A modern tragedy told by the ‘Queens of Syria’

An all-female cast of Syrian refugees fuses Euripides’ ‘The Trojan Women’ with their own life stories
Reham in rehearsal at the Young Vic © Laura Pannack

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A woman wept on the Young Vic stage, her dark eyes diamond bright. Reham spoke of her wedding day; the husband chosen for her, and his family, with whom she thought she would spend the rest of her life; the wedding presents selected for their new home; the wedding party cancelled because of the tanks in the streets; and how she made her way through the chanting crowds to her bridegroom.

“When I arrived he was carrying a bouquet of flowers and, despite his fear, he was smiling for me,” she said. Not long after, Reham’s cousin was kidnapped, tortured and murdered; his mother, her pregnant aunt, was held hostage by his kidnappers and fought for his release, refusing to believe her son was dead. When she was finally set free, she found her family mourning his mutilated corpse.

On stage, as she spoke, Reham’s sister-in-law, Fatima, garlanded her with flowers, surrounded by a chorus of women.

Reham never dreamed she’d be an actress, let alone perform in one of the most prestigious theatres in the world. But then Reham isn’t really acting. She is one of the Queens of Syria, a group of 13 Syrian refugee women who are starring in their reworking of Euripides’ great anti-war play, The Trojan Women. Directed by Zoe Lafferty, the women have woven their own experiences into the story. The Trojan Women is, after all, about refugees; Troy has fallen, the men are dead and the women of Troy await their fate among the Greek tents. The stories that Reham tells of her marriage, her murdered cousin, are true, and happened in her home city of Homs.

Reham’s journey to London began with the outbreak of civil war in Syria. In 2011, she was 18 and training as a beautician, embarking on married life. But as the fighting between government troops and rebels grew more intense, the flat she had so lovingly furnished with her husband — above his little supermarket — was on a street that turned into a battlefield. “There were tanks on the street and they were shooting,” said Reham. “I saw the gun on the tank’s turret revolve and point at the supermarket. My husband was hiding there behind the ice-cream freezer. I wanted to scream but no sound came. It was like a nightmare.”

Reham and her husband fled in the clothes they stood up in, leaving behind everything, including their wedding presents. She told me how they went back for their stuff, lugging her huge suitcase. “I was a bride! I wanted to take everything,” she said, laughing sadly at her naivety. They ended up cowering behind their suitcases, stuck on the wrong side of the road from their own vehicle, a sniper taking pot shots at them. “My husband said, ‘What are you doing with all that stuff? We will be back in 10 days!’”


Reham, who was training as a beautician before she and her husband fled Syria © Laura Pannack

Four years later, they are still waiting to return. Their damp, gloomy flat in Hashmi Shamali, a neighbourhood in Amman, Jordan, which is home to many Syrian refugees, is a considerable improvement on the rat-infested ruins they stayed in during their flight.

Reham’s journey and mine intersected in a grey-carpeted community centre in Jordan’s capital in 2013. Along with my husband, the film-maker William Stirling, and the film producer Georgina Paget, we were working on a drama therapy project, a production of Euripides’ The Trojan Women, with an all-female cast of Syrian refugees.

The idea had been born in Africa six months before: we’d been hired by a Kenyan fresh produce company to make training videos for their vegetable packers, and had turned the films into a mini soap opera, workshopping scripts with the packers. We’d been struck by how much they had grown in confidence during the process.

Cast members in a script meeting on the roof of the Young Vic theatre in London © Laura Pannack

When I mentioned the project to a press officer at Oxfam, she sighed, “I wish you could think of something for our Syrian refugees!” Willy and I, both classicists, remembered The Trojan Women. Euripides wrote it as an anti-war protest 2,500 years ago, after his state of Athens captured the neutral island of Melos, murdering all the men and selling the women into slavery. It seemed the perfect play to do. All we needed was to raise the money — and find the refugees.

Back in London, we gathered funds by throwing a party and emotionally blackmailing our friends. We found our Syrian cast by going around UNHCR food queues and community centres in Jordan, home to more than 650,000 Syrian refugees. We’d initially wanted to work in the Zaatari refugee camp but couldn’t get permission. However, UNHCR staff unofficially advised us that refugees living in the city were often more isolated and depressed than those in camps. So we approached the Queen Zain al-Sharif community centre in Hashmi Shamali. On the first day, we weren’t even sure anyone would show up, but we ended up running workshops for seven weeks for 50 women. Under the direction of the Syrian theatre director Omar Abusaada and his team, the women acted out events they had suffered or seen — snipers shooting, relations being dragged away. They mapped their journeys from Syria to Jordan; every house, every camp they had stayed in. Twenty-five of them took to the stage in Amman’s National Center for Culture and Arts to put on a performance of spine-chilling power. The production was asked to tour the US, the UK and Europe, but we couldn’t get visas for the women. Meanwhile, we did several other similar projects in Jordan with Syrian refugees: the first Arabic version of the musical Oliver!, backed by Cameron Mackintosh, and an Arabic rip-off of The Archers, set in a Syrian refugee camp, which was broadcast by the BBC.

