Points of view

posted in: Teaching in Lesvos | 0

Shafiqha: “Last night we had a performance at Gekko X.  We performed The Chalk Circle at 8.00 p.m.  It was perfect!!

In the beginning we were nervous, but when we started, everything was great.  The actors spoke loudly clearly and with feeling.  When the old man Salman said lies everybody laughed.  In the play two old people wanted a divorce and the judge granted them one.

My favourite part of the play was when I reserved a room in the hotel.  I spoke loudly and angrily because the innkeeper told me and my friend, “we don’t have any rooms.”  Then we had to go to the dirty stable where the animals lived.  I held my nose and I waved my hand.  I liked this part because I got to be a long time on the stage.”

Chris: Arriving at the venue as usual, with just over an hour to go to curtain-up, I noticed a problem: the lid of the trunk – in our production, the Queen’s trunk, which she rummages through to choose the best dresses to take with her and then the ‘baby’ gets left behind in – had come adrift.  This was an old, rickety thing, the first prop I had noticed in the Gekko X store room (and actually belonging to the Flying Seagulls, a travelling theatre group, famous throughout the refugee hotspots.)  Luckily, we had the right person there to fix it: Andrew, a director of Better Days, who had first cut his teeth in refugee assistance being a dab hand at fixing tent-zips – a truly wonderful skill, and vital in that world.

It took him some time to find the required bits and pieces from the chaos that the store-room had degenerated into, but after that, he said the job was easy enough.  I would not agree, seeing as he had to work in a narrow corridor, with performers constantly stepping over and around him.  Many a man would have exploded at such a point; he carried on, until the job was done.

Val: I was on duty backstage. Which you can see from the video clips doesn’t appear like any backstage I’ve ever come across before. Standing there, you can clearly see and hear everything happening on stage, but the audience can’t see you!

My job – to help make sure everyone had the right props and cue entrances. But I was redundant, if anything I was in the way, because the kids have got it all sewn up. Ali in particular, stands in the middle of backstage, orchestrating everything; not that the performers need telling, but he adds just that extra crispness that keeps each scene flowing from one to another. In the many, many productions I’ve helped with, I have never known such an organised, focused and professional bunch – no messing around, no whispering or giggling, no showing-off. Magnificent.

Andrew had been worried when he put the curtain up, that it would be too flimsy (and admittedly, it might not stand the test of a day-time performance), but last night, from my point of view I agree with Shafiqha, it was perfect!

Run and run through

I flew in late on Saturday night, already acclimatised to the hot weather after the recent UK heatwave. My role this week in Mytilini is to organise costumes for the performance. In theory, it should have been just ‘organising’ as Chris had pulled together most of them from the local Chinese shop, the Women’s Centre and a local tailor. Plus I arrived (bizarrely distinct from my fellow Thomas Cook package holiday-makers) with a suitcase of shawls, scarves and old shirts (a few quick snips to cut off the collar produces a peasant shirt, remove the sleeves and you have a country jerkin). Oh and also (how many times have I seen it on stage as teacher or preacher?) Chris’s black graduation gown.

Perfect. Well not quite perfect, as unfortunately, the costumes from the Women’s Centre were far from production ready, so together with two volunteer English teachers, Pam and Ciara, we set about hand-sewing the soldier’s tabards. I am no seamstress (as my school needlework teacher regularly reminded me), but I am quite good at pulling together easily donned/shed character costumes that will stand the test of a week’s production run.

The costumes are relatively simple – black trousers/skirts and t-shirt (the latter showing Jaime’s fist/circle logo) as a base. Each character then dons a shawl, shirt, scarf, apron, jerkin, tabard or whatever to signify their character. It’s amazing how costumes lift not only the audience’s perception of a play, but also give the performer confidence and the finishing touch to their characterisation. An old peasant man comes to life in a raggedy jerkin, a servant girl is easily recognisable in an apron. With the production mostly spoken in Farsi interspersed with bits of English, it will be important the (predominantly?) English/Greek speaking audience understand who’s who. Predictably, the kids pushed back strongly on wearing the unfashionable trousers (‘no, you can’t wear your designer ripped jeans onstage’), but they soon acquiesced. I’m impressed with the professional attitude they have taken towards the performance – it was a good dress rehearsal run through.

The second run is of a completely different nature. I’m training, along with our eldest Lucy, for the Great North Run (half-marathon) in just over a months’ time. This is a crucial time, building up distance week-by-week, my current target being 14km. Which just happens to be the return distance to the airport along the shore of the Med from the apartment.

Greece wakes up quite late, so early morning in Mytilini is a very different experience to the usual hustle of Ermou or the harbour front. Heading out of town, I spent the first 2km passing a multitude of street cleaners (mostly well-dressed young women, in ordinary day clothes), plus a couple of men strimming weeds growing out of the pavement cracks. Past the marina, taking care over kerbs, around and under trees, I felt the heat as I climbed over the hill to the road along the coast. At regular intervals, there were small groups of people in sleeping bags on the beach or in the back of their cars, hatch-back open for air, their children already up playing on the stony beach or riding their bicycles (I’m guessing possibly Roma people). Plus a handful of fellow joggers, all enjoying the view over the perfectly calm sea.

