Actors from the Arab diaspora find healing in London play

Members of Britain's Arabic-speaking community share stories of migration with audience over tea and olives

Shubbak: Refugees find healing through theatre

Shubbak: Refugees find healing through theatre
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For London-based Palestinian director Elias Mattar, theatre is an important tool for healing. “We all know how to play and listen to a story. That’s what makes theatre so powerful,” he tells The National.

His latest play, The Olive Jar, explores links between food, exile and storytelling, and its first screening will be held this week at Grand Junction – a community arts centre at St Mary Magdalene's Church in Paddington – as part of London’s Shubbak Festival.

Members of London’s Arabic-speaking communities - all of them non-professional actors - will share their stories of exile in an immersive experience where olives, tea and other foods will be served to the audience.

“They are stories of love and war, of belonging, of feeling safe, of motherhood and what people have been through in order to have a better life,” Mattar says. “They have been preserved in the very deep secretive hearts of the community.”

The West London neighbourhoods close to Grand Junction have a diverse Arabic-speaking diaspora. “We have people from Iraq, from Syria, Morocco, Tunisia,” says Mattar. Some of the actors came to the UK as refugees decades ago and others were born there to migrant parents. A few are also asylum seekers who are waiting in limbo for the right to stay in the country.

The Olive Jar, directed by Elias Mattar for Shubbak Festival, explores the links between food, exile and storytelling. Photo: Ellie Kurttz

Their experience of living in London after fleeing their homelands is what unites them. “Their main reason for coming to London was just to find a safe place to live,” he says.

Mattar developed the play in close collaboration with the actors and gave them each an olive jar that symbolically contained their story. They could chose to open the jar to others or keep it shut. “Some found it difficult to share their story. There was the option not to – and they kept their jar closed and said I’m not sharing my jar,” he says.

For most of the actors, it is the first time they are taking part in a theatre production. They met to rehearse their play in the evenings after work. “The main challenge is working with people who are not actors. They have practical challenges in their daily lives, which they had to move away from to be present in the sessions,” he says.

Among the actors is Lana Al Waily, who fled Baghdad in 1996 at the height of a UN-led embargo on Iraq. She first settled as a refugee in Sweden, then moved to London after she married in the early 2000s. The Olive Jar is her first experience on stage.

When she first joined the group, she was surprised to hear the stories of other participants, which so closely matched hers. “We all came from different backgrounds, but we all went through the same difficulties. We came here as refugees, we left our countries, we missed our countries and we tried to fit in,” she tells The National during a rehearsal.

Taking part in the play has been a difficult process, but Al Waily is pleased with the result. “When I talk about war, it is really traumatic, I wasn’t sure if I could come to all the sessions,” she says. But she soon found herself opening up to the rest of the team. “It was a time to heal, to offload, to find relief. We cried a lot, it was a mix of happiness and sadness all together.”

The Olive Jar features a cast of non-professional actors. Photo: Ellie Kurttz

She hopes the play can promote better understanding of refugees and their experiences. “There’s a lot of judgemental opinions. I want people to change their mindset. We are sharing our reality of being foreigners living in a completely different world,” she says.

For Mattar too, displacement runs in the family – his mother is a Palestinian who was born in Lebanon after her family were expelled from their homes during the Nakba.

Mattar's theatre work often involves non-professional actors from underrepresented communities. In 2014, he directed the play A Needle and a thin piece of string, working with blind and visually impaired actors from the Al Manarah Association, a charity in Nazareth supporting people with disabilities.

Mattar grew up in I’billin, a Palestinian village in the Galilee region. “There weren’t many theatres around” he says, recalling an after-school drama club that first drew him to the stage.

While at university in Haifa, he switched to full-time theatre studies “without telling anyone,” he says. There, he also joined the Salma Dance Company – the dance troupe that revived folkloric and traditional dance. “Soon my parents learnt to accept it and come to my shows,” he says.

This compelled Mattar to create his own theatre company in I’billin. “I worked with children and adults from the ages of four to 24,” he says. Their first production, Rooms, was staged in an abandoned home due to lack of funds.

In 2015, he moved to London to complete a master's degree at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, and he stills live there now. His work has been shown at the Liverpool Arab Arts Festival and London's The Mosaic Rooms.

Mattar likened his latest play to the experience of eating Palestinian olives – which are pickled in a way that preserve their original bitterness. “Sometimes they are nice. Sometimes they are really intense,” he says.

The main highlight for him was witnessing how his actors grew more confident on stage as they got to know each other better. “It’s been heartwarming to see their journey, especially for those who never would think to stand on stage and reflect on their story. Some saw it as a milestone they could share with their loved ones, like their children,” he says.

Mattar hopes to leave his audience with a desire to explore their own personal stories. “The Olive Jar has many heroes, it is an adventure of stories that invites people to be present in the space as the stories unfold. Prepare to laugh. Prepare to cry and even cringe a bit. Prepare to take deep breaths and to remember your own stories or those of your loved ones,” he says.

The Olive Jar runs Thursday and Friday at 8:30pm and Saturday at 4:30pm and 8:30pm. For more information, visit:

Updated: July 06, 2023, 2:09 PM