Early last summer Antigone’s journey through the camps of the Syria diaspora in Beirut began. Oedipus’s daughter, grief-stricken at the death of her two brothers after they clashed with one another in battle, pays with her life for insisting on burying one of the pair, whom King Creon has ordered be left in the open air as a punishment for his rebellion. This is Sophocles’ Antigone, the ban princess, one of the great figures of Greek tragedy. But who is Antigone today? How is Sophocles’ tragedy a starting point for addressing the tragedy in Syria through the voices of the Syrian women of the diaspora?
It was these initial questions that set in motion our theatrical journey through Beirut—the city that is at once the closest to and farthest from Syria—through its most wretched alleys in the camps of Sabra, Chatila and Bourj and amongst its most recent arrivals. It was here that we began work reinterpreting Sophocles’ tragedy with a group of Syrian mothers, sisters and wives. Of course, Sophocles’ Antigone, like the Antigones of Jean Anouilh, Berthold Brecht, Seamus Heaney and others, are always with us, but truth be told we were not preoccupied with the search for some other classical reference point. We were searching for answers to new questions, answers that might help us reach a better understanding of the complex situation in which we found ourselves as Syrian men and women, today. Were we really destined for tragedy because we tried to change what for so long had appeared to be our unalterable destiny in that country? Who is Antigone today, and what is her struggle? How many Creons does she confront, and who are they? Isn’t it true that Antigone dons many guises in her story, as do the other characters in the text? Who tells our story today? Is there only one story, or do we possess many narratives of revolution and war, pain and hope?
Though the Greek Antigone is a perfect example of a tragic hero, losing everything as a consequence of her determination to take on the authorities, she nevertheless succeeds in passing on her story of war and of the destruction of cities and souls. In defeat she secured her right to tell history from her perspective and her voice rings out loud and clear to this day. We were certain that we would meet Antigones like her, who were triumphing over the harsh circumstances of exile, who bore scars of war and the loss of loved ones with fortitude, with original, unique voices of their own, preserving both our memories and our hope.
And sure enough, during our very first visits, we encountered them, in damp alleys between close-packed houses crowned by nets of electricity cables that stretched away in random patterns. The circumstances in which they lived were perhaps worse than we had anticipated, yet these first meetings, full of questions that saw curiosity combined with hesitancy, clearly showed that the majority of these women were keen to participate in creating a dramatic work. They had no previous experience of theatre, and certainly knew nothing of Antigone, but they did know that they had stories that deserved to be told, and heard.
At the end of last August we held our final meeting in the Chatila refugee camp, to decide when work would begin. It was a sweltering day, the stench of rubbish overwhelming, and because the electricity was off, as usual, it was quite clear that those women who had turned up had no intention of letting their souls and dreams be confined by the borders of this camp.
The first rehearsal took place on September 19.
“What’s a play?”
“Who are the audience?”
“Are we going to talk about politics?”
“Are we going to talk about our circumstances in Lebanon?”
These were the questions that preoccupied the women during the first days. Understanding the theatre as intimately connected to social and political issues came to these women far more easily that the lines themselves, which the women would familiarize themselves with in subsequent sessions. This spontaneous understanding of the essence of theatre, of the direct connection between performer and audience that lies at its heart, is what made this journey a learning experience for us professional dramatists as well.
The women’s initial surprise on discovering this new world called “theatre”, their simple and unvarnished questions about acting, about the role of story and time in drama, and the separate worlds of performer and audience—all these things pushed us to reconsider our own fixed assumptions about our methods and tools and our understanding of their nature. This process of mutual education between ourselves and the women formed the cornerstone of our three-month journey. Over the same period, as a group, we were acquainting ourselves with new possibilities for the theatre and with Antigone herself, yet more than this, we were getting to know Syria, our wartorn country, which grows more and more incomprehensible with every passing day.
To these rehearsals the women brought their stories, tales of children, siblings, houses (built by the sweat of their brow) now lost, enchanting portraits of neighbourhoods and communities the length and breadth of Syria, from the countryside around Aleppo, Hama and Damascus, to the Yarmuk camp, to Deraa. They also brought many tears, and to balance them, much laughter, which reminded us that our Antigones were clinging to life and refusing to give in to despair.
Hajja Fadwa lost two sons in the same year and Heba lost two brothers in tragic circumstances. Mona lost an infant to illness, while Intasar, her father now killed, still waits for news of her brother detained months previously. All of them have been forced to leave their homes, some left them in ruins, but not one of them shows any sign that she will surrender to despair any time soon. Wafaa writes a sweet love letter, while Ruba laughs as she talks of her determination to continue with her new job, despite the fact her father opposed the idea from the outset. Walaa had promised her late father that she would continue her studies and would not let death or displacement break her. Zakia, a shepherdess from the countryside near Aleppo smiles every time she tells us that she will return home to herd her sheep on the unfenced plains.
As the rehearsals went on, the women’s voices became more powerful, their self-confidence grew, and they became more passionate about sharing their stories and making them public, to bring lumps to the throats of all who heard them. It was utterly clear to us, too, that these stories would have form the basis of the performance, within the framework represented by Antigone’s tale.
Antigone and the other characters of the classical text provided the women with an entry point to tell their stories and also a context, showing the audience how these dramatic characters weave into the women’s crises and struggle, and occasionally, their own personalities. With time, the women brought their stories to the forefront as Antigone’s receded, for their tales talk of our current circumstances. There is no great purpose to our remaining trapped in a past represented by Antigone. We all realized that the most important thing was to communicate the struggle that these women were engaged in against many layers of tyranny and injustice, not just those represented by the political regime, but also the entrenched customs of a patriarchal society and exceptionally difficult economic circumstances, their tragedy attracting scant interest in a city—Beirut—that is itself yet to recover from the effects of a vicious civil war.
Today, our Antigones are fighting these battles together, but they are not princesses, they are hard-working women trying to provide for their families. During the rehearsals the spirit of Antigone entered their hearts, even those amongst them who were closer in nature to the heroine’s weaker sister Ismene. But they knew they did not have the luxury of Antigone’s dramatic embrace of death. Unlike Antigone, whose tale has ended and can be set aside, their stories run on, their final chapters still unwritten. They still cling to hope, they fight for it and the chapters to come will be the hardest of all, but the most beautiful, too.
- Antigone of Syria, produced by Aperta Productions, directed by Omar Abu Saada, written by Mohamad Al Attar, with actor training by Hala Omran, will run from December 10-12 at the Al Madina Theatre in Beirut, from 8pm.
Translated from Arabic by Robin Moger