at the issue of war as something that is coming from a different planet.”
As for the country’s immediate future, she feels bleak. “It just hurts,” she says. “I am not very optimistic.” She quotes a line from her own play when asked if she thinks the conflict can be resolved. “If this lie is uncovered, it’s only to cover another lie.”