Syrian filmmaker Itab Azzam hopes the olive tree bears fruit in her London haven

Bafta winner's art helps women refugees challenge the narrative of loss to create social change

Syrian producer Itab Attam empowers women through theatre

Syrian producer Itab Attam empowers women through theatre
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Itab Azzam can often be found out the back of her north London home, brow slightly furrowed while she carefully inspects the tendrils of an ailing jasmine vine.

The consternation invariably deepens as Azzam turns to sift through the foliage of two nearby trees for any sign of an impending fig or olive crop.

The search is so far fruitless but she remains hopeful. “I’m trying to create a Syrian garden,” the award-winning filmmaker and human rights activist, 42, tells The National wistfully.

“The olive tree was a birthday present from someone I really love. They survive but they don’t really flourish here.”

The Bafta and Emmy award-winning series Exodus: Our Journey to Europe saw Azzam create a profoundly intimate portrait of the mass-migration crisis, traversing the route taken by many of the one million people who tried to smuggle themselves out of the region in 2015.

Heart of the matter

Azzam now lives in Haringey with her documentary director husband Jack MacInnes, 43, and four-year-old son Rumi.

Syrian pottery and ornate furniture adorn the rooms and her heart is almost 5,000km away in the city where the Jasmine flowers never fail to proliferate.

“It’s my dream to go back,” she says.

Until such a time, Azzam will continue with myriad labours of love – the documentary, theatre, charity and cookery projects – that support and empower her female compatriots who have been displaced by years of war and persecution.

She has more insight than most into what they have had to endure.

The road more travelled

“I did the land crossing three times and was on the road for three months,” she says in her accented, somewhat husky voice.

“I did everything they did, except board the rubber dinghies. With Israa, the 11-year-old girl who went from Izmir to Germany, we went on buses, trains and walked for hours with her and her family, with all our camera equipment.

"It took a fortnight. Often, there was no time to sleep because there was a train to catch or a border to cross.

“One of the hardest moments was arriving in Croatia and having to start walking to Slovenia in the middle of the night in the freezing cold.”

The experience of recording so many people taking flight could not have been further from her own upbringing in an insular, parochial community in Ta'ara in the province of Sweida, south-western Syria.

No one ever really left the tiny village of 1,000 inhabitants where the family lived in a one-storey house built by Azzam’s father, Mamdouh.

“I remember being extremely bored,” she says, recalling an “unglamorous” life surrounded by black volcanic rock and red soil in a depression between mountains.

“There was not much to do other than ride a bike and steal apples from people’s orchards.”

Young Itab hated school, particularly the military-style uniform and daily declarations of allegiance to the oppressive regime. “It was like North Korea. Our head teacher was a dictator obsessed with cleanliness.”

Her fondest memories are of marriages in the village when “all the women would gather and stay up all night cooking together, singing and having fun”.

They worked in harmony to fill copper pots with mleheyya – chicken and potato stew in turmeric-infused yoghurt – which were carried into the festivities by the local men. “It’s like a whole other wedding before the wedding,” she says.

The food of love

It was the communal, celebratory aspects of the country’s cuisine that Azzam sought to evoke years later through the nostalgic cookbook Syria: Recipes From Home, page after page full of recipes liberally sprinkled with cumin, garlic, rosewater and orange blossom.

“Food is how I connect to home. I tend to cook Syrian food a lot. It’s healing and it brings people together. Even now, when I get stressed, I cook to take my mind off things.”

Prominent among other recollections are the nightly power cuts during which Mamdouh, a celebrated author, read Russian children’s stories by candlelight to Itab and her brothers, Firas and Tammam.

That cosy, if sedate, childhood was upturned when the publication of her father’s novel The Palace of Rain, which tackled taboos in the conservative Druze community, met with opprobrium. Ostracised, the family moved to Damascus when Azzam was 18.

“There was a huge backlash. The clerics decided it didn’t reflect the Druze correctly and considered him a heretic.”

Though they both grew up in a closeted environment, Mamdouh, now 75, and his wife Donia, 68, were secular and liberal. Some people, Azzam reflects, are just born that way.

Mamdouh’s influence in particular is clear not only in the English language and literature degree that Azzam undertook at Damascus University but in the naming of her son after the 13th-century mystic poet.

“I always wanted to learn another language and English at that time represented freedom and opportunities,” she says. “I remember seeing Friends for the first time and thinking: ‘Wow, I want to live like that.’”

I was really depressed. Being away was difficult because I felt helpless, just waiting for bad news

In her final year, she exchanged cramped university quarters for a large, traditional Arabic house with a courtyard and coterie of international journalists and students. To this day, she still works with some of those who passed through.

Lives turned upside-down

When the US invaded Iraq in 2003 and refugee camps began filling up on the border with Syria, Azzam was hired as a translator by publications and TV production companies.

She began finding her own stories, including that of the Iraqi women of a similar age to herself resorting to prostitution to feed their families.

Three years later, the refugee population in Syria swelled with the outbreak of war between Israel and Lebanon; the conflict was different, says Azzam, but the personal accounts were the same.

“Almost every family had lost a loved one, their houses and belongings. I was really sad and upset at the injustice of their suffering.”

While working with the BBC in 2008, Azzam was encouraged to get behind the camera for a series called Syrian School that explored life through events during an academic year at four campuses in the capital.

