So long, intractable and horrific has the Syrian war become that, terrible to say, western observers have become almost used to it. Harrowing pictures of flimsy boats packed full of people or families trudging with their possessions on their backs — these have become customary in the media. At a press conference to introduce Queens of Syria, an official from the UNHCR explained that there are now more than 65m displaced people in the world.
This exceptional piece of theatre expresses what it means to be part of that humanitarian crisis. Quietly, but emphatically, it punches across the statistics to give voice to individual women who know what being displaced is — women who have been through the experience of losing their homes, their livelihoods and their identities, who can tell us what it feels like to wake up one day and find yourself a refugee, an image in a tabloid newspaper.
Thirteen exiled Syrian women assemble on the stage and tell us their stories. Potently, their own testimonies are interwoven with extracts from Euripides’ The Trojan Women (written in 415 BC). One of the many shocking aspects to the evening is that such an ancient piece can mix so readily with contemporary experience: the plight of women in war has not changed in two and a half millennia.
Zoe Lafferty’s staging (a co-production with Developing Artists and Refuge Productions, now undertaking a UK tour) is understated yet profoundly moving. What the women have lost is what we all take for granted: the ordinary fabric of everyday life. They recall details of their homes — the balcony on which you might sun yourself as you sip your tea, the smell of jasmine, the neighbour hanging out the laundry, the children’s swing. They voice aloud letters to loved ones from whom they are separated. One tells the awful story of giving birth in a deserted hospital and her escape from the country with a newborn baby.
None of the women are professional actors, but they deliver their words, in a mixture of Arabic and English, with great composure and dignity. While waiting to speak, they listen, thus reinforcing the importance of being heard. It’s a piece full of pain and longing — above all the women want to return home — but there is icy, humbling rage here too. “We have become ‘normal’,” cries one woman. “How did killing people become normal?”
To July 9, then touring the UK, queensofsyriatour.com