Reaching the end of sorrow

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Photo: Karl Schembri/Oxfam International, creative commons

In Queens of Syria, a mixed cast of refugee women, dislodged from their homes by the unrelenting violence in Syria, stage a modern-day interpretation of Euripedes’ The Trojan Women. As they work through the emotional overload of loss, longing and fear, filmmaker Yasmin Fredda trails the women, now living in exile in Amman, Jordan.

Though rooted in a barely recognizable era, 415 B.C., the play has a chilling resonance for the Syrian women in Queens of Syria, who grieve for family members gunned down, yearn to be within the fortress of their homes and weep for cities now reduced to dust. In Hecuba, Troy’s fallen queen, they see their own lives mirrored: so carefully constructed yet swiftly dismantled by the intrusion of war. “Hecuba is just like me. She was the wife of the King of Troy. Then she lost everything she owned. She lost loved ones and family,” says one of them. “It’s like us, she was a queen in her home. Hecuba said, ‘I used to run this place, but now I am nothing.’ That’s us.”

For many of these women the pervasive and indiscriminate carnage makes flight a common response tinged with reluctance. The 60 women – all theatre rookies — represent but a tiny fraction of those who have fled. Since the civil war broke out in 2011, 12 million Syrians have been forced from their homes. Jordan has absorbed more than half a million of these refugees, but the government says it could be closer to 1.5 million, according to Al Jazeera.

Along with footages of acting exercises, rehearsals and the final production, we see glimpses of families trying their dignified best to live normal lives. A mother reminds her children how important her studies in math are. A woman points at curtains she has hung to bring some cheer to a gloomy apartment. An engaged couple decides to marry even in dire circumstances.

The play is a welcome reprieve for many women, who form friendships with one another — bursts of laughter and playful exchanges become as a common a sight in the film as the unflinching, truth-telling moments.

Image grab from Queens of Syria trailer on Vimeo

Image grab from Queens of Syria trailer

Still, some are concerned about revealing themselves to the camera for fear of endangering relatives left behind or jeopardizing their chances of returning home. Some of their husbands weren’t too thrilled with their participation, with the unburdening of their stories onstage. But some did come around in a show of support.

By curtain call, the number of participants had dwindled to 25. The stage performance itself set up a chorus of women testifying to their shared struggles, and later, individuals took centre stage to speak to their own personal histories, to share what they had penned for the stage performance. One reveals how a group of armed men barged into her home to take her brother and how his refusal to leave had later cost him his life; another opens up about how her father and brothers had been executed, their bodies tossed into a mass grave.

The trauma of such events will surely linger long after they’ve settled into their new lives, but onstage, there’s a cathartic energy that seems to wash over the cast, as they pronounce: “I have reached the end of my sorrows.”

The documentary could have benefited from tighter editing, some rehearsal scenes were drawn out, for instance. Still, Queens of Syria is a stirring portrait of the human spirit – that while the prospect of a return to normalcy may be unthinkable, it is still possible to find comfort in the everyday.

The film headlined the inaugural Syria Film Festival in Toronto, Nov. 13 to 15. The three-day festival brought to light the common hardships and tumultuous experiences of those displaced by the Syrian crisis. Under the banner theme, “Wake Up and Smell the Jasmine,” its intent was to bring urgency to the refugee crisis while paying homage to the beauty of Damascus, where the scent of jasmine flowers lingers in the air.

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