One of her fellow producers was James Sadri, who went on to co-found the British political campaign group Led By Donkeys, and whose wife, Tabitha Ross, is now Azzam’s partner in Makani, a charity that helps refugee women overcome their trauma and circumstances.

“I met her in Syria where she was studying Arabic,” says Azzam. “I got to know so many inspiring people. They changed my life.”

Through the lens

Azzam quickly developed a taste for the craft – “I liked sitting and spending time with people I was interviewing” – and won a Said Foundation scholarship to study filmmaking and anthropology at Goldsmiths, University of London.

Women, in particular, suffer the most but no one was listening to them

While waiting for the course to begin, she began work on a documentary about Syrian heritage at the behest of Asma Al Assad, which is how she came to be in the office of the president’s wife when protests signalled the unfolding civil conflict in March 2011.

That her endeavours were focused on a piece about Syrian pride as friends and relatives were being arrested outside the building’s windows caused much inner turmoil.

The project, on which she was working alongside the man who would become her husband, was never completed and the couple moved to London six months later.

The worst of times

Azzam’s brother, Tammam, by then an established artist, left for Dubai at the same time, while Firas continued to work for Syrian TV until the violence drove him to Toronto in 2016.

Only their parents refused to leave, a decision that was an endless source of angst for their daughter. “I was really depressed,” she says. “Being away was difficult because I felt helpless, just waiting for bad news.

“I was surrounded by students who wanted to have fun and party but I couldn’t enjoy it because I was constantly crying.”

Through mutual friends, she met journalist-turned-activist Charlotte Eagar and her husband William Stirling, who wanted to reimagine The Trojan Women through the eyes of Syrian refugees in Jordan.

Life imitating ancient art

In the 415BC tragedy, Euripides portrayed the brutality of war, the slaughter of the men of Troy and subjugation of the city’s women, and Azzam felt that the scenes mirrored those occurring in her homeland.

She worked with Oxfam and visited the Zaatari and Irbid refugee camps, positioning herself outside the UNHCR registration centre in the hope of meeting women prepared to be transformed into the royal characters of the ancient play.

“I felt conflicted,” she says. “They were desperate, hungry and homeless. When basic needs are not met and they cannot feed their children, you wonder if they really need art. It was hard. I had to convince myself as well as them.”

Twenty women were persuaded to take part in the ice-breaking session that first day in a community centre with a creche for their children. Any initial doubts that Azzam might have had about pulling the project off evaporated. On the second day, 50 women showed up.

'We feel human again'

“It was absolutely life-transforming,” she says. “The sentence that always sticks in my mind is: ‘We feel human again.’

“Being part of a project where people are listening to your story and you’re dancing, you’re sharing and you’re laughing gives a safe space where people don’t feel alone any more.

“As humans, we don’t just need food and water, we need to feel something. Women, in particular, suffer the most but no one was listening to them.”

The fledgling actors performed their version of the Greek classical play to sell-out audiences for three nights in Amman and went on a world tour three years later. Azzam co-produced an acclaimed documentary called Queens of Syria to tell the behind-the-scenes story.

Seeing the women on stage was, she realised, as much a kind of therapy for her as it was for them.

“It was one of the proudest moments of my life,” Azzam says.

She was inspired to go on and collaborate with Syrian and Palestinian women in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon, staging Antigone, Sophocles’s tale of the ill-fated heroine who fights for justice against a dictator. This time, there were no problems enlisting women to take part.

As co-producers, she enrolled the Iraqi-British actress and long-time friend Dina Mousawi along with Hal Scardino, and held a fundraiser in the home of River Cafe chef Ruth Rogers with the historian Bettany Hughes as compere. They raised £50,000 and followed the theatre performances with a documentary based on their production called We Are Not Princesses.

Cookbook with a conscience

The cookbook came as an unexpected spin-off when the refugee women brought food to the set or invited Azzam and Mousawi into their little flats, bedsits, tents and makeshift surrounds to prepare food and talk.

Publishing the compilation was a way of sharing the glories of Syrian recipes garnered from Azzam’s mother and trips back home and, in the process, honouring the brave participants in the theatrical project.

Though young Itab had steadfastly refused to learn how to cook, she began to call home frequently from university for the instructions to make her favourite meals.

First feelings of feminism

“I didn’t know enough to call it feminism but, as a child, I always saw the inequality in society,” she says.

Now, Syrian food brings great solace, particularly when Azzam feels the strain of caring for all the women she has worked with and with whom she is still in touch.

She toils for 24 hours over labneh, pressing yoghurt by hand and making dishes from scratch just as the women in Sweida did – although she admits to taking the occasional shortcut with baba ganoush, thanks to a well-stocked Syrian supermarket in west London.

“When you live in fear all your life and then war breaks out, that’s a trauma you carry with you.

“I love doing things with my hands, whether it’s planting, cooking or photography. I find it healing.”

For the foreseeable future, she will focus on Makani (meaning “my place” in Arabic) to provide education and literacy classes, and instruction in drama, filmmaking and photography for refugee women in Lebanon and the UK, as well as helping them with business start-ups.

Azzam's son, Rumi, is regularly by her side. She takes him to workshops but says he has yet to show any feminist credentials and still insists on choosing dinosaurs over dolls.

As his mother tells it, however, the seed has been sown. Perhaps, like the treasures lying dormant beneath grey skies in Azzam’s garden, all that's needed is time and a little more nurturing to grow.

Updated: March 28, 2024, 10:00 PM