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A Syrian Playwright's Struggle To Tell A Love Story In Arkansas

作者:未知 来源:美国国家公共电台 2019-09-02

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A playwright set out to tell a love story that challenges American perceptions of her hometown, Damascus, Syria. But she got a tough lesson on what can happen when art and politics collide and how the heartache of the U.S. government's travel ban stretches all the way to a stage in northwest Arkansas.

Here's NPR's Hannah Allam on the bittersweet journey to this weekend's debut performance.

KHOLOUD SAWAF: (Foreign language spoken). Welcome to the set of "10,000 Balconies."

HANNAH ALLAM, BYLINE: That's Syrian director Kholoud Sawaf at TheatreSquared, a playhouse in a gleaming new building in Fayetteville, Ark. She's in final rehearsals for a workshop production of her play "10,000 Balconies." It's crunch time, and Sawaf's darting around the set, figuring out last minute details, like where to put trays of Syrian pastries and tamarind juice for the audience.

SAWAF: It's just immediately welcoming them with food and positive smell, you know, flowers and a drink and music. That's - you're immediately suggesting a world that's different than the expectations.

ALLAM: Sawaf says her play is inspired by "Romeo And Juliet," only her star-crossed lovers are named Ramon (ph) and Jasmine (ph). And instead of Verona, this romance unfolds on the balconies in modern day Damascus.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "10,000 BALCONIES")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) In Damascus, the doves fly behind the silk (ph) fence two by two.

ALLAM: Just a few months ago, Sawaf wasn't sure she'd ever hear these scenes on stage. The idea had seemed simple enough back in 2016 - put on a play, a love letter to Syria. Then that quest turned into a three-year ordeal that sounds like its own Shakespearean drama - heroes, villains, war and sorrow.

SAWAF: There was definitely moments of collapse, just complete suspicion, complete questioning, complete - can I do this?

ALLAM: Sawaf left Syria in 2012 and came to Arkansas for grad school. She felt conspicuous as a headscarf-wearing Muslim woman in the Bible Belt. There were stares, offensive comments. She started writing a play, a way to share the parts of Syria and the Middle East that Americans rarely see. With the 2016 presidential election, her mission took on urgency. Campaign speech vilified immigrants and Muslims. The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation awarded Sawaf's project a $250,000 grant through TheatreSquared. Just a side note - the foundation is also a financial supporter of NPR. The funding allowed Sawaf's vision to take shape.

SAWAF: All the possibilities that you start imagining - it's like, OK, run with the dream. Here is an open door.

ALLAM: Sawaf got busy writing and then refining her script. But when she asked for feedback, she was stunned to hear fellow artists repeating stereotypical views of Muslim and Arab culture. One asked Sawaf why her story didn't include an honor killing.

SAWAF: That has shaken me for three years. And I was like, OK, I have to take it into closed doors and work hard before I could expose it again

ALLAM: She was still plugging away on the project when it suffered another blow in early 2017. President Trump took office and within days announced a travel ban on several majority Muslim countries, including Syria. That killed any chance of bringing in Syrian artists and musicians. Worse - Sawaf's parents had just resettled in Canada, but it felt like they were as far away as ever.

SAWAF: We were very hopeful that would allow us to see each other, and it only feels more painful to be just across the border and not being able to do it.

ALLAM: They were stuck on opposite sides - Sawaf's parents in Canada where her mom was receiving treatment for breast cancer and Sawaf in Arkansas, feeling the love drained from the love story she was trying to write. Under the travel ban, if she left the U.S., she wouldn't be allowed to return.

SAWAF: You can't help but feel that you are in prison, even if the prison is big and gold.

ALLAM: She fell into extended periods of despair and grief over the war back home, the travel ban, her mother's illness, the isolation in Arkansas. She couldn't write, couldn't think. For months, Sawaf says, she could barely get out of bed.

SAWAF: It took a lot of processing, getting over loss. It took a lot of support from great friends and collaborators.

ALLAM: One of them is an old friend from grad school, Laura Shatkus. She's co-creator of "10,000 Balconies." Laura's eyes fill with tears when she describes watching her friend work through the trauma.

LAURA SHATKUS: It's been a rich, extremely rich, artistic experience to watch the thing go from something that scared her and made her upset to something that she approaches with total joy.

ALLAM: Sawaf credits Shatkus for helping to revive the play. Ultimately, though, Sawaf knew she had to find it in herself to save the project, so she let go of some of the Shakespearean influence, and she allowed in the themes she once fought to keep out - war and displacement. She knew she'd be all right when her dark sense of humor resurfaced. For example, she wrote a line about striking a yoga pose to avoid sniper fire.

SAWAF: OK. That can be in the play. Now I'm back (laughter).

ALLAM: But the clock was ticking. Her artist visa was running out, and she'd lost months on the project, so she had to scramble to come up with a cast and crew. A renowned Lebanese musician in New York wrote original music. And she says she lucked out with the actors, finding Arab and Arab American artists in other cities.

MUHAMMAD ALI RIFAI: My name is Muhammad Ali Rifai (ph). I am a Syrian actor.

ALLAM: Muhammad has only been in the U.S. for a couple of years, and he's become a sounding board for Sawaf. She relies on his help bringing to stage the Damascus they know.

RIFAI: I knew that she is really going to fight for it because she believes in it. And as a Syrian, I saw in her eyes for that feeling that, yes, we are keep going. We are not giving up.

SAWAF: I thought we would all benefit from seeing it all together again, yes?

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Yes.

SAWAF: Excellent. Have fun.

ALLAM: Sawaf was directing one of the last rehearsals before opening night. It was a culmination of her long struggle to bring this play to life.

SAWAF: It's definitely a combination of love and loss. And it feels unfinished, and I think I'm OK with that.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "10,000 BALCONIES")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (Singing in foreign language).

ALLAM: It's a first run and not exactly the love story she dreamed of, but there it was on stage - a patch of Damascus in Arkansas.

Hannah Allam, NPR News, Fayetteville.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "10,000 BALCONIES")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (Singing in foreign language).

SIMON: And that story was produced by Marisa Penaloza.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "10,000 BALCONIES")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (Singing in foreign language).

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