The play’s the thing

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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.

 

It’s all about the money (money, money…)

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With the Jusoor summer project 2018 having come to an end, Val and I can look back with pleasure and satisfaction on a remarkable summer. We were given the wonderful opportunity of living and working in Lebanon, and the children we took through the production had a positive experience which will live with them throughout their lives.

We also have the opportunity to look forward, to provide the children of Jeb Jannine with something which will benefit all of them, as well as future pupils. And to do this, we are asking for your help.

While teaching at the school, I came across a very large storage room, about the size of three big classrooms, full of the sort of equipment all schools accumulate – furniture, boxes of books, old gym mats, some technical kit….  I joked at the time that I had found the theatre we needed, but then I got to thinking.

Jeb Jannine is desperately short of space. There is a classroom for each class, a library and a meetings room. There is a playground, though for much of the year the weather makes this difficult to use. But if the storage room were emptied, decorated and basically equipped, it could be invaluable. Suddenly, Jeb Janinne would have an assembly hall; an indoor play area; a teaching space for music, dance and drama; a gym or small sports hall; a lecture theatre or small cinema; a meeting room for the community to use; and, of course, a performance area for future productions. All that is needed is money… which is why we are asking for your help.

Here is a shopping list of the basic requirements to transform the space (in US$). Wherever possible, the intention is to use local suppliers and craftsmen:

  • $12 each for stackable chairs (x100)
  • $35 to pad a pillar (x2) or curtain a window (x8)
  • $60 for the projection screen, or to paint a wall / ceiling (x5)
  • $150 for each staging unit (x28) plus a set of steps (locally-made, therefore repairable)
  • $250 each for the sound system, internet provision, every-day lighting
  • $600 for each section of (floor to ceiling) storage (x6)
  • $2500 for flooring
  • labour costs

The total cost of the project, including relocating the equipment currently stored there, is around $15,000; not a negligible amount, but achievable, with your help. And the resulting facility would be invaluable.

If you feel able to fund any of the items listed above or contribute to one, that would be terrific. To make a contribution, click Donate

If you prefer to contribute to Jusoor’s overall programme, and would like to know more about what they do, their website is: http://www.jusoorsyria.com.

Of course, I am aware of the argument that, with the country (and world) in such turmoil, with millions of refugees in Lebanon and the neighbouring countries in need of housing, food, safety, then this project is… well, a bit peripheral. But there are always harder cases, and because we cannot solve all the world’s problems, it does not mean we cannot solve any. And in any case, I do not believe that giving children the chance to play (and dance, sing, learn) is either frivolous or a negligible ambition. I can also promise that every penny raised would go directly to this project, that it would be used immediately, and that the benefit to the children would be huge.

Proud

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The final teaching day of the programme today, which for us meant performance. Or rather performances. The only possible “theatre” was outside in the playground, and though in theory this meant a huge space, the narrow section sheltered from the burning sun had to be shared by both performers and a small audience. This meant three separate performances, one after another.

It was also the first time we had worked in that space – until now, it had been in constant use for sports and games. It all added a few extra degrees of difficulty to the learning curve, and meant that the logistics of the day were pretty tight. So it didn’t help, either the cast or my stress levels, that we arrived at school late.

As to how it all went? Well, it depends upon your perspective. From my point of view, it had something of the charm, but also the limitations, of a primary school nativity play; the focus of the desperately inexperienced cast was decidedly mixed.  On the other hand, there were touches of a far greater theatrical sophistication; as one of the teachers at the school said, Chris and Val achieved a great deal with very little. Focusing on the basic skills of theatre rather than the external trappings has always been my preferred approach. There was mime, augmented by a few simple props; bits of physical theatre – the woods, a panther, the old standby of a standing bed, created by a blanket and a pillow; and utilising what the children could already do: a simple dance, some impressive acrobatics, a final song. And I should pay credit to Val’s contribution of percussion to add atmosphere: for example, birdsong and rustling trees, switching to dramatic pounding drums for the confrontation with the panther.

The language barrier also affected my appreciation. I was one narrator, in English, providing the most basic of structures, and my words were then echoed by my two Arabic counterparts, the wonderful volunteers Jana and Avo, who also marshalled their two “tribes”. But all of the dialogue was in Arabic, and I had no possibility of understanding whether the actors were even saying (more or less) the right words, let alone saying them well.

And yet. And yet. The power of theatre lies in its ability to impact an audience, not in its precision. Or lack of it.  And in that sense it certainly had an effect, with many members of the audience expressing their real appreciation, to the extent, so they told us, of being moved close to tears.

And it had its powerful moments: the market sellers selling their wares; the peddler’s daughter hurling a (mime) stone into the air to create a distraction; the black panther stalking his human prey…

So was it a success? Was it theatrical?  Were we proud of it?  Yes, and yes, and yes.

Contrasts

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When we were accepted by Jusoor, we were slightly nervous about coming to the Middle East, not having visited the region before. We thought Lebanon would be conservative, Islamic, war-ravaged, yet we found it to be liberal and secular, with Beirut in particular a modern, vibrant city, very much up for partying. The fact that in recent memory it has endured both a civil war and an invasion might have something to do with its modern appearance:  bombed buildings need to be torn down and replaced. (Though occasionally one comes across wonderful old colonial buildings, usually in a state of disrepair.)

Lebanon still appears to be going through a building boom; wherever you are in the country, you cannot travel more than a hundred yards or so without seeing buildings under construction, more often than not still a concrete shell, complete with staircases, but clearly destined to become comfortable middle-class dwellings and shops.

