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Arab Stages


Spring 2024


Carving a Path: Desiring-Production in Displaced Syrian Theatre


Bart Pitchford


June 15, 2024

In May 2016 the town of Saraqb, Syria lay in ruins from constant bombing by the Syrian regime. Buildings toppled and reduced to rocks were unrecognizable for the structures they once were. This town which lay about an hour south of Aleppo and twenty minutes east of Idlib was caught in between factions of ISIS and Jabat al Nusra (1) who fought for superiority of the region. From the top of one building that still stood, Mohammed from amateur theatre makers Youth Group of Saraqb gave me a tour of the area over Skype (2). He pointed out the building where he and his family lived before the war and each building they moved to throughout the violent conflict. From the mediated perspective it seemed like the building Mohammed was broadcasting from was the only building standing in the entire neighborhood. As he stood on the roof talking about the progression of Assad’s bombing campaign on Saraqb, regime planes flew overhead. Mohammed did not flinch because he knew the planes were on the way to Aleppo. At this point Mohammed was able to distinguish between bombing raids meant for Saraqb and those meant for another city. 

Amid so much trauma and destruction, resilience and survival are tightly bound to the present. The ability to continue existence in such a perilous and uncertain environment relies heavily on desire. For Youth Group of Saraqb, to move from moment to moment in their city required them to develop tactics for existence that responded to the fluidity of the situation. Rather than simply reacting to anything lacking in their lives like security or food, The Youth Group of Saraqb interacted with their current social and political environment to create unexpected modes of resistance that inverted the climate of violence and poverty in which they lived. Instead of feeding the endless war the Youth Group of Saraqb created theatre. While their will to live may speak to a larger hope at play, the tactics of simply making it through each day were produced through desire.

Play from Saraqb Youth Group, 2015. Printed with permission of photographer.

In this article I explore two case studies where desire produces and is produced by the theatrical moments in the work of displaced Syrians—theatre in education practice in a refugee camp and an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet with a cast of Syrian children both in and outside Syria. Using Deleuze and Guattari’s definition of desiring-production as a positive and primordial drive necessary for the survival of humans, I contend that amid unspeakable violence and trauma the artists discussed below carved alternative paths or ‘desire lines’ to their own survival through the act of theatrical creation. Countering an epistemological regime from Plato to Lacan that viewed desire as a “lack of the real object,” Deleuze and Guattari understood desire as a drive whose subject is real but not fixed. Desire does not develop because of the object that is missing. Rather, the object is a by-product of the flights of desire. Put simply, desire in humans exists, not because of unfulfilled needs, but rather because of human existence. Taken this way, it is desire that generates needs and not the converse.

In addition to desiring-production, I intertwine a concept that arose from the physical geography field of study. French philosopher, Gaston Bachelard, in his 1959 work “The Poetics of Space” spoke of “Les chemins du désir,” (desire paths). Over time, scholars in in the world of landscape architecture have morphed the terminology into desire lines. According to Urban Studies scholars, Naomi Smith and Peter Walters, desire lines are literally, “the grassy or muddy path inscribed in space where people have created their own route outside of those prescribed by abstract place makers” (Smith 8). Desire lines occur when people improvise movement from point A to point B ignoring, or in some cases subverting sanctioned pathways. Throughout this paper I refer to the tactics used by the artists as improvisatory because they are reacting to conditions by developing new and unsanctioned paths around official rules or obstacles. Like the Youth Group of Saraqb, the other examples I cite in this article inverted their circumstances to enact resilience, resistance, or joy in the present moment with little regard for any future impact.

The first of the two case studies concerns the brave work of a camp resident using theatre to teach feminist thought in a Syrian camp in Jordan named Azraq. This teacher, Zabeida, constructs dramatic scenes based on internationally renowned women leaders from around the world throughout history, to provide alternative visions of womanhood that rival the early marriage model prevalent throughout the displaced population. She asked that I not use her name out of concern that camp officials would remove her from working if they discovered the lessons she taught. For that reason, I am using the pseudonym “Zabeida” in this article. Zabeida’s desire to teach combined with the Jordanian government’s refusal to allow displaced Syrians employment in the formal education system created the conditions which allowed Zabeida to design her own curriculum. By diagnosing her circumstances, Zabeida realized that her position in the informal NGO education system gave her freedom that was not possible in the state-run system which maintained a strict curriculum and did not allow displaced Syrians to teach. Working through the more liberal development system allowed Zabeida to address topics considered too controversial for Jordanian schools like sexual assault and female empowerment.

