Listen to this article
It’s early November and I’m sitting nervously in a huge grey conference room at the Queen Zein Al Sharaf Institute, a community centre in downtown Amman. There’s a white flip chart on an easel, as requested by our Syrian director Omar Abu Saada. It’s pretty empty – just me, Omar, co-producer Hal Scardino and a neat U-shape of corporate chairs. All I can think is: what happens if nobody comes?
This is day one of our Syria Trojan Women drama workshops: a production of Euripides’ great anti-war tragedy, with an amateur cast of Syrian refugee women in a theatre in Jordan. There are now more than 2m Syrian refugees – 10 per cent of Syria’s population – and half a million have fled to neighbouring Jordan. We hope the production will spearhead a longer-term programme of drama-therapy workshops and bring global attention to the Syrian refugee crisis. Or at least it will if the women turn up.
Yasmin Fedda, a UK-based part-Syrian documentary maker, walks in and fiddles tactfully with her camera. Itab Azzam, our Syrian producer, follows and then stares, almost paralysed, at the open door.
The Trojan Women is about refugees, set at the fall of Troy. All the men are dead and the former Queen Hecuba of Troy, her daughter Cassandra and the rest of the women are waiting in a refugee camp to hear their fate. Euripides wrote the play in 415BC as an anti-war protest against the Athenians’ brutal capture of the neutral island of Melos; they slaughtered all the men and sold the women and children into slavery.
We’ve spent the past month tracking down Syrian women who we hope might want to take part. We’ve had the play translated into Arabic, and Omar will workshop it with the refugees so they can incorporate their own stories into the text: from Greek spears and the Towers of Ilium to air-raids, mortars, snipers and shattered homes in Homs.
Last night I could hardly sleep. This morning, Itab says to me: “I don’t think anyone’s coming.” I go into damage limitation mode: could we postpone the project? Move it north to Irbid, a dull, provincial town where nearly a quarter of the Syrian refugees in Jordan live? How can we explain the no-show to our donors who gave us £75,000? But then I remember all the Syrian women I had met; and all those refugees of previous wars I encountered in my old life as a foreign correspondent. Their grief at the lives they had lost; their frustration at not being able to tell their stories to the world.
Three weeks previously, in a shabby flat on the outskirts of Amman, we were given biscuits and glasses of juice by the wife of a Free Syrian Army colonel, watched by her sister, teenage daughter and two little girls. “We’d love to be in the play,” said the colonel’s wife, her beautiful face framed by a headscarf. “Does it matter if we wear our hijabs?”
The colonel’s house in Syria was razed when he defected from the regular Syrian army; his family had to leave everything behind. “This house is in a very bad, druggie neighbourhood,” said his wife. The rent is about £170 a month; they receive £100 a month from the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) and her son works in a shop after school for another £100 a month. That leaves only £30 a month to live on; the juice must have taken a sizeable part of their income. “I’ve had to give one of my daughters in marriage to a Jordanian,” said the colonel’s wife, sadly. “He’s very strict and he won’t let her see her family.”
There was almost nothing in this flat except for some covered foam mattresses on the floor; no pictures, no chairs, no photographs, no toys for the two giggling little girls with huge brown eyes. Then the colonel himself came into the room. He had high cheekbones and a small, ragged beard. “I think the play’s a very good idea,” he said. “I’m not fundamentalist. This beard’s just because I’m too lazy to shave. There are fundamentalists fighting against [President] Assad with us in Syria but that’s because they are well-armed and well-funded. We’re not going to let Syria be an Islamic state when this is over.”
We asked the colonel if he wanted to be in the play: we had the Greek herald Talthybius to cast. He shook his head: “I’ve got to get back to the real play in Syria.”
Next, we visited a flat in a smarter part of town. A large family sat in a soulless room, empty again of anything personal. The husband, an exhausted-looking thirtysomething property developer, was trying to reinvent himself in Jordan. He had fled Homs with his wife, mother-in-law, three sisters-in-law, and three little children. Chilled by the emptiness of the previous flat, we had brought £1 “Barbie” dolls and rubber balls for the children. They clutched them, grinning.