Both run and run through have provided a very satisfying start to my week in Lesvos. A feeling of achievement and anticipation for myself (running) and for the kids (performing).

The play’s the thing

posted in: Lebanon | 0

Many of you reading this will already have seen our short fund-raiser video of the performance. It very nicely gives a feel of the two plays and the enjoyment the children had being part of it. We are at this instant emailing the Jusoor team to finalise details of the way we’re going to spend the fund raised so far. They have new quotes and so we are able to do pretty much everything we wanted except get a full set of blocks for the staging, so we’ll keep fundraising for a bit longer via https://give.jusoorsyria.com/JJSchoolHall.


Store Room Jam

posted in: Lebanon | 0

During induction week, we were told that the summer school is not just for the benefit of the kids, but also for the teachers. Almost all of the staff are Syrian, living in Lebanon because of the war. While they are getting paid to do their job, it’s pretty difficult and under fairly stressful conditions. They are heroes.

Until now, I wasn’t sure we could offer very much at all – helping them practise English is useful, but with our non-existent Arabic we can’t provide much in the way of instruction. So it was delightful when an informal music session evolved in the store room today (more news about the ‘store room’ to come in a later blog).

I had been practising Tiri Tiri Ya Asfoura (the end of show song) with Conor learning the chords on his guitar, when the deputy head picked up one of the drums and joined in. That escalated to Inas, Raghad and couple more staff going in to a full blown jamming session. We were making so much noise, we had to shut the door to avoid disrupting lessons down the corridor. It was only when a small child came to return a roll of sellotape that we came to our senses.


Thank you for the music

posted in: Lebanon | 1

Before we left England, Chris’s golfing buddy Paul made a generous financial donation to our Drama project, to be used in any way that might help to make it a success. The accompanying picture shows the result, with the instruments we were able to bring with us augmented by whatever we have been able to buy here: from street vendors,  a tourist shop in Byblos, a toyshop (the animal xylophones) and a tiny haberdashery shop with a sideline in various bits and pieces: halloween masks, practical joke kits, and, crucially, shakers, tambourines and recorders. When we leave, the instruments will remain, as an addition to the school’s resources.

However, it was the absence of these instruments which contributed to the relative success of today’s rehearsal. We decided to focus on the acting today, without the inevitable and virtually perpetual distraction that the instruments provide (especially the high-pitched screech of the recorders!) And suddenly it seemed that we had a play after all. Despite not having rehearsed the acting since about last Wednesday, due to large-scale absenteeism, they remembered much of what they had been asked to do… to our great relief. Most importantly, they put across the stories.

Our two leads – the peddler’s daughter and the man who discovers his luck and fate (Asmaa and Mohammed respectively) are both excellent. They know exactly what they have to say and do, and they create strong, believable characters. Most importantly, they put across their stories.

Tomorrow, we have to try to combine the words and the music, without descending into chaos once again.

Great expectations

posted in: Lebanon | 1

You may have noticed that our blog has included only limited pictures of the children we are teaching. There are good reasons for this – first, it was pointed out that these children have no ability to object to being posted on social media etc. Therefore, it is incumbent on us not to exploit them. Secondly, there have been situations where the children’s whereabouts have been used to track down parents/relatives – the last thing we want to do is put their family members in any more danger than they already face.

So I have decided to provide some pen portraits of the children in our classes:

One lad is almost certainly hyperactive, but is a smashing kid nonetheless, quite charming. He has made huge progress in the ‘orchestra’, from being totally unable to control any kind of percussive rhythm to being quite measured in the last couple of sessions. Noting his potential for being disruptive, Chris explained to him that his part would be the black panther, that comes on at the end of Luck and Fate – his delight at having such a part has meant that he has been really engaged.

The chatty, bossy girl in the class had to be ‘talked to’ about ‘high-fiving’ with a drawing pin in her hand.  Since then, she has been a superstar, organising the girls’ dancing scene and helping everyone don their bandanas and sashes when sorting costumes today.

The acrobats in The Peddlar’s Daughter are generally a rather quiet and withdrawn trio, who leapt (literally) at the opportunity to show what they can do – our concerns about their being able to perform flips, handstands and cartwheels on the concrete floor without mats were met with sneers of derision.

Several children are very withdrawn, but we feel we are making progress – the odd smile, more engagement with the other kids, seeing their feeling of achievement when they take their turn performing.

Interestingly, there is a a level of rivalry between the two groups (they compare notes between lessons to make sure we are treating them equally!). We feel that they have come on so much in our second week working with them. I’m not sure whether they quite know what expectations we have of them for next week’s performance. What I do know is that they have high expectations of us as teachers, which I feel I have too often failed to live up to, but there have been magical moments when I think I have been able to make a difference.

War and Peace

posted in: Lebanon | 4

Friday, the end of the week and school finished a little early for afternoon prayers and the weekend.

