“Love is a kind of warfare“ declared Ovid in Book II of his Ars Amotoria (The Art Of Love), written some 2,000 years ago. That ancient notion, still relevant today, is explored by Impossible Love, a new double billed theatre production written, adapted, directed and acted by refugees, to be staged from Feb 1 to Feb 3, at the Damansara Performing Arts Centre (DPAC) in Petaling Jaya, Selangor.
The two plays, Romeo And Juliet 2000+ by TheatreFugee and Screaming In Silence by Parastoo Theatre, explore the themes of the impact of war on society, dividing families and polarising communities, as well as the impact that living under violence has on young people‘s choices in life and love.
Romeo And Juliet 2000+ is directed by Omar Alkhammash, a 19-year-old artist from Syria, and Saleh Sepas, a professional theatre director from Kabul. This retelling of Shakespeare‘s romantic tragedy is set in Colombo during the Sri Lankan civil war, with the feuding Montagues and Capulets reimagined as Sinhala and Tamil Tiger families.
The actors comprise refugees from different parts of the world, including Syria, Palestine, Libya, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The second play, Screaming In Silence, is an original play written and directed by Sepas, founder of the Afghan refugee Parastoo Theatre. Set in Afghanistan, the play tells the tragic story of Nazanin, a 12-year-old girl forced into marriage with a much older man when her father loses to him at gambling. Eventually, Nazanin runs away only to find that even the institutions responsible for enforcing the law fail to protect her rights.
Realities of societies
The plays address the realities of societies both hardened and eroded by conflict. In Romeo And Juliet 2000+, those who try to break away from cycles of hostilities of war and choose the path of love and peacemaking must confront their own families and face exile or death.
In Screaming In Silence, families entrenched in the misery of war, poverty, parochialism of rural Afghanistan, condone the forced marriage of a young girl with little regard for the multiple forms of violence and vulnerability that she becomes exposed and subjected to as a result.
Such situations are all too real for girls in many parts of the world. According to the United Nations, rates of child marriage increase in times of crisis, as marriage can seem to offer protection, honour and security, even while it often severely compromises girls‘ development, interrupts their education, leading to early pregnancy, social isolation and domestic violence.
The title of the production was inspired by a poem by the celebrated Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani Al Hob Al Mustaheel (Impossible Love), in which the poet writes: “I know that I’m living in an exile, you’re living in an exile too.”
In the plays, love is impossible either because it‘s perceived as forbidden between enemies, in Romeo And Juliet, or, in the case of Screaming In Silence, because it‘s deemed as simply irrelevant to marriage and the lives of women and girls.
In the first play, love is what politics and power ultimately fails to control. The other play presents a world where love doesn‘t exist — only power and control and the objectification of girls as the property of men.
Power of theatre
The directors are not new to the world of the stage. Sepas, 35, was one of a handful of graduates from Kabul University’s Faculty of Fine Arts after the fall of the Taliban and he had a successful career in theatre, film, television and radio for more than 10 years.
His work in bringing theatre to rural and marginalised communities as a means of empowerment and expression was socially transformative and perceived as subversive by the Taliban who sought to control and de-educate Afghan society.
Finally, Sepas and his family were forced to flee Afghanistan in 2016, when the Taliban threatened their lives. A year after Sepas arrived in this country with his family, he started Parastoo Theatre, which has now performed in several festivals and workshops to audience acclaim.
For Alkhammash, who started studying music in Damascus at the age of 9 and performing at the age of 12, his experience in theatre was deeply shaped by the civil war in Syria. The first theatre production he was involved in co-directing was at the Syrian Private University in 2012, following the tragic killing of several students there. Alkhammash soon fell in love with the power of theatre to transform the audience and to “communicate messages in a pure and inspiring way”.
Mortar bombs and suicide attacks increasingly became part of daily life in Damascus, and one day Alkhammash’s school was hit by a bomb, killing students and teachers and destroying classrooms. With the intensifying war, art became a source of strength and resilience.
At the same time, the war also shaped Alkhammash’s experience of being alive. “When you live in war, with the constant threat of being killed, at some point you don’t care anymore about whether you will live or die,” he explains. “What you care about is how you live until you die because death could come and take you at any moment.”
