Naaman Haj Bakri is a theater actor from Latakiya Province. He began his artistic journey at the age of thirteen, acting and singing in school festivals. His first real theater experience was in 1992, when he performed in the play, My Mother-in-law Ida and the Beatings, a production staged in Latakiya. The play did well commercially and attracted a huge audience, going on to tour a number of Syrian cities. It was Naaman’s starting point as a theater actor.
Naaman worked a floor waxer to earn some money, because the number of plays available he could perform in were minimal. He blames this on the cronyism and sectarianism pervasive in the theater world, especially at the National Theater in the city of Latakiya.
Naaman moved to Damascus in 1999, fighting hard to secure a good life for himself and to launch his artistic career in the capital.
“I sold perfume as a street vendor on Thawra Street for around five years,” says Naaman, “until I could earn all my required income from my art. And then I devoted myself entirely to that work.”
Naaman performed in a number of successful plays, some alongside the actor Raed Mushrif, and together they showcased their work at different festivals. Naaman also found work as a television actor, appearing in some television series, and later worked extensively as a voice actor, dubbing shows and movies, work that went a long way toward assuring him financial security.
“Dubbing really saved a lot of artists who weren’t finding work opportunities,” explains Naaman, “and while many people didn’t respect our talents as actors, dubbing respected our voice work at least.”
In 2001, Naaman entered the exams to gain membership to the Artist’s Union in Damascus. “It was a very sad day for me,” he recalls. “I spent about an hour on the acceptance exam, performing scenes in front of a judging committee that asked me over sixty questions to do with general knowledge and art. I answered every single one of them, astonishing the committee, but in the end I failed the exam because of corruption and nepotism. The next year I presented myself for the new round of exams, and was granted membership to the Union.”
Naaman directed his first play, starring in it himself as well, in Damascus in 2006. It was a play called A Day of Our Time, written by the well-known Syrian playwright Saadallah Wannous.
“A Day of Our Time,” says Naaman, “was a political play that shone a light on corruption and those responsible for it. As a result, I was harassed by the security forces because the play pulled no punches. It was a work that made quite clear that the foremost person responsible for corruption in the government is the ruler.”
Most of Naaman’s theater pieces are quite critical of the political reality in Syria, exposing corruption and other social ills. The Censorship Committee often prohibited him from putting on work—directives that came at the last minute, so that months of effort and rehearsals went to waste.
“Theater that doesn’t address people’s concerns or lay bare the social and political realities in which they live,” declares Naaman, “is not theater.”
“A Syrian artist’s path to stardom,” explains Naaman, “is subjected to three main tests. First, there is the question of luck. Then, there is the nepotism and cronyism that plays a huge role in whether or not an artist can establish themselves. And finally there is the audience’s adulation. “Talent is not enough to become a star in Syria,” says Naaman. “You have to have support from someone higher up, either in the intelligence agency or in the government palace or one of the palace guards. Usually what happens is one of these people calls up the director and very simply asks that this or that person be given a starring role in the production.”
“I never took on a role in a TV series that I was convinced by as an actor,” continues Naaman. “I just agreed to the work to be able to earn a living for my family.”
Naaman has great love for the theater. “Theater is the father of all the arts,” he says. “You get to present all its nobility directly to the audience before you. Theater is the essence, laying bare one’s talents on the stage.”