One of our favorite childhood games was to wrap our bodies with old drapery and act like kings. But unlike the Syrian twins Ahmed and Mohamed Malas, few of us have developed the game into actual performances of self-expression.
The brothers launched their first play out of their bedroom in 2009; they used their wardrobe for costumes, and advertised for the show via a Facebook event and text messages. True to their philosophy that an artistic message can be passed along without a huge budget, they spent US$7 producing the performance.
"We initially planned that the performance ‘Melodrama’ would run for 10 days. But as the audience kept coming, we extended it for 122 days," says Ahmed.
“Melodrama” garnered an award at a Jordanian theater festival, and their bedroom was listed in the Guinness World Records as the smallest stage in the world.
The process developed organically, mostly due to a lack of funding and censorship, Ahmed explains.
“On the first two days of the show, we expected no one to come. You could consider the audience suicidal as the authorities can consider it [a form of] illegal gathering and detain us all,” he says.
To which Mohamed adds, "Unless you’re a member of the ruling Baath party, you won't have any chance to stand on a stage.”
Some compare their style to stand-up comedy with added performance elements, but they disagree.
“We don't do political cabaret or stand-up comedy. We’re more like Peter Brook’s … who worked on developing his stories at the one magical square,” says Ahmed.
The success of “Melodrama” encouraged the twins to continue, and their work later became more political, especially as Arab Spring protests erupted around the region.
“People are dying on the streets; artists can no longer perform symbolic works while the cameras are capturing the demonstrations,” says Mohamed.
"Neither us nor an international artist can be more sincere than an image of a demonstrator at the square in Homs. We realized that our weapon should be the event itself; if we're late, the event will surpass us.”
The brothers say they are aware that being so direct could translate to being shallow, a pitfall which they want to avoid.
“Our mission is to address ongoing events without being superficial; otherwise the play will end up like a news bar,” says Ahmed.
During their show “The Revolution Tomorrow Delayed to Yesterday,” they perform a dialog between a demonstrator and a policeman. It begins with a state of antagonism between the two, who are (as acted out by the twins) very similar in both their appearances and living conditions. They both suffer from price hikes and social and political crises and end up protesting.
Based on their physical similarities, Ahmed and Mohamed Malas play on the idea of finding the middle ground between extremes. This theme is reflected in most of their plays including “Me and Myself with Myself,” which is about a young and an old man who express seemingly contradictory points of views but end up appreciating each other.
"Being twins gives us the ability to discuss dualities of our society in a natural way,” says Ahmed.
When they were detained while demonstrating, the twins performed “The Revolution Tomorrow Delayed to Yesterday” in jail.
"In the show we talk about army officers who share the people's concerns and have been siding with protesters more recently," Ahmed says.
He says prison officials were simultaneously surprised and amused by the play.
"They seemed to enjoy the show, but were afraid to show it," says Ahmed. "It wasn't until we mentioned the name of Bashar [al-Assad] that they stopped our performance.”
In the face of international pressure, both men were released from prison, only to find their moves being closely monitored.
"During our last weeks in Syria, we could not breathe without someone noting it, and our usual audiences were afraid to come to our shows," says Ahmed.
After the Syrian military intelligence issued an arrest warrant for Ahmed, the twins decided to leave the country temporarily. They crossed the border with Lebanon and then flew to Egypt.
Although they left Syria, their work still focuses on the country and they hope to serve the uprising from Egypt, says Mohamed.
"We'll continue to perform and post our work online, showing the world Bashar's crimes against humanity."