The cast rehearsing at the Young Vic © Laura Pannack

But it is thanks to the producer Oliver King, executive director of Developing Artists, the theatrical charity which specialises in bringing international theatre tours to the UK, that Queens of Syria, our director Zoe Lafferty’s new re-working of The Trojan Women, finally arrived in London this month”. Our visas came thanks to various levels of political and diplomatic support. We’re still raising money, but we’ve had help from UNHCR, Oxfam, UN Women, various charitable foundations, and corporate and private sponsors.

As Abusaada was not available this summer, King brought Zoe Lafferty on to direct. Lafferty, an up-and-coming young British theatre talent, speaks fluent Arabic and has worked in Syria and the Middle East. “There’s a real need to hear from people who are experiencing things first-hand,” said Lafferty, who spent four weeks in workshops in Amman, creating the revised text of the play with the women from their own life stories. “It is also important to hear not just what is happening now, but the past life experiences — getting married, being a student, having a business; all those things you are proud of but [that] are instantly forgotten when you take on a new identity of being a refugee.”

The women’s lives have changed in the past three years; some cast members have gone, claiming asylum in Canada. Others have fled by rubber dinghy to Germany. Those left behind had more they wanted to say.

Arriving at Heathrow © Laura Pannack

Reham and the other 12 cast members landed at Heathrow on July 3. They had left Amman at 4am. There was Reem, Waed and Anwar, the three twentysomething student daughters of a Damascus lawyer, and their mother Khowla, who had left behind five other children in Amman to accompany her daughters. There was Sham, who had her own pharmacy in Damascus before she, her architect husband and their four children were forced to flee. There was Maha, the wife of a Damascus travel agent, who gave birth to their third child in a hospital ward in the middle of a bombardment while medical staff sheltered in the cellar. There was Hannan, who had left her husband and many children behind; Mais, whose husband had a chain of kitchen-supply shops in Syria; and Diana, who says how much she misses being with her family at Ramadan. There was Rasha, who calls her children the “jasmine crowns”; Fatima and Faten, who is six months pregnant.

“Wow! It’s so beautiful,” said Anwar, as we came out of Heathrow. “It’s so green! Syria is green like this.” Having spent four years in the beige dust of Amman, even a municipal roundabout is a verdant thing of wonder. We drove on into London, past Harrods, past Rigby & Peller. “This is where the Queen gets her bras,” I said. The women giggled: Syria was the sexy underwear capital of the Middle East.

Sisters Waed, left, and Anwar preparing food in the accommodation provided for the cast in London © Laura Pannack

We were heading to Southwark, where King’s College London was providing free accommodation for the cast for 10 days round the corner from the Young Vic. On we drove, past Buckingham Palace, the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben and over the river, to the less glamorous streets of Waterloo. But even the brick facades of Southwark found favour. “London is so beautiful,” said Anwar.

That night, on the way to dinner, the women saw an uglier side of our country. On the Tube, a drunk man started hurling abuse. “Are you terrorists? I don’t feel safe with you here!” Luckily the English speakers in our group were too far away to hear him, and King shepherded the women far up the carriage, away from the insults. He was shocked. A Londoner, he’d never seen anything like that before.

The next day was the dress rehearsal. “We are not here to entertain you! Or sing a song!”, cried Reem in English, to make her point to the audience. “I have an anger and a message to pass to you. We come from the Troy of this age . . . hundreds of thousands of victims . . . millions of refugees . . . everyone wants to bomb us but no one wants to accept us into their homes . . . only the sea opens his arms to us without any preconditions . . . When did it become normal to kill people?”


Maha, who gave birth to her third child in the middle of a bombardment © Laura Pannack

Later, Reem, Anwar and Sham went to the Houses of Parliament to meet MP Maria Miller, chair of the women and equalities select committee. “We need peace,” said Reem, in a meeting room off Westminster Hall, whose tiles and Gothic twiddles resemble the grandest kind of public lavatory. “There are children, women, old men in Syria who are suffering every day. All the powers in this world just make the crisis grow and no one wants to end this war.”

