Hussein Idilbi: Tireless Passion for Theater

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Idilbi worked in several positions in the theater before he became the director of the National Theater in Damascus for years. (Photo: Al-Akhbar)

By: Anas Zarzar

Published Tuesday, May 22, 2012

A mainstay of Syrian theater for decades, the actor and theater director is still breathing life into the art even after being forced to retire as director of the National Theater in Damascus.

Hussein Idilbi chooses the Hamra Theater in Damascus for our meeting, because theater has always been his refuge.

The Syrian artist and theater director becomes emotional when he recalls his difficult childhood in one of Aleppo’s popular neighborhoods.

“I am the eldest son of a family who lived hand to mouth. My father worked as a grocer. When I finished elementary school, he told me that there was no way he could help me continue studying,” he says.

At 13, Idilbi was selling food and sweets from a small stall he moved around the popular neighborhoods. Later, he worked many jobs to make money to pay for school, even buying bicycles, fixing them, and then selling them.

His first stage appearance was in 1957, during the period of unity between Syria and Egypt. A schoolteacher from Egypt helped him secure a role in Cleopatra’s Death, a play by Ahmad Shawqi.

Idilbi fell in love with the theater, seduced by living new roles on stage. He spent a while in Aleppo’s popular clubs, which used to put on shows for amateurs. The young man found his calling at the Al-Shaab Theater, whose director at the time was Omar Hajjo. The theater put on silent drama sketches, some satirical and others critical.

“Do you remember the play War, directed by Badr al-Muhandis, where Thana Dibsi and I played the leading roles?” he asks, forgetting the fact that this was fifty years ago.

Al-Shaab Theater’s activities attracted the interest of officials in the unity government. They asked the troupe to tour all the provinces and cities of Egypt.

“We put on our plays in all the cities, including Gaza. I recall to this day seeing the British soldiers on the beach wearing shorts,” Idilbi remembers.

After returning from the tour in Egypt, Idilbi turned professional. He was appointed as an actor in the National Theater, run those days by the famous actor and director, Nihad Qali.

“I used to earn 195 Syrian liras (SL) a month. This was enough to rent a small room, take care of my personal expenses, and send some help to my family,” he says.

In 1960, Idilbi entered a competition for students to study theater production in Egypt. He decided to leave the Faculty of Law at Aleppo University to achieve his dreams, “but the crime that was the separation between Syria and Egypt prevented that.”

“I can still feel the impact of the separation to this day,” he continues. “It was a painful shock for someone like me who still believes in unity and in Nasser’s arguments to this day.”

The scholarship to Egypt then became one to West Germany. However, Idilbi found himself lost in West Berlin for a whole year, because the Syrian cultural ministry had “forgotten” to register the students in the right faculties and find them a place to live.

He moved to Austria in 1963, to study theater at a small institute in the southern city of Graz: “I took part in several plays while I was studying and played many roles in German. Throughout my stay, I kept thinking I must return to Syria as soon as possible, to share my new expertise and knowledge with my friends and old colleagues.”

Idilbi completed his studies in Austria, returning to Aleppo with a diploma in theater direction. With his old friends from the Al-Shaab Theater, he formed a group for the National Theater in Aleppo.

Financially and administratively, this was a subsidiary of the Syrian cultural ministry, like the National Theater in Damascus.

However, after the group was formed and work began, the minister of culture was replaced by someone who not only stopped all financial and moral support, but even issued an order to decommission the group.

“At the time, we sought the help of Aleppo’s mayor, Abdul Ghani Al-Saadawi, who asked me how much money we needed,” Idilbi explains, “I answered him spontaneously: ‘SL50,000.’ This small amount was enough to set up the professional Aleppo National Theater, which is still in operation today.”

“We were one family,” Idilbi says. “We worked together and dedicated ourselves to the production of various plays. Our aim was to establish this art form in Aleppo, which we loved dearly.”

Idilbi produced seven plays in five years for the newly established National Theater. In autumn 1972, Idilbi decided to move to the National Theater in Damascus in search of new experiences. In the capital, he took part in many plays. He directed 19 theater productions for the National Theater and the Al-Jawwal Theater.

He also took part in television and radio series, and in three films. “I thought of taking up cinema acting and directing many times, but I did not. I remain faithful to the theater which I consider to be my first and foremost passion and obsession,” he explains.

Idilbi worked in several positions in the theater before he became the director of the National Theater in Damascus for years. When he reached legal retirement age in 1999, his theater activity was stopped and he was not allowed to work there anymore.

“I was so shocked when I was told that I had to retire, because I was still in my artistic prime,” he says. “As a result of the decision to force me to retire, I was not able to produce any new work, until I was asked to direct the play The Princess And the Tramp this year.”

The play, recently directed by Idilbi for the Hamra Theater in Damascus, is his 30th in a lifetime that is an intrinsic part of the history of the Syrian theater movement.

Today, Idilbi is working on a production of Shakespeare’s Othello. He reveals that he “will try to present it in a musical carnival setting, very different from the usual Shakespearean tragedy.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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