A medium-sized, makeshift tent stands proud in Al Bab, Syria. Scrawled across its inner canvas are brightly coloured, hand-painted pictures. This is the work of a group of local schoolchildren aged 12 to 15, who gather here regularly throughout the week to learn the dramatic arts, as part of director Salman Ibrahim's theatre group, Bread Way. "Each child drew what he thinks, loves or dreams [of]," Ibrahim tells The National. "Some of them painted homes, some painted the Syrian revolution flag and freedom motto." They did this to fit the theme of their new play, Dreamers Theatre, in which these same children share their ambitions, circumstances and memories of war.
"The basis of Dreamers Theatre is freedom of speech, writing our scripts and conducting [plays] our way," Ibrahim, 37, explains. He's been penning plays since he graduated with a degree in Arabic literature from the University of Homs in 2005, but, for security concerns and reasons of censorship, it wasn't until 2014 that one finally made it to the stage.
Dakaken, Ibrahim's first play, was performed in Aleppo that year by local activists and volunteers, but ensuring a nightly run became difficult due to instability in the city at that time. This uncertainty saw him move to Idlib in 2017, to focus on teaching, before he moved to Al Bab in 2018. Since then, he has been able to see his dreams of introducing troubled children to the theatre come to life. "There is no bombing or attacks here that risk children's lives," he says, while explaining how he recruited his current cohort from a local school. "[But] children in north Syria generally, and in Al Bab, have undergone desperate circumstances," he adds.
The children of Bread Way
One of these young actors is Nesren Al Ward, 14, who came from Erben, in East Ghouta, where her two brothers, Ahmad and Ala'a, were killed in an air strike. "I was sieged and deprived from going to school or playing because of the bombing," she says. She spent three months living in a basement with her parents and two surviving brothers, Aref and Bara'a, before moving to Al Bab. "We were unable to do anything at home, but with my mother and brother we spent time acting in the sleeping room of our house, inspired by local actors I used to see on TV."
In Al Bab, Nesren is able to study again, although she has been moved back by two grades. “It makes me feel sad to have lost those years, but I am studying now again and that is what matters,” she says.
“When I came here, I finally found somewhere to sleep without [the sound of] bombs every night. It feels normal now, but for years, I could not have peace like this, or at least no fear of being bombed or killed and losing my family.”
It is children like Nesren, who have been most affected by the war, that both Ibrahim and NGO worker Clare Payne wish to help heal through theatre. Payne, who is from Northern Ireland, works in Romania and is supporting Ibrahim independently, helping him to raise money for his plays. They first met at a peacebuilding course in Turkey last year. “One of my main purposes with Salman is to restore social dialogue, via theatre, as it’s the first brick in the path of new generations that should not keep paying the price of war,” she says. “Theatre is a way that communities can express themselves and find relief from the oppression they are living under.”
Abdul Razak Kharar, 13, was bussed out of Aleppo with his two brothers, one sister and parents in December 2016. Just like Nesren, Abdul Razak had found it difficult to go to school regularly due to the bombings. Thankfully, his whole family survived and now, in Al Bab, he is able to live normally, returning to his studies and learning how to act in his spare time.
For two months, four days a week, Abdul Razak headed to that tent, rehearsing the play, watching theatre on TV and talking through the script, ahead of the show’s opening night, which took place last month in Al Bab. “I have enjoyed working with Salman and my friends together every day,” he says. “I was shy, partially still now if I am honest, but I am hoping to stay longer with them because I do not have many friends from my city, as all of them are scattered across north Syria and some were killed, too.” Before he joined Ibrahim’s theatre group, Abdul Razak used to watch shows on YouTube and TV, and particularly enjoyed the work of Egyptian actor and comic Adel Emam and Syrian actor Abdul Rahman Eid. “Acting for me has become a way to express so many feelings I have,” he says. “I want to become an actor because I want to make people smile.”
'The communities have become shattered'
While Payne strongly believes theatre offers light moments of relief, she also sees her involvement in this initiative as an opportunity to peacebuild, which, she says, is complicated in Syria. “The communities have become shattered and unable to integrate with one another, thus the process of peace will take time. But, if we work with children … we will advance quicker.”
One of the ways Ibrahim ensures the children are always learning is by giving them opportunities to discuss sensitive subjects and ethical dilemmas through the content of their performances. For example, at certain points in the play, he gets the guests involved. “This manifests when the actors on stage ask the audience’s opinion and what to do to solve this problem, [sparking] a public debate about local matters and making the society itself come up with a solution.” An example of this is when Abdul Razak, who portrays the father in the play, tries to prevent his daughter from going to school. “The actors move this conversation to the audience and try to find solutions and reasons behind this behaviour from the parents,” says Ibrahim.
Addressing this scene, Abdul Razak, who knows well the pain of not being able to study, says: “I liked my role but not the idea of preventing anyone from going to school.”
As a result of Ibrahim’s teachings, Nesren and Abdul Razak both say they have seen a marked difference in their confidence levels. They now want to pursue careers in the arts. “I want to become an actor,” says Nesren, “because I love and enjoy watching and acting. I want to make people happy and smile, and to make my family proud of me.”
Abdul Razak wants to be both an actor and director, just like Ibrahim. “I want to act my own ideas, which is what Salman is teaching us to do, and become famous in the future,” he says.
Ibrahim is convinced that this confidence has been built as a result of him giving the children freedom to develop their own ideas. He simply points them in the right direction. “People were deprived of freedom’s tools and it’s my quest to bring it back to life,” he says. “It is all about freedom and that is what we are trying to teach our children: to learn, practise and do it as a lifestyle, and that is what will bring Syria back.”