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Monday, April 29, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Syrian play breaks Assad-era political taboos

DAMASCUS, Syria — A humorous scene in the play "Permitted in Syria" shows two men faking Alawite accents while fighting over a cab.

Alawites happen to be President Bashar Assad's ruling clan, and joking about them can be risky in a country with a history of bloody ethnic and religious feuds.

For the audience at the Sheraton Hotel in Damascus, the scene is not the only one that suggests something is changing in authoritarian Syria since Assad, 36, succeeded his late father, Hafez Assad, as president in July 2000.

There's a skit about how the dreaded Mukhabarat — the intelligence service — has penetrated every aspect of society. Another shows how trivial accusations against political dissidents can quickly become serious criminal charges, and a third satirizes the privileges enjoyed by Syrian officials and their children.

Many see "Permitted in Syria" as an illustration of a freer climate after 30 years under Hafez Assad, when a joke or a misplaced word could mean jail.

But critics question whether occasional jabs against authority on stage or even on television amount to political openness. They wonder whether such shows are simply an outlet for ordinary Syrians' frustrations over the slow pace of promised reforms and the rampant corruption that weakens the economy and makes them poorer.

"Since there has been no reform, the play is a substitute for it. You laugh, but you walk out with a black heart," said Michel Kilo, a Syrian writer whose outspoken views landed him in prison for almost three years in the 1980s.

Government supporters say Syria is making the transition into a more democratic era. "There are no restrictions on constructive criticism," said Fayez Sayegh, head of Syria's government-run radio and TV stations.

However, Lukman Derky, who wrote "Permitted in Syria" with Samer al-Masri, noted that even though the censors approved the play, four actors he approached were too scared to accept roles.

That suggests to him that people should reach out and seize their rights.

"They should not wait for the government to hand them their rights," Derky said. "They should struggle for them."

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