Greek Drama Finds New Life In Syrian Women
AMMAN—Veiled in black with only her eyes exposed, Maysa Ahmed sits in a chair onstage. Other women cloaked in headscarves surround her, a circle of black silhouettes illuminated in the stage light. Above her, a video screen on the ceiling projects a close-up of her masked face.
“Goodbye my beloved,” she says. “Where are the ships taking me away from this land?”
Maysa, a 25-year-old Syrian refugee in Jordan, is playing the role of Princess Cassandra in Euripides’ The Trojan Women. Greek soldiers have sacked her city, burnt its walls, killed its men and enslaved its women.
Cassandra, taken as a slave and concubine, is doomed.
“Fare thee well, mother mine! Dry thy tears, O country dear! Yet a little while, my brothers sleeping in the tomb and my own father true, and ye shall welcome me.”
In 415 B.C., inspired by Athens’ brutal occupation of the island of Melos during the Peloponnesian War, Euripides penned his drama of war, loss and heartbreak suffered by four women. For Maysa, the ancient playwright might as well have been writing about the civil war in Syria many millennia later, and the horrors she has personally experienced since 2011.
“This was my story,” says Maysa, sitting in a bustling cafe in downtown Amman recounting her life in Deir Ba’alba, a suburb of the embattled city of Homs in central Syria after the conflict broke out three years ago.
“Cassandra is me.”
An eternal play
The British journalist, Charlotte Eagar, was covering the Bosnian conflict in 1992 when she heard a production of The Trojan Women on the radio. She recalls how she was struck by the parallels between the experiences of the women of Troy and Bosnia.
“Rape, murder, loss, destruction—it was a completely eternal play,” she says.
Years later, war-torn Syria inspired her to act on her interest in the play: She and her writer husband William Stirling decided to produce it by incorporating the experiences of Syrian refugees.
They had hoped after its first run in Amman late last year to turn the production into a film and bring the play to audiences abroad. It was to open last week at the Myriad Voices Festival, a project of the Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics at Georgetown University, and then go on to Columbia University. But U.S. immigration officials refused to grant the Syrians visas to enter the country out of concern they would not return to Jordan, even though most of them only spoke Arabic and many of them were leaving parents or small children behind.
The incident upset both Middle Eastern diplomats and Washington cultural devotees. “It had the potential to be one of the most galvanizing cultural events of the season,” wrote a reporter in an article for The Washington Post. “This is the greatest tragedy, because in the United States we really don’t have access to the voices of the Syrian people. Who are we hearing from? ISIS,” Cynthia Schneider, a former U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands, who is co-chair of Georgetown’s Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics, told The Washington Post.
The festival tried to feature the production in a different way, and opened September 19 with Voices Unheard—The Syria: Trojan Women Summit. The event featured behind-the-scenes documentary footage and a live discussion with the play’s actresses and its Syrian director, Omar Abu Saada (via live streaming over the Internet from Amman). Policy experts and artists joined in to talk about the political realities in the region and the role of art as a humanizing force.
“Artists hold up a mirror to society and politics and so provide different perspectives from the political and policy focus that dominates Washington,” said Schneider, also a professor in the practice of diplomacy at Georgetown. “Artists challenge conventional thinking.”
And what tale could illustrate the challenging issue of war and refugees and be more universal than the Trojan Women, said the producer.
“War is always the same—women never want it but they are the ones to pick up the pieces,” said Eagar. The Trojan Women “is the first piece of literature written about the plight of refugees.”
Before the war, Maysa Ahmed’s father owned a clothing store in Homs that supported her family. A university graduate in Islamic law, she dreamed of teaching school.
Then one day last year, men from a pro-government militia came to her family’s house and demanded her two brothers come with them to transport rice and other food.
“They promised they would let them go,” she explains as her mother quietly weeps beside her. “Instead, they were later taken to a warehouse and shot pointblank. We only saw them again in a mass grave.”
Echoing Cassandra, she laments her loss as a result of the conflict that has killed more than 200,000 Syrians, uprooted millions more and cost her family their home, which went up in flames along with her most prized possession, her books.
The women of her family went into hiding and eventually crossed the border, finding refuge in the warren-like streets of Jordan’s capital city late last year. Since then, they have struggled to survive along with more than 593,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan.
With most of the men in her family dead, she is trying to earn money for the family, looking for a job as a teacher. But Syrians aren’t allowed Jordanian work permits.
“In the winter we were given blankets by an NGO,” she said. “We sold them to pay the rent.”
Recruiting the ‘real’ Trojan Women
In Amman’s northern suburbs, where many Syrians now reside, Itab Azzam, a London-based Syrian producer, and her colleagues trawled the streets and visited places where refugees congregate, asking women to help in putting on the play.
Waiting in line late last year for her mother’s insulin device at a community center in Amman, Ahmed encountered Azzam and her unusual proposal.
“We thought no one would turn up,” Azzam recalls. “Days later, 100 women were lined up.”
Still, the project got off to a rocky start. None of the women had ever heard of The Trojan Women before and some couldn’t read or write. Acting was an entirely new experience for most of them and all had trouble trusting strangers with the harrowing personal tales of war and flight.
The production schedule clashed with their daily struggles. When some of the women showed up to the first rehearsals clutching toddlers who couldn’t be left at home alone, producers set up an impromptu daycare.
Soon, the women punctually attended the daily rehearsals. The practices gave their days structure and purpose. Not even the knee-deep snow that covered Amman in December kept them away.
The workshops allowed the women to speak about their traumas and share their grief. The producers provided a psychologist to work alongside the women. And Syrian director Saada wove their experiences into Euripides’ play.
“When we first started working, we were surprised at the parallels between the characters in the Greek play and the personal stories of the women,” Abu Saada says. “All of them have been forced to flee their country, most have lost people close to their hearts.”
As the women put more and more of themselves into the play, it returned their effort. “They have lost everything,” Azzam said. “Acting in this play gave them back a sense of control.”
The production also offered companionship many of the women craved. Trusting strangers and making friends was a luxury most couldn’t afford in Jordan.
“Having acted with these women, been on stage with them, they have all become my family,” said Qamr, 41, from Daraa, who is in the play.
But most of all, the play gave the women’s lives a dimension beyond their daily hardships, an outlet for their fears and grief.
“It was very, very difficult to go on stage and tell my story in a loud voice in front of all those people,” Ahmed recalls. “But through the rehearsals, I was encouraged every day. Eventually, at the performance, I did it.”
On a cold winter evening at Jordan’s National Center for Culture and Arts, it was finally show time.
The audience watched, hushed, as the women took the stage and began delivering the centuries-old lines of Euripides in Arabic, the tale of classical Greece peppered with their own more recent memories.
The fate of the women as slaves has been decided. After having buried her grandson, Hecuba, the Queen of Troy, is forced away on the conquerors’ ships. Out of desperation, she makes one last attempt to kill herself in the flames of her burning city, but to no avail. Greek soldiers restrain her.
Before the final words of Hecuba and the curtain closing on the tragic tale of suffering in war that transcends space and time, the lament of ancient Greece merges with modern Syria, as Hecuba speaks through a Syrian refugee.
“Ah my God, I am such a miserable one,” Hecuba says. “Finally I have arrived at the end of my sorrows and sufferance, as I leave my country I see it transforming into ashes.”
Learn more about “Syria: The Trojan Women Project” and watch a video interview with one of the participants here.