This is a country of huge contrasts, even more than most. There are some wonderful family homes to be seen on the road to Bekaa, with pillared porticoes and grand windows, sculptured topiary and ornate pavilions in the gardens. And there are ever more ornate mansions and palaces under construction. Yet within a few hundred yards are the homes of refugees, some just a few clustered in a field, others small towns, with lanes and alleys, homes made of rough timber frames covered in canvas and sacking, weighed down with old car tyres.

We are outsiders, of course we are, yet it seems to us that the thing uniting the people of this wonderful country, Muslim and Christian, rich and poor, aspirational middle class and displaced refugee, is that they are getting on with their lives, raising their children and sending them to school. Unless, of course, you are parents of the 2.8m Syrian children who don’t have a school to go to.

Store Room Jam

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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

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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.

All together now

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Here is the poster for the show; hope you like it, since we are pretty excited. We arrived at the print shop, just around the corner from our apartment, armed with a painting featuring some of the characters from the show, created by the daughter of one of the teachers, and a few bits of text in various fonts on Val’s computer.  Forty-five minutes later, we emerged with a huge version of the completed work, plus a couple of dozen smaller, glossier versions. The total cost was $20; Val is thinking of getting all her business printing done here in future. We hope the kids are as excited by the whole thing when they see them tomorrow, as we are tonight.

It was as well that we had a successful evening, since I was feeling a bit down after a rehearsal in which chaos raged and reigned. Today marked the kids return to school after the weekend, and was the first time we had all 35 or so of them in the same room. Each one was also equipped with a musical instrument – you can imagine. The intention was to go from musical cue to cue, one group doing snippets of acting, while the other providing the sound. We just about managed to get to the end in the whole double lesson, and this for a play that we are intending to run four times on Friday. This Friday.

I knew in advance that it was going to be mayhem, and had warned Val about it. Even so, it did not prevent me experiencing a mixture of depression and despair, knowing how much we needed to achieve in so little time. You would think I would be inured to all of this by now (or have given it all up). Story of my life, I say. Still, my choice, and not a bad one at that.

Day tripper

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The weekend (phew!) and another group outing – this time to Byblos, directly north up the coast from Beirut. True to form, once again an amazing place – said to have been continuously inhabited for 8000 years. Most importantly, it is said to be the birthplace the 22 letter phonetic alphabet (created by the Phoenicians of course). In comparison with Baalbek, this time our guide was magnificent, bringing the place alive for us – a city ‘invaded’ no less than 17 times, from Greeks to Ottomans & finally the French.

We then moved on to enjoy a picnic at a site up in the mountains. When we arrived, there were feelings of apprehension as we pulled in to a scrubby, stony car-park. Laden down with provisions – bags and bags of food, huge bottles of water, a couple of cool-boxes, two enormous water-melons – we crocodiled our way through some trees… and discovered a small paradise. Tables and chairs were laid out beneath some statuesque trees, barbecues were ready and waiting, there was a hammock, a hammock chair, and a swing with a wooden seat for three slung from a high branch. All this was overseen by the one building, raised on stilts, containing all one needed: a toilet and wash-room, a small bar serving beer and wine, a sound system…  Understandably, everyone was very excited.

Soon, teams of people were busy at two work stations on either side of the clearing: the carnivores and the vegetarians, each group chopping their chosen foodstuff into rough cubes and spearing them on skewers. And then the party began…

Or rather, several parties, at different times and in different places: the dancers, bouncing to some rock songs that they all knew and I (mostly) didn’t; the chorus of singers, accompanied by a couple of guitars; the footballers – nothing too competitive, more knocking the ball back and forth in a fairly desultory way; the group debating issues connected with Islam; the tree-climbers… And others too, of course – I didn’t attend them all – with most people wandering from one to another as the mood took them. And eating, of course – the food was delicious (and, as usual, there was far too much.)  My own favourite activity?  Sitting in the hammock chair, winding it up in one direction, and then spinning at breakneck speed as it unwound.  Exhilarating.

It made for a long and pretty exhausting day. A bit too long for Val and me, if the truth be told. But it was a privilege to have experienced it, all the same.

 

Great expectations

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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.

Everything stops for tea

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We decided to assert our Englishness by inviting the other volunteers round to our (tiny) apartment for afternoon tea. We already had lots of teabags, brought from home (Co-op 99, since you ask), and augmented these with Earl Grey from the local supermarket. Cucumber sandwiches were a piece of cake (as was cake), and we had biscuits: McVities digestives and chocolate fingers. Proper teapots, borrowed from Suha, completed the picture.

About fourteen people turned up, and though it was definitely on the crowded side, a splendid time was had by all. The sandwiches were much admired and appreciated; Val made extra as more people arrived. The whole experience was very sociable and curiously educational, as people were taught the art of dunking, learned about builder’s tea, and were instructed in the old adage, “pot to the kettle, not kettle to the pot.”

The one negative was the amount of noise we made. As guests arrived, they generally brought the message from management to please keep the noise down, eventually culminating in a personal visit from the people from the floor below. I would blame all those young people and their lack of self-control, but I know I can be louder than any of them, so that is hardly fair. As things began to wind down, I took tea and cake down to the manager in his office as a peace offering.  “No, no,no,” he protested. “No need for apology.” (Or tea and cake; he refused both.) “It is no problem. I know it is not you and your wife who make all the noise.” I said nothing.