Fagin (played by Elhami Amin) with Oliver (Fadi Al Assal) kneeling to his right, and the Artful Dodger (Ibrahim Omran) to Fagin’s left, in the sold-out performance
Fagin (played by Elhami Amin) with Oliver (Fadi Al Assal) kneeling to his right, and the Artful Dodger (Ibrahim Omran) to Fagin’s left, in the sold-out performance © Amy Smyth

In early September on the cement terrace of the Royal Cultural Centre in Jordan’s capital, Amman, there was an air of euphoria as Fadi Al Assal blew out the 14 candles on his cake. Around him a group of 40 children, all of them refugees, surged and whooped. They were celebrating not only Fadi’s birthday but also the end of a three-day run of the first Arabic adaptation of Lionel Bart’s musical Oliver! in which they had all performed.

In this updated, modern Arabic version, Fadi, a Syrian refugee who fled to Jordan with his family three years ago, played the role of the Victorian orphan who dared to ask for more. On the opening night the red plush theatre was packed; people fought for tickets at the box office; even a member of the Jordanian royal family had come to watch. A girl and her boyfriend had stood sombrely in the lobby. “We’ve flown in from Saudi Arabia to see the show. Can we come in?” The couple had to join other latecomers sitting on the aisle steps, around the feet of Fadi and the other children who were waiting in line for their opening cue.

Then the kettle drums blasted into the opening bars of “Food, Glorious Food”. The children, 39 Syrian refugees and one Jordanian, marched down to the stage, stamping in time to the music; they picked their way past the audience and sung not of hot sausage and mustard but a hymn to ful (the Egyptian dish of beans in oil), kebabs and hummus.

As the cruel orphanage governor finished doling out food, Oliver — scrawny, red-haired Fadi — plucked up the courage to ask for more. “More!” screamed the governor, in Arabic, before marching Fadi off to be sold to an undertaker. As Oliver settled down to spend a night among the coffins on stage, Fadi, his alabaster skin luminous in the stage lights, broke into his solo, “Where is Love?” When he finished, the audience roared approval. Not bad for a boy who, back in March, didn’t know he could act or sing.

Oliver! in Arabic is the third drama therapy project I have been involved with. It is not a normal production. It’s the culmination of a seven-month music and drama therapy programme for Syrian refugee children and underprivileged Jordanian children in Amman, home to many of the more than 600,000 refugees registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Jordan.

Fadi’s family fled Damascus three years ago, when the fighting became too intense in their neighbourhood. He is a quiet, studious boy who happens to have perfect pitch. He lives with his mother, father and three little brothers and sisters in a sparsely decorated three-room flat in Al Hashmi Al Shamali, a poor, if respectable, part of Amman, where many Syrian refugees have settled over the past few years.

In Syria, they had a good life. Fadi’s father, a worried-looking man in early middle age, was an electrical engineer who had his own kitchen appliance business. His mother has charm, intelligence and an air of having once had a happier, more carefree life. Her family also had a business in Syria. But now that life has been reduced to rubble by the war, and Fadi’s father is not even allowed to work legally in Jordan. Like many Syrian refugees, they live largely off diminishing savings, selling jewellery and food stamps from the World Food Programme.

Fagin and Oliver on stage
Fagin and Oliver on stage © Amy Smyth

“This is a great play to choose because Oliver is a kid fighting for his rights, just like me,” says Fadi. “My favourite memory was when we sang ‘Food Glorious Food’ because it required a lot of effort and was a beautiful song.”

Fadi was able to identify closely with Oliver not just because Dickens told a universal tale: the director, the Egyptian movie star and human rights activist Khaled Abol Naga, who had the idea of updating the production of Oliver! to the modern Arab world, pointed out that, with its lack of welfare state, disparities of wealth and squalor, Dickens’ world of street children and casual crime was very recognisable in the Middle East. “Dickens wrote Oliver Twist as a slap in the face for Victorian England,” says Abol Naga. “I want this to be a slap in the face for the Arab world.”

Two years ago with my husband, the writer and film-maker William Stirling, and the film producer Georgina Paget, we started a small non-governmental organisation focusing on drama therapy. The purpose is to allow refugees to work through their trauma and depression, and to help them make new friends and build communities. We don’t work with people in the refugee camps but in Amman itself, which is home to the majority of Syrian refugees in Jordan. We were advised by the UNHCR that refugees living in town are often more isolated and depressed; the camps, after all, have their own community, whereas in a town, you have to survive on your own.

Last autumn, when we were working on our second project, an Arabic language radio soap opera with Syrian refugees, many of the women asked us if we could come up with something for their children. Fadi’s mother said at the time: “My children are very lonely in Amman. They don’t have any friends.”

