You can’t stop the drama — even when the government tries to. An example of this phenomenon presented itself Friday night at Georgetown University, where a Syrian refugee, speaking via Skype from Amman, Jordan, asked in Arabic, “Why has the State Department rejected our visas?”
It so happened that a State Department official was in the audience in Georgetown’s Gonda Theatre, and in the fascinating, almost surreal, interlude that followed, agreed to respond to her with the help of an interpreter.
“Sometimes, by law, by lack of funds or from a country in the midst of chaos, you can’t do the things you want to do,” said David Donahue, principal U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for consular affairs. Referring to the denial of visas for the questioner and 11 other amateur actresses who were seeking to perform at Georgetown, he added that, “on this particular day, they did not meet the requirements of the law.”
The exchange was a highlight of an unusual gathering arranged in the aftermath of a decision by U.S. authorities not to allow the refugees — actors in an adaptation of Euripides’ “The Trojan Women” — into this country. The program, “Voices Unheard, The Syria: Trojan Women Summit,” was an effort by Georgetown sponsors of what was to have been the premiere of “Syria: The Trojan Women” outside the Middle East, to explain the play and the ramifications for both Syrians and Americans of the lost opportunity to share it.
The university’s Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics, an ongoing project exploring the roles of art and culture in international affairs, had planned to present “Syria: The Trojan Women” this past Thursday through Saturday. The play then was supposed to continue on to Columbia University. Those plans were scuttled after a U.S. consular officer in Amman, unconvinced that the women would not seek asylum in this country, denied their application for entertainers’ visas.
Derek Goldman and Cynthia Schneider, the Georgetown professors who serve as co-directors of the laboratory, decided that the Syrian performers and their would-be American audience somehow had to meet. So, with the Syrian women assembled in a room in Amman — it was 2:30 a.m. there when the event started — and the production’s director, Omar Abu Saada, also speaking via Skype from Beirut, spectators packed the Gonda Theatre to watch excerpts from a documentary about the production and have a conversation with the women and the director via the video feed.
“Tonight’s event,” Goldman, artistic director of Georgetown’s Davis Performing Arts Center, noted in opening remarks, “is not the event we envisioned.”
And yet, the event yielded up some extraordinary moments. Observing the blurry live images of the Syrian women projected onto a screen while trying to hear them through the sometimes-garbling auspices of Skype, one felt the presence of a compelling metaphor: On so many levels, the obstacles to a meaningful American understanding of what the victims of Syria’s chaotic civil war are going through are incredibly daunting.
The idea for “Syria: The Trojan Women” originated with three London-based journalists and filmmakers, Charlotte Eagar, Georgina Paget and William Stirling. They envisioned the production as both an artistic and therapeutic endeavor for the women, among an estimated 9 million Syrians who have been uprooted and dispersed by the fighting. During seven weeks of workshops last year in Amman, Eagar told the Georgetown audience that Abu Saada encouraged the women to weave their own stories into Euripides’ play, concerning the vanquished Trojan women, waiting to learn their fates at the hands of the Greeks.
None of the women had ever appeared on a stage before, she said. Still, by the end of the process, when they performed their version of the play, Eagar observed that some of their sadness lifted and that they had the air of “busy, self-confident career women.” Paget, meanwhile, gave the audience a taste of the women’s experience by showing snippets of “Queens of Syria,” her film about the making of “Syria: The Trojan Women.”
The play was to be the first of four major productions in the laboratory’s Myriad Voices festival, which over the next two years will examine the history, politics, religion and culture in Muslim-majority nations such as Syria, Pakistan, Iran and Iraq.
On this occasion, what was to have been an artistic facet of the festival became something else: a conversation across continents.
The women in Amman, from various walks of Syrian life, took turns approaching a microphone and replying to questions posed in Arabic by Honey al-Sayed, a Syrian journalist attending the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy near Boston. They conveyed some of their feelings about the production and their frustration at not performing it here. That frustration became all the more palpable as a result of the rather poor quality of the Skype transmission and the time and language constraints that made it difficult for Sayed to draw the women out.
After one of the Syrian women appeared on-screen, Sayed paraphrased her reply to a question about their plight: “They really wanted to come to the U.S. They wanted everybody to know how much they had suffered and the fear that’s in their hearts.” Near the end of the digital conversation, another of the women expressed her delight at the reception from the American audience. Through Sayed, she said: “I see now our voices are heard.”
The crucial nature of this point was underlined by several experts in Arab-American relations who were invited to the Gonda stage as commenters. Faisal Al-Juburi, executive director of Bridges of Understanding, a New York-based group seeking to strengthen cultural bonds between the United States and the Arab world, said that hearing from the victims of this conflict in all kinds of formats was essential.
“You need those Anne Franks that are on the ground to help define the humanity of it all,” he said, invoking the name of the beloved Jewish girl whose diary became a touchstone document of the Holocaust. “It’s a really dangerous message to send out there, if this kind of art is not given a home.”