A Stronghold In The Desert

Fifteen years ago I spent some time travelling through Syria and Jordan. It was my first trip to the Middle East and it was a defining moment for me. Both countries have had a lasting impact, not least because of the richness of their culture and history. In addition to Petra, two places remain very firmly planted in my memory. Firstly the Souk al-marina in Aleppo was a sensory delight,  an incredible bazaar built over 500 years ago under the Ottoman Empire and sat firmly on one of the World’s oldest trade routes. Secondly, Krak des Chevaliers, a crusader castle dating from 11th century, dripping in history.

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Souk al-marina before it was destroyed

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Krak des Chevaliiers before the civil war

Both have suffered badly during the Syrian civil war that has now been raging for 3 years. The Souk in Aleppo was destroyed by fire, and much of the city itself razed. Krak des Chevaliiers has been damaged by shelling and fire too.  It happens to be near Homs, another war-torn, ravaged Syrian city and has suffered accordingly. Both are (or in the former’s case, were) UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Where am I going with this? Well I was reminded of this visit again recently.  I have written twice here already (No Longer A Refugee and No Longer A Refugee #2about a group of women who have fled the fighting in Syria and have become performers in a production of The Trojan Women, a greek tragedy that reflects their own experiences. However, I have recently also become aware of another theatre project with Syrian refugees, but this time with children. Not surprisingly, many of the people fleeing the fighting in Syria have fled to neighbouring Lebanon and Jordan. One of the biggest refugee camps is the Zaatari Camp in Jordan which is currently housing about 150,000 people, an estimated 60,000 of whom are children with only a quarter of these receiving schooling.

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In an attempt to help some of these children, Nawar Bulbul, a Syrian actor, has been working to stage a production of Shakespeare’s King Lear, with Lear recast as the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad and Lear’s daughters as the different factions fighting in the civil war. I will let Ben Hubbard take up the story from here, in his excellent piece for The New York TimesBehind Barbed Wire. 

Behind Barbed Wire, Shakespeare Inspires a Cast of Young Syrians

ZAATARI REFUGEE CAMP, Jordan — On a rocky patch of earth in this sprawling city of tents and prefab trailers, the king, dressed in dirty jeans and a homemade cape, raised his wooden scepter and announced his intention to divide his kingdom. His elder daughters, wearing paper crowns and plastic jewelry, showered him with false praise, while the youngest spoke truthfully and lost her inheritance.

So began a recent adaptation here of “King Lear.” For the 100 children in the cast, it was their first brush with Shakespeare, although they were already deeply acquainted with tragedy.

All were refugees who had fled the civil war in Syria. Some had seen their homes destroyed. Others had lost relatives to violence. Many still had trouble sleeping or jumped at loud noises. And now home was here, in this isolated, treeless camp, a place of poverty, uncertainty and boredom.

Reflecting the demographics of Syria’s wider refugee crisis, more than half of the 587,000 refugees registered in Jordan are younger than 18, according to the United Nations. Parents and aid workers fear that Syria’s war threatens to create a lost generation of children who are scarred by violence and miss vital years of education, and that those experiences and disadvantages will follow them into adulthood.

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The “King Lear” performance, the conclusion of a project than spanned months, was one attempt to fight that threat.

“The show is to bring back laughter, joy and humanity,” said its director, Nawar Bulbul, a 40-year-old Syrian actor known at home for his role in “Bab al-Hara,” an enormously popular historical drama that was broadcast throughout the Arab world.

The play owed its production largely to Mr. Bulbul. Smoking hand-rolled cigarettes and speaking with the animated face of a stage actor who never stops performing, Mr. Bulbul described his journey from television star to children’s director.

When the Syrian uprising broke out in 2011, he joined with gusto, appearing at antigovernment protests, leading chants and drawing the ire of the security services. A play he produced was banned, and a fellow actor who supported the government informed him that he could either appear on television to rectify his stance or expect to be arrested.

“I told him I would think about it, and a week later I was out of the country,” Mr. Bulbul said.

Bulbul watching rehearsals

Last year, he and his French wife moved to Jordan, where friends invited him to help distribute aid in Zaatari. The visit exposed him to what he called “the big lie” of international politics that had failed to stop the war.

“There are people who want to go home, and they are the victims while the great powers fight above them,” he said.

