Striving for a better life and buffeted by conflicts and injustice in their home countries, a group of Arab and African refugees board a boat bound for Italy in a journey they know may lead them to death.
This familiar premise, which plays out nearly everyday on the Mediterranean, is the subject of the Tunisian-Canadian theatre production Al-Shaqaf (colloquial Tunisian for the small boat that carries illegal migrants). It is jointly directed by Sereen Ezzeddine Qanoun, daughter of the late Tunisian theatre icon Ezzeddine Qanoun (1953-2015), and Magdi Bou-Matar, a Lebanese-Canadian director.
The play is dedicated to the memory of Qanoun, who founded Centre Arabo-Africain de formation et de Recherches Theatrales (the Arab-African Center for Training and Theatrical Research), and headed the well-known Al-Hamra Theatre in Tunis until his death. Al-Shaqaf was his final dream, and he was planning to perform it in 2015 in the opening of Carthage Theater Days, a large Tunisian theatre festival. But he died before completing it, so his daughter Sereen, an actress who worked with her father over the past 21 years, carried on her father’s incomplete project with the help on Bou-Matar, premiering it at the 2016 edition of Carthage Theater Days. There are plans to tour the show to Canada and Europe in the coming months.
“I felt that it is a great responsibility to direct this play after my father passed away,” said Sereen. “We followed his legacy and adopted his style. He was not only a director, but a whole school.”
Because Al-Shaqaf would be her debut as a theatre director, Sereen decided to bring on a co-director. She selected Bou-Matar because he was one of her father’s “excellent students,” she said. Bou-Matar immigrated from Lebanon to Canada in 2003, where he’s the artistic director MT Space in Kitchener, Ont.
The one-hour play, which is performed in various Arabic dialects and in French, was created in improvisation from the real stories of desperate refugees who escaped from their countries for different reasons.
“We decided the scenes, me and Bou-Matar, according to the researches that we made on the topic, then the actors improvised the dialogues,” said Sereen. “This is Qanoun’s style that we adopt.”
Of the eight main characters in the play, four are Tunisians; the rest represent a cross-section of the region’s refugee crisis. “Not only Syrians who escape the war and jump in an illegal migration boat in the Mediterranean,” Sereen said, “but other people from different nationalities also pushed by the hard situations in their countries or societies and decide to escape.”
For some, sexual orientation can be a reason to choose illegal migration; one character, a Tunisian man, is rejected by his society for being gay. Politics is another reason to flee: One character is a Tunisian political activist pursued by police.
The region’s most urgent crisis is depicted in the character of a Syrian woman, portrayed by Nada al-Homosi, who spends all her money to board the boat to Italy, but not for her own sake: She is searching for her son, who had taken a previous boat to Italy. Tragically, she is told halfway through her voyage that her son died en route.
Some ironies surface: One Lebanese refugee character presents herself as a Syrian national because she has learned that “the priority is for Syrians.” And Southern African refugees are represented by a couple with a baby who have left everything behind to escape oppression and racism in hopes of a better future.
“Many illegal migrants die every day in the sea, but these people are only treated as numbers with few statistics that show their genders and nationalities—we don’t really know them,” Sereen said. “Who were those people and what were their stories? Each person has his own story. That was our point of view when making the play.
“This is the issue of the century,” she continued. “It’s not related to one country; it touches every Arab and African country. It touches the countries that receive refugees.”
To create the effect of a boat sailing in the sea, the directors used a trampoline, stretched tautly over a steel frame, with some paddles suspended from it, in front of a black background.
All the performers are members of Quanoun’s Centre Arabo-Africain, where he trained several generations of young artists from many countries, including Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Palestine, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Benin, Nigeria, and Mali.
After being awarded “The Best Text Award” at the 2nd edition of Sharm el-Shiekh International Theatre Festival for Youth, last April in Egypt, Al-Shaqaf is expected to make an international tour to some countries, including Canada, Germany, and France staring from August to next year. May its travels be more welcome and less deadly than the trips so many migrants are making each day.