1001 Nights recounts tales of Syria’s refugees
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.