Joyce MacMillan: David Greig's 2007 work Damascus has polarised critics following its debut in Syria

IT'S LATE on Thursday night when I arrive in Damascus, the ancient city sprawling its way up the dramatic slopes of Mount Quissoun; and although their second performance in Syria is in full swing, at the municipal theatre in the middle-class suburb of Dummar, the Traverse company are still reeling from the shock of the ferociously mixed reception they received the previous evening.

As playwright David Greig and director Philip Howard are only too aware, bringing a play called Damascus to the city of Damascus was always going to be a high-risk enterprise. It was a play that Greig wrote reluctantly, for the Traverse's Edinburgh Festival programme of 2007, after several years of work with young playwrights across the Arab world had made him acutely aware of their need to find their own voice, rather than see themselves and their society defined through western eyes. And it was a play written almost entirely for British audiences: the story of a Scotsman who travels to Damascus to sell English-language textbooks for schools, and encounters three characters – the beautiful career woman Muna, the disillusioned academic Wasim, and the troubled hotel desk-clerk Zakaria – from whom he learns too much about the deadness of his own life, the depth of his ignorance of other cultures, the vagueness of his politics, and his lethal inability to hear others speak across the gulf of culture and power.

To audiences in the UK, in other words, Damascus looks like a searing piece of self-criticism directed against the well-meaning but ineffectual westerner abroad. To audiences in the Arab world, though, it inevitably looks like a thumbnail sketch of their entire culture, summed up in three troubled characters; and no-one was more surprised than Greig and Howard when, following a positive response from an Arab delegation in Edinburgh, the British Council decided to take Damascus on a ground-breaking tour of its Near East and North African region, opening in Damascus itself, and travelling on to Beirut, Amman, Cairo, Tunis, and Ramallah, in the Palestinian West Bank.

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Nothing, though, had quite prepared the company for the explosive reaction to the play on its first night in Syria. First there was the performance, received with huge warmth and responsiveness, much laughter, and even a small standing ovation.Then there was the post-show discussion, in which a series of distinguished academics, and some younger commentators, queued up to accuse Greig, in particular, of everything from crass neo-colonialism and insults to Arab womanhood, to grotesque stereotyping and sheer artistic incompetence.

Controversy swirled in particular around the character of the desk clerk Zakaria, who finally kills himself when Paul fails to help him achieve his last desperate hope of becoming a writer in the west. Some young Syrians saw him as an iconic figure; other voices condemned him as a hopeless stereotype of Arab victimhood.

And these divisions were repeated at a major British Council seminar on Saturday, when some speakers expressed rage that a British playwright should be able to command such significant resources to caricature their culture on an international stage; while the leading Egyptian critic Mehna al-Badawi, of al-Ahram in Cairo, argued that if she had been given the script of Damascus in Arabic, she could well have believed that it was the work of a young Syrian writer, so clearly did it express the situation of many who are struggling for self-expression in societies full of cultural tension and political uncertainty.

After the seminar, Greig headed off into the Old Town of Damascus, to spend a last evening with the young Syrian playwrights whose work he has already helped to present in London, before a brief return to Scotland.

And the rest of us climbed into a small bus, and rattled off over the mountains, through mist and rain and grubby border checkpoints, on the 100-mile drive to Beirut, down by the Mediterranean. It was a journey that seemed to take us from east to west, from a place still dominated by a combination of rich Islamic culture and old-style mid-20th century socialism, to a war-scarred city once known as the Paris of the Middle East, where battered concrete tower blocks pierce the Mediterranean sky, and our hotel jostles branches of the Body Shop and La Senza.

Yet this, too, is a Middle Eastern city full of contrasts, where some of the women go modestly veiled, and others present spectacular displays of big hair and bling. And here, too, although the tone of the post-show discussion was more relaxed, the same tensions emerge, between those who are irritated and insulted by this apparent western attempt to sum up the Arab world, and by those who feel Greig has perceived truths that need to be spoken.

Behind these debates, of course, lie some of the most profound questions facing our 21st-century world. There is the debate between former colonising powers, and the countries they once used and manipulated for their own ends; a debate still full of well-justified rage and resentment. There is the debate about how far the whole western model of civilisation – with its alluring dreams of freedom and self-fulfilment – can and should be extended across the globe. And there is the eternal dialogue between power and relative powerlessness, reflected in every struggle for self-determination the world has ever seen.

Sometimes, in these dialogues, there comes a moment – like Nora's great slamming of the door in Ibsen's A Doll's House – when the less powerful partner has to walk away, and find his or her own voice, before dialogue can begin again. If the tour of Damascus to the Middle East and North Africa helps provoke young writers in the region to demand for themselves the same voice, the same resource, and the same national platform that Scottish playwriting has enjoyed, in finding its own voice over the last generation, then it will have done much of its job; and whether it does it by arousing their fierce objection, or their passionate admiration, will finally hardly matter at all.