Review By Lisa Lanzi
We wait outside the grand old dame’s squeaky iron doors. About eight people will enter The Queen’s Theatre to experience verbatim tales from people who once lived in Aleppo, Syria, until they were forced to flee. Eight years of conflict have killed perhaps half a million people, destroyed whole towns and city districts and made half of all Syrians homeless. In most parts of the country, the fighting is now over - at least for a time. President Bashar al-Assad holds most of Syria, including the city of Aleppo, taken after months of bitter fighting in 2016. This production is presented by Mohammad Al Attar (concept and text) in collaboration with Director Omar Abusaada and-Scenographer Bissane Al Charif.
The first stop for the audience is in front of a large, vertical, wooden map of Aleppo, delicate Arabic script identifying different neighbourhoods and landmarks. Certain parts of the map are raised and after some introductory instructions we are invited to approach and remove one of the raised ‘puzzle’ pieces. We are then led to a table and given a small recording device corresponding to the number on the back of our segment. Next we venture into a dark, almost empty space and again listen to instructions, this time from a disembodied voice. There is a tangible trepidation accompanying this walk into darkness, a representation perhaps of the unknown that any refugee might face as they attempt to flee violence and destruction. As lights fade up the main direction is to find the table where the blank space matches our map fragment, set it in place, sit down and then wait for an actor to come and sit opposite us.
The man who sits with me is South Australian actor Jonathan Darby. I give him the recording device and he presses play. A voice speaking an Arabic language is heard until it begins to fade and the actor takes over the tale of this Kurdish man, in English. The other audience members are all now with one actor, everyone listening to different narratives that correspond to the area represented by the piece of the map they have chosen. These tales unfold as memorials to the topography of lost places and people’s deep connection to them. In my case, the young man speaks of his neighbourhood and a hill with cemetery and parkland atop it where he and his friends would gather. The neighbourhood is a lower socio-economic area with a mixture of Kurds, Christians, Muslims and other Arabic sects living there. The friends also are of many races and religions but it doesn’t give them pause, unlike the parents who would rather they ‘stuck to their own kind’.
The personal narrative touches on the effects of war and the bitter political unrest, and the trials of school where students are victimized by teachers of different race: Christians insisting a Muslim girl remove her veil, Muslims slapping Kurdish boys for speaking their own language. Darby conveys a calm presence but startling reality to the stories including his flawless pronunciation of Syrian place names, which to my shame I am unable to recall correctly enough to write down. The story goes on to explain how different this person felt, identifying as he did with sexual ideals contrary to those around him. There are suicidal thoughts to deal with as well as navigating the violence surrounding him and his family.
When the man joins political demonstrations and his friendship group widens, he feels a true purpose but also meets ‘others’ who are gay. He now can visit the cemetery park with new friends, feeling whole and safe with a sense of hope for a different future. Sadly, it eventually became too dangerous for the family to stay and they fled Syria, never to return. This person now resides in Belgium after traversing a number of countries as a refugee. He knows he can never go home to Syria, even if the conflict ended. What wasn’t bombed has been looted and being a gay man, he would be persecuted and living in fear of discovery.
At the end of the tale I was invited to share a happy memory about a place from my past by recording it onto the device. This will not be heard by anyone connected with the production but will be sent to the man, Adam in Belgium, whose story I was privileged to hear. Aleppo used to be the biggest city in Syria with wide boulevards and green spaces, magnificent places of worship and learning and stunning gardens. A search on the net will show you how little is left and who knows how many Syrians are scattered, stateless, around the world.
Another triumph for the 2020 Adelaide Festival, Aleppo. A Portrait of Absence is an experience I will not forget. Deep, disturbing tales of a magnitude I am unlikely to ever fully understand being a white, middle-class Australian woman.
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