For the second case study, I enter the digital space between Amman, Jordan and Homs, Syria where I examine an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet that made use of unregulated video conferencing in order to perform a play with children on both sides of the border. Young actors at a recovery facility in Amman and in sieged area outside Homs used Skype to connect two locations through a single performance, while evading detection by the Syrian authorities. The lines of communication that enabled this production transgressed space regulated by the Syrian government. Desire, as a reaction force does not adhere to established pathways. It creates shortcuts outside, and often counter to, regulations governing private and public space. Romeo and Juliet Separated by War used satellite connections secured illegally by Free Syrian Army forces to house the video feed. This performance, which placed the actors in Syria at risk, also allowed them to reconnect with the world outside of Homs. 

Both programs discussed in these case studies formed through improvisation based on the desire to reestablish a sense of stability and belonging. Desire is fluid and unstable. It operates as a tactic from points of opportunity and then moves as quickly as it arrived. Neither Zubeida’s program nor the production of Romeo and Juliet were sanctioned or connected to official systems. They both grew organically from momentary conditions. The characteristics of desire open possibilities for the contestation of power precisely because it appears in unpredictable ways and spaces. Desire leaves traces that can point the way toward new forms of social interaction. The artists in this chapter answer to and produce new circumstances.

Finding Crevices in the Map to Teach Feminism

The ability to “make do” by finding the small tactical spaces in which to operate is driven by desire. As an affect, desire has a powerful potential to focus our attention on an immediate object. While the object of a specific desire may simply be a target of opportunity that produces desire by its presence and accessibility, sometimes the object of desire has been long sought and remained dormant only because there was no possibility for fulfilling it. 43-year-old teacher, Zabeida had long wanted to change the power dynamics between men and women in rural Syria. Zabeida fled from Dara’a with her husband and children during the war. First, she lived in Za’atari camp, but after two years her family was resettled into the desert camp in Azraq. Once in Azraq, Zabeida used her experience as an English teacher prior to the war to secure employment with Relief International’s remedial education program. Through her work as a teaching assistant in the camp, Zabeida drew from her experiences as a child bride to encourage her female teenage students to find their own power. The desire for independence and equality Zabeida had buried for decades now fueled her class curriculum. 

I met Zabeida in 2016 while conducting field research for my dissertation, Hela L’Wein: Performing Nationalisms, Citizenship, and Belonging in Displaced Syrian Communities. During the five-month period that I was in Jordan, I had the opportunity to meet and work with several different organizations and individuals working with displaced Syrians in Amman, Za’atari, Zarqa, and Azraq. Although I was only able to travel to Azraq for one day, it was incredibly instructive to see the stark differences between the camps in Za’atari and Azraq. Za’atari formed organically with little government oversight initially. By the time I went to Za’atari it was Jordan’s 4th largest city complete with a shopping area jokingly named Sham Elysees. Azraq, on the other hand, was conceptualized by UNHCR and the Jordanian government. It was a sprawling camp laid in grid squares with fences dividing sectors. In comparison to the frenetic energy of Za’atari, Azraq felt like a sterile suburban town. 

Prior to my visit in 2016 some of the key issues facing the residents of the camps were sanitation, education, and early marriage. While there were organizations working with the Jordanian government to teach traditional school curricula, many children were ineligible for these programs. According to Ministry of Education law, any child who had not attended school for three or more years, was not allowed to return. The ministry was concerned that children this far behind would not be at the same level as children their age. Additionally, the age discrepancy for children in this situation would be too great for them to be in class with children on their academic level. In other words, the ministry worried about putting thirteen-year-old children in the same class as ten-year-old children. To provide some form of curriculum to children unable to attend school, several international NGOs created a “life skills” curriculum to address areas of concern. Life skills, according to UNHCR, consisted of teaching proper hygiene with a strong focus on hand washing and personal cleanliness, conflict mitigation, professional development, and strategies to combat sexual violence. This last subject, sexual violence, was perhaps the most contentious because part of the curriculum addressed early marriage. 

Life skills instruction fell underneath UNICEF’s “Makani” program. Makani, which is Arabic for “my space,” provided a comprehensive learning space for children and teenagers. In the varied areas of the Makani program, students had access to support services, skills building programs, psychosocial support, on-site water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH), and educational support (UNICEF). One of the primary organizations UNICEF tasked with maintaining Makani sites in Azraq and Zaatari was Relief International. Part of Relief International’s mandate was to provide “non-formal” education classes to students who were not allowed to attend the official Jordanian schools because of the amount of time they had been out of school. The “Drop Out” programs led by UNICEF aimed to prevent Syrian children from falling out of the educational system entirely. In coordination with the Ministry of Education, the non-formal education programs conducted by Relief International and other similar organizations, would allow graduating students to receive a tenth-grade equivalency rating in Jordan. This at least allowed the student to participate in vocational training and enter the work force. Additionally, Relief International operated a remedial education curriculum that provided extra education opportunities to students who were allowed to attend official Jordanian schools but struggled maintaining grade level standards. Relief International’s responsibilities primarily included space administration, program assessment, and training teachers in the specific curriculum (3).

