Things are a bit hectic this morning because we’re in a new venue called Nasawiya in Mar Mikhael. It’s much smaller than the previous one, everyone is adapting. As we walk from the bus to the room, Montaha looks around, “Is this a Christian area?” Yes. “They don’t have problems like we do between Sunni and Shia. It’s very peaceful isn't it” Then a bit later, “there are lots of bars, do people just sit and drink outside on the streets?” Yes. She is shocked. Rahaf then tells me she once came near the area to visit some distant relatives, but quickly turned back because they were afraid. People out on the streets wearing anything they want and drinking! I suppose it can be intimidating if you’re not used to it. A couple of other women ask me how much rent is in the area.
At the last minute I scrap my planned exercises as there wasn’t enough focus to try something new. So we re-cap on warming up, breathing, articulation and their all time favourite - the Iraqi tongue twisters. We have a journalist watching and during the afternoon session, we sit in a circle answering some of her questions. She asks the women about their situation here, their feelings on this project, why they are doing it and so on. The contentious subject of racism rears it’s ugly head again, something that cropped up at the very beginning of the project. The Syrians say they suffer racism from the Lebanese and the Palestinians who’s camp they share. Both Palestinians and Syrians are exposed to racism from the Lebanese. I hate it. I feel uncomfortable during the discussion and can barely even write it now. One woman jokes, “the Lebanese complain that we are taking their work, now they’ll complain that we’re taking their theatre jobs as well!!” The subject changes to the project, here are some things that were said:
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with what we’re doing.”
“I’d encourage every woman to do this project.”
“The area we live in isn’t nice, it’s crowded, dirty and we are trapped at home but this is such a nice change for us”
“I want to improve myself and my situation”
“In the beginning I told my husband I was doing a sewing workshop. The second week I told him it’s photography and that we are telling them our stories, then last night I said to him - they said that they might put some of our stories on stage at a theatre - and he didn’t say anything!!”
“Some people think we’re not good enough to do this project. My husband told some woman that I am working on Antigone and studying it for the stage and she said - who is your wife to do that? She hasn’t studied so how can she be doing that?”
And, for me, what sums up this whole project, and the reason I am here was:
“I am 58 years old, I have spent my whole life at home, cooking, cleaning and raising a family. I am Fedwa and I want to work, I want to go out, I want to do something for me and by doing this project I am.”
“From cooking to acting!” Aisha pipes up and everyone laughs. Beauty - I have a title for my blog!
The ‘interview’ finishes and we get back to Antigone. Interesting to see that almost everyone writes their monologues in classical arabic despite being asked not to. I find it weird, that they struggle to write in modern colloquial arabic using their natural speech. Classical arabic is called Fus-ha, it literally translates as ‘the most eloquent’ and is used in formal speaking, written text or media broadcasts but no one speaks it on a day to day basis. In Arabic, it is considered ‘incorrect’ for a writer to use colloquial grammar and idioms, which is probably why the women find it difficult/unusual to do so. They are asked to re-write their monologues but in their own dialect. You instantly get much more truth and feeling that way.
After the workshop I get chatting to Hiba, she is curious about my background, my work, where I studied. I tell her about Return, a theatre piece I have been working on about Iraqi women and my experience of growing up under Saddam. She says, “I loved Saddam Hussein. When he died we cried for 3 days, my brother cried his eyes out. Saddam was the only leader who genuinely supported the Palestinians.” I remind her of the atrocities he committed like the Kurdish chemical weapon massacre in ’88. “Yes but….” and we get interrupted and never end up finishing the conversation.
As we waited outside for their bus - Aisha said, “Dina your breasts are like a 13year old’s”. I wasn’t quite sure what to reply! It’s a good job I take their opinions of my physical appearance lightly.