Last month marked the end of the third year of crisis in Syria, where violence and destruction have had devastating effects on more than 9 million people in the country, and have displaced more than 6.5 million from their homes.
Our last post discussed the relevance of many of the themes of Homer’s Iliad to the modern world. A strikingly poignant example was featured by the UN Refugee Agency this past January (http://www.unhcr.org/52caab976.html), and again more recently by the BBC as interest in the story has grown (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01tcm8j?ocid=socialflow_twitter). Both articles discuss an amazing initiative started by the Syrian director Omar Abu Saada, who has striven to make the voices of the victims of the crisis heard in a rather unconventional way: through Greek tragedy.
In The Trojan Women, the 2400 year old play written by Euripides in 5th century BCE Greece, Saada recognized all-too-familiar experiences and stories; though the mythological female characters of the play lived very different lives two and a half millennia removed from the present, Saada saw in their stories the same plights as modern Syrian women: displaced, widowed, injured, tormented, and longing for a home they had so cruelly lost… Yet also strong, brave, and spirited women, striving for normality and dignity in a world of sudden chaos and upheaval.
For the play’s cast of 24 Syrian refugee women, most of whom had never even been to the theatre, their participation in Saada’s project was a transformative experience. Being part of the cast not only enabled the women to relate to one another through their shared experiences, facilitating the formation of a strong sisterhood amongst the diverse group of women, but also to relate to the characters in the story. Reem Shariff, a 22 year old student who left her home in Damascus and fled to Jordan a year ago, saw a direct parallel between her own experience and that of the Trojan women: “What happened in the past is happening now. In the play, I tell my story of when I travelled from Syria to Jordan and how difficult it was. I have learned so much from this experience.”
Even more recently, a similar initiative was established in the Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan; this time, however, the refugees were treated to a Shakespearean tragedy performed entirely by the children of the camp (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/01/world/middleeast/behind-barbed-wire-shakespeare-inspires-a-cast-of-young-syrians.html?partner=rss&emc=rss&smid=tw-nytimes&_r=1#). The play was a unique mix of King Lear and Hamlet, described by many parents as “a rare point of light in a bleak camp existence.”
Projects such as these and the overwhelmingly positive responses they have elicited prove that people need more than subsistence to survive. One refugee called the camp “an incomplete life, a temporary life,” but opportunities to engage with human stories, to look at life from new perspectives, and to form bonds with those with shared experiences provide meaningful experiences amidst this senseless upheaval.
“I feel so happy I could cry…It was so wonderful.” Reem Shariff’s words following her performance are testament to the timeless power of storytelling. Moving, transformative, therapeutic, and at times devastating, stories have been, and always will be, integral to the shared human experience.