REPORTING FROM BEIRUT –- At a time when thousands of Syrians are said to be in jail for openly defying President Bashar Assad's regime, a group of actors has produced a surprisingly candid piece of political satire lampooning the country's feared security forces, and even Assad.
They can get away with it because their video project uses hand puppets fashioned to look like anti-government protesters, pro-regime militiaman and the president, referred to by a diminutive, Beeshou.
Called "Top Goon: Diaries of a Little Dictator," the so-called revolutionary puppet series consists of 15 video sketches being posted on YouTube.
"A friend suggested the idea back in May," said the project's director, Jamil, who did not want his full name published for fear of retribution. "We were looking for ways to talk about what is happening in Syria without revealing our identities. It is too dangerous to make theater with real actors ... talking about the revolution in Syria."
In July, Syrian composer Malik Jandali posted pictures on his Facebook page that he said showed his heavily bruised parents after a beating by pro-government militia members. They were attacked in their home, he said, after he performed a composition titled "My Homeland"at a Syrian rally in Washington.
"The regime is very aggressive now and exercising the most horrific acts of repression," Jamil said. "This is why I don’t want the real names of actors and artists who took part in the theater [project] to be revealed. I'm worried for family members inside the country."
The puppets were fashioned in Syria, but Jamil said he did not deem it safe to film the sketches there. Two other participants had to flee the country after taking part in demonstrations in Syria, so Jamil decided to join them in a neighboring nation.
He smuggled the puppets out in a paper bag after carefully disguising the figure representing the president with a tiny wig of longish brown hair, a large mustache and a cap. Syrian border officials searched every bag he had in the trunk of his car, he said, but did not open the one with the puppets that was with him inside the vehicle.
The worst moment, he said, wasn't at the border, but days earlier when he collected the puppets from their maker in the Syrian capital, Damascus.
"I was walking on the street when I saw four thugs ... running in my direction," he said. "My heart stopped for a moment. I thought, 'How did they find out so quickly about the project?' Luckily, they passed me."
He found out later that activists had spilled red paint in several fountains to protest the bloodshed in Syria.
Jamil said friends donated space for rehearsals and to film the series. Others helped post the videos to YouTube and promote them on social media.
The first episode, posted late last month, is called "Beeshou's Nightmare." It features the Syrian president dressed in pajamas and a night cap, waking up in the middle of the night and crying, "Why don't the Syrian people love me anymore? Why do they want to bring down the regime? I swear to God that I haven't killed as many as my father did!"
The episode also pokes fun at Assad's allies. At one point, a loyalist militiaman sings, "The businessmen of Aleppo will not rise even if the regime falls." Later, he tells the president, "The regime has fallen, this time for real. You have to escape, master."
"I have to call Ahmadinejad and flee to Iran today?" asks Beeshou, a reference to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Opposition parties also get jabs for their repetitive rhetoric. The project's creators insist that they will cast a critical eye on all sides of the Syrian conflict.
The project is a departure for Jamil, who has devoted most of his career to interpreting European classics from previous centuries. But he said Syrians need a little humor to "help ease all the pain."
"Art has a healing power and also a power to deliver the message," he said.
Jamil said he hopes the sketches will help shatter the cult of personality that has been created around Assad and his father. "We see Bashar in the sketches crying like any regular man," he said.
He said he also wanted to show the world another face of Syria, which has come to be defined by an endless stream of videos posted by activists purporting to show tanks firing into neighborhoods, security forces abusing detainees and the victims being bloodied.
"Comedy is a natural response to tragedy," he said. "The Syrian revolution is a revolution of life, not death."
The project's YouTube channel has received more than 40,000 video views, and commenters are praising the production.
"Genius," viewer Wafa Zaidan wrote on the project's Facebook page.
"Creativity in every meaning of the word," viewer Wesam Ahmed wrote.
"We also are getting threats via our Facebook page, but this means that our work is really good because it is upsetting the Syrian Facebook militia," Jamil said. “If art is not courageous enough to express the pulse of the street, then it is not art."
-- Rima Marrouch
Video: The trailer for the new Syrian puppet series “Top Goon: Diaries of a Little Dictator." Credit: YouTube