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Syria - The Trojan Women

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I stood in the Frontline Club behind the podium, staring at the row of faces I was asking for money. Behind me on a projector ran a constant loop of harrowing images from the Syrian war - the dead, the wounded, the broken cities; young men with gasmasks to protect against chemical weapons attacks, women and children forced to leave their homes, huddled, hundreds to a room in the foreign lands where they've been forced to take refuge.

This was the fundraiser evening for our Syria Trojan Women project. The aim of this project is to stage a production of Euripides' great anti-war tragedy The Trojan Women with a cast of amateur Syrian refugee actors and crew in Amman this autumn.

I'd just got back from Jordan two days before the fundraiser, where thanks to Oxfam, I met many Syrian refugees. There are now two million Syrian refugees, 10% of the population. And half a million of them are in Jordan.

Some I met were corralled into Zaatari camp, an instant-put-up desert mini city of 120,000 people in portakbins, surrounded by razor wire and patrolled by the Jordanian Army to stop the refugees escaping.

Others I met were urban refugees in Amman; men and women struggling to survive in the world outside the camp, a life made much harder as they are forbidden to work by the Jordanian government - itself struggling to cope with the third tide of refugees to hit Jordan in forty years.

One might think that people in this situation would not necessarily be receptive to the idea of performing a 2,400 year old play. But when Oxfam's Jordan-partner Voice, first introduced me to a group of black head-scarved, black robed women, their faces lit up. We were in a large cool basement in a villa on the outskirts of Amman, which was being turned into a community centre by Oxfam for the refugees. It smelt of comfortingly of wet cement and olive trees. There was a garden, and beyond the garden, a view of olive groves and the hills. It was a peaceful place, bathed in the warm September light.

For the last hour the Syrian women had been taking part in a group psycho-therapy session, talking sadly about their past and their troubles dealing with the present. But now they were smiling. "This is a wonderful idea," said one woman. "We carry so much sadness in our hearts. Now we can share it! It will be a lovely change." "Will it be on television?' asked another excitedly. "I haven't been in a play since school!" I explained that there would also be paid work - carpentry, scenery painting, catering, costume making. They were even happier. "We'll go and ask our husbands," they said.

They can identify, of course, because the Trojan women is a play about refugees. It's set just after the fall of Troy; the men of Troy are all dead, and the women, refugees, await their fate by tents of their new Greek overlords.

Euripides wrote the play in 415 BC as a protest, after the Athenians' took the island of Melos, killed all the men and sold the women into slavery.

But the tragedies of war are eternal. I heard the Trojan Women on the BBC World Service in the autumn of 1992: I'd just spent the summer in the refugee camps in Bosnia and there - on the radio, in words written 2 ½ thousand years ago - were the same stories I'd been listening to for weeks - murder, rape, devastating loss. And all the Syrians I met understood: this ancient play is a chance for them to tell their own stories to the world.

The play will be directed by a distinguished Syrian theatrical director who has long experience of drama workshops with amateur actors, both in refugee camps and in prisons. He will work with the refugees to incorporate their own stories into the text, so that instead of the characters bewailing that the Greek spears have laid low the towers of Ilium, they will tell of mortars, air-raids, and snipers and children killed by shrapnel in their classrooms.

The point of this project is to alleviate the refugees' depression, to try and flick a switch in their brains to help them think more positively about life, to give, as much as possible, a bit of paid employment and contact with a world outside the apartments, schools, tents and cellars where they are staying. To open new opportunities to people who feel they have lost everything and are cut off from the world.

Taking advice from the UNHCR and Oxfam, our plan is first to put on the play in Amman, working with urban refugees who are often more isolated and depressed than those in camps; then to take the play on a tour of the refugee camps in Jordan.

But there is also another agenda: to raise awareness of the Syrian refugees' plight and money to help alleviate it. The award-winning Syrian-Palestinian documentary maker Yasmin Fedda is making a TV documentary about the project. While we are running the drama workshops , we will also be arranging a fund-raising gala performance in Amman. The director would also like to take the play on tour, maybe to the Edinburgh Festival and London. And, with any luck, depending how much money we raise, we will be able to roll the project out, expand the drama workshops to the refugee camps, involve more people. Perhaps even expand the project to other refugee crises.

And in March, we are shooting a film of the Trojan Women, in English and Arabic, with the award-winning Palestinian Anne-Marie Jacir as consultant director, aimed at festivals and art house cinemas. It's the first ever UK-Palestinian co-production.

But the play itself is what we are concentrating on now and we're now well on the way to raising all of our financial target of £75,000, although more is always welcome. The refugees will create this play, own it and be able to take it forward. For people who have lost everything, we are giving them something new.

The next shift in the psycho-therapy session in the community centre in Amman, was a group of ten Syrian men - from 30 year old taxi-drivers to retired electrical engineers. One plump man in his thirties was wearing a suit - a classic sign of depression in a middle class man who has no job. He could hardly meet anyone's eyes and often wiped away a tear. " He's having trouble with his wife," said a man in long traditional robes with a face like Agammenon. And then I told them about the play. Like the women, they started to smile. The electrical engineer said aggressively, 'But of course the case of Assad is entirely different to that of Troy! Why don't you write a play about Syria?" I said I haven't got time. And Euripides' Trojan Women is a very famous play and people - with any luck - will give us money to put it on. " The former taxi-driver told him to shut up. "It's a great idea," he said. I explained about the carpentry, the electrics, the scenery painting. Even the depressed man in a suit was smiling now. "I can do carpentry, he said. And I can cut people's hair." I discovered later he had had a construction business in Damascus. I'm not sure where the hair cutting came in.

The man in the long robes, with the face of Agammenon stood up to leave. ,
"I will be in your play," he said. I asked him what he did in Syria. He shrugged: "Now," he said, "I am an Actor!" and made an impressive exit.

www.syriatrojanwomen.org
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