The first Arabic-language play to be staged in Toronto as part of a theatre’s regular season was a double-bill about the Syrian refugee experience. This is now a Canadian story—over a period of three months between December 2015 and February 2016, 26,172 Syrian refugees were resettled in Canada as part of the Trudeau government’s Operation Syrian Refugees. Suitcase/Adrenaline – presented by Theatre Passe Muraille – comprised two one-act plays written and performed by Syrian refugee Ahmad Maree; Palestinian-Canadian actor Nada Abousaleh performed alongside Maree in Suitcase.
The mellifluous accents were Syrian. The stories told, however, could have been from any country torn up with war, displacement, hopelessness. Changing the accents is all that would have been needed to make the performances Libyan, Yemeni, Palestinian, Iraqi.
enough in its presentation of two one-act plays, presented the double bill in
Arabic with English surtitles. Nostalgia is the domain of the émigré. It is
impossible to encounter first languages without triggering a saudade that
demands some form of expression. This is where I write from: Arabic is the
language of my names and desires.
In the Arabic-speaking world, Syrian cultural
production ranks second only after the prodigious Egyptian media. The Syrians
are renowned for their television soap operas and serials, movies, literature,
poetry, and theatre—contemporary Syrian theatre was, at one time, oriented to
the historical, and re-interpreting and re-imagining the classics. As a
teenager, I watched Syrian television productions of Arab and Muslim historical
dramas, especially during Ramadan, a sweepstakes month for epic soap operas.
These were usually performed in classical Arabic, albeit with a Syrian inflection.
Now, Syrian theatre—like most other Syrian expression—grapples with the
fragmentation of a population that has lived through war.
In 2011, the Luminato festival commissioned an ambitious theatrical interpretation of A Thousand and One Arabian Nights. Called Arabian Nights, it was a staging of twenty tales from the ancient collection as retold by Lebanese author Hanan Al-Shaykh. The role of Sheherezade was played by Moroccan-British actress Houda Echouafni, who happens to be the wife of a friend of mine from university, and who graciously invited me to attend the shows and hang out with the cast. I attended the six-hour performance (split into two separate plays), which were performed in English, Arabic, and French, with subtitles. That was the first time I had heard Arabic spoken on-stage in a Toronto setting; blended with English and French, it was a familiar mélange.
Arabian Nights was
a reassuring presentation of stories I had grown up with, our version of the
Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen. Watching the play was also a
touchstone point—the summer of 2011 was a transitive period for me. In
retrospect, Arabian Nights was familiar in the changing topography of my
life, its narratives were something that I could hold on to.
Maree’s play opened in Toronto in January 2020, during
the same period when travel bans were being revisited. When you’re travelling
on a passport that belongs to one of the countries that regularly get viewed
with suspicion, border checkpoints feel like purgatory. This is the material that
gets played with in Suitcase, where, for the length of the play, a married
couple are contained in a border crossing holding room. Through a series of monologues,
the audience discovers the tragic backstory of the couple: he is a musician
tortured into false confessions implicating others, she is a journalist whose
reportage makes her a target for the insurgent regime. We learn that there’s
been an incident, an attack on their apartment building, a neighbour who mourns
the loss of their potential. The couple had plans to leave, the titular
suitcase a running gag where the wife feels like she’s forgotten something important
in the packing up of their life.
It’s never clear whether the couple is passing into
the afterlife or waiting to begin a new life, and it also doesn’t matter.
There’s no reprieve either way.
I laughed at the jokes, at the phrasing, at the poetic melodramatic possibilities the Arabic language allows. I glanced sometimes at the surtitles, more as a game during some of the more expressive moments to see how the translators had rendered colloquialisms and transliterations that would sound absurd in English. I relished laughing at jokes earlier than the rest of the audience, delighted in the conspiratorial feel of the wordplay, like the jokes were only for me.
That summer nine years ago, I stayed up late one night
with the Arabian Nights cast members. We were involved in an impromptu
Arabic poetry battle that lasted for hours. Most of the couplets I proffered
were dated or from poetry that had been co-opted into nineties Arabic pop
songs. The poetry they chose was contemporary, urgent and had me spending hours
online reading and memorising in case a re-match transpired.
During a pause, one of the actors from Syria, J. recounted
how, at the nearby shawarma restaurant, he chatted with the Libyan cook. J. expressed
sympathy for the plight of Libyans—the Libyan Revolution had been underway for
months. The cook replied, “Don’t worry about us; may things work out for the
This was before Syria fell apart.
“Imagine that!” J. said. “A Libyan felt bad for us!”
I often think about that Libyan cook’s prescience.
It’s a simple stage set-up for the second one-act.
There’s a dining table in the centre of the stage, stage left a coat hanger
with a coat, stage right a fan with a scarf tied around it, babushka-style. In
the front and slightly to the left is a gas cylinder wearing a t-shirt. Adrenaline
is a solo performance—in it, Maree plays Jaber, a refugee spending his first
New Year’s Eve in Canada. The sound effects of fireworks in the background
trigger his anxiety every time they go off.
The plot is intense: Jaber’s apartment was bombed as
his mother was preparing dinner for the family. Jaber had popped out to pick up
some bread, saving his life. Dealing with survivor’s guilt after making it to
Canada, Jaber buys gifts: a scarf for his father which he drapes around the
coatrack; gloves for his mother which he places in the folds of the scarf; an
Apple phone or iPod for his younger brother Selim which he places next to the
Jaber has planned a New Year’s Eve dinner with
Canadian food to celebrate the promise of new beginnings. Throughout the meal
(which ends up destroyed in a recreation of the events of that fateful night),
Jaber makes steps towards reconciling his past with his present, apologising to
the stand-ins and picking up the pieces of the meal.
Adrenaline is a moving
story, but jarring in the open-ended trauma that it explores, a discomfiting
reminder that even joy can come at the expense of other’s fear.
My name is Arabic, but I don’t often get read as such.
My own English is fluent, with slight British inflections and slang achieved
through decades of listening to rap and dancehall. I don’t have the opportunity
in my daily life to speak Arabic beyond with my immediate family, none of whom
live in Toronto. My children only understand a few words and don’t make the
guttural sounds when they repeat them, even though I’ve worked hard at getting
them to pronounce them.
After the play, I introduced myself to the director,
Lebanese-Canadian Majdi Bou-Matar, who graciously included me in an unscheduled
q&a session held for the benefit of a visiting theatre class. Listening to
the language throughout the play, Arabic was building up in my throat, and I
was desperate to speak it, to hear my name pronounced naturally.
The possibility of Suitcase/Adrenaline is a
level of acceptance that I welcome, a small moment of belonging that the
languages and accents of immigrants have a place here. I appreciated that the
Arabic was not formal, acknowledging this as a recognition that the stories of
Syrian refugees in Toronto are being woven into the fabric of this city,
documented on its stages and in the reviews of the play. This is a moment of
witnessing for me, but also the unfolding of new desires to hear my own accent and
stories on stage.
Nehal El-Hadi is a writer and editor living in Toronto. More information at www.nehalelhadi.com