Have you ever turned on the news, seen some horrific images of a war far away, then changed channels and gone to make a cup of tea? Me too. I think we all have.
In 2014 I got asked to make a piece of work with some teenagers in Southwark about the civil war in Syria. My first thought was… I’m white, I don’t speak Arabic, I’ve never been to the Middle East so… no?
This was a war I knew about only through screens – a screen I could switch off and walk away from. Wouldn’t it be better for someone with closer proximity to Syria to lead on this project?
One night an Egyptian friend and I were talking about the Arab Spring and the footage coming out of Tahrir Square. My friend was feeling guilty about not being close to what was happening and was confused about how to show solidarity to her family and friends from so far away. Even with her personal relationship to these events she would sit in front of news images and not know how to connect. And this guilt was stopping her from simply picking up the phone to ask if her friends were ok, because what can you say in such times – is there such a thing as the right words?
It struck me that the feelings my Egyptian friend was having weren’t dissimilar to mine. Disconnection to global conflicts through screens was part of the fabric of being in the West and in the modern world. We look after screens as if they are toddlers, never out of our sight, and yet they often leave us feeling distant from the very thing we’ve just been shown.
Could we make a piece that was honest about this difficulty in connecting? A piece that tried not to judge anyone, but rather accepted how hard it was and then worked to support an audience out of this disconnection. Could we take them away from their screens and show them how just picking up the phone or sending an email and saying not very much, maybe even saying nothing, could be an act of hope or solidarity?
We started to play with the idea of the audience sitting in arm chairs and experiencing the piece through individual TVs. We knew we wanted the audience to have a journey from the normal screen where you might sit and watch the news to then being in the space, connecting with each other, with this war and with someone in Syria.
We were on the hunt for a Syrian artist who might want to work with us – someone telling the story of the war in a way that felt different to how the news told it – someone who we and an audience might enjoy saying hello to.
I had no idea when I sat down to watch the film Every Day, Every Day, a documentary about a family trying to adjust to life during the conflict, made by Syrian filmmaker Reem Karssli that this was the start of a now five-year long friendship.
I didn’t know as we first connected to this woman through a grainy Skype that this friend would experience a war so violent that she would soon fear for her life. I never once imagined that this friend would two years later have to pack a bag, say goodbye to her family and be smuggled out of a country she loves across a sea to an unknown destination and a new life. I didn’t know that in three years’ time in a snow-covered park in Germany, we’d finally meet each other and share hot chocolate and tears. I didn’t know we’d make the final part of our work together in a garden in Berlin, using sticks as the set, as Reem’s puppy barked at our heels.
I cannot over estimate how generous and brave Reem has been in this work to share what she went through with this odd band of Londoners trying to reach out to her over a period of so many years. She always met us with such great positivity, humour and lightness even in the darkest of times. The young people grew to really love her – wanting always to hear about her cat and about how her nieces were doing.
And then there were the times when we couldn’t get through. The times when the reality of war came into the room and all of us held our breath in its presence realising how little we knew of its shape and weight, disbelieving that it was our friends’ bedfellow. And finally we stood back and made room for the person who did know its size, who did know about survival to tell us about it in her own words. And we tried to listen.
This piece finally grew into just that: a Syrian artist telling us about living through a war and reminding us how lucky we all are to be alive. I hope you’ll show up and hear her.