SAADNAYEL, Lebanon – The small crowd broke out in giggles when a young male actor, dressed in a towel and a wig, strutted around the dusty open market in Lebanon’s Bekaa valley during a street performance. He was portraying a Syrian woman coquettishly complaining of how she has no privacy with her husband in a crowded refugee tent.
The mood turned from comedy to tragedy as the troupe of Syrian actors moved to the next act: A refugee girl with a heart condition dies because no Lebanese hospital agrees to admit her on an emergency basis. While some among the Lebanese watching were sympathetic, one family walked away, grumbling in protest.
“There are lots of lies,” Mohammed Razzak said of the performance. “As a Lebanese, I don’t get the assistance they (Syrians) get.”
The range of reactions at the Saadnayel market was precisely what the directors anticipated, even desired. The Caravan, a street performance project touring Lebanon over the next six weeks, gives Syrian refugees the chance to tell and act out their own stories and experiences and present them to Lebanese who often see the Syrians as little more than a wave of the needy and poor that has overwhelmed their country.
“We still deal with the Syrian crisis through numbers: ‘That many people died today. That many entered Lebanon,'” said Sabine Choucair, a Lebanese clown and the artistic director of the Caravan. “We don’t see each other as humans.”
“We want to start a dialogue,” Choucair said.
More than five years into the war in neighbouring Syria, the influx of refugees hasn’t stopped, and Lebanese and Syrians alike are grappling with the new reality. In this tiny nation, there are 1.1 million registered Syrian refugees, one for every four Lebanese, and that’s not counting the tens of thousands more unregistered refugees also living here. Nearly one in four of the total 4.8 million Syrians who have fled abroad from their country’s war are in Lebanon.
Attitudes in Lebanon have hardened, as many Lebanese complain that refugees are taking jobs, causing property prices to rise and flooding the market with smuggled goods that sell at a fraction of the price.
The Caravan, which started in early 2016, is a “megaphone” for the Syrian stories, said Choucair’s co-director Ailin Conant.
They first recorded more than a dozen video clips of stories told by refugees and shared them online. The hope was to grab the attention of a hyper-connected world audience, said Conant, artistic director of London-based theatre company Theatre Temoin.
Now they’re taking the show on the road. The troupe of six actors is touring in a van, giving their half-hour performances in markets, informal settlements and intersections. Because they are not allowed by Lebanese law to work and travel outside of their areas, a troupe of Syrian professional actors with work permits also hold their caravan show where the refugees can’t go.
Nessim Ghroum, whose EU-funded group Drama, Diversity and Development is a main backer of the Caravan, said the project doesn’t belittle the Lebanese woes.
“The crisis is there and people have to live with it,” he said. “You can have different attitudes toward this reality … You can pretend it is not there, you can be angry about it. You can feel bitter, violent. The attitude we are promoting is compassion and understanding.”
For the Caravan’s actors, the show is a chance to get closer to their Lebanese hosts, not as needy refugees but as a talented group who can crack jokes even about their own misery.
“We want to change the idea Lebanese have of Syrians,” said Hanan Dergham, 15, the only female actor in the cast.
Dergham said she wants to show her own community that there’s no problem in young men and women mingling. Many among the refugees are from largely conservative Sunni populations in rural Syria, where women and men mainly mix under supervision in family gatherings — a stark difference from their generally more liberal Lebanese counterparts.
At 10, Dergham and her family fled the central Syrian city of Homs after her father was imprisoned by the government and an airstrike killed one of her aunts and her children and left Dergham’s sister badly burned.
She said the play has also been good for her. “People will forget the past and think about the future. They must forget the past that is making their hearts dark and begin to have some light in their lives.”
Many at the Saadnayel market stopped to watch the performance a little before walking away to escape the summer heat. One act that drew laughs was the story of a young man on a motorcycle who was stopped at a checkpoint because he is suspected of being an illegal Syrian migrant. As it turns out, he’s Lebanese. In another act, a child tells the story of a dragon that eats people, but in an analogy with the Syrian conflict, the dragon ends up exploding from all it ate.
Some in the audience were cynical.
“There have already been books and books written about our sufferings,” scoffed a Syrian refugee woman selling lingerie in the market.
Others were touched.
Abu Abed, a Lebanese vendor, said the story of the girl who died broke his heart. “It is a good idea to let them tell their pain,” he said.
Razzak, who walked away angrily from the play, said he had been briefly detained before for criticizing Lebanon’s policy of taking in Syrians. He acknowledged Syrians’ painful experiences but said his country suffered a 15-year civil war from which it is still reeling.
“We know their pain,” he said. “Each country has its own.”