The Columbia College Chicago Theatre Department mourns the passing of Riad Ismat, who died May 13, 2020, of complications related to COVID-19. Ismat was the former Minister of Culture of Syria until he stepped down due to the escalation of violence in 2012 and soon thereafter fled Syria with his family to the United States. After settling in the Chicago area, he taught at Columbia College, Northwestern University, North Central College, and the Newberry Library.
Born in 1947 in Damascus, Syria, Ismat served as dramaturg for the Columbia College Theatre Department’s 2018 Mainstage production of The Conference of the Birds, based on the poem by Farid ud-Din Atttar, one of the great classics of Middle-Eastern literature. “A playwright, director, and acknowledged scholar in Arabic theatre, Riad was the ideal choice to help an all-female cast of 30 navigate the intricacies of the poem’s meaning,” recalls the Theatre Department’s former chair John Green, currently a faculty member at the department. “His skill, warmth, and enthusiasm for the project meant that he quickly became a vital part of the production: leading warm-ups and working with individual actors on characterizations.”
Following Conference, the Theatre Department collaborated with the International Voices Project on a staged reading of Ismat’s play Mihbaj. “The play dealt in stark terms with the divided loyalties of one family caught up in the Syrian civil war,” recalls Green, adding: “Riad continued to teach part-time at Columbia College in both the Theatre and the Cinema and Television Arts departments, along with a prolific period of writing that saw him create original works about contemporary Arab politics and re-work classic tales for the stage, among them Scheherazade, Zenobia and Mu’Assel, together with a comprehensive critical study of Middle-Eastern theatre.”
“I am so very sorry to hear of Riad Ismat’s passing due to COVID-19,” says the Columbia College Theatre Department’s current chair, Carin Silkaitis. “He spent significant time at my former institution, North Central College, on a special contract. Riad was a gentle, kind man. Students loved working with him and thoroughly enjoyed listening to his stories. Riad team-taught a class in the theatre department while I served as chair [at North Central], and it was wonderful to hear his students learn about theatre through such a rich cultural lens. I listened to him lecture on films and talk about the atrocities happening in Syria. He affected our campus in innumerable ways.”