With the Syrian war in its fifth year, and the refugee crisis continuing unabated, there is a rising challenge by storytellers in the region to find new approaches to connect people to the human cost of the conflict.
One of the more innovative efforts I’ve seen is The Caravan, a street performance project that tells the stories of refugees as performed by refugees. In this venue, the stories are inescapable. You are on the same plane and in the flesh, making it much harder to turn away.
I spoke with Sabine Choucair, the executive producer of The Caravan, to learn more about her creative approach.
The Caravan is a pretty unique approach to telling the stories of refugees. Where did the concept come from?
I have been working with stories of refugees, palestinian refugees, iraqi refugees, for a long time. I’ve always collected stories and then turned them into movies or theater, but this time I thought. “This syrian crisis has been going on for so long, and we’ve been hearing the stories, or hearing things in numbers, but I felt maybe we should try something else. Maybe we should let these people tell their own stories, and listen to their stories with their voices and have them perform their own stories instead of us performing the stories.” The idea was to have it be very personal.
I consciously made the decisions to use audio and not video. I wanted them to feel very comfortable in telling whatever they wanted to say in the safest way possible. So we used audio, and I never knew that you could do so much with audio. So when we hear their stories, we hear the facts but we also hear what their voice is like and it adds a different layer to the story. We then decided which ones we wanted to perform, and then we added the layer of the street theater and the performance.
The audio stories are really well produced with lot of natural sound, I haven’t seen the performances, but I can imagine how that would be really compelling in person.
When you are on the street performing, people are listening to very powerful stories and people are even listening from their balconies. But I think adding the layers of the moving bodies to hold the story, to really transpose the story with the bodies added one more thing. Having the actors being from the community itself made a big difference. Because the actors are from the same camp where we did the research and the recordings. So the stories are the stories of their friends, or their family members, their mothers and sisters. So it’s very personal.
The Caravan travelled all over Lebanon, what was the makeup of the different audiences.
We tried to target more Lebanese, because the performance is all about discrimination and what is happening and how we can make a difference in the lives of these people. We made sure to go to places with high Lebanese populations or communities. We went to shabby souks, we went to festivals, we went to gardens we knew people would go to. We performed on the corniche where we knew there would be people from all nationalities.
We knew from the beginning that we were going to the street to talk about a very hard subject. So we might get different reactions. We were prepared. We rehearsed different kinds of reactions and how the actors would react, how us as a team would react if something happened, but in general people were very welcoming in a way and very accepting of what we came with. We had debates during the performance and after the performance. We had few negative reactions coming from Lebanese people. I was amazed. I thought we would have more scandals, but we didn’t.
What was the conflict? How did you handle it and what was its impact on everybody?
During the performance we actually initiate a conflict. After a story we have somebody planted in the audience to actually say the first sentence, “Why are you telling us these stories? Lebanese people are living the same thing so we know these stories and we really can’t do anything about it”. And then we have one of the actors say, “Well we’re telling these stories we know that Lebanese people are going through this as well but we wanted to open a conversation to talk about this. To see what you think. How you think.” This is when people really start talking and this is when we have a debate between the audience members and the performers.
Would you say then for the actors that having these kinds of debates and discussions is empowering in a way or is it discouraging when those things happen?
It’s what they have to do. It’s their job at the end of the day. We have to rehearse this a lot because it’s very very hard not to get emotionally involved and not reply in an angry way and to stay neutral as an actor when you are a Syrian refugee living all of this. So, they had to go a long way to get to a point where they can handle their emotions in a better way and see things from the outside. And I think in a way, I can’t say if it was discouraging or if it was empowering but I think there was something very valuable in holding such conversations or such debates. Most of the time they were positive. We heard more positive reactions than negative ones.
What were the positive reactions? What do people say after they heard these stories?
We’ve heard a lot of people sharing their own stories after the performance. They felt like it was a good space to talk about their stories. These people said these stories reminded them of their own struggles during the war. And that it was good to listen to them and it touched them. Many people cried after the performance.
What do you hope is the major takeaway or impact of the Caravan Project?
Before we started the performances in Lebanon I was hoping that each time we perform it triggers more questions and a different feeling in one audience member or two then that would be nice. But after seeing the impact it has on the people in Lebanon I just hope I can take it everywhere to have deep conversations with people and have a true conversation with people where we can see each other on a human level.
I’m really focusing a lot on taking it to Europe because I think this is where it’s needed now. But here in the area, here we know what’s happening. We know why these people are here. We know why the refugees are here. There is a lot of discrimination and a lot of that happening. But at the same time there is something we understand. For me as a Lebanese who lived through the war there is something I understand in this whole conflict or how the people are feeling or I don’t know how I would embrace these people.
But then there is something in Europe that when I go and perform there – the phobia – the refugee phobia – this whole phobia and the questions I’ve had to answer when I was in Europe performing with Clown Me In.
I just hope to help people understand the culture or why these people are leaving. And then it’s always different to understand somebody when it’s coming from a personal story, than to read articles or see Aleppo getting bombed. It’s just different to connect on a human level.
This post has been edited for length and clarity. All photos by Caroline Gervay.