1001 Nights recounts tales of Syria’s refugees

Friday 08/04/2016
Scheherazade, the Syrian refugee, learning English in the 1001 Nights play.

London - Instead of parables about prin­cesses and genies, a 1001 Nights play has the legendary Sche­herazade recounting tales of war-weary Syrian refugees struggling to resettle and start a new life in Europe.

In the play, Scheherazade is an en­ergetic girl who is split between her old home in Damascus and her new life in London. She tells amazing stories of her childhood to her new friend, who does not understand anything she says.

The play was written by Douglas Rintoul years before the Syrian refu­gee crisis became so prevalent in Europe to sensitise children in the West about the ordeal of refugees. It premiered in 2013 in the Unicorn Theatre London and was restaged in March at the Queens Theatre.

“The book of 1001 Nights has sto­ries of exile and reunification, which is what prompted me to link it to the Syrian refugee crisis. I wanted to celebrate this piece of literature,” Rintoul said.

“Scheherazade uses these stories to make sense of her own story. It saves her life day after day.”

Rintoul was exposed to the plight of refugees at an early age, making him even more sensitive to the is­sue, magnified by the influx of more than 1 million refugees to Europe in 2015.

“When I was around 5 or 6 years old, I made friends with a ‘Boat Child’ so I met refugees from a very young age and I felt I could have my own version of the 1001 Nights,” he said

Kashini Misha, who plays Scheh­erazade, said Rintoul “has realised the refugee children do not speak English, just like the protagonists. However, you can communicate when you are a child by playing and that is beautiful to see.”

“One-thousand-and-one nights is just over three years, which is the same time the refugees (in the play) have been separated from their families (back home),” said Peter Hoggart, who plays Scheherazade’s father.

The cast researched the Syrian ref­ugee experience to better empathise with the characters. They examined how long it takes refugee children to learn English when they reach Brit­ain, how they adapt to and integrate in primary schools and how British children interact with them.

“Between the ages of 5 until 9, you are more welcoming than in other ages or as adults,” said Millie Turner, who plays Scheherazade’s friend in 1001 Nights. “The negative things that children have learned are (usually) from older people.”

“We researched the different routes Syrians took to get here and how long each would take,” she added. “They have to be careful of where they claim refugee status. Refugees are trying not to get fin­gerprinted in Calais (France) for instance, so it does not stop them from claiming asylum elsewhere. We had walls that were covered in statistics, pictures, maps and jour­neys.”

Hoggart said: “We also watched a lot of documentaries about refugee experience on the UNICEF website and YouTube as well as Newsround on CBBC, which would explain the crisis in a child-friendly way.”

The play highlighted the chil­dren’s homesickness while trying to adapt to a new life.

“I was speaking to some of the children in the audience and I asked them where they would want to fly to on the magic carpet. Many said they want to go back to their home to Pakistan or Albania,” Misha said.

1001 Nights encourages children and adults to take a positive ap­proach towards refugees, keeping in mind that everyone’s ancestors come from a different country.

“Britain is a mongrel of races,” di­rector Natasha Jenkins said. “There is no such thing as a [pure] English person. People who have been here for generations are either partly French or partly Celt or something else. I feel people value that. Lon­don is multicultural, which makes it richer and more interesting.”

“As sad as the situation is, people always try to find a way to survive and life always goes on. The hu­man race is resilient.” Hoggart said. “The refugees don’t want to be here. They want to be home. It is our re­sponsibility to help them. That is why theatre is so good at changing attitudes.”

Queens Theatre conducted work­shops exploring themes of youth, transition and culture. They includ­ed discussion of the play and gath­ering of participants’ feedback and interpretation of the story and the characters they have seen.

Also high-energy games were car­ried out to help participants bond and work together, in addition to activities focused on encouraging non-verbal communication and teamwork.