Convocation ‘20: Aksam Alyousef

Escaping war-torn Syria to pursue a love of theatre

Erik Einsiedel - 16 November 2020

Playwright Aksam Alyousef had a promising future in his native Syria before the war made such a career untenable. Unwilling to give up on his love and study of theatre, Aksam took his family to Canada in 2016, where he would eventually join the 2017 cohort of UAlberta Drama graduate students.

Three years later, after overcoming many challenges to establish a new life for himself and his family, Aksam will graduate UAlberta with his Master of Arts in Drama.

“Aksam wrote a brilliant MA thesis that fills a critical gap in studies of Syrian and Lebanese theatre,” says Drama instructor Stefano Muneroni, who was part of Aksam’s defense committee.

Since coming to Canada, Aksam has written and directed many new plays, including Hagar, about a Syrian mother's decision to make a treacherous sea voyage with her infant son, and Rehearsal, a comedic play that connects Syrian, Arab and Canadian communities. At the time of this writing, Aksam is preparing to direct a play for Edmonton’s Walterdale Theatre called The Mask, which will open in February 2021.

Aksam’s journey is one of resilience, determination and positivity that has earned him the reputation of a gifted student, talented playwright and collaborative artist.

What drew you to the area of your study, and why are you passionate about it?

Living in a fantasy world and escaping from the painful reality of humanity is what drew me to theater. To live peacefully in any world, you must master its nature and its laws, which is why I decided to study drama. The irony was that the more I immerse myself in the fantasy world, my sensitivity of reality becomes more painful.

The importance of studying drama stems from the role of art and its positive impact on the individual and society. Art is a purely human quality. It distinguishes us from other creatures. I am excited to further study and practice art because art is what makes me feel human.

What is the most remarkable thing you learned while you were a student?

The most important thing I learned while I was a student was that I don't need to discover everything by myself. There are many scholars and artists that preceded me who discovered many things. I learned to save my time by reading, and to focus on creativity.

Did you face any significant challenges, and how did you deal with them?

The biggest challenge for me was overcoming the language barrier — not because English was my second language, but because of losing confidence. In the beginning, I had a lot of ideas I wanted to share, but my fear of failing to accurately communicate my ideas forced me to remain silent more often.

My early awareness of this problem made me think of how to overcome it. The key was to have courage — the courage to speak, to write and to participate. I learned from my mistakes more than I learned from the eloquence of my colleagues. They and my professors have been very supportive.

How did you manage the challenges of navigating student life under COVID-19 restrictions and remote learning?

The start of the pandemic coincided with our last university class, so I only attended one seminar via Zoom. Despite the gloom and restrictions that have been imposed by this pandemic, I tried to take advantage of my isolation to do a lot of research related to my thesis.

What piece of advice do you wish someone had given you when you started?

I wish I knew the importance of participating in conferences organized by the other institutions and universities about Drama issues.

What is next for you?

I am planning to pursue my PhD next year here at the U of A.