So the idea for Oliver! in Arabic was born. We chose Oliver! not just because it’s a fantastic musical, with fabulous songs, but because we thought Oliver — a child, uprooted from his real place in the world, and abandoned, who is faced with temptation, but retains his integrity — and the gang of street kids, would be kids the Syrian children could identify with. That’s a key element to drama therapy — you need a play your characters can understand. It helps your participants explore their own issues, and it means you’ve got a good chance of the cast delivering an artistically strong performance by playing characters close to themselves. And fate rewards Oliver with a happy ending, which gives the children hope. We also wanted to involve Jordanians, to help make links between Jordanians and their Syrian guests. The Syrians are the third major wave of refugees the small country of Jordan has welcomed in two generations.

Many of the women who had previously been involved with our NGO were keen for their children to be involved. And out in Jordan, our local project manager, Reem al Sayyah, and her younger sister Anwar, two more Syrian refugees, went round local schools asking children if they wanted to be involved; the answer was yes. Reem, an IT graduate, and Anwar, now studying for a degree at Wright State University in the US, had both been in our original drama therapy project two years ago, an updated version of The Trojan Women, Euripides’ great anti-war tragedy about refugees.

So we had the kids, but we still needed the money. After contacting the British theatre producer Cameron Mackintosh, he rather magnificently promised us a substantial part of the budget, so the workshops could start while our fundraising went on. The next hitch was a shortage of drama and music therapists, so we set up a week-long training programme under the guidance of Wael Qadour, a Syrian expert in community drama. One hundred children turned up to our first workshops in April.

To begin with, the children were nervous and quite shy. The boys played on one side, the girls on the other. In the workshops they did movement classes, singing and trust games. After six weeks of workshops, three times a week, they were just a gang of kids playing together, happily and confidently.

“I loved the workshops at the start. We started off as strangers and now we are all friends,” says Laila Mustafa, 12, a Syrian refugee who played a female character called Shokolata in the musical. Shokolata, based on Dickens’ character Charley Bates, is one of the child thieves in Fagin’s gang and sidekick to the Artful Dodger. Laila’s family also fled to Jordan three years ago; her father was an architect in Syria. Like Fadi’s father, he is not allowed to work legally in Jordan. He helped us out organising workshops and supervising the construction of the set. Laila’s family turned out to be talented: two of her little sisters were also on stage.

In mid-May, we held auditions and got down to 40 children. And then the serious music lessons started; the children had to learn the songs from Oliver! The workshops continued, three times a week, then five times, from May until the final dress rehearsal on August 31; essentially, it was an Oliver! boot camp. The children learnt to sing, dance and act.

They learnt to feel part of something again, they belonged. Sayyah, a 16-year-old Syrian refugee boy, says: “I began to feel as though we resembled a single hand; this Oliver! play changed something in my heart.”

Two cast members backstage
Two cast members backstage © Amy Smyth

Paget put together the directorial team; once Abol Naga was involved, things got rather grander: he brought in Zainab Mobarak, Disney’s top translator in the Middle East, who wittily translated and adapted the songs. It was also thanks to Abol Naga that Nayer Nagui, conductor of the Cairo Opera House, came on board as musical director. Fagin was played by Elhami Amin, a well-known Egyptian opera singer. The singing coach was Karam Shakour, a Syrian and one of the most respected coaches in Jordan.

Abol Naga had a very specific idea for a split-level set, based on an anonymous modern Arab town, but visually recognisable as Amman. Mr Brownlow, Oliver’s victim-turned-rescuer, lived the haute bourgeois Amman life on the upper layer; Fagin’s underworld, Nancy’s “Oom Pah Pah” solo in the tavern, all happened on the lower storey. Oliver and the gang of kids went between the two.

When the Artful Dodger (“Noq Noq” in Arabic) and his sidekick Shokolata set Oliver up to steal a wallet from Mr Brownlow, they flee back to the underworld, abandoning Oliver with Mr Brownlow and the police. Ibrahim Omran, the 14-year-old Jordanian boy who played Noq Noq, grinned when he told me: “I understand this. I’m from Hashmi. It’s full of street kids. People are always nicking stuff there!”

But director Abol Naga says: “I wanted to take the kids who live on the fringes of society — refugees, the underprivileged, and turn them into something of which Jordan is very proud.”

Hopefully Oliver! will live on into the winter and beyond. We’re back in London now, still raising money. Our Jordanian supporters want to put on a longer, commercial run, later this year; and possibly do the project again in Lebanon or Egypt. Most importantly, we want to record a cast album, with the children singing the songs in English and Arabic. The funds raised will help Syrian refugees, particularly those still in the Middle East. That includes Fadi and his family. Two years ago, when we first became involved, none of the refugees we worked with wanted to flee to Europe. But now, losing hope in any kind of short-term peace, who can blame them for wanting to look elsewhere? Fadi’s mother said that she, too, had been thinking of trying to leave Jordan before Oliver! “But now Fadi is refusing to go,” she says.

“No way,” says Fadi, picking out “I’d Do Anything” on the electric piano we had given him as a birthday present. “I’ve got lots of friends here. I love being in Jordan now.”

For more information or to donate, please go to syriatrojanwomen.org

Photographs: Amy Smyth

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