“….the reason we can talk about “them” as a problem, a plague on our borders, is because we don’t see them. If any of these refugees knocked on any of our front doors and asked for help, we would give it. We would insist they be protected and offered a chance to be doctors and civil engineers, nurses and journalists. We would do it because we are…good and kind. It is only by not looking, by turning our backs, that we can sail away and think this is sad, but it is not our sadness.”
Six figures wrap themselves under one sheet, drifting not solemnly exactly, but unnaturally — hanging together. There would be no dialogue, just music, in the opening act, which screamed “this is tragic and important and meaningful.” Obvious symbolism and hackneyed themes were en route — that was the betting favourite. But concurrent events in Aleppo, and the audience’s all too awareness of them, meant gravitas was welcome.
They swayed, dark lighting, somber music. Mood set, fade to black.
Lights: six young barefoots, all jeans and white tees, sitting on armless chairs, staring out towards the audience. They snicker, point, and laugh. They look away, sneak a look back, unsuccessfully stifling laughter. They become maniacal. What they see is hilarious. They are menacing. At first I was smiling, chuckling. But it went on. And on. And then it was uncomfortable. They fell off their chairs laughing, spasming on the ground. Writhing. My mind leapt to the six innocents killed in a gas attack in Idlib near Sarmin last year (March 2015).
The next scene. Same chairs. Our six players, three women, three men, try to regain their seating, failing, flailing. Some get so close, but an invisible force dislodges them, tosses them back to prostration. The writhing, this time, has no shades of comedy.
The players have now won our trust. We are not expecting to be suddenly ham-handed something cliche. A lot is possible once the guard of cynicism is lowered.
Lights: three women stand shoulder to shoulder, facing out in a triangle. Two men antagonise them on either side, juking and weaving as imps. The third man sits with his back to the audience. The imps throw black strips of fabric at the women from either side. Though they begin the scene proud, they get worn down.
The most complex scene had only four actors. Three women, each in one corner of the stage, battle one wiry man, who pursues a wheelchair. Whichever woman possess the wheelchair, he approaches. And as he does, she launches it across the stage to another, just out of his reach. The man throws his denier to the ground (and she gets to her feet defiant). The pursuit begins again — it always ends in vain and in violence. A wheelchair out of reach.
Eventually the man is beleaguered and the limp we hardly noticed at the beginning dominates his gait. Now one woman resists his throw, he ends up on the ground. Each woman takes her turn throwing him down. Eventually, with his final energy, he reaches his hand out to each of them and is refused. He collapses. They cart his limp body away, face down in the wheelchair’s seat, ankles dragging.
Who was the villain? Who had power? Both sides committed violence. When he needed the wheelchair he was denied and lashed out. He got assistance once he was a casualty, but not before.
The twelve scenes without a word (to the benefit of the Arabic non-fluent), just light, music, props, and action, did not fall into anything trite, nor did they go over the top — two marks of good artistic provocation. The person whom invited me mentioned the scenes were very gendered. But then again, they were dealing with a gendered conflict and a gendered culture, so maybe this appropriately reflected reality. Without revealing the contents of the whole performance, themes of gossip, news media, displacement, solidarity, gender, and violence, among others, were treated in mature provocation. With striking physicality, it was an admirable performance by CUT, whose facebook page is here (and whose pictures I have used in this post without permission).
On the night, the Gaziantep Theatre for Performing Arts (maybe a bad translation from Gaziantep Devlet Tiyatrosu) was a bit of a who’s who (I mean, I was asking who was who) of those keeping in solidarity with Syria from Gaziantep (some had come from as far as Istanbul to see the performance). Because it was hosted by the city some suits took to the stage with microphones as the players (pictured below) were taking their final bow.
One Turkish politician said something to the effect of everyone forgetting about Syrians — but not he, not Erdogan, and not Turkey — that they remember them and acknowledge them and had Aleppo in their thoughts. A low bar, that.
A wonderful family from Idlib province hosted me for breakfast this morning. There was also خبز, çay, and Syrian coffee of course.
Today, I woke up groggily around 10:00am. There was a knock at the door.
There was a man in plain clothes. He asked if there were any Syrians in the apartment. He asked me where I was from and I told him.
He can’t speak English, so he goes to leave. I asked him his name, in Turkish, “Adın ne?”
He doesn’t tell me, but instead flashes an ID –“I’m polis.” And leaves. Already strange days in Gaziantep.
“Even if you did believe in God, it would make no sense to believe alone. You’d have to believe in him the same way the poor do; you’d have to become one of them. It’s only by eating what they eat, living where they live, laughing at the same jokes, and getting angry whenever they do that you can believe in their God.”
Orhan Pamuk’s Snow takes us to Kars, a ‘small but beautiful’ city in Turkey’s northeast, where the politics of the headscarf intersect with exiles, revolutionaries, poets, assassins, and paramours. The protagonist Ka is the poet, an atheist among devouts, and following a high-profile assassination (is there another kind?) of a school teacher, the city becomes an island by will of a blizzard.
I woke yesterday to a different Gaziantep. School had been cancelled and children were outside playing as emerged from the grogfog. And like in the novel, the snow kept falling, throughout the day and into the night.
The book received a lot of attention. Some of the characters were straddling a line, larger-than-life (or were they caricatures?), politically motivated with a flair for exposition (or were they caricatures?), dramatic personalities (etc).
The book, laboured in its pace, surely was more artful in its arc in the original Turkish. But my host this morning, fluent and read up, told me nay, and that she did not think much of Pamuk (“We have much better writers… but its all about PR.” She did recommend I take the twenty-four hour train out to Kars one day, as she had, to see the beautiful city for myself.
When I got to the gym Hassan, the owner, always with a wry smile, was wearing a Canadian-style toque (with pom-pom). There was football on television and heaps of snow on the pitch. I took çay with some of the lads from Aleppo at Sanko — the mall was unusually desolate.
Trondheim, Norway was clear and the hills of Ankara were snowbare, but the snow fell on Gaziantep, Aleppo, and Hama.
The poet Ka submerges in a Lear-esque madness — on account of a woman, a lust, an eros, of nostalgia, of lifeforce — his mind races past logic. He takes big risks in heated haste.
I hope to avoid this in white Gaziantep.
A period of Aleppo’s history ended. Russia’s ambassador was assassinated at an art gallery on live television. I watched six young Syrians pantomime in Gaziantep’s city theatre. The first twenty-four hours back in Turkey.
A young Spaniard queue-jumped me at Sabiha-Gokçen by chatting a pair of Parisian Lebanese women into submission, then, some hours later, tells me on the tarmac bus to the midnight flight to Gaziantep he just “wants to help, to get medicine to people from Aleppo.” You’ll have plenty of work. He doesn’t speak Arabic or Turkish and he “doesn’t really have connections.” He was thinking Kilis. While I was thinking of Ben Taub and Homage to Catalonia (maybe the cap), I should have been searching myself.
A Turk saw me traipsing through the crisp night and offered a ride I declined. At two in the morning I knocked a door opened. Adnan, beardthicker, heated up the lahmacun. Same shit, different dates, the update.
The pieces that were here before, those seven first-person testimonies, will remain here. More is coming and the plan is often.