Neither Relief International, nor the other organizations administering remedial or non-formal education programs, were allowed to determine the specific curriculum or provide the teachers. The Ministry of Education in Jordan demanded that all classroom instruction level decisions remain in their purview. While there were likely other factors influencing the ministry’s control over traditional school curriculum, fear of job loss amongst Jordanian teachers was a primary driver. Like the anti-immigrant rhetoric seen in the United States, many Jordanian employment sectors, including education, worried that Syrian immigrants would displace Jordanian workers. In response to populist anger by Jordanian citizens over the influx of displaced Syrians and Iraqis, the government established migrant work laws that prevented noncitizens from holding certain employment positions. The “Closed Professions List” limited the ability of both migrants and Palestinian permanent residents from obtaining employment in jobs where Jordanian citizens preferred to work. The list, which the Ministry of Labor published in October 2016, named teaching amongst other high skilled professions such as banking, engineering, and business professional (Briggs 14). This meant that no Syrian teacher residing in Jordan could teach without receiving express permission from the Ministry of Labor, which was only given in extreme circumstances. No matter how desperate the need or qualified the teacher, Syrians were not to be employed in this capacity, even in the camps. 

The inability to employ Syrian teachers in camp education programs weighed heavily on the international NGOs working in the education field. Although the Ministry of Education claimed to hire enough teachers, with enrollment sizes reaching 1000 students per space for primary and secondary levels, classrooms often went long periods without official instructors. According to Danijel Cuturic, Relief International’s Jordanian country office director, while there were many dedicated teachers working at the schools, it was common for several teachers to simply not show up at all. In order to ensure that the classroom had at least one instructor present, Relief International paied qualified Syrian teachers a small stipend to work as “volunteers.” While this circumvention allowed Relief International to place Syrian teachers in the classrooms, they were not allowed to pay the same salary to the volunteers as the Jordanian teachers received. Furthermore, Relief International could not remove any Jordanian teacher for failure to attend or accomplish educational benchmarks. This task, like hiring, fell exclusively to the Ministry of Education.

Despite the inequality in pay, many of the volunteers appreciated the opportunity to teach the Syrian children. Not only did their positions allow them to earn a small amount of money, but they enjoyed feeling productive and needed. In some situations, the volunteers filling in for ghost teachers were able to treat the classroom as their own, adjusting the curriculum delivery method to suit their personal style of instruction (4). This was the situation for Zabeida. Her experience as an English teacher prior to the war qualified her to volunteer for Relief International as a remedial education assistant. According to several staff members at the Relief International Makani, Zabeida was one of their most successful teachers. As an English and History teacher, she regularly used theatre as an integral part of her pedagogy. For example, Zabeida recalled to me that back in Dara’a she regularly taught Shakespeare’s history plays as a way access European history and create links to Syrian history. In some class exercises she had students take on the characters of Henry V or Richard III to explore ideas of patriotism or political corruption.

Zabeida intersected her belief in the tenets of Islam with a quiet fierce feminism that grew from her life experiences. At the age of 14, Zabeida’s father arranged for her to marry an older man in neighboring town. Although she dreamed of attending university and becoming a teacher, she followed her father’s instruction to marry. Early marriage in the southern province of Dara’a, was a common practice. Zabeida’s options, therefore, were limited both by the culture in which she grew up and her belief in the importance of respecting her family at all costs. Nevertheless, Zabeida successfully pleaded with her husband to let her finish school.

In the first several years of marriage, while finishing school, Zabeida also gave birth to their first two children. In all, Zabeida and her husband eventually had seven children, all of whom fled to Jordan with them. Despite maintaining her duties as a wife in a conservative Syrian family, Zabeida continued her education eventually earning her bachelor’s and teaching certificate before becoming an English literature teacher at secondary level in Dara’a. Shakespeare, Zabeida insists, was her inspiration for continuing to teach and for incorporating theatre into her pedagogy. 

Due to her experience as a young mother, Zabeida makes women’s issues, particularly early marriage a primary focus in her classes with teenage girls. Despite being allowed to continue her education and eventually work as a teacher, Zabeida’s marriage, especially in earlier years was difficult. “At fourteen,” Zabeida offers, “I was not old enough to be a mother. No young girl is. She should be allowed to finish her education” (Zabeida). In fact, part of the reason that Zabeida believes she was able to complete her school was that her husband had another wife, and so he was not at the house much of the time.

