I arrive 30 minutes before anyone else to do some stretches and press ups, I enjoy being in the big room for a brief morning moment on my own.
The women eventually arrive, Zarifa comes straight up to me, “Dina, why don’t you wear make up?” I ask if I’d look better? “Well, it’s not that, but I’d like to see you with it, tomorrow you should wear make up”. I have been given my orders.
A small group gathers around me, as it does every morning. After brief good mornings, they naturally start discussing the story of Antigone. Hajja tells me, “It’s quite difficult, I read it 3 times but I really liked it. It’s very similar to all our stories you see, we can relate to it.” They discuss who’s older Ismene or Antigone and what clues in the story tell them so. I stand back and observe thinking how brilliant this is. Their lives consist of nothing but having children and fulfilling domestic chores - now they are reading a greek tragedy, debating it’s issues and training to be budding actors. Beautiful.
I begin in the usual way with a warm up game, then focus on voice projection. One task is to stand at the far end of the room, say your name and any fact about yourself - the aim being to speak clearly, slowly and loud. I give a demonstration “my name is Dina and today I ate Mena’eesh for breakfast”. A lot were reluctant to get up, I think because they weren’t sure what to say - I suggest telling me how they got here this morning. Itab and Bridgette liked the composition of each woman standing by the wall, with the sun shining in so out came the camera and boom. The ‘facts’ began with what they cooked for dinner, did last night, ate for breakfast and organically morphed into a form of self expression with things like:
“I’m from [the Palestinian camp] Yarmouk in Syria and we just want to live.”
“I love Syria, Syrian people and I wish them all the best.”
“I miss my village and my family.”
Fatima asks to get up for the second time and sings a song, enjoying the big boom as though she’s in a recording studio with one hand on her ear. First a short Iraqi one (for me - a touching gesture) then a Syrian one. I look round to see who’s turn it is next and notice the energy in the room has completely changed, some women silently crying their eyes out. “Enough of the sad songs, please” says a different Fatima quietly as tears roll down her cheeks. Other women are suddenly desperate to go up and express their thoughts, some for the second or third time. by which point Itab has been called out of the room and Ahlam jumps at the chance to hold the boom. She does a fantastic job without even dropping it to rest when no one is being filmed! We end with Mona giving her presidential style speech:
“My name is Mona. We moved to Lebanon from our country Syria but for the Palestinians this is the second time they are moving. We shouldn’t only think of ourselves and our country, we should all learn to think of and love each other - it doesn’t matter if you are Syrian, Palestinian or Lebanese, we must all live together.” She receives a round of applause.
A heavy intense morning, the mood is sombre. I’m a bit lost for words, should I comfort them? How? I don’t know what the best thing to do is - play music? Maybe they’re not in the mood for silly music? Have a break? We still have 20minutes left. I plunge in slight panic mode and play Estelle’s ‘American Boy’ on full blast announcing we’re playing musical statues. Surprisingly they all join in. Within a couple of minutes they’re all going for it, a great lift and release I expect.
Later the script is discussed with them, asking all sorts of questions and what their thoughts are on it. Five minutes after they have started, I find a couple of women in the toilet. Montaha says,“Oh no, the director, he’s scary! It’s difficult with him because we have to study and answer difficult questions.” She then scurries off.
As we walk out of the building towards the buses, Zarifa approaches me, "Don't forget your make-up tomorrow" and gives me a cheeky smile.
Isra'a has allowed us to film her at home so I tag along with Itab and Bridgette. Isra'a is one of the most dedicated of all the women. Competitive and utterly focused since Day 1, she is obviously here to learn and get something out of this project. A strong and defiant personality, I think she would make a good Antigone. That choice is up to the director however.
She is very open with Itab's line of questioning. At 22, she is not married - unusual compared to the rest of the group. She is from Palestine but grew up in Yarmouk (Palestinian camp in Damascus) and considers herself to be both Syrian and Palestinian. She talks and talks, and I find myself in tears a couple of times throughout her conversation. I'm not going to repeat everything she says, you can watch that in the film, but here is one of the things that I thought was particularly poignant:
Anyone who's got pain inside can release it in many ways, it's bound to come out. For example, I wrote and sang a short rap song and by doing this I was singing for Palestine. We are in a group and this was our first attempt. We wrote and recorded the song ourselves, it talks about our life in Syria and our life here (she then performs her verse of the rap).
When asked why she wants to do this project she says: I want my voice to be heard, I want to do something for Syria and Palestine. Antigone is our story, these stories happened to us. Even if only a few people who come to the performance get the message I'll be happy because this is my goal.
It strikes me that in the West we take way too much for granted. I myself am guilty of that and next time I moan about silly things in my life I will remember these women dancing and laughing.