Joyce McMillan: Survivors of Syrian conflict find their voice

Queen of Syria
Queen of Syria
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When Reem Alssayyah first walked into a rehearsal-room in Amman in the autumn of 2013, and began to read the script of Euripides’ Trojan Women, her eyes fell on some lines spoken by the defeated Trojan queen, Hecuba, whose terrible plight forms the centrepiece of the drama, first performed in Athens 2,400 years ago.

“Come, let us mourn the sad fate of our Troy,” says Hecuba. “Look at her! She is choking in smoke and ashes.” And Reem, a 22-year-old former student, recognised the feeling; for when she last left her home in the Damascus suburb of Sayyida Zeinab, her street too was collapsing in smoke and flames, under the weight of relentless bombing. “My house is totally destroyed now,” she says. “There is nothing there but destruction. So I thought, this story is mine. It happened, all those thousands of years ago; and now, look, it’s happening again.”

Reem was working on the play along with a group of 50 Syrian refugee women living in the Jordanian capital, Amman, as part of the 600,000-strong wave of refugees who have arrived in Jordan since 2011. Eking out a living in overcrowded flats or makeshift urban camps, those refugees who have managed to make their way to the city are leading precarious lives at best. And when the British husband-and-wife film production team Willy Stirling and Charlotte Eager suggested to Oxfam that they offer refugees in Jordan a chance to tell their stories through drama, the idea was born of advertising around the refugee medical and relief centres in the city’s suburbs, and trying to find women who would take part in a staging of The Trojan Women.

“Charlotte and I are both classicists,” says Willy Stirling, who is the son of Scottish theatrical impresario Archie Stirling. “So we knew that this was a great anti-war play set in the region where the Syrian war is taking place. People said it was culturally inappropriate, and we were imposing a western art-form on people to whom it meant nothing. But we knew this story was a great Mediterranean myth, that you can still see being re-enacted all over the region in various forms.

“Of course, our first thought was to make a film, and we did make a documentary about the process leading up to the first production. But our instinct was that a live performance would be the right thing, in this situation. When you make a film, the control always finally lies with the director and the editor; they shape the event you see. In live theatre, though, once the lights go down, the cast have to take ownership of the event, control it, and make it their own; and we thought that would be a far more powerful experience, for people who have spent years at the mercy of forces over which they have no control at all.”

So Stirling and Eager raised more than £80,000 for the project, hired a Syrian director, Omar Abusaada, and put together a supporting team all of whom – from the producer to the actor-trainers and the psychotherapist who helped women work through their own experiences – were themselves female Syrian refugees; and then they waited to see if any women would come along. At first there were none, then half a dozen, then 20, then 50; and with a creche on hand for the women’s young children, work began, as Abusaada set out to reshape the play so that within its framework, the women could begin to tell their own stories.

Twenty five of the woman agreed to take part in the first public staging of the work, which opened in Amman on 17 December 2013, in the middle of the heaviest snowfall the city had seen in a century. “We walked out of Syria, we’re not going to be stopped by a few feet of snow,” said the women. The production – with a simple, thrilling design echoing the look of a traditional Syrian funeral – was an overwhelming success, attracting instant international attention; and now, three years on, ten members of that original group, plus three new recruits, are about to set out on a UK-wide tour produced by Oliver King of Developing Artists, and directed by Zoe Lafferty, an Arabic-speaking British director who has often worked with the famous Freedom Theatre of Jenin in Palestine.

“I think my concern is that the personal, individual aspect of the production should keep coming out,” says Lafferty, in a break from rehearsals in Amman. “These are people that many in the West have almost stopped relating to, because we only see statistics; so it’s important that the individual humanity of each of these women is seen, and is at the centre of the play.”

“I never imagined that I would do anything like this,” adds Reem Alssayyah. “But the more we worked on the play, the more I began to like it. It felt as if we were doing something unbelievable, a real adventure. We are not acting here, but telling our own stories, and the first director, Omar, was really incredible in making it possible for us to let go, speak up, and tell our stories really loud, instead of just keeping everything inside, as women in our society often do.

“And this has opened up so many different doors for me. I’ve met so many different people, and I’ve learned that so many people have stories like mine, or worse. When I left Syria, I lost my education, didn’t graduate, felt as if I had lost everything. But now I’m studying IT, I’m writing, drawing, reading, doing what I love; and I feel that wherever we perform this show, our voices can finally be heard.”

• Queens of Syria opens at the Young Vic, London, next week, and is at Assembly Roxy , Edinburgh, 19-20 July