Zabeida’s theatre in education practice, I contend, is indeed a tactical strategy that uses the map of humanitarian assistance to empower a new generation of Syrian women with values that extend beyond the duties of motherhood. In one exercise, Zabeida assigns her students powerful historical women to research. Examples of figures Zabeida mentioned are: Oprah, Cleopatra, Queen Elizabeth II, and Queen Zenobia (5). After a period of research, her students must craft a monologue or scene where the historical person is interviewed on camera by other girls in the class. Dressed in costumes that draw form their research, the girls answer questions related the history of the character. For instance, in one video, the student playing Queen Zenobia sits in a chair that has been decorated to look like a throne. Wearing flowing fabric covered with a layer of green chiffon, the student assumes an air of confidence and authority. Out of the frame, a person posing as a reporter asks her questions about her life as the queen of Palmyra: “How did you feel when your husband Odaenathus was murdered,” and “How did it feel to be in charge of everyone, even the men?” (Zabeida). Through this exercise, Zabeida hoped that her students would learn that women can have power and accomplish similar goals as men. 

Historical knowledge and generalized empowerment were not the only messages that Zabeida included in this lesson, however. In addition to the historically based questions, she also encouraged the students to ask the characters about more personal quotidian issues. For example, in the same scene where the student acted as Queen Zenobia, one question the reporter posed was about how the Palmyrenes viewed menstruation and how did they maintain hygiene during this time every month. In the Cleopatra scene, the student playing Cleopatra talked about how using make-up helped her feel powerful. Many of these questions would be considered taboo to discuss in public areas such as a school. Indeed, Zabeida claimed that many of the girls in the camp were not being taught about these issues at home. 

Perhaps the most daring scene that Zabeida shared with me was a video of a student who researched Oprah Winfrey. Zabeida explained that she and her students admire Oprah for her independence, intelligence, and charitable works. Many of the questions the reporter asked Oprah centered on questions about creating her own show, acting, living as a single woman without children. The most revealing moment occurred, however, when the reporter asked the student playing Oprah about her life before becoming a talk show host. Without trepidation, the young student playing Oprah recounted the poverty that Winfrey endured as a child, including having to wear burlap sacks for clothing. She also discussed, in character, being raped by men from her family and being pregnant at a young age but losing the child. She completed her scene by recognizing that even in the worst circumstances, a woman can use her intelligence and education to improve her life without the need for a husband.

As theatrical practice in general, the scenes Zabeida asks her students to play seem tame. Theatre in Education texts are filled with examples of this type, where scene work intersects with history to open up previously unexplored questions about historical figures. When placed in the cautious camp environment, however, Zabeida’s pedagogy is not only tactical, it is subversive. While she recognized the danger of teaching material that questioned societal norms, Zabeida also understood that the change she sought for young Syrian women required a high level of risk. Because of the anxious nature of a refugee camp, organizations providing support services to the residents often refrain from approaching any subject that may seem sensitive or political in nature. While this sort of careful posture is prudent in many cases, it can also inadvertently strengthen certain forms of oppression. In both Zaatari and Azraq, discussions around normative gender roles was certainly one area that required organizations to be hyperattentive to cultural sensitivities. To their credit, organizations such as Relief International certainly did attempt repeatedly to open the debate over early marriage. In fact, the same day that I interviewed Zabeida, Relief International held a family day that included a skit about the danger of early marriage followed by testimony of several Syrian women who were married early. At the same time, discussions about feminine hygiene, sex before marriage, and rape were anathema to the patriarchal ethos and thus considered appropriate only between a mother and her daughters. For Zabeida to tackle such issues in the confines of the classroom, stretched the limits of propriety in Azraq. If officials outside of Relief International discovered the content of some of her lessons, she could have been forbidden from teaching in the future. Even worse, she may have been threatened from more socially conservative figures within the camp. 

Taken as a subversive action, Zabeida’s classroom scene exercise reconfigures the geography of patriarchy at play in the camp space of Azraq. The map of propriety for Azraq consists primarily of structures conceived, built, and institutionalized by the male dominated culture of southern Syria negotiating its own marginalization with the neoliberal powers of Western development organizations. Men must first approve any space displaced women might claim for security or growth. That does not mean that Syrian women in the camp are resigning themselves to the control of either the patriarchal or neoliberal forces. It is to say that women who wish to push against these boundaries must do so from temporary niches recessed within the corners and shadows of Azraq. Even as Zabeida uses a space provided by a Western organization, controlled by the Government of Jordan, and only with the permission of her husband, she inscribes in that space a politics of desire that generates a new understanding of gender roles in a traditionally conservative society. She plants seeds of feminist empowerment in a patriarchal landscape that will trace her presence and make visible a path for young Syrian women to follow. 