The family told us that their home in Homs had been next to the police station. “It was a nightmare – there was shelling all night,” said the grandmother, waving her arms. “People were killed outside our door. We had to flee.” They were angry with Assad but genuinely bewildered – they could not understand why he had turned on his people. “One of my sisters-in-law is actually against the revolution,” said the husband. She appeared – the only woman in her family not wearing a hijab. “I don’t want the fundamentalists to take power,” she said.
Originally, we had planned to do the project in a refugee camp. Drama therapy is widely respected by psychologists as a way to work through the trauma and depression that refugees can suffer. But we couldn’t get permission. Peter Kessler, senior spokesman on Syria for the UNHCR, pointed out that most refugees actually live in towns. “Urban refugees are often more isolated and depressed than people in camps,” he said.
So Hal and Itab trawled the UNHCR registration centre and hung out at the Queen Zein Institute, asking passing Syrians to join the play. Hal recalls that Itab targeted the women with the brightest-coloured hijabs. “She thought they’d be the most forward-thinking.” Yet there were exceptions. One black-clad woman, so modest she even wore huge black Jackie O shades indoors, greeted the idea with jolly enthusiasm.
But now it’s 10 minutes past 10 and they still aren’t here. “I’m going to go and look for them,” says Itab, heading out through the door.
It was last May that my husband, writer and film-maker Willy Stirling, and I came up with the idea of doing a play with Syrian refugees. Both classicists, we knew how appropriate The Trojan Women would be. It has taken months of meetings and fundraising to get to the empty room in Amman. Oxfam isn’t funding us – just giving us support. It’s a complicated project: as well as making a documentary about the play, we are also shooting a feature-film version of The Trojan Women that Willy and I have modernised and adapted from Euripides.
The film is to be shot in Jordan’s Roman ruins and a refugee camp with a professional British and Arab cast but including, we hope, a lot of Syrian refugee amateur actors as well, some of whom may have been in the play. Itab, a Syrian TV producer now living in London, brought in Omar, a distinguished theatrical director who previously worked at the Royal Court Theatre in London and has done plays in prisons and with refugees.
I envisage a future of little drama therapy groups dotted around Syrian refugee settlement areas. The Trojan Women project being rolled out to other refugee camps, other war zones in the world . . . but first we have to get this play off the ground.
Then Itab walks through the door, grinning, leading a group of women. They are smiling shyly, clutching handbags, children grabbing at their other hand: the colonel’s wife, her sister, many more I don’t recognise, with brightly coloured headscarves hiding their hair. The woman with the Jackie O shades comes through the door.
There are almost 20 in total, from all sorts of backgrounds. Omar gets them to stand in a circle, chanting their names. He divides them into little groups, which the women name Hope and Victory; makes them write stuff on the flip chart. The women relax, put down the handbags that they grabbed as they left Syria; they let their children roam free. I’m refereeing toy-related fights, pulling a plastic bow out of a three-year-old’s mouth.
Then the first workshop is over. The women scoop up their children, chattering excitedly. Dismembered pseudo-Barbies litter the room, like pink, plastic parodies of the war the women have fled. The colonel’s wife tells us that her sister had been a primary schoolteacher back home; she is hired on the spot for the crèche. One problem: we still haven’t got any men. Omar shrugs. “We’re rewriting the play anyway …Let’s keep it just for the women,” he says. “It’s more fun for them that way.”
By day three we are oversubscribed: with more than 50 women in the drama workshop and 51 children in the crèche, we have to turn another 100 women away. We don’t have the budget or the space. After three weeks of improvising, exercises and voice training, Omar whittles the women down to 24 who want to go on stage.
Raneem, 23, fled Damascus with her husband and children because of the shelling. Now they live on UNHCR coupons in a tiny flat in Amman. “The routine was really depressing me,” she says. “When I was told about the project I was so excited. I love acting. My husband immediately said no …but I nagged and nagged him. We’re getting the chance to talk about what we’re going through. We feel we are doing something important.”
