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I shall leave as my city turns to dust: Queens of Syria and women in war

In ‘Queens of Syria’, ancient Greek tales of loss and dislocation in conflict echo through to the contemporary realities of Syrian women refugees, whose experiences of war and exile have often been ignored

‘Queens of Syria’, a film directed by Yasmin Fedda which had its UK premiere in Glasgow in February, seeks to redress the silencing of the experiences of Syrian women who have lived through the continuing war in their country.  In doing so, it also reveals the deeper universals of war that underpin but are frequently obscured by media headlines and graphic ISIS videos – the deep ache of loss for the homeland, and the exhausting task of rebuilding a life after you have watched your homeland burn.

The film follows the rehearsals and performance, by a group of Syrian refugee women now living in Amman, of Euripides’ ‘The Trojan Women.' Produced in 415 BC during the Peloponnesian War, the play's themes of loss, dislocation, and the pain felt by women as war rips through their lives are made hauntingly universal by the rehearsals and the innovative stage production by the women in Amman in late 2013. The chorus of women acting the lines from the Greek text are interspersed with monologues from their experiences in contemporary Syria, but the tones and themes are so closely linked that it is hard to tell which lines are from Euripides and which are from the lives of women who had fled the Syrian conflict

Photo by Itab Azzam, via 'Queens of Syria'

“My fathers and brothers live in the land of the dead” the women proclaim in unison – a line from Euripides but also a fact of their experience in Jordan, where many households are now headed by women as a consequence of the numbers of Syrian men who have died or gone missing as a result of the conflict.  Similarly, in the play, the chorus speaks of women who are “allotted their masters…but all the Trojan women who have not been allotted are in these tents”, conjuring both ancient battlefields and the contemporary image of Zaatari, the refugee camp in northern Jordan where more than 100,000 Syrian refugees now live in temporary accommodation.

The film follows the group of around thirty women, none of whom have acted before, rehearsing for the play in Amman and talking about their experiences, as Syrians, as refugees, and as women adjusting to these new realities.  Several of the women involved make self-conscious parallels between their own experiences and the stories in Euripides’ play, with one explaining  as she cooks in the kitchen of her new, precarious home in Amman: “Hecuba is so close to me…she lost everything she owned. She lost her children and her family… It’s like us.  She was a queen in her house.  Her house was her kingdom, she ran it as she pleased. Hecuba says ‘I used to run this place but now I am nothing.’ That’s us now.”  Another woman performing in the play, more overtly political in her description of her experiences under the brutalities of Assad’s regime, says “the character of Cassandra is similar to me.  This is because I want to avenge what happened to me.”

Photo by Itab Azzam, via 'Queens of Syria'

The film takes us into the internal dynamics and discussions of the rehearsal process, as the women engage in drama exercises such as each writing a letter to someone inside Syria who they want to see – letters which are then read on the stage throughout the performance of the play.  Fredda’s directorial choices, in interspersing footage from the final performance with scenes from the rehearsals and intimate conversations with the women, contributes to the sense of the many interwoven stories, and the recurring themes of the female experiences of war that are so often sidelined.

As the women chant as a haunting chorus: “I will be a slave in the house of my enemies. I will have to forget my love and open my heart to my new husband. And then I will appear to be a traitor to the soul of my dead husband.”  The brutality of the Syrian conflict has played out in a gendered way reminiscent of the former Yugoslavia: initiatives such as the Women Under Siege project, and organisations such as Human Rights Watch, have documented “epidemic” levels of sexual violence as a result of the conflict, as well as torture, physical abuse and arbitrary detention committed upon them by Assad’s forces, pro-government militias, armed opposition groups and more recently by ISIS/Daesh.  The UN has described rape in Syria as a “weapon of war”, and its after-effects follow Syrian refugee women as they flee the conflict to neighbouring countries.  A women’s clinic in the Zaatari refugee camp opened in 2013 by Dr Manal Tahtamouni, who claimed she was seeing 300 to 400 cases a day, mostly from domestic violence and the after-effects of sexual violence, a subject which remains taboo and culturally coded with shame and stigmatisation on the part of survivors.