Virtual Desire Lines

In Azraq, Zabeida marked a space in between the cultural patriarchy, governmental authority, and international development regime where young women could explore feminist topics in safety. Her use of theatre in education relies on the immediacy and instability of desire. Zabeida created lines of desire through her physical presence interacting with feminist tactical opportunities. Similarly, the second case study, Romeo and Juliet Separated By War, relies on the improvisatory nature of desire, but explores the transgression of authorized space through virtual lines of desire. With the help of satellite equipment stolen from the regime by the Free Syrian Army providing bandwidth for Skype communications, young actors under siege in the suburban area, al-Waer, that lies just to the east of Homs, Syria were able to perform a play with young actors displaced in Amman, Jordan. Driven by the desire to touch even if digitally, their homeland, several children living in a recovery facility in Amman rehearsed an adapted version of Romeo and Juliet. At the same time, another group of children, driven by the desire to imagine an existence outside of the violence and war surrounding them, secretly rehearsed in an apartment in al-Waer. Eventually the two casts met through a combination of computers, cameras, and screens. Their rehearsals and performances opened momentary pathways through borders and conflict zones allowing the children to make a unified plea for the violence and killing to stop.

Souriyat Across Borders is a hospice for war wounded Syrians who are recovering from severe injuries suffered as a result of the war. The nonprofit center was founded and continues to be run exclusively by Syrian women who were themselves displaced to Jordan. Located near the University of Jordan in Amman, Souriyat houses Syrians of all ages with physically debilitating injuries. The older residents staying in the hospice have a decidedly pro-revolution political affiliation. In fact, many of the audience members present for the performances of Romeo and Juliet arrived at Souriyat after being injured in skirmishes with the Syrian Army or al-Dawlah al-Islamïyah (Islamic State). At the same time there were children living in Souriyat who fell victim to the barrage of barrel bombs dropped from the Syrian and Russian planes. For example, the eleven-year-old boy who played Romeo lost the full use of his right leg when he ran to escape a falling bomb. 

Image of children in Homs performing Romeo and Juliet Separated by War with children in Amman over Skype, 2015. Still taken from video by Nawar Bulbul.

Syrian actor and director Nawar Bulbul, who is more widely known for his work in Middle Eastern Ramadan dramas like Bab al Hara or films like Demashq Tatakallam developed the idea in 2013 after completing his notable project Shakespeare in Zaatari (6). Bulbul, who is from a notable theatre and opera family in Homs, Syria (7), chose to work at Souriyat for this production because UNHCR and the Jordanian government prohibited him from continuing to work with the children in Zaatari because he was not a licensed NGO. Still wanting to work with Syrian children, Bulbul approached Souriyat with his idea for producing Romeo and Juliet over Skype with children in Homs. Considering that one of Souriyat’s primary focuses is on the children wounded in the Syrian war, the board allowed Bulbul and the actors to use the roof of the facility which had a large empty storage room. 

Bulbul worked to secure a performance space and adapt the script while Abu Ameen, a drama teacher and pro-revolution activist, worked with his teenaged students to make masks and develop rules to maintain their anonymity. Most of the young cast lived in Homs, but Abu Ameen fled Homs which was under the occupation of the governmental forces to the Free Syrian controlled suburban enclave al-Waer. By January of 2015, the regime forces in Syria had taken control of the entire city of Homs. Serving as the heart of the revolution, Homs had initially resisted attempts by the military to quell the 2011 marches. Because of their resiliency, citizens in Homs gave life to the revolution after the protests temporarily died out in Dara’a. But with Hezbollah reinforcing the Syrian military, the Free Syrian Army were forced to evacuate Homs in May 2014 (Zuhur; Sherlock and Samman). While the most vocal and known activists moved with the Free Syrian army to al-Waer, other anti-Regime citizens remained in Homs living under a cloud of suspicion from Syrian intelligence. The Syrian regime forced people remaining in the city to sign a declaration of loyalty to President Bashar al Assad. Although many people signed it, they remained silently hopeful that the revolution would succeed. This included the parents of the children participating in Romeo and Juliet. Any activity deemed subversive likely would be met with prison, torture, and possibly death. The regime intelligence apparatus likely would have considered any theatre potentially subversive. But performing theatre over the internet in collaboration with Ameen and Bulbul, who were considered dissidents, would certainly have registered as an act of treason against the regime. Nevertheless, the parents allowed their children to make the treacherous journey from Homs across oppositional lines to al-Waer five times per week for four months (Ameen).

