by Nehal El-Hadi
Issue Three: April 1, 2020
The first Arabic-language play to be staged in Toronto as part of a theatre’s regular season was a double-bill about the Syrian refugee experience. This is now a Canadian story—over a period of three months between December 2015 and February 2016, 26,172 Syrian refugees were resettled in Canada as part of the Trudeau government’s Operation Syrian Refugees. Suitcase/Adrenaline – presented by Theatre Passe Muraille – comprised two one-act plays written and performed by Syrian refugee Ahmad Maree; Palestinian-Canadian actor Nada Abousaleh performed alongside Maree in Suitcase.
The mellifluous accents were Syrian. The stories told, however, could have been from any country torn up with war, displacement, hopelessness. Changing the accents is all that would have been needed to make the performances Libyan, Yemeni, Palestinian, Iraqi.
Suitcase/Adrenaline, unusual enough in its presentation of two one-act plays, presented the double bill in Arabic with English surtitles. Nostalgia is the domain of the émigré. It is impossible to encounter first languages without triggering a saudade that demands some form of expression. This is where I write from: Arabic is the language of my names and desires.
In the Arabic-speaking world, Syrian cultural production ranks second only after the prodigious Egyptian media. The Syrians are renowned for their television soap operas and serials, movies, literature, poetry, and theatre—contemporary Syrian theatre was, at one time, oriented to the historical, and re-interpreting and re-imagining the classics. As a teenager, I watched Syrian television productions of Arab and Muslim historical dramas, especially during Ramadan, a sweepstakes month for epic soap operas. These were usually performed in classical Arabic, albeit with a Syrian inflection. Now, Syrian theatre—like most other Syrian expression—grapples with the fragmentation of a population that has lived through war.
In 2011, the Luminato festival commissioned an ambitious theatrical interpretation of A Thousand and One Arabian Nights. Called Arabian Nights, it was a staging of twenty tales from the ancient collection as retold by Lebanese author Hanan Al-Shaykh. The role of Sheherezade was played by Moroccan-British actress Houda Echouafni, who happens to be the wife of a friend of mine from university, and who graciously invited me to attend the shows and hang out with the cast. I attended the six-hour performance (split into two separate plays), which were performed in English, Arabic, and French, with subtitles. That was the first time I had heard Arabic spoken on-stage in a Toronto setting; blended with English and French, it was a familiar mélange.
Arabian Nights was a reassuring presentation of stories I had grown up with, our version of the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen. Watching the play was also a touchstone point—the summer of 2011 was a transitive period for me. In retrospect, Arabian Nights was familiar in the changing topography of my life, its narratives were something that I could hold on to.
Maree’s play opened in Toronto in January 2020, during the same period when travel bans were being revisited. When you’re travelling on a passport that belongs to one of the countries that regularly get viewed with suspicion, border checkpoints feel like purgatory. This is the material that gets played with in Suitcase, where, for the length of the play, a married couple are contained in a border crossing holding room. Through a series of monologues, the audience discovers the tragic backstory of the couple: he is a musician tortured into false confessions implicating others, she is a journalist whose reportage makes her a target for the insurgent regime. We learn that there’s been an incident, an attack on their apartment building, a neighbour who mourns the loss of their potential. The couple had plans to leave, the titular suitcase a running gag where the wife feels like she’s forgotten something important in the packing up of their life.
It’s never clear whether the couple is passing into the afterlife or waiting to begin a new life, and it also doesn’t matter. There’s no reprieve either way.
I laughed at the jokes, at the phrasing, at the poetic melodramatic possibilities the Arabic language allows. I glanced sometimes at the surtitles, more as a game during some of the more expressive moments to see how the translators had rendered colloquialisms and transliterations that would sound absurd in English. I relished laughing at jokes earlier than the rest of the audience, delighted in the conspiratorial feel of the wordplay, like the jokes were only for me.
That summer nine years ago, I stayed up late one night with the Arabian Nights cast members. We were involved in an impromptu Arabic poetry battle that lasted for hours. Most of the couplets I proffered were dated or from poetry that had been co-opted into nineties Arabic pop songs. The poetry they chose was contemporary, urgent and had me spending hours online reading and memorising in case a re-match transpired.
During a pause, one of the actors from Syria, J. recounted how, at the nearby shawarma restaurant, he chatted with the Libyan cook. J. expressed sympathy for the plight of Libyans—the Libyan Revolution had been underway for months. The cook replied, “Don’t worry about us; may things work out for the Syrians.”
This was before Syria fell apart.
“Imagine that!” J. said. “A Libyan felt bad for us!”
I often think about that Libyan cook’s prescience.
It’s a simple stage set-up for the second one-act. There’s a dining table in the centre of the stage, stage left a coat hanger with a coat, stage right a fan with a scarf tied around it, babushka-style. In the front and slightly to the left is a gas cylinder wearing a t-shirt. Adrenaline is a solo performance—in it, Maree plays Jaber, a refugee spending his first New Year’s Eve in Canada. The sound effects of fireworks in the background trigger his anxiety every time they go off.
The plot is intense: Jaber’s apartment was bombed as his mother was preparing dinner for the family. Jaber had popped out to pick up some bread, saving his life. Dealing with survivor’s guilt after making it to Canada, Jaber buys gifts: a scarf for his father which he drapes around the coatrack; gloves for his mother which he places in the folds of the scarf; an Apple phone or iPod for his younger brother Selim which he places next to the cylinder.
Jaber has planned a New Year’s Eve dinner with Canadian food to celebrate the promise of new beginnings. Throughout the meal (which ends up destroyed in a recreation of the events of that fateful night), Jaber makes steps towards reconciling his past with his present, apologising to the stand-ins and picking up the pieces of the meal.
Adrenaline is a moving story, but jarring in the open-ended trauma that it explores, a discomfiting reminder that even joy can come at the expense of other’s fear.
My name is Arabic, but I don’t often get read as such. My own English is fluent, with slight British inflections and slang achieved through decades of listening to rap and dancehall. I don’t have the opportunity in my daily life to speak Arabic beyond with my immediate family, none of whom live in Toronto. My children only understand a few words and don’t make the guttural sounds when they repeat them, even though I’ve worked hard at getting them to pronounce them.
After the play, I introduced myself to the director, Lebanese-Canadian Majdi Bou-Matar, who graciously included me in an unscheduled q&a session held for the benefit of a visiting theatre class. Listening to the language throughout the play, Arabic was building up in my throat, and I was desperate to speak it, to hear my name pronounced naturally.
The possibility of Suitcase/Adrenaline is a level of acceptance that I welcome, a small moment of belonging that the languages and accents of immigrants have a place here. I appreciated that the Arabic was not formal, acknowledging this as a recognition that the stories of Syrian refugees in Toronto are being woven into the fabric of this city, documented on its stages and in the reviews of the play. This is a moment of witnessing for me, but also the unfolding of new desires to hear my own accent and stories on stage.
Nehal El-Hadi is a writer and editor living in Toronto. More information at www.nehalelhadi.com