Lebanon is a secular country (not Muslim as I had assumed) with Christian-Muslim power sharing: parliamentary seats split 50/50 with a Christian President. Based originally on the population census of 1932, calls to amend the balance to reflect the percieved increase in the Muslim population have been resisted.

Regions across the country have quite different demographics. For example, Baalbek (last weekend’s outing) is predominantly Shia. While there, we took the opportunity to visit the exquisitely ornate mosque (in contrast Sunni mosques are plainer). We ‘girls’ donned long, black ‘Harry Potter’-like abeyas and went through security (I was asked to turn on my camera). Inside the main courtyard, it was surprising to find not only a couple of shops to buy prayer mats etc, but also an ice-cream stand.

We handed over our shoes and entered the women’s side of the mosque, which was not only beautiful, but also delightfully cool and pleasant, a few women praying, other groups of women sitting on the floor chatting, small children playing. A very tranquil place, apparently used as a social space between prayer times.

Back in the courtyard we rejoined the men. Most surprising of all, there was a separate hall containing a Hezbollah exhibition of various weaponry from (both sides of) the 2006 invasion, along with graphic posters, models and maps. The town of Baalbek was heavily targeted during the war and feelings obviously still run high. An eye-opening contrast of war and peace.

Roll over Beethoven

posted in: Lebanon | 1

Well, I’m astonished. I am a music teacher. In 3 days, our theatre project groups are making amazing sounds out of almost nothing. Each lesson the children become an orchestra; I am their conductor.

My ideas are all stolen – being a conductor comes from talking to Mary, from her years of experience in orchestras with both good and bad conductors. Given the language barrier I decided I had to become one of the former – to make as much progress as possible while I have our Jordanian assistants to help explain the basic concepts (they will be gone next week).

I started with laughing and crying (soft -> loud -> soft etc, the kids love this). Animal noises were more challenging – the children tend to copy, so if one decides to be a cat, they all become cats. Trying to encourage them to be different animals was a challenge at first, but when they got it, they made a cacophony of sounds. This was leading up to sellers in the market place – the king opens his window overlooking the market, the sound grows as he opens the window and stops abruptly as he slams it shut. Wow – when it works it’s fantastic.

Introducing instruments was more challenging – at first an empty water bottle each containing a little rice (lids taped down to avoid ‘accidents’). I made a huge mistake with the first group, introducing them immediately to holding the bottle in one hand and banging it on the other palm. Of course, they all found it much more fun to bang them on their heads, the floor, chairs, against each others’ bottle. Chaos! End of exercise, Val crumbles into a mess, sweating, no idea what to do next. Thankfully, Lauzan to my rescue, she led the remaining 10 mins and I was off the hook. Another attempt with the second group next lesson – success! Rule: no banging, only shaking. They were superb.

Tomorrow, I am taking in the set of percussion instruments and recorders – wish me luck.


posted in: Lebanon | 1

The end of our first week and the volunteer group chose Baalbek (the ancient city of Heliopolis) for our weekend outing, to see the temples of Jupiter, Bacchus and Venus. I am ashamed to say that until we were heading to Lebanon, I had never heard of Baalbek, or any of the other magnificent ancient sites here. We were not disappointed – it easily matched any site I have visited in Rome, Greece, Turkey or Egypt; regardless of the heat and a rather dispassionate guide, we were bowled over by the sheer size and scale of the place.

To a certain extent, evolution of the ancient site has mirrored the history of the country: the fertile and strategically positioned Bekaa valley has been subject to occupation over the millennia by Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Muslim and Ottoman rulers. In addition to the odd earthquake, each invading new-comer stamped their own cultural, religious, economic and military mark on the place, including most recently plaques in the temple of Bacchus commemorating the visit of Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany in 1898, who initiated an archaeological team to carry out restoration work. This century, the site is said to have received collateral damage from air strikes on the region during the 2006 Lebanon war (more on this later). Against the trend, it seems that only the French (who ruled Syria and Lebanon from the 1st World War until 1943) left the site to its own devices.

Thankfully (for the time being) Baalbek remains a fitting tribute to Lebanese culture.

Getting to know you

posted in: Lebanon | 1

Well here we are, settled into our accommodation in Beirut – our first day in Lebanon and the first day (well morning) at the Jusoor school in Jeb Jannine. We have a 7am start each day, the 28 or so of us volunteers travelling by bus to the school for a 9am start. It’s a long steep climb out of Beirut, against miles of traffic queuing the other way in morning rush hour. The views over the city are stunning and coming over the pass in the Lebanon Mountains, the Bekaa valley opens up with vineyards and orchards.

As you can see on the map Jeb (or Joub) Jannine is about half way between Beirut and Damascus and about 45 minutes from the Syrian border.There are various small ‘informal’ refugee camps in the area and about 700 Syrian children attend school here. About half of those will be attending the summer school, which starts next week. In the meantime, we (the volunteers, organisers and Syrian teachers) will be planning lessons and the theatre production and generally getting to know each other.