Over those four months, Ameen and Bulbul rehearsed Romeo and Juliet with both groups of children. In the mornings, Bulbul traveled to the Souriyat building and rehearsed with the Amman group for three hours. Working in a small activity room with speckled brown concrete floors and white walls lined with the children’s artwork, the cast in Amman traded positions reading the lines played by the actors in al-Waer. Then between noon and three in the afternoon, Ameen brought the children to his temporary apartment for rehearsal. The timing varied daily in order to avoid creating a predictable pattern of movement that could make capturing them easier. Returning home from Souriyat, Bulbul waited for an email from Ameem to say that the children were ready. Then Bulbul would call Ameen on Skype for the group to begin rehearsal. While Bulbul directed, Ameen took notes and read the Amman casts’ roles. After two months of meeting in this way, Bulbul and French scenographer, Jean Yves Bizien, cleared the rooftop of Souriyat, and multimedia designer, Hassan Muhra, completed the Skype projection installment. This allowed the two casts to rehearse together for the first time. Until this point, the children in Amman and Homs had not met each other. 

The first meeting, which Muhra captured on video, was a moment of joy for both those in Amman and al-Waer. Bulbul had the children standing in a group behind him in Amman, while in al-Waer Ameen kept the children out of camera frame. After a few minutes of adjusting the camera image so that it was clear, and ensuring that the sound preferences were all correct, Ameen instructed the children in al-Waer to enter the frame. As soon as the two groups saw each other they both giggled coyly. Ameen noted that the children in Syria desperately wanted to make this connection with other Syrian children living outside of the war. At the same time, Bulbul explained that seeing the children in Syria for the first time, reminded the children in Amman that they were still connected to the country. The giggling, Bulbul speculated, was a combination of the children processing these complex emotions bound up with the romantic connotations at play in Romeo and Juliet. After a few moments of feigned embarrassment, the children composed themselves and Bulbul introduced the actors from Amman. Ameen followed by introducing the actors in the al Waer apartment. For two months following this initial introduction, the children forged a virtual bond necessary for the performance and psychological benefit of each.

The ability for the children to meet and perform Romeo and Juliet relied on a confluence of tactics and technologies that created enough space for the project to exist temporarily and then leave traces in the act of its disappearance. In a physical way, the Syrians involved in creating Romeo and Juliet located pockets in the crevices of the map, from which they could contest power. In al-Waer, just outside of Homs, under the protection of the Free Syrian Army, Ameen and the children worked from a private apartment. The regime, however, continued advancing towards this suburban enclave from its regained position in Homs. This meant that during rehearsals and performances the group endured regular shelling from mortar rounds and barrel bombs. In a particularly tense moment during the first performance, when the siege was audible in the background, the internet connection severed leaving the audience in Amman to wonder if the apartment in al-Waer had been struck. 

Adding to the already perilous situation of producing a play while under bombardment, the four children participating lived in a regime held neighborhood in Homs. As mentioned earlier, regime forces captured Homs a few months prior to the beginning of rehearsals. For four months, five days per week, Ameen drove through the front line between opposition and regime forces in order to pick the children up for rehearsals. Describing his drive back from Homs, Ameen noted that there was one road on which he had to travel where the regime forces positioned snipers on the rooftops. Both entering and exiting the area on this road, Ameen recalls having to drive quickly in a specific lane because it created a difficult angle for the snipers attempting to shoot. Additionally, he varied the days and times of the rehearsals, some days picking the children up at 2pm, then the next day at 5pm. In this manner he avoided predictability making it more difficult to become a target (Ameen). During a documentary produced by Arte TV called Jordan: Romeo and Juliet, Love at War, Ameen drove a reporter through the streets of al-Waer after dropping the children off following rehearsal. The landscape was littered with debris from the war, crumbling buildings that the Syrian forces destroyed, and charred automobiles parked wherever they had been when the fighting began. 

Ameen, acknowledged the risk he and the children took by performing this play on the internet. At the same time, he argues that to be silent in the face of oppression would be the same as agreeing with Assad’s brutality. The children’s parents, according to Ameen, agreed and were excited that their children were working with him and Bulbul. Of course, both Bulbul and Ameen admit that at the time of the play, all involved still believed that the revolution would be successful. Russia had not yet committed its full presence and the Free Syrian Army still held major areas in the south and east including Dara’a, Idlib, and Aleppo (ARTE GEIE). 