“I had always dreamt of being interviewed to tell people what has been happening,” says Suad, another young mother in a blue hijab and black abaya. “Now we are weaving our stories into the text.” The play has personal parallels with Suad’s situation. Her husband was a soldier in the Syrian army but deserted when he was asked to kill his fellow countrymen. “Hecuba turns to have a last look at Troy,” she says. “At the border, my husband told me to look back at Syria for one last time because we might never see [it] again.”
Faten, a 25-year-old former student of Islamic law, whose father and two brothers were killed by the regime, says: “The play has made me stronger. I can face life. I know I will be able to get what I want through hard work.” In her black niqab and abaya, Faten does not look like the sort of person you would expect to see on stage. She lives in a tiny rundown house in Amman with her diabetic, epileptic mother, four nephews and sister-in-law. “I love working with my new friends in the play – it’s like we are one big, happy family,” she says.
On hand to give the women counselling is a psychologist from the Amman-based Syrian NGO Bright Future, who cannot be named because he is wanted by the Assad regime. “Seventy per cent of refugees, once their basic needs have been met – safety, food, shelter – get back into their old routine as best they can,” he says. “Ten per cent need proper clinical care. This project falls into the 20 per cent – those who need help to talk through their anxieties.”
By December we’ve moved to the National Centre for Culture and Arts in suburban Amman. The crèche is set up in the theatre’s canteen. Costumes – black hijabs, black abayas, black shoes – are made by some of the women who don’t want to be on stage. The nervous ladies of a few weeks ago are bustling happily between rehearsals, fittings and the crèche.
A week before the performance, they ask for more money. Omar had advised we should not pay the women because it might attract people for the wrong reasons, but we had compromised with generous transport and food allowances. Now the cast wants a rise to be on stage. We agree: from a budgetary point of view the rise is difficult but it is wonderful to see their new feelings of self-worth.
On the day of the dress rehearsal, a blizzard hits Amman, the heaviest snow in the Middle East for a century. Posters can’t be printed; fliers aren’t ready. Worse, our theatre is on top of a hill. Will we even make it to the dress rehearsal? But these are women who have walked out of Syria. When their bus gets stuck in the snow, they simply stomp up the hill. We don’t have such faith in the audience: the roads are sheet ice at night. Should we postpone the performance? We move the show time forward to 5pm from 8pm, cancel one night, put it on Facebook and hope for the best.
That first evening I am as nervous as I was on the first day. There is still 2ft of snow on the ground. A few aid worker friends trickle in; the colonel brings the rest of his family; the refugees’ families come; strangers who had seen the fliers in cafés in town; a hardcore of Jordan’s chattering classes. Soon the 250-seat theatre is at least half-full.
As a murmuring mass of humanity surges through the darkness on stage, goose bumps go up my spine. The lights come on and Hecuba begins to speak. One by one, the women tell their tale: 21st-century war, transposed to Troy.
As the Trojan women are finally herded into exile, the audience leaps to its feet, shouting “Bravo!” The women, bewildered, file on stage for their curtain calls as the audience stamp and cheer. Then they start to smile. “That was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen,” says the colonel, beaming.
By the time the curtain falls on the second and final night, our Syrian women are waving from the stage at their newfound fans. Offstage, reality sets in; they are crying, kissing each other goodbye, like real actresses.
But it seems the show will go on. Oxfam has said it wants to support more drama groups; the UNHCR is keen for the play to have a run in Amman, tour Jordan, visit other refugee communities, even a camp; and for us to do new productions with new refugees. We’ve been invited to the Tbilisi drama festival this year and Omar is thinking of the Royal Court and Edinburgh Festival – if we can sort out the women’s visas; if they can square it with their families. And, for this, they will be properly paid.
Could you travel to London or Georgia? I ask 23-year-old, unmarried Reema. “I always wanted to travel. It’s my dream,” she beams. No longer a refugee, but an actress on tour.
Additional reporting by William Stirling
For more information, visit syriatrojanwomen.org
Get alerts on Syrian crisis when a new story is published