In a small, darkened room in the Jordanian capital of Amman, six Syrian refugees crowd onto a boat and sail into the unknown.
“Love Boat,” a tragicomedy written and directed by Syrian actor and activist Nawar Bulbul is playing in Amman this week. Its title is a play on words; inspired by the “death boats,” the rickety wooden or rubber vessels that thousands of Syrians seeking asylum in Europe trust with their lives.
Since the beginning of 2016, more than 700 people died making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean, reports the International Organization for Migration.
The play transports a cast of mostly Syrian refugees, sending them adrift in an imaginary sea, where they recount their past experiences and imagine possible futures in various European countries.
“These actors are a microcosm of Syria,” Bulbul tells Syria Direct’s Muhammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim, describing the message of the play as “a call to unite in love and understanding so we can get to safety.”
Unity requires transcending what divides Syrians today. In the play’s final scene, the passengers allow Satan, played by director Bulbul, to board their vessel. It sinks. In that moment, Bulbul’s Satan is the Islamic State, sectarian divisions, mistrust, or something else entirely, as imagined by the audience.
Supported by and performed at the French Institute in Amman, “Love Boat” was also produced with nearly $23,000 raised via European crowdfunding site Ulule.
Theater is one way of “conveying the message of the Syrian as a human,” says Mahmoud Sadaqa, a Palestinian-Jordanian aid activist and one of the play’s actors. “It’s a beautiful message.”
A recent performance of “Love Boat” in Amman. Photo courtesy of Muhammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim.
For 14-year-old Mustafa Murad, a Syrian refugee originally from Homs, acting in the play is one way to show the world that “our message is conveyed through art and theater, not killing.”
Nawar Bulbul, Syrian director, actor and playwright. He is known in Syria for a role in the immensely popular historical television drama Bab al-Hara, came out early in support of the Syrian revolution and fled to Jordan in 2011. Since then, Bulbul has fused activism with art, holding a production of Shakespeare in Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp in 2014 and a simultaneous performance of Romeo and Juliet by children in Amman and Homs in 2015.
Q: What is the main message of “Love Boat”?
The message is very clear: We have to look forward, not back. These actors are a microcosm of Syria. Don’t let Satan come between you.
It’s a message of love. It is a call to unite in love and understanding so we can get to safety.
Q: Do you believe that art, and theater in particular, can impact society today?
Yes, of course. I think you’ve seen the response of the crowd and the warm applause. In my opinion, it had an impact. And if the play were to become widespread, it would have a greater impact.
Mahmoud Sadaqa, 50s, a Palestinian-Jordanian aid activist who works with Syrian children in the Zaatari refugee camp, also one of the “Love Boat” actors
Q: Is there a common denominator between theater and humanitarian aid work? What brings you to the stage?
It’s all the same thing. Ultimately, aid alone won’t solve the problem. The idea of aid work is that I’m trying to help within limited possibilities.
Theater is a new experience. It’s a beautiful message that the world might hear in a different way. It is creating cultural ways of conveying the message of the Syrian as a human, the humanitarian Syrian issue, the detainees, the drowning, the wounded, et cetera.
The whole world has focused on a single child, Alan [Kurdi], may God have mercy on him, but children are drowning every day. Unfortunately, the global media is directed and politicized by those with their own interests. Theater is a different kind of media message.
[Ed.: Three-year-old Alan Kurdi, his brother Galip and their mother drowned in September 2015 while trying to reach Greece on a rubber raft from Turkey. Photographs of Alan’s lifeless body washed up on a Turkish beach sparked global outrage and drew wide attention to the Syrian refugee crisis.]
Q: What is the difference between the sand in Zaatari and the seas on this stage?
There’s no difference. There is suffering here, there is suffering there. Only here we’re acting and there it is a painful reality.
Q: Which scene had the biggest impact on you?
My scene about hunger in Madaya and the Yarmouk camp. It is a disgrace to live in the twenty-first century and have people dying of starvation.
Mustafa Murad, 14, is originally from Homs city, and is one of the “Love Boat” actors
Q: Which scene affected you the most?
The scene with Don Quixote, who was fighting against his dreams. In reality, we Syrians today are fighting our dreams. We’ve become like Don Quixote.
[Ed.: As they sail to different European countries, the play's characters act out scenes from several pieces of literature.]
Q: What is your message to the world through this play?
Syrians do not resemble the rumors spread about them abroad, that they’re murderers and terrorists. No, we’re a civilized people. Our message is conveyed through art and theater, not killing.
That’s what brought me to the stage.