An opera in Shatila: young Syrians open a window to their dreams

The emotion is visible in this room full to bursting of this ruined building, accompanied by a joyful standing ovation and a zaghrouta, youyous of circumstance. The group of children occupying the stage is radiant. Normal, they have just presented the first opera of the Palestinian refugee camp of Shatila, entitled From Dawn to Dusk. The opera, in fact an operetta, was written, composed and performed in less than five days. Most of the children, who had never sung in public before the first day of rehearsal, managed to do so with all their hearts and with great confidence. The project is a collaboration between local NGO Alsama Project, UK-based Garsington Opera and Grange Festival, with the Florence-based Opera Mascarade Foundation.

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After performing an excerpt from the Lebanese and Syrian national anthems, followed by what they called Alsama’s Song, some of the artists were quick to thank Karen Gillingham, creative director of the visibly moved Garsington Opera, in the squeezing hard. “The big difference between this group and the children I work with in the UK, although they are also wonderful, is that they supported each other unconditionally,” says Gillingham. I think that’s partly because they’ve been through so much already at such a young age. But for a director, it was an ideal working group. They were so motivated. Created from their own « emotional memory », as Gillingham calls it, the opera was built on the writing, by young people, of their own poems and the compositions that accompany them, before turning them into songs. . “I was supposed to teach them things,” Gillingham continues, tears in his eyes. But they are the ones who ended up teaching me. They have so many lessons to teach us. One of the performers, 15-year-old Hussein, who studies at the Alsama center and a public school, doesn’t seem nervous moments before the start of the performance. « I can’t wait to show our work, » he says enthusiastically. Although he has never attended an opera before and admits that he does not know much about this art, he is happy to discover it at the same time as the others. “It’s a great way for us to express our feelings. And this has allowed our group to strengthen our ties. We became even better friends. Wissal, also 15 and living in Shatila, agrees: “If you are in a bad mood, you feel better expressing your emotions in this way. And if you’re in a good mood, it pushes you to come and feel even better. The young girl aspires to be an actress one day, although in the immediate future she would like to be an international cricket ambassador. Hussein, meanwhile, writes his own lyrics and dreams of becoming an international rapper, “like Drake or Travis Scott”.

Richard Taylor, the opera’s musical director, warms up the room. Photo Joao Sousa

From windows to poetry

One of the essential exercises in setting up this project was to ask the children to observe windows from all over the world on the online platform Window Swap. Then to write poems, based on the memories they had of the landscapes seen from their own windows when they were still living in Syria. Most of the children arrived in Shatila in 2014 from Deir ez-Zor and Raqqa, two towns in northeast Syria that had been taken over by Daesh (Islamic State) at the time. Wissal chose to write a poem inspired by what she sees from her current window. « But it’s not the window of my house, » she says. It’s my emotional window… The window to my soul. What she sees, “are three stars representing my upbringing, Alsama and cricket. And these stars empower the moon to fight darkness, which is ignorance in my society.” His poem as well as those of others are performed throughout the show.

The audience applauding the performance. Photo João Sousa

“When I arrived in Lebanon a year and a half ago, I couldn’t even read and write in Arabic. Now I write poems in English. And poetry is another way of expressing one’s feelings,” she announces with a big smile. The UK creative team was brought together by Maximilian Fane, chairman of the Mascarade Opera Foundation, who had already met these pupils last year and had them rehearse a song after hearing about Alsama from his working mother. with the organization. Fane has big plans for this improvised opera. Not only will it be presented at Garsington Opera next summer, but he is determined to find a way to bring it to one of the most prestigious stages in the world: the Temple of Bacchus, at the Baalbeck International Festival. « Creating an opera with children is a perfect way for them to express their feelings, but I want to make it clear that this is not a therapy session, » explains Ms. Fane, who insists on the fact that when you show them they have a role to play, they take on that responsibility. After the performance, the children invited a blonde woman to join them on stage. Uncomfortable with this attention paid to her, she complies anyway.

Participants wrote their own lyrics and composed the musical score. Photo Joao Sousa

Continuity, an essential factor

She is Meike Ziervogel, one of the co-founders and current CEO of Alsama. Ziervogel, a writer who has her own publishing house in London, came to Lebanon in 2019 with her husband for a sabbatical year, mainly to do volunteer work. Once the year was over, she realized that she didn’t want to leave and that she could make a greater contribution to Shatila. This is how Alsama was born, which she co-founded with Kadria Hussein, herself a resident of Chatila. “It started out as a small empowerment center,” says Ziervogel. “Empowerment, a bit of yoga, a bit of creative thinking and cricket. Alsama is now an educational center in its own right, not only for Syrian refugees, but also for Palestinians and Lebanese who find themselves on the margins of the normal school system. “Most of them come to us completely illiterate. We have developed our own school program, so that in six years we can make up for the 12 years they lost. The courses are organized in such a way that the children pass the Lebanese patent exams in three to five years. How do they get there?

Family photo for the entire team. Photo João Sousa

“We teach for 44 weeks without interruption”, explains Ziervogel, recalling that refugee children in the country have had to face a disrupted schooling, in the past two years, by the closure of schools linked to Covid-19, teachers’ strikes and general funding issues. According to a presentation by Alsama in October, based on UN and Human Rights Watch statistics, more than half of Syrian refugee children in Lebanon between the ages of 3 and 18 are out of school. Wissal and Hussein are both assistant coaches for Alsama’s cricket team, and most of the other kids who take part in the opera also play on the team. Ziervogel, aware of the attention paid to many NGOs, both local and international, continues: « That is why I have always said that we cannot and do not want to make promises that we are not able to possess. The main thing in education is continuity. Especially for those children who are being left behind.

The Shatila camp where the performance took place. Photo João Sousa

When we propose something, we make sure it will happen and last. Ziervogel initially financed Alsama with her own money and that of her husband. However, as the project has grown considerably since its inception, Alsama has partnered with like-minded organizations, such as the Malala Fund. “At the moment we have two centers, one here in Shatila and another in Bourj al-Barajneh. In April 2023, we hope to open a third. We were thus able to teach twice as many students. One of these students, Maram, born in Deir ez-Zor and a natural theater star, judging by her previous performance, is joking with a friend. She hums the part she was singing earlier and can’t resist a little accompanying dance. When asked where she sees herself in five years, Maram replies: “Rebuilding Syria. With cricket, music, dance and love. »

This article appeared in L’Orient Today on November 16.

The emotion is visible in this room full to bursting of this ruined building, accompanied by a joyful standing ovation and a zaghrouta, youyous of circumstance. The group of children occupying the stage is radiant. Normal, they have just presented the first opera of the Palestinian refugee camp of Shatila, entitled From Dawn to Dusk. Opera, in fact, a…

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