Saturday, May 18, 2013


In 2011, I set off on a hunt that would take me around the world to work with ex-soldiers and ex-combatants on theatre projects dealing with homecoming and the return to civilian life after war. For months, I sat in rehearsals listening to the stories of these wounded men, without a clear picture of what it was I was looking for. Most of their tales were trauma narratives, set on an ever-softening loop, like a stuck record fading slowly towards the eventual peace of death. ‘The pit I dug to bury my enemy in cement.’ ‘The day I lost my limbs and sight.’ ‘The cell where they tortured me.’ Hearing these stories again and again, I got the sense that the men telling them were shedding a small piece of their past with each retelling. Change was occurring, but it was the slow and limping healing of a lifelong injury, and not the total transformation of a poetic rebirth.

Between each project I would come back to Britain to sit down with playwright Julia Pascal and unpack the dense months of material collected. Julia had the difficult task of synthesizing my fractured year into a new play; a play that I was beginning to fear would be as grinding and nonsensical as the painful memories that were quickly becoming a discordant stream of world-weary Arabic, Hebrew, Urdu and Kashmiri voices.

Then I went to the Rwanda Demobilization and Reintegration Commission’s Child Rehabilitation Centre in Musanze, where a recently demobilized child soldier told me this story:

Once upon a time there was a boy named Chance. As a child he was made to fight, and lost his hands and his arms in the war. When Chance returned to his family, they saw he had no arms, and that he could not work, and so they threw him in the river, where he was swallowed by an enormous fish. When the fish spat him up, Chance had grown both of his arms back. He met a boss-man who taught him to fly a plane. He returned to his family who saw he was rich and able-bodied. They begged to have him back, but he rejected them, and set off into the world in his airplane.

Somehow, intuitively, this 16-year-old boy – placed precariously between a tumultuous past of fighting in the Congolese jungle, and an uncertain future in a civilian society which may or may not accept him – had managed to hit upon my own unarticulated question and its answer: what is the moment of total healing, of hope, in all of these painful histories?

‘Chance’ was reminding me that hope must be sought in the poetic realm of myth and magic, where severed arms can regrow, and salvation can be found by riding in the intestines of a leviathan.

Julia Pascal was as moved by the boy’s fairy tale as I had been. ‘It’s Jonah,’ she said. ‘Jonah and the whale.’ We breathed a shared sigh of relief as we realized we had finally hit upon a theatrical context that could actually unite our multi-lingual cacophony into a single coherent voice and vision.

Lights up (fade). Three soldiers from three countries are sitting in the belly of a whale…


London-based physical theatre company Theatre Témoin presented Julia Pascal’s ‘Nineveh’, an exploration of the trauma of combat and the hope that comes afterwards. Inspired by true stories told by ex-combatants from across the world; collected during a year of creative work in Kashmir, Israel, Lebanon, and Rwanda, ‘Nineveh’ ran at Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, London from 16 April to 12 May, 2013.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Touchdown, London.  4 months and 2 theatre projects since leaving this year of travel behind me, and I’m once again sat in front of a blank screen trying to tie the past to the future and understand how they relate.

The honest truth is, I’m waiting for time to firm a few things up before I tinker around in my memories from this year.  It’s all still too raw to look at very closely.

Running in silent parallel to so many of these entries was a somewhat protracted personal trauma in the form of an unexpected heartbreak that shaped and affected much of my experience of the year.  I don’t know where that fits in with all of this, I still don’t know if it’s perfectly appropriate or utterly inappropriate to even mention it here.   Coming back to London after Rwanda, I sobbed for myself and the enormity of the pain I felt, as well for the CRC boys and the unfathomable intensity of their pain which I would never fully understand.  When my own relatively insignificant tragedy was already so unbearable, what could my friend Peter and the boys have possibly been through?  I found myself on my hands and knees, vomiting grief in uncontrollable sonorous waves of tears, accompanied by my illogical yet heartfelt plea – “I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry.”  I had no idea what exactly I was sorry about, but all I could do was repeat those words.  Sorry for not being strong enough to bear my very small cross?  Sorry for Peter?  Sorry for not being Peter? Sorry for being part of a world where his level of suffering is possible?  Sorry for disappointing the people I loved, for inadvertently contributing to all of this, in my own way… The lines between who I was crying for and when and why became so blurred in the end that I finally stopped seeing “my pain” and “their pain” as separate things.

Pain is shared as joy is shared.  In some sense, some part of me sought out this years’ entire amazing and difficult experience when I headed off to “connect with ex-combatants”.  Connect with pain, connect with trauma, and connect, finally, with healing.  I’m not claiming to be any closer to understanding the experience of war.  Some things I will never understand unless I live them; perhaps the closest I’ve come to understanding is having learned enough to realize that I should be grateful that I don’t.  But I do think we are all intimately connected with humanity’s collective joy and grief in a way that we rarely allow ourselves to acknowledge.  A part of me worries that this blog (or any ‘professional’ face of this project) isn’t the right place to air these very personal and—let’s face it—self-involved musings.  Vivienne Franzmann has an interesting monologue which I think points to this fear (which is prevalent among artists who address difficult narratives outside of their own experience) in her play ‘The Witness’ in which the protagonist is Alex, a Rwandan-born woman raised in Britain after escaping the genocide as an infant:


The next day, I had this lecture and Dr. Kalmar put up a slide of Botticceli’s Madonna and Child and he made some connection with contemporary photojournalism and when he put up the next slide, it was yours.  One minute, I’m trying to find my mobile, because Dr. Kalmar goes ballistic if anyone’s phone rings and I’m cursing having such a big bloody bag and laughing with this boy Stuart and the next, I look up and there it is, filling the whole wall.  And I feel like I’m going to faint or puke.  And the whole time Dr. Kalmar’s talking, I’m worrying in case I do because it would be so embarrassing. And I’m trying to work out which would be more embarrassing, puking or fainting, and I’m trying not to look at the photo, but trying to look as if I am and trying not to look like I’m about to faint or puke and then Dr.  Kalmar stops talking.  It’s all quiet apart from this noise at the back of the lecture theatre.  Someone’s crying.  And it gets louder and louder and I look round and it’s this girl from Surrey who’s in my seminar group and she’s crying.  And by now the girl is hysterical, and one of her friends is helping her out of the hall.  And I stand up to leave, but I go all dizzy and fall onto Stuart.  Then Dr. Kalmar looks at me, turns the projector off, makes a joke about mass hysteria and cancels the lecture.  Afterwards, I’d arranged to meet Jen and I see the girl, the crying girl, in the bar and I go up and see if she’s okay, because I feel bad for her, you know, responsible.  I know it’s stupid but… And when I ask her if she feels better, she says she’s fine, that she’s having a bad day, that she’s split up with her boyfriend and is gutted because she loves him.  She says the photo made her feel awful, stirred something up and she says she’s embarrassed, but laughs and says it was cathartic. Cathartic.  That’s what she says. (Beat.)  She was crying because she’d split up with her boyfriend.  She looked at the photo and it made her think of what she’d lost.  In that photo, I’m screaming for my dead mother on a pile of bloody corpses and that bitch is crying about her fucking boyfriend.

There’s a lot to unpack in this monologue, and indeed in the whole play, which is about a British war