Reem told of the demonstrations in the streets of her suburb of Damascus and those who had been killed, and the helicopter gunship that attacked a funeral. “They fired rockets into the crowd of mourners — 200 people died,” she said. “My father decided we had to go. When we left the next day, there was still blood everywhere.” Reem spoke of their journey through Syria, travelling from house to house. “But wherever we went, it became dangerous again.” And then there was her brother: he had reached military age and Assad’s army was looking for him. “My father knew if we stayed, he would either become a killer or a dead man.”

“We had a good life in Damascus,” Sham, the pharmacist and architect’s wife, told Miller, “but my children were so scared of the bombing. My little daughter tore at my shirt — she was trying to get inside me again. We had to leave.” Sham’s flat in Hashmi, not far from Reham’s, is spotlessly clean but tiny: two rooms on an upper floor. “I miss my pharmacy,” she said. “I miss myself in my pharmacy. It’s illegal for me or my husband to work in Amman. I have to stay strong for my children.” She can’t earn money in Amman but she does voluntary work for Unicef. “This is a dream, being here,” she said. “I never imagined I’d go on a stage.”

In rehearsal © Laura Pannack

The next day was opening night, in the presence of Dame Diana Rigg and Cate Blanchett, who is a UNHCR goodwill ambassador. In the dressing room at the Young Vic the cast were putting on make-up for the show, winding their hair up beneath their hijabs, or digging doggedly with a spoon into lemon drizzle cake straight from the packet: it was Eid, after all, the Muslim equivalent of Christmas, a day of feasting and family, and the end to the four-week fast of Ramadan.

“Really,” Sham repeated. “It’s like a dream.”

The house is packed. The women surge on stage with a crescendo of Euripides’ chorus, in Arabic. Then Reem’s voice cuts in, intoning Hecuba’s words in English, a scourge on the world: “Lift up your head from the dust! Heave up from the earth the weight of your misery, you whom the Gods have cursed. Some agonies are beyond telling, and some must be told.”

Fatima, Reham’s sister-in-law, wanders across the stage, as though through her lost jasmine-scented garden in Homs, miming watering basil on her balcony. She talks of her roses, her neighbour putting up her laundry, the local grocer opening up his shop across the road; a world she had to flee at dawn in her pyjamas when her street was suddenly attacked. “We were all queens in our own homes,” she told me.

Maha comes centre stage. She talks of being rushed to hospital to give birth to her son; through the snipers, the shells, the bombs, the checkpoints. “When we got into the hospital we did not find anyone to help us. They were all hiding because of the bombing,” she says. “My cousin helped me give birth.” She returned home with her baby, but the bombing and fighting continued. “I was terrified for my newborn son and my daughters. I put pillows round the walls of my house to protect them,” she says. “Then I realised we had to flee. We were in our pyjamas and we did not take any of our things.” They fled to a building that had a family camped in every room; they stayed for three months. “Then it was bright like daylight and we were lifted high up from the floor! A car bomb had been placed next to our building.”

She ran with her family so quickly that she left her youngest daughter behind. She rushed back. “There was shattered glass on her and she was injured. I realised, I either stay here and die, or we leave.” Her husband broke the basement window and they all managed to climb out. The next day, a plane came. “It circled overhead. It bombed really hard. It cut through any building. That day I decided to leave Syria.” The family took a bus to Jordan. “What hurt me most was the sight of my son in my lap and the people on the bus singing, despite all the pain, ‘I will write your name, my country, on the sun that will never set.’”

The chorus of women encircle Maha, singing the same song.

The play ends to a drawn-out silence, then the audience rises to its feet, clapping, saluting the cast. The women take two curtain calls before they file out, hugging each other and grinning backstage. The audience, far more subdued, moves into the bar of the Young Vic looking stunned.

“We could see the audience crying,” says Reham. “It made me want to tell my story more. We are representing everyone in Syria. But we don’t want people to feel sorry for us. We want to show that we are strong.”

“Now I understand why this is important,” says Reem, whose anger rips through the play. “Here theatre is seen as ‘high art’. If you want people to understand you, you have to speak their language. We are people like you, who had houses, businesses, colleges. We just lost it because of a war. Maybe this play will never save a life, or return people to their homes, but it is better to light a candle than live in darkness.”

To book tickets for the Gala Night at the New London Theatre or to make a donation, go to queensofsyriatour.com

Photographs: Laura Pannack

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