Photo by Itab Azzam, via 'Queens of Syria'

Euripides’ recurring themes of dislocation and the warped purgatory of life in the aftermath of war echoes through to the experiences of female Syrian refugees, who face a series of difficulties even after they have managed to escape the fighting.  The women draw maps of their journeys from Syria to Jordan, and one woman explains she moved house a dozen times within a year.  As the Zaatari refugee camp in northern Jordan mushroomed from 2013, a bridal boutique shop sprang up to cater for the rushed marriages of young Syrian women – many of whom, according to UNICEF, were under eighteen years old, leaving them at increased risk of domestic violence and an increased likelihood that their education will be abrupted ended.  

Moreover, both in the Zaatari camp and in Amman where the women of ‘Queens of Syria’ have moved to, life as a refugee is stifling and laden with obstacles.  While Jordan has been praised for its efforts to accommodate displaced Syrians compared to the levels of discrimination that Syrian refugees have faced in Lebanon, even in Jordan both the official restrictions on the right to work for refugees and exploitations in daily life have left Syrians in the country with a continued sense of vulnerability.  In December 2014, the UNHCR recorded 640,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan, although the government claims that the real figure is twice as high, and that public services have been strained beyond capacity.

‘Queens of Syria’ touches upon these realities while leaving it to the women performing the play to approach such topics in their own time and on their own terms.  During rehearsals, the women act out scenes of powerlessness, one recalling an incident from Syria as she acts out a memory: “fifteen armed masked men came in. You could only see their eyes.”  The play and the film together thus both speak to and for the women, as the final performance and film convey the struggles of women in conflict to the audience, the workshops and rehearsals provide a space for the women to explore and process their trauma through drama therapy.

Photo by Itab Azzam, via 'Queens of Syria'

Although both the play and film carve out a space for Syrian women to articulate and enact their experiences, the theme of silencing also recurs, from Euripides to the narrative of the documentary itself.  Walking slowly together as a chorus on stage, the women place their hands in front of their mouths as they recite the lines from ‘Trojan Women’ “I have reached the end of my sorrows. I shall leave as my city turns to dust”, moving together both as a chorus and as a presence that shows itself as often voiceless – throughout drama, throughout history and in the present day. 

Silencing is also a more practical theme in the film, as the group of women rehearsing the play becomes smaller every week, starting with fifty women and ending with about twenty participants.  The play’s director, Omar, struggles to negotiate with the women who are concerned that appearing on stage will have negative consequences, either for their family lives and reputation, or for their connections back in Syria.  Some of the women attended the rehearsals but didn’t perform in the final play, others have their faces blurred on the camera, others face pressure from their husbands not to perform, and another explains to Omar “I have a brother in Syria. I’m scared this will affect him.” While the final performance of the play itself is deeply haunting, a collective cry of loss and displacement, these behind-the-scenes conversations captured on camera are somehow even more revealing of the intersecting forces that constrict women during and after conflict: fear of political forces, fear for their family, combined with personal family dynamics and their strain on an individual woman’s freedom. 

Both the play and the ‘Queens of Syria’ film perform a similar tightrope walk in terms of politics in the narrow sense, allowing the space for women who wish to articulate a specifically anti-Assad position to voice their position and their experiences of brutality by the Syrian government, whilst also broadening the scope of voices so that the play and film also speaks more universally of the human loss of war.  One woman, Suada, describes how “four hundred people were killed in a massacre where we lived and it wasn’t in the newspapers or television…so I want the world to hear our story.”  Another, Maha, says simply that as ordinary Syrians they are simply caught in the middle of politics, “lost in the middle”, and sings to her child “I am like a flower that has been pulled from the soil.  In exile you only feel oppression.”

From Euripides’ choruses to the contemporary stories the women tell of “snipers on our beautiful street” the tales of human suffering in war layer over one another, and build to the crescendo of the final performance, where the women’s many voices speak of all that has been lost.

 Queens of Syria opens 6 July in London at the Young Vic Theatre before touring the UK.

This article was first published 2 March 2015

About the author

Heather McRobie is a novelist, journalist, and former co-editor of openDemocracy 50.50. She has written for Al Jazeera, the Guardian, the New Statesman, and Foreign Policy, amongst others. She researches and lectures on public policy at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, and previously studied at the University of Oxford, University of Bologna and University of Sarajevo. Her latest book Literary Freedom: a Cultural Right to Literature explores the issue of hate speech in literature and the philosophy of freedom of expression.  Follow her on twitter @heathermcrobie 

 


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