While Parastoo and TheatreFugee both aspire to build confidence and cultivate talent among refugees through the arts, Sepas and Alkhammash agree that theatre is empowering not only for refugees but also for everyone. Indeed, both directors plan to work increasingly with Malaysian youth and artists in the future.
“Theatre can transform our perception of the other but also of ourselves,” says Sepas. “We can build dialogues through theatre, and understanding between different cultures, languages and experiences.”
Impossible Love is a collaborative artistic effort between TheatreFugee and Parastoo Theatre, with management and production support from humanitarian organisation Geutanyoe Foundation. The effort was funded through a seed grant from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Malaysia to TheatreFugee as well as public donations for Parastoo Theatre channeled through Geutanyoe Foundation.
TheatreFugee was created in 2016, with the support of seed funding from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). It‘s led by Omar Alkhammash, a young refugee artist from Syria. The troupe first performed in March 2016 at the Fame Festival at the Black Box, Publika. They‘ve also performed at the UNHCR office, and at the Malaysian Parliament during the Commonwealth Women Parliamentarians meeting on April 7, 2017.
Actors are refugees from diverse backgrounds, including Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, and Pakistan. For the future, TheatreFugee is planning a collaborative programme between refugees and underprivileged Malaysian youth.
The Parastoo Theatre was founded in Kuala Lumpur by Saleh Sepas, a professional director and playwright from Kabul, in June 2016. The group was created with the support of Kayhan Irani, a trainer of Theatre of the Oppressed in the United States who had worked with Sepas in Afghanistan, and by Lilianne Fan, co-founder and International director of the Geutanyoe Foundation that works to empower refugees and other marginalised communities in Southeast Asia.
Parastoo Theatre first participated in the CEA Workshop on July 16, 2016, which saw the participation of more than eight regional theatre teams.
Parastoo performed a short drama under the name Dambora and discussed with other groups on the importance and effectiveness of Theatre of the Oppressed. After two months of intensive practice, Parastoo Theatre performed an original play entitled The Bitter Taste Of History at the Refugee Festival on Aug 11, 2017 at the Black Box Publika. On Oct 14, Parastoo performed A Bitter Taste Of History at the Borak Arts Series Conference.
Geutanyoe Foundation is a regional humanitarian organisation registered here and in Indonesia, comprising humanitarian professionals who‘ve been working with displaced and conflict-affected communities since 1998.
It has had experience working in emergency response and displacement camps since 1998, with Rohingya refugees since 2009, including in Rakhine State, Myanmar since 2012, with the survivors of the 2015 Andaman Sea crisis in Aceh, and with Rohingya refugees in Malaysia in education (children‘s learning centres, adult literacy, women‘s home-schooling) and maternal and infant health. Geutanyoe Foundation also works to empower and support local partners, including refugee community leaders and organisations, host communities and local governments.
Since 2016, Geutanyoe Foundation has been a key partner in the Refugee Festival and in 2017, started a refugee arts programme through which it supports Parastoo Theatre, TheatreFugee and Damascene Trio (Syrian musicians) with management, production, and editorial assistance.
When Feb 1-3
Where Theatre, DPAC, H-01, Empire Damansara, Jalan PJU 8/8, Damansara Perdana, Petaling Jaya, Selangor
Call +60 3-4065 0001
RM100 (fundraising night*)
Feb 2 and 3
VIP RM 108
Normal RM 85
Student RM 50
Each performance will be preceded by remarks by a public figure on child protection, girls education and refugee rights, including Richard Towle, country representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Malaysia, Dr Hartini Zainuddin, founder of Yayasan Chow Kit, Mahi Ramakrishnan, award-winning film director, and Heidy Quah, founder of Refuge for the Refugees and winner of the 2017 Queen Elizabeth Young Leaders Award.
The first night will be a fundraising gala, with all tickets priced at RM100. Proceeds from all three nights will go to Geutanyoe Malaysia‘s programmes for the education of refugee women and girls and TheatreFugee‘s arts programme for refugee and Malaysian youth.