« The film follows 50 women from Syria, who were forcibly exiled in Jordan. They came together in autumn 2013 to create and perform their own version of The Trojan Women, the ancient Greek tragedy about the plight of women during war. »

This little introduction in a daily newspaper was incentive enough for me to watch the documentary film recently in Mumbai. The story of a group of Syrian women staging an ancient Greek tragedy in Jordan makes for a rather unusual aesthetic experience. This is probably one of a few positive aspects of migration: the intercultural exchange. The nature of migration – forced or otherwise – is such that its advantages are only witnessed in retrospect. Such is the weight of migration experienced in varying degrees by the human psyche; from stressful to traumatic. Queens of Syria was not simply about staging a play. The film traced a creative process underlined by an intense emotional journey, from resistance to calm creative expression. The choice of the play clearly revealed its objective. Produced around 415 BC, The Trojan Women portrays grief-stricken women, fearing slavery in the Trojan War. One of the actors rightly observes its striking resemblance to their situation: “This has happened for real. It is not just in Troy. It has happened to us”. To further intensify the cathartic effect, the play director Omar Abu Sada integrated real war memories, rendered in poetic verses, into the narrative structure of the play. The seamless movement from the past to the present, which is telling of the repetitive nature of history, transformed the story of the Trojan women into an allegory of the Syrian experience.

A particularly thought provoking aspect of the documentary was the theatre workshop. In one of the activities, the women described traumatic incidents from the war on long white sheets of paper. It was heart-rending to see how creatively, with almost child-like innocence, they presented their trauma with utmost objectivity. One could not marvel enough at the channelising power of the pen harnessing anguish and transforming it into creativity. It is also important to note that the white sheets of paper, that stood as tall as the women, gave material form to their memory. They literally stood face to face with a body of memory, carved out of their minds and bodies, but which was now a separate entity. Visualising a traumatic memory and integrating it to one’s personal awareness was a necessary step in the creative process as it gave the psychological strength needed to represent trauma on stage.

Despite its euphemistic nature, the literary narrative penetrates the intimate sphere of human experience left untouched by historical documents. It gives expression to the undocumented. According to the UN, the world today has more refugees than at any time ever before. It is therefore equally important to tell the story of migration along with the history of migration. Queens of Syria shows us how ancient and contemporary the subject of migration really is and that there is no better storyteller than the woman, who is the primary bearer of human memory and tradition.

 

About the Writer

Siba Barkataki is a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. Her area of specialisation is Indian Ocean literature and Swiss Francophone Literature. Her research looks at possibilities of creating a theoretical framework that articulates experiences of the faceless migrant using literary texts. Fictional documentation of memory is her subject of predilection. She teaches the French language and European Francophone Literature in JNU.