Syrian Stories in Beirut

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Syrian Stories in Beirut

Beirut’s Hamra district is the city’s wheel of fortune. Extravagant shop fronts glitter high above the blankets and boxes of the poor and the destitute, many of whom are Syrians fleeing the conflict over the border, mostly mothers and children. Their constant presence in Hamra has allowed them to sink into the fabric of the area as they jostle for position alongside the man’ousheh carts and taxi drivers. Bothersome to the Lebanese jet setters, who have seen it all before, these Syrian refugees compete in the Hamra buzz for attention and money while their stories continue to go untold and unchanged.

And yet, scattered here and there on the sides of buildings, is a poster for a play entitled Antigone of Syria. The poster intriguingly claims it to be”‘a reinterpretation of Sophocles’ text by a cast of Syrian women.” This in itself is not lost on the Lebanese audience, a country utterly exasperated with being the beast of burden for the region’s crises over half a century and, this time round, the recipient of over one million refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria. The beggars in Hamra are not the first that the Lebanese have seen and they will not be the last, but if there is any ethnic group or nationality that is currently bearing the brunt of years of frustrated racism and anger, then right now it is the Syrians.

By the time I watch the play, the last in a line of three performances at the Madina Theatre, interest had grown. The ticket booth reaches souq-like proportions of noise and fuss as the play sells out and people are asked whether they would mind sitting on the floor as all of the seats are now taken. With the auditorium utterly packed, the play begins.

The women in the play themselves also experience absence as a part of every day life; the loss of relatives and homes

The play’s self-identification as a “reinterpretation’”is entirely valid; the Sophocles text is barely referenced and remains, if anything, a vague outline to an otherwise original shape. The play is, in reality, a culmination of an 8-week workshop aimed at an all-female group of Syrian refugees from camps around Beirut. The workshop itself, run by Aperta Productionsin, is somewhat of an act of “theatre aid”, and the selection of Sophocles’ Antigone could not have been a finer choice. It was evidently chosen for its themes of tragedy, state control, and familial duty that pervade through the life stories of the actresses.

Notably, the roles of Antigone, Ismene, Haemon and Creon are not taken up by individuals. The entire cast of women moved and spoke together in the tradition of a Greek chorus and then a particular actress would walk to the front of the stage with a microphone and deliver a monologue. These were neatly tied into the running narration of one of the actresses’ diaries, covering not only the series of workshops but her own sentiments as the play progressed.

Syrian female refugees perform at the opening night of Antigone of Syria in Beirut.

Syrian female refugees perform at the opening night of Antigone of Syria in Beirut.

And then came the stories. Stories of dead brothers, dead fathers, dead sons. True to the title character Antigone, the sparsity of the stage set-up combined with the juxtaposition of chokingly broken solo performances and the monotonous foreboding of the Greek chorus underlined Antigone of Syria as a play of absence. Antigone loses her brother and her freedom in one deft stroke of state control and is left to die alone in a cave. The women in the play themselves also experience absence as a part of every day life; the loss of relatives and homes, where longed-for memories and ideals mix together in their solitude as they attempt to reconcile themselves with the fate that has befallen them.

The most horrific parallel between Antigone and any of the characters belongs to the narrator, Mona, who lost her son to Leukaemia and was unable to give him a proper burial: “His grave is still without a stone.” Sharing Antigone’s anguish at not seeing her loved one properly buried, Mona, however, relented to the power of the state, and was forced out of Syria. She spoke of her guilt but then asked the most important question of the play: “Would Antigone have done the same had she had children of her own? We are not the daughters of kings. We are ordinary people.”

The fates of these women, unlike Antigone’s, still hang in the balance

Rather brilliantly, this is not the Greek tragedy Sophocles envisaged. Its breaks into comedy reminded everybody in the audience that these are not the distant, one-dimensional characters of the tragic genre, but the everyday women and “ordinary people” that Mona epitomised so well. One girl showed the audience the high heels that she had resolutely walked in during the exodus from Syria; another recounted how her ultra-conservative husband had forced her to cover her face with a headscarf and her joy one day when she realised that it had blown away in the wind while she was doing the laundry.

The question about this remarkable group of women was not whether they could act or not; the problem is that, for the past four years, they have done nothing but act. Silenced by the tyranny of Syria’s war, they began the Antigone workshops afraid of using the pronoun “I” when telling anecdotes. With this play they finally reclaimed their opinions and identities and brought courage and honesty to two worlds; a Syria of fear and antagonism and a West governed by media hyperbole. Mona called the cast “Antigonat”, as if to say that every woman there felt like an Antigone in their own right. But she was wrong; the fates of these women, unlike Antigone’s, still hang in the balance. As the women bowed to their standing ovation some beamed radiantly; others stared blankly into the abyss of the audience. The play and the workshops are over. What will they do now?

Aperta Productions are still welcoming donations towards the project, as all proceeds go towards the wages for the actresses.  More information can be found here.

Image credit: Tabitha Ross

Sophia Smith Galer is an undergraduate student at Durham University studying Spanish and Arabic. She is currently on her Year Abroad and is based in Beirut, where she is studying at the Institut Français du Proche Orient in association with the University of Paris-Sorbonne. In addition to her studies, Sophia presents a weekly show at Radio Beirut where she interviews local musicians.  She is documenting her time away here.