‘Anna Asli Suriyah’ explores Syria’s ongoing conflict through headlines, theatre, and storytelling
From L to R: Pascale Seigneurie, Sarah Badiyah Sakaan, and Ayse Eldek Richardson performing “Anna Asli Suriyah (I Come from Syria)” at Beit Jeddo Hookah Lounge as part of Polybe + Seats theatre company in 2014. Photo credit: Stephen Yang.
Celeste is an editor at OF NOTE Magazine and freelance writer living in Portland, Oregon. When she’s not working on her book of short stories or interviewing social entrepreneurs, she occasionally participates in modern life and tweets @celestehdennis.
June 12, 2017
“Anna Asli Suriyah (I Come from Syria)” playwright and actress Sarah Badiyah Sakaan’s sister was in Aleppo, Syria when the conflict started in 2011. A Syrian-American photojournalist, Maggie was there to teach ESL at a primary school, learn more about their father’s homeland and extended family, and study Arabic.
Then some teenagers spray painted political graffiti on a wall. And what started out as peaceful protest morphed into a civil war turned proxy war. By now, we’ve all seen the unforgettable images of the devastation: bombed out buildings and chemical attacks on children and thousands of refugees in search of new homes.
But back to 2011 for a moment: Maggie eventually came home to the U.S. and took to continually Skyping people she knew in Syria, often weeping. Sakaan admittedly was unresponsive to her sister’s grief. She was happy Maggie was home safe and besides, not many people were talking about the conflict in New York City, where Sakaan was living. At the time, Syria was just a blip in the news.
Then Sakaan would go to her parents house in Memphis, Tennessee, where she grew up, and her father would be talking to family in Syria on the phone. Her cousin would be doing what she could do to help from afar, whether on Facebook warning people of potential bomb threats or selling pastries to send money back home.
“They’re living in the States, trying to make sense of what’s happening to their homeland,” Sakaan said, reflecting on that time. “How do you reconcile that as a Syrian-American? What can you do to help? Can you do anything?”
These questions began to haunt Sakaan. She started listening more. Recording conversations with her family. Engaging with the news. Eventually this became the foundation for her 2014 play, “Anna Asli Suriyah (I Come from Syria),” created with director Jessica Brater and produced by their NYC-based theatre company, Polybe + Seats where Sakaan is Associate Artistic Director.
“I want people to recognize that these people who are displaced have lost their country, their homes, their history,” Sakaan said about her goal for the play. “I want people to realize that refugees are not numbers. They’re human beings and they deserve the opportunity to start again.”
Originally a six-person ensemble that later turned into a solo show, the play is a series of character vignettes drawing directly from Sakaan’s family. There’s the father character Walid, a poet, artist, and pro tennis player, who longs to use his art to go back to his homeland and teach peace and tolerance. Fatiha, based on her cousin in Memphis, is full of hope and always actively using her domestic skills to help. Obeyda, inspired by another of Sakaan’s cousins, is a former doctor and soldier in the army who, disgusted by the bloodshed and destruction, has started a new life in Europe. Finally there’s the enraged and heartbroken Maddy, a version of Sakaan’s sister, who confronts the audience about their inaction.
A large part of Polybe + Seat’s mission is to highlight venues as characters in their work, and make theatre more accessible. To expand their audience, Sakaan performed “Anna Asli Suriyah (I Come from Syria)” in 2014 at Beit Jeddo Hookah Lounge in Brooklyn’s Bay Ridge, the heart of the Arab-American community.
Interspersed between monologues is a storyteller character dressed in a wedding gown recounting an Arabic folktale called “The Green Bird,” a Middle Eastern version of Hansel and Gretel that’s also widely told in the Arab diaspora―a community Sakaan’s increasingly become more involved with since creating “Anna Asli Suriyah (I Come from Syria).” Aside from finding camaraderie with other Arab-Americans, including a cohort of Middle Eastern women playwrights, the play has also been a way for Sakaan to actively confront the war.
“My relationship with the conflict started out as denial,” she said. “It was a complete journey of going from, ‘I’m not going to watch this or read the news because it’s too painful’ to ‘I need to gather news because I want to know what’s happening. I want to know what people are seeing.’”
The news is almost a supporting character itself. The storyteller is inspired by Shiite women activists from Brides of Peace who, in 2012, marched through a market in Damascus holding signs of protest. Other clips of news are referenced throughout, from a story about pigeon keepers choosing their birds over refugee status to the last two lines of the play, which are the most current headlines told by the storyteller as she’s exiting the stage.
Sakaan is exploring this idea of accountability. In her opinion, theatre is an opportunity to galvanize and empower the audience. Since the solo adaption last year, Polybe + Seats’ “political pop up play” has been has been part of the Lady Liberty Theatre Festival and Bad and Nasty Not My President’s Day. The response has been overwhelmingly positive, often with people coming up to her afterward asking how they can help. At each performance, Sakaan says she’s been lucky to have representatives from Amnesty International, the Network of Arab-American Professionals, and the Arab American Association of New York on hand to guide people.
Sakaan is currently in the midst of producing another theatre production in collaboration with Brater and Polybe + Seats called “Art of the Hijab, Kohl Black and the Right Way to Pray,” which will premiere with community workshops in December and in a performance residency at FiveMyles in January. But the company is also in conversations with universities and theatres outside of NYC to keep breathing life into the words of her family. With the war raging on, albeit more quietly, she’s determined to not put her costumes away.
“When we wrote ‘Anna Asli Suriyah (I Come from Syria)’ and started developing it, I couldn’t believe I had waited so long to use my voice to speak out against the conflict. I was already feeling guilty,” Sakaan said. “Now it’s 2017 and it’s just as relevant as it was then. Which is heartbreaking.”
Out of all the characters in the play, Sakaan says her views on the war are most similar to Fatima’s―despite the devastation in Syria and ongoing refugee crisis.
“I do believe the human condition is one of hope,” she said. “At some point in time there has to be an end to the war. There has to be a rebuilding. There’s destruction and then there’s creation. That’s how the world works.”
Related: Newest Americans: Documenting America’s increasingly diverse future from Newark, New Jersey | The artist as journalist: Meet Jennifer Crandall creator of ‘Whitman, Alabama’ | ‘The Gun Show’ triggers a conversation of gun violence in America | ‘Frankenstein: A Cabaret’ is a modern feminist take on an old tale