Another day, yet another atrocity hurled from the maelstrom of conflict in the Middle East, the turmoil which has also resulted in over half of Syria’s people being killed or forced to flee their homes to become refugees. In the evening I attend a performance at the Liverpool Everyman of Queens of Syria, a remarkable touring production, performed by Syrian women from a refugee camp in Amman, which weaves the women’s own stories of exile and war into passages from the ancient Greek play The Trojan Women, theatre’s earliest dramatisation of the plight of women in war.

Earlier this week I watched the BBC documentary trilogy, Exodus: Our Journey to Europe, which told the stories of some of the refugees in last year’s huge movement of people fleeing disaster – on dinghies crossing from Turkey to Greece, along the migrant trail through the Balkans, and in the Jungle at Calais – filmed along the way by those same people on mobile phones.

After a referendum campaign which seemed to establish the expression of racist or anti-immigrant sentiment as respectable once more, these three films gave voice to those who have truly lost their homeland, in stark contrast  to those in this country who, having ‘wanted to get their country back’, now truly believe that’s what they have achieved.

In Queens of Syria, thirteen Syrian refugees, all women, none of whom are professional actors, make personal statements about their experiences plainly with no embellishments. They deliver their words, mainly in Arabic but with some English, with great composure and dignity. The women are the authors of the play, which grew out of drama therapy workshops in Amman in 2013 geared towards a performance of The Trojan Women, Euripedes’ play from 415 BCE which tells of the plight of Hecuba, the Queen of Troy, and the city’s captured women waiting to be transported into slavery:

Alas! Alas! Alas! Ilion is ablaze; the fire consumes the citadel, the roofs of our city, the tops of the walls!

Like smoke blown to heaven on the wings of the wind, our country, our conquered country, perishes. Its palaces are overrun by the fierce flames and the murderous spear.

O land that reared my children!

Queens of Syria 1

An experienced Syrian creative team worked with the women to adapt Euripedes’ text to incorporate some of the real-life stories of the women in the cast – ordinary Syrian women whose lives had been turned upside down by the conflict, and who all readily identified with the characters in the Greek play. This year, the Developing Artists project teamed up with Refuge Productions to bring this production – directed by Zoe Lafferty of the Old Vic – to the UK.

I am not here to entertain you or to sing a song. I have anger, and a message.
– Reem, Queens of Syria

It is an intense and emotional experience to be addressed so directly by those who have experienced war and are now living with the reality of being refugees. Each woman reveals just how much she and her children have left behind, and how little they have retained that is precious to them: for one it’s a photo, for another a coffee pot, for a third a silver bracelet. Each object is central to the personal stories that unfold with stark simplicity, one by one, seeming to suck the air from the Everyman auditorium during the 85 minute performance. At one point the woman telling her story seemed unable to continue, sobbing before continuing.

Queens of Syria 3 Vanja Karas

Nowadays everyone talks about ‘the refugee crisis’. Well, I am refugee. Refugees are humans like me. I look like you. I have a home, a family. I’m not different to you, I just want a peaceful life
– Reem, Queens of Syria

One woman describes giving birth as bombs fall during an attack by government forces. Another tells of her cousin being taken hostage: his mother raises the ransom only to discover that he has already been tortured and killed. Each speaks of what she misses in Syria: one longs to be able to return to the pharmacy that she developed and managed; another remembers her house in Damascus and the window that she opened each morning to the scents of jasmine, basil and rose.

Queens of Syria 2 Vanja Karas

We have become normal. How did killing people become normal?

This drama has emerged from worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War: 4 million Syrians have fled their country, while another 6 million are displaced internally. The women tell how their own suffering enabled them to identify with Andromache, Cassandra and the rest of the women in the ancient Greek drama. Sarah Hemming, in her review for the Financial Times, wrote:

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.

There is suffering, sorrow and anger in the testimony of these women.  But there is also determination: ‘I have a scream I want the whole world to hear.’ The women tell how working on the play and reading Euripides’ text helped empower them and make them feel stronger:

It is like us: we were all queens in our own houses.  We are like Hecuba: we lost everything.

In the end, there is hope: hope that their play will help others understand:

To light a candle is better than damning the darkness.