Children he met in the camp made him promise to return, and he did — with a plan to show the world that the least fortunate Syrian refugees could produce the loftiest theater.

The sun blazed on the day of the performance, staged on a rocky rectangle of land surrounded by a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. The 12 main actors stood in the middle, while the rest of the cast stood behind them, a chorus that provided commentary and dramatic sound effects. The audience sat on the ground.

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When each of Lear’s first two daughters tricked him with false flattery in elegant, formal Arabic, the chorus members yelled “Liar! Hypocrite!” until the sisters told them to shut up.

And when the third sister refused to follow suit, the chorus members yelled “Truthful! Just!” until the king told them to shut up.

In later scenes, the king was heckled by the Fool, who wore a rainbow-colored wig, and eight boys performed a choreographed sword fight with lengths of plastic tubing. A few scenes from “Hamlet” were spliced in, making the story hard to follow. And at one point, a tanker truck carrying water roared by, drowning out the actors and coating the audience in a cloud of dust.

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But the mere fact that the play was performed was enough for the few hundred spectators. Families living in nearby tents brought their children, hoisting them on their shoulders so they could see.

After Lear’s descent into madness and death, the cast surrounded the audience, triumphantly chanting “To be or not to be!” in English and Arabic. The crowd burst into applause, and a number of the leading girls broke into tears. Mr. Bulbul said they were overwhelmed because it was the first time anyone had clapped for them.

After the show, as journalists interviewed the cast, the parents boasted of their children’s talent.

“I am the mother of King Lear,” declared Intisar al-Baradan when asked if she had seen the play. She had brought about 20 relatives to the performance, she said, adding that her son was also a great singer.

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Other parents described the project as a rare point of light in a bleak camp existence. Hatem Azzam, whose daughter Rowan, 12, played one of Lear’s daughters, said the family fled Damascus after government forces set his carpentry shop on fire. “We were a rebellious neighborhood, so they burned every shop on the street,” Mr. Azzam said. He arrived in Zaatari a year ago with five other family members, but one of his brothers got sick and died soon afterward, and his elderly mother never adjusted to the desert climate and died, too, he said. He hesitated to send his children to school, fearing that they would get sick in the crowded classrooms, and he kept them from roaming the camp because he did not want them to start smoking or pick up other bad habits. But the theater project was close to home, and his daughter was so excited about it that he let her go.

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“People get opportunities in life, and you have to take advantage of them,” Mr. Azzam said. “She got a chance to act when she was young, so that could make it easier for her in the future.”

The mother of Bushra al-Homeyid, 13, who played another of Lear’s daughters, said the family had fled Syria after government shelling killed her niece and nephew. “The camp is an incomplete life, a temporary life,” she said. “We hope that our time here will be limited.” But after a year here, she worried that her eldest daughter, who was in high school, would not be ready to go to college. Bushra, grinning widely and still wearing her yellow paper crown, said she had never acted before but wanted to continue.“I like that I can change my personality and be someone else,” she said.

(Illustrating photos by Warrick Page for The New York Times)

In his piece, City of The Lost for The New Yorker, David Remnick paints a desolate and harrowing picture of life in Zaatari – lengthy but worth a read.

Everything about this is a tragedy on a grand scale – a culture, lives and futures destroyed, but you cannot help but applaud Nawar Bulbul for what he is trying to do. He has set up a Facebook page and a YouTube channel, Shakespeare in Zaatari, which gives an even greater sense of what is being achieved out there in the desert. Having been forced to leave Syria himself, he continues to fight the Assad regime, even down to refusing to let what are considered to be pro-Assad media organisations film the project.

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Nouar Bolbol

Bulbul (left) is clearly a man of conviction and I for one celebrate what he is trying to achieve. Yes, it is only a small gesture when you consider that there are in excess of 60,000 children living in Zaatari. However he has chosen to harness the power of the thing he knows best – theatre – in an attempt to heal the brutal wounds of war, violence and dislocation. He doesn’t see theatre as a balm, a salve to make the horrors disappear. Some might say he is encouraging a very partisan view of the experience the children have been through. I would argue that it is simply a way of allowing an understanding of what brought about the situation they find themselves in and the truth about how one man and his regime can inflict incalculable suffering on others.

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