The apartment they rehearsed and performed in did not belong to Ameen, nor anyone else involved in the play. Its owner had allowed Ameen to live there with his family so that he could escape Homs when the regime took control. Prior to living in the apartment, Ameen moved seven other times to escape the regime forces who actively looked for him. In the camera frame, two rooms were visible. The room where the actors performed looked to be a small living room. In some of the videos and images a couch and other furniture was visible. The room in the background, which was separated from the living room by standard double door frame passage, was an office. During the performance, however, Ameen converted this room into audience seating. On the frame over the doorway, he and the children crafted a brick façade that mimicked Bizien’s scenography in Amman. 

Meanwhile, in Jordan, Bulbul and the children carved out space on the roof of a private building so that they would not have to worry about being censored by Jordanian authorities for presenting potentially political material. When Bulbul began working on the adaptation for Romeo and Juliet, he intended for it to be performed in Zaatari. When those plans were scuttled by UNHCR and camp authorities, he searched for another space. There are performance spaces in Amman belonging to the Ministry of Culture that Bulbul could have used. In fact, a friend of Bulbul’s from the High Institute of Dramatic Art in Damascus, managed one of these spaces. But using a government owned space meant exposing the show to the eye of the Jordanian censors. While the play was not explicitly political, at least not in a manner that would cause concern to the government, Bulbul’s experience with censors in Syria followed by his recent run in with Jordanian authorities in Zaatari meant that he was overly cautious in the way he viewed access to the work. 

Moreover, even if the Jordanian authorities did not attempt to censor the play, there was always the risk that Syrian intelligence would create problems for the production if it were held in a public location. According to Bulbul, following the media coverage of Shakespeare in Zaatari he felt certain that Syrian intelligence was surveilling him in Amman. He did not want to risk them creating a conflict that would derail the performance or harm the children. For that reason, he sought a place that had controlled access. This would be a tactic Bulbul repeated for his next play Love Boat (2016) which was performed in the French Institute in Amman. 

The spatial tactics Bulbul and Ameen employed linked separate spaces while evading the official flow of power. For Bulbul and the cast in Amman, the ability to operate in a space outside Jordanian authority meant that a performance absent government intrusion was possible. For Ameen and the cast in Homs, moving in the shadows and working from the apartment reduced their risk of imprisonment, torture, or death. In Syria’s current state of exception, the regime heavily regulates the landscape. Even though the group was in al-Waer this space was not entirely safe from the state. As Giorgio Agamben notes, in the state of exception there is no space free from government intrusion (Agamben). It is quite literally a matter of one’s life that under the suspension of the rule of law, those seeking to subvert an oppressive state create their own map of shadows with trajectories that travelled in between them.

Ameen’s use of satellite communications in order to generate anti-regime theatre is, by itself a production of desire that uses the structures and geographies of the powerful tactically to reach beyond the map of the Syrian revolution into the international sphere. Ameen, operated from space within the Syrian borders. Although the Free Syrian Army defended this position from the Syrian regime, under the logic of the nation-state, it still belonged to the government. Using defense terminology, the land under Free Syrian Army Control was occupied by illegal opposition forces. Al-Waer, the area from where Ameen broadcast Romeo and Juliet was cordoned off on all sides by regime forces (ACAPS). The only option for the children in Homs and Ameen to connect with anyone outside of the nation’s border, was through the internet. Even with proxy servers, using the regime’s infrastructure to propagate anti-regime material meant both being in regime-controlled areas and risking detection due to the surveillance of online traffic by the Ministry of Information. Using satellite communications, therefore, was the group’s only alternative. Furthermore, the technology required for this communication, although currently in the possession of the Free Syrian Army, originally belonged to the regime. Members of the Syrian Army took the equipment when they defected to the Free Syrian Army once Assad began assaulting civilians. Romeo and Juliet, therefore, relied on equipment purchased by the regime in order to cross regime-controlled territory into Jordanian communication space. This re-appropriation of equipment is commonplace in insurgency situations where the oppositional forces requisition regime equipment for operational communication. What is most extraordinary about this tactical use of regime technology is that it was employed in service of theatre as a revolutionary apparatus. In insurgencies communications are an essential element to the success of operations. The Free Syrian Army, as the primary insurgency force in this area, recognized the political value in this theatrical project, and enabled it through use of critical satellite resources.

