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A Greek Classic Resurfaces in Syrian Women’s Voices

BERLIN—Alaa Naser, 27, haltingly walked to center stage and sat in a chair positioned in front of a video camera. Another woman, a casting director, stood at the front of the stage with her back to the audience.

Naser’s face, insecure and sullen, appeared on a projector screen mounted on the proscenium of Berlin’s iconic Volksbühne theater in a performance earlier this month. A row of eight other hopeful, would-be actresses were seated in a row at the very back of the stage. They were barely noticeable, but always present, and waiting for their turn in the hot seat.

After Naser sat, the casting director, her back still to the audience, began her questions. “Do you think of Iphigenia’s death as a sacrifice or a suicide?” she asked in Arabic.

Panels lining either side of the main screen translated the dialogue into German and English.

“Even if I were to see Iphigenia’s act as a sacrifice, I feel it’s a selfish one,” Naser replied.

The interviews continued one by one as nine young Syrian women, now living as refugees in Germany, dramatized auditions for the lead role in a modern interpretation of the ancient Greek tragedy, “Iphigenia in Aulis,” written by the playwright Euripides in 406 BC.

In his modern interpretation of Euripides’ classical work, the Syrian playwright Mohammad Al Attar departed from Euripides’ tragic plot in favor of documenting his actresses’ lived experiences with war, familial obligation, love, passion and sacrifice through a production comprised almost entirely of reenactments of auditions for the play. The production combines purposes, providing a powerful experience for the audience and a healing experience for the actresses who have participated in it.

Hebatullah Alabdou, 18, from Syria, lives in Berlin with her family, where she’s pursuing her high school diploma (Photo: Austin Davis).

Euripides’ original drama detailed the plight of Agamemnon, head of the Greek coalition forces during the Trojan War, as he struggles with the decision of whether or not to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia, to the goddess Artemis to bring his troops to Troy. If he ignores Artemis’ demand for blood, the goddess threatens to start a mutiny among his soldiers.

As Agamemnon’s family learns of the difficult decision, they quickly become enmeshed in the expectations of war, civic duty and family loyalities. The young Iphigenia, not wanting to let down her country or her father, ultimately surrenders herself to fate, proclaiming that she’d rather die on her own terms than be dragged to the gallows.

Al Attar’s interpretation of the play is a documentary of the young women’s lives, providing audiences with a window into the inner struggles of a group the playwright believes have paid the heaviest price in the Syrian civil war.

“They occupied a pivotal position in confronting the political operation at the beginning of the uprising,” he said, in an interview, adding that many Syrian women were working to change their society before the war. “We tend to ignore or forget sometimes that they also were fighting on other fronts. They were fighting the patriarchal authorities and these strict social doctrines.”

Iphigenia premiered in September at a much different venue: A hangar in Berlin’s abandoned Tempelhof airport, which served as the city’s largest refugee camp during the height of the 2015 refugee crisis.

Now in residence at the Volksbühne, Iphigenia is the third and final installment in Al Attar’s trilogy of Greek dramas reimagined to tell the stories of Syria’s displaced women. (See a related article, “Greek Drama Finds New Life in Syrian Women.”)

Together with renowned Syrian director Omar Abusaada, the pair chronicled the geographic and psychological journey of Syrian women through “The Trojan Women,” in Jordan in 2013, “Antigone of Shatila,” in 2014 in Beirut, and now “Iphigenia” in Berlin.

All three dramas cast Syrian refugees. Many had no prior experience on stage.

“Being a brilliant actress or having a particular narrative wasn’t a criterion, quite the contrary,” he said. “Sometimes we thought we’d love to have people who have never even had the idea to be on stage. It was more important to see the hidden motivations within them.”

The result is a visceral, almost journalistic chronicle of the diverse experiences of Syrian women now living in Germany who struggle with the trauma of their past while trying to build a life from scratch in a new place they know little about.

“It’s more like a puzzle: We all created it,” Al Attar said. “Each story from each participant came as a unit in and of itself. But how to put the units next to each other, and how then to put all the units within the frame of the Greek tragedy, is our contribution as professional theater producers—it’s really an ensemble work that we all came together to deliver.”

Iphigenia’s storyline of sacrifice for her family’s survival is what originally drew Naser to audition for the production, she said, sitting in the empty main theater of the Volksbühne after she’d had her makeup done for the night’s performance.

After finishing up an architecture degree in Damascus, Naser, originally from Salamiyah, a town  just northeast of Homs, set her sights on Berlin. The city’s vibrant art scene and cosmopolitan population seemed to make it the place for a perfect fresh start for her after years studying in Damascus. Her prospects of finding a job in war-torn Syria were slim to none.

But while drawn to Europe for personal and economic reasons, her decision to leave Syria and make the long journey to Berlin two years ago was ultimately for her family, a narrative that parallels Iphigenia’s.

“Iphigenia is living through war and we were as well,” she said, speaking in English. “Iphigenia has to do something for her family to make them happy and at peace—if I’d have stayed in Syria, I would have seen my mother crying every day, telling me not to go out, that she was afraid and too scared for my safety. I left my family and my home to save my family and give them peace of mind.”

But once when she arrived in Berlin two years ago, she found wasn’t ready for the transition. Overwhelmed and isolated, Naser’s high expectations for a new beginning were shattered. She retreated inside herself and barely left her apartment, she said.

“I was so weak here,” she said. “I spent a year and a half at home without any friends, not speaking to others.”

In the modern presentation of the classic Greek drama, Syrian women living in Germany recount their personal struggles with starting anew in Germany.

The fact that she couldn’t speak German didn’t help.

“I have a problem with both the language and with myself,” she said. “I already don’t accept everything about myself, but I also wasn’t even able to express to others who I really am.”

It took acting in “Iphigenia” and the community she developed along the way to finally break out and find her voice.

“When I came here, my hair was all in my face and my voice was so quiet,” she said of her first days in the theater. “But after weeks, I was able to speak with others. When I speak to you, I don’t have any reason to be weak any more. I can be strong on the stage.”

Naser’s experience is a testament to the power of theater to give refugee women back their confidence after a prolonged period of trauma and isolation, said Ingrid Lutz, director of research and training at the Institute for Theater Therapy in Berlin.

Long practiced in the United States, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands as a restorative treatment for trauma victims, theater therapy first got its start in Germany in 1995 with the help of Lutz and others who helped establish educational programs and empirical studies that showed its efficacy as a therapeutic method.

For refugee women, who at times feel the need to swallow their trauma for the sake of others, the problem lies in re-establishing their self-worth and confidence, said Lutz. Reinterpreting their lived experiences through classical pieces of theater is often a safe and cathartic means in which to do so.

“Theater is a medium where the inexpressible comes out on stage,” said Lutz. “There’s so much that we simply can’t express or explain, but that we’re able to show with our bodies and play out.”

Al Attar is quick to point out that the prime objective of the production is not to be a therapeutic outlet for its actresses, but he’s aware that the very nature of how the project highlights the women’s personal struggles will undoubtedly have that effect.

“We’re giving these women spaces to deal with and tackle really sensitive psychological issues,” he said.

The nine women who take the stage detail their experiences as female refugees in Germany with unrequited love, isolation, forfeiting their passions at the behest of their families and even contemplating suicide.

But even with the serious subject matter, the true takeaway from the play is a message of strength through adversity, said Naser.

“When you leave your family or your home, you feel dead inside. But there’s life that comes after that death,” she said. “I think everybody has a strength inside of them, but they have to wait for the chance to show it. Now, I’m able to show my strength.”


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