Today we do an exercise of ‘Who’s With, Who’s Not’ to explore the relationship between individuals and groups. One expresses a thought. Those with have to run and stand behind her; those against have to stand opposite her. I start with “Today I think it’s going to rain.” No-one joins me, perhaps because it’s a hot, sunny day without a cloud in the sky (jealous Londoners?!).
A few start with other random statements: “I want to go fishing” - about 10 join her. It organically develops into more personal statements such as “I love Syria and want to go back” - all are in agreement except two. I ask why.
“Because we emigrated and that’s it, I don't want to go back." "Because it’s not safe and I only want to go back if it’s safe like it used to be.”
Miryam is eager to have a turn. She holds the stick up high and says “I want to kill all of Daa’ash (ISIS)”. I see them all run over to stand behind her…except about 4 or 5. I ask Majdolin why. “Because I am against the regime and I prefer Daa’ash.”
I am totally stunned, but refrain from commenting. I can’t help thinking people may feel confused about who to support these days, who they may have supported in the beginning and why. Perhaps I’m being patronising. I just find it quite unbelievable that anyone would support ISIS??!! I being to wonder whether she had had a horrific experience with the Syrian Army to justify her statement…?
The second half focused on individuals, walking around the space in silence; thinking of someone they know who isn’t in the room. Eventually sitting or lying down on the floor, eyes closed, imagining that person was here - what are they wearing, what colour shirt and so on. I’m walking around. I suddenly see the most beautiful yet heartbreaking image of 23-year-old Hiba, hugging her crossed legs, eyes closed, and crying in silence with tears rolling down her cheeks. Hiba started a week later than everyone else. Very shy and body conscious, she’s always standing like an awkward teenager with arms folded in front of her torso, not really wanting to join in, any excuse to look at her phone. Over the last few days she has come out of her shell slightly and is actively taking part. She shares the same story as Antigone - losing 2 brothers, one who died in Syria and never had a burial.
I am desperate to hug her, put my arms around her and I toy with the idea for a few seconds but think better of it as I don’t want to disturb her emotional state. As I walk around the room I notice the other women all in their own position, their own space, looking beautiful yet so pained with tears running down their cheeks. Part of me wishes Tabitha was here to take photos, but of course that wouldn't be appropriate. I find it overwhelming, the pain that is seeping out into the atmosphere. Yet somehow it isn’t a negative or depressing one, it’s almost beautiful. Difficult to explain.
We have a much needed break during which Hanan says to me, “We haven’t sung that numbers song for a while, can we do it”. I love that they are actually requesting warm up exercises we’ve worked on. Zarifa wants a photo with me. I am asked why I don’t blow-dry my hair and make it nice. Ok, so I have big hair today, I take the hint!
Time to reflect on their homework: to write their account of leaving somewhere. The director is looking for details. If there were photos you left behind, describe them, the feelings. The writer scribes away at the sign of anything particularly interesting. As I sit there listening to these stories, some of which sound like they’ve come straight out of a war movie, I start realising how much I admire their strength. The same women who joke, laugh, tease and are full of vitality, have suffered harrowing events; they don’t get therapy for it, they don’t complain, they pick themselves up and get on with raising their families. Montaha, for example, has a very cheerful personality, always giggling and telling funny tales. We find out her husband was imprisoned, her father was killed by a bomb dropped from a plane, while her brother has been missing for 4 years and no one knows where or what might have happened to him.
Hajja wants to read her account, she talks of saying goodbye to her son, and leaving. It was the last time they ever saw him, her daughter Hiba sat next to her is in floods of tears. The lump in my throat starts to hurt because I’m trying so hard to swallow it back but I can’t so I just hold my hand up to my lips to try and hide my crying. A couple of minutes later Aisha goes to get a tissue and hands it to me discreetly.
We finish 10 minutes early because it’s so intense. Then Ahlam finishes off by telling us all a quick story to lighten the atmosphere - they lived in an areas that was cut off and they couldn’t get food easily, she asked her husband to go get a chicken but he was scared of the planes and explosions so she went. She says, “I was running after a chicken here and there bombs falling there….but I got the chicken!” Everyone laughs.
As they walk out, Zarifa tells me to do my hair tomorrow and look nice so she can take a photo with me. Maybe she’s after a job as my personal stylist?! Looks like I’d better get the hair straighteners out tonight!
This is the last day in the lovely St.Joseph University. With the help of Maria (who's visiting from Firefly International charity) and James (our intern) we pack up all our props and belongings from the last three weeks, which have amounted to quite a few, and head to our new rehearsal space in Beirut's hipster area Mar Mikael. I'll be interested to see what the women think tomorrow.