The Tactics of Desire

Beyond its own cartographic inversion, Romeo and Juliet Separated by War circulates within a larger milieu of work that argues effectively for the revolutionary value of theatre. That the Free Syrian Army in al-Waer saw it as important, underscores the ability theatre has in crafting scenarios that imagine life inside and beyond the revolution. One production alone did not create this understanding though. Romeo and Juliet Separated by War must be viewed in concert with other anti-regime productions such as Shakespeare in Zaatari and Love Boat. These works must also be coupled with the activist performances by artists such as the late May Skaff who helped lead the effort to collect over 300 artist and scholar signatures on the “Milk Statement,” which responded to the initial crisis in Dara’a by demanding that humanitarian aid supplies be delivered to those under siege in the southern Syrian province (Ziter "Clowns" 140, 45). Even more important is to place these performances besides others that have yet to be told.

All these individual performers and groups are led by desire to produce. In one example, Zabeida’s revolution applied broadly to an oppressive patriarchy rather than to a dictatorial regime or failed international humanitarian response. Zabeida working in Azraq wanted to show the teenage girls in her class that they did not have to accept the role of caretaker assigned to them by the male dominated culture. Through performance she created a vocabulary for the girls to find value in their intellectual capacity. In the other example, the children in Homs and Amman, along with Ameen and Bulbul, operated within and counter to physical and technological limitations. Both groups needed to connect—Homs with those outside Syria and Amman, those within. Furthermore, they had a drive to scream to the world about the violence occurring in Syria.

The desire to produce for both groups mentioned in this article worked instinctually to push life forward despite desperate circumstances. Although each of their desires manifested in some sort of cultural product, neither the product, nor accumulation of any object, was the focus of their desires. For Zabeida, desire produced an opportunity to teach young women about their value. This need to teach for Zabeida recurrently appeared in her life as a displaced Syrian in both Azraq and Zaatari. Of course, in Azraq it led her to seek a volunteer position in teaching with Relief International. Prior to this experience, however, Zabeida lived in Zaatari with her family. While there she adopted five siblings whose parents were killed during the war in Syria (IRC). Likewise, Bulbul, Ameen, and the children of Romeo and Juliet Separated By War wanted to connect with each other and remember what it was like to play and enjoy life as Syrians. The children in Homs needed to imagine a life outside of the daily bombardments and violence. The children in Amman needed to know that Syria still existed. Neither Zabeida’s theatre in education practice nor Romeo and Juliet Separated By War originated in a desire aimed at an object or accumulation. These moments of performance were born from desire.



  1. Jabhat al Nusra was the name for an Al Qaeda affiliated militia in Syria that was active in the war. In late 2016 this militia changed in name to As Jabhat Fatah al Sham.

  2. Although Mohammed publicly posts anti-regime skits on Facebook regularly, I am using only his first name out of respect for his safety.

  3. According to the 2017 Terms of Reference for Service Contracting, the NGO Questscope was given sole teacher training responsibility for the Drop Out program.

  4. A ghost teacher is a teacher that is on the official record for the Ministry of Education as teaching at a specific school, is being paid for this position, but does not actually report to work. This is often used as a method for ministry officials to provide a salary to relatives or friends.

  5.  Palmyrene queen in from 240 – 274 AD.

  6. Shakespeare in Zaatari was Nawar Bulbul’s first creation with displaced Syrian children in Jordan. This play included over 100 children in Zaatari Refugee Camp performing an altered version of King Lear. It was first performed on March 27, 2014. See: Pitchford, Gerald Barton. "Hela L’Wein: performing nationalisms, citizenship, and belonging in displaced Syrian communities." PhD diss., 2019.

  7. The Bulbul family, headed by Farhan Bulbul has been part of the theatrical landscape in Homs for over five decades.


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About The Author(s)

Bart Pitchford is an Assistant Professor of Theatre History and Directing at the University of Montevallo. In 2019, He graduated with his PhD in Performance as Public Practice from the University of Texas at Austin. Bart’s scholarly focus is on Syrian theatre after the 2011 revolution, particularly the work of Nawar Bulbul. Bart also writes about the intersection of theatre, war, and the military. Some of Bart’s invited speaker engagements include Howlround Military and the Arts Convergence, Great River Shakespeare Theatre Festival, and Texas Creative Forces Arts and Military Conference. Bart’s publications include multiple essays and articles in American Theatre Magazine, Theatre Topics, and chapters in the books Performance in Militarized Cultures (2017) and Arabs, Politics, and Performance (Expected Publication in 2022). Bart is also a cofounding member of the Middle Eastern Theatre focus group at the Association for Theatre in Higher Education.

Arab Stages is devoted to broadening international awareness and understanding of the theatre and performance cultures of the Arab-Islamic world and of its diaspora.

The journal appears twice yearly in digital form by the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center of New York and is a joint project of that Center and of the Arabic Theatre Working Group of the International Federation for Theatre Research.

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