One of the women in Queens of Syria says, ‘Only the sea opens its arms to us without any preconditions.’ Which might have been the subtext for Exodus: Our Journey to Europe which Euan Ferguson in his review for the Observer rightly calls ‘the most spellbinding documentary of the year’.

The production team behind the film gave memory cards to refugees making the epic journey to Europe in 2015. As a result these three documentary films could reveal details beyond the reach of any journalist.  We saw things that you would only see if you made that perilous journey.

Hassan

In the end, the film-makers focused on six exemplary stories. The first episode began in the Turkish port of Izmir as hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria arrive intending to make the dangerous sea crossing to Greece. One of them is Hassan, a 27 year old teacher who had fled imprisonment and torture in his native Damascus.

Hassan 2

Hassan is desperate to make the crossing at all costs. Like his travelling companions, he puts his life in the hands of the smugglers who prowl the streets of Izmir offering refugees a trip by dinghy for thousands of euros that would cost €22 each if they were allowed to travel legally by ferry. With his smartphone, Hassan films on the overcrowded dinghy, with 65 souls on board, as it begins to sink, with some passengers in the sea clinging  to the sides while others use small water bottles in an ineffectual attempt to bail out. They are rescued – but by the Turkish coastguard. So it’s back to square one in Izmir.

Hassan, who hopes to gain asylum in the UK, eventually reached Calais and the infamous Jungle. But every attempt to board a train or lorry is thwarted and his spirits fall as he sees his friends succeed in crossing the Channel. In desperation he tries, unsuccessfully to enter the UK on a fake Czech passport, but finally succeeds on a second attempt. Three days after being settled in a hostel for asylum-seekers, he begins work as a volunteer at the nearby Oxfam shop.

Exodus

Back in Izmir we meet 11 year old Isra’a, selling black market cigarettes to raise money so that her extended family can pay smugglers €12,000 to take them across the Mediterranean on a dinghy. The family group of sixteen people, including babies and her severely disabled sister, left Syria after their house was destroyed by a missile.

Isra’a and her family fled Aleppo

Over three episodes we are able to follow the eleven year-old as she and her family trek more than 2,000 miles to reach their goal, Germany. Often they have to walk, Isra’a pushing her disabled sister in a wheelchair through rain and across muddy fields. At the Serbian border they are shocked by the total chaos and are forced to endure days in mud, cold and pouring rain with no certainty that they will be able to continue their journey to Germany.

Isra'a

Eventually they reach Austria where Isra’a’s father Tarek is overwhelmed with gratitude for the welcome they receive: ‘I send my greetings and thanks to this country… Put religion to the side. Humanity is more important.’

Isra'a with her father

Watching, you can only think this: these people would be an asset to any country. Ahmad is an English teacher from Aleppo who has had to leave his wife and young daughter behind in a town near the Turkish border that is besieged by both Assad forces and  ISIS.

Speaking fluent English, he is determined to reach the UK, claim asylum, and apply for his wife and child to join him. (Amongst the many things we learn from this series is that, though the UK may be the hardest country to get to, once granted asylum it is easier to reunite a family.)

Ahmad

Ahmad’s journey is stalled several times – first on Kos, waiting for official papers as the Greek island is overwhelmed and the authorities struggle to cope with the flood of refugees, then in Athens where, having left his wife and young family behind, Ahmad is desperate to get to Britain quickly so that he can get them out of an extremely dangerous situation back in Syria.

Rather than take the long and uncertain overland route through Europe, he negotiates with a smuggler for a fake passport that he can use to fly to France. In Calais, his first attempt to cross the Channel almost results in suffocation in a flour tanker. But he refuses to give up, and his second attempt to be smuggled into Britain in the back of a lorry finally pays off. He is granted asylum and welcomed into the home of a couple in Epsom, Surrey: ‘home, sweet home’.

Astonishingly, as Ahmad explains with the help of an atlas, his wife and child must make the dangerous journey to the British embassy in Beirut to make the application to join him in the UK – then make the same journey in reverse to await the outcome!

Ahmad hears his daughter's voice on his phone.
Ahmad hears his daughter’s voice on his phone.

Finally, let me mention a Guardian ‘long read’ that moved me to tears this week. In ‘The Very Quiet Foreign Girls poetry group‘, Kate Clanchy described a project she is involved with at a school in Oxford. Teaching creative writing with the children of refugees, she sought out ‘the quiet ones’ – those silenced by trauma and loss. Their weekly sessions released a torrent of untold stories – and wonderful poetry.

At Oxford Spires Academy – which ‘despite its lofty, English name’ Clanchy notes, meets every marker for deprivation, its students speaking more than 50 different languages – with the help of colleagues she eventually assembles a group of quiet and withdrawn teenage girls.

Miss T’s class, fairly typically, had students from 15 different mother countries. Some were born in Britain to parents from Bangladesh and Pakistan, some were migrants from eastern Europe or Brazil, a few were refugees from war zones: Iraq, Kurdistan, Afghanistan.

The Very Quiet Foreign Girls Poetry Group

Working with other teachers’ classes, Kate would  encourages students to write about their experiences, stimulating them by reading verses by established poets. In her Guardian article she describes the moment when she decided to create a poetry group. It was the shock of reading Priya’s poem:

Priya’s poem came from – well, I had no idea. It was an unlikely thing to turn up in a pile of marking. Yet there it was, tucked between two ordinary effusions, typed in a silly, curly, childish font, a sonorous description, framed with exquisite irony, of everything she couldn’t remember about her “mother country”. This was the opening:

I don’t remember her
in the summer,
lagoon water sizzling,
the kingfisher leaping,
or even the sweet honey mangoes
they tell me I used to love.

her comforting garment,
her saps of date trees,
providing the meagre earrings,
for those farmers
out there
in the gulf
under the calidity of the sun.

or the mosquitoes,
droning in the monsoon,
or the tipa tapa of the rain,
on the tin roofs,
dripping on the window,
I think.

Priya’s poem, My Mother Country, … was like a magic key. I read it to my class, then asked the students for a list of things they definitely didn’t remember, not at all, from their childhoods. In half an hour, we had 30 poems. Sana had written about her mother tongue: “How shameful, shameful, forgotten.” Ismail, who had never written a poem before, who rarely spoke, covered three pages with sensual remembrance, ending: ‘I don’t remember the fearless boy I used to be / no, I don’t remember my country, Bangladesh.’ So many of them – and so good, so clear.

Since then, writes Kate, ‘I must have read this poem to a dozen classes … and asked 200 children to write down what they don’t remember about their native land.’ Read her article – you will laugh and cry over it. But there is one passage that is truly shocking. One day when Kate meets The Very Quiet Girls Poetry Group only three girls turn up:

Ramadan, and exam season, and also July, and also sports day. As a result, there were only three of us there: Priya pale from fasting; Shakila, also pale, also fasting, but she had run the 400m nonetheless; and me. We were looking at drafts, and Shakila handed me a sheet of A4. One side had a variation on a theme I had given the group the previous week, contrasting the morning adhan from the mosque in Afghanistan with the alarms in an English street. As they chatted, though, I looked at the writing on the other side, which was crossed out with a single line so the whole text was still visible and begging to be read. It was about a man sweating, and a scarf and a backpack and suspicious minds – what was this going to be, Shakila?

‘Oh,’ she said, ‘I was trying to write, you know, about terrorists.’

I’ll leave you to read the article yourselves find out what was on Shakila’s mind.

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3 thoughts on “Stories of exile: Queens of Syria, Exodus and the Very Quiet Foreign Girls’ Poetry Group

  1. Hi Gerry,
    Nothing to do with this blog.
    Just saw that Steve Reich doing a live performance on Edge Hill Station, and wondered if you might be interested.
    Mike

  2. Your comment below strikes an hard-hearted note:-

    “in stark contrast to those in this country who, having ‘wanted to get their country back’, now truly believe that’s what they have achieved.”

    No, the folk who’re overcrowded by strangers whom they cannot understand, who’s friends and families have moved away long ago, who’s hospitals and schools are overcrowded, etc. etc. feel like a foreigner in the place where they were born. They have lost their comfort-zone; and know they’ll never get it back. It’s gone, rather like John Clare’s countryside disappeared when the Enclosures came. Even the verges full of dandelions of my childhood have gone. Also, the Rose-Bay Willowherb of Adlestrop is but a shadow of it’s former self.

    Decay and change …

    We can but try to safeguard some little bits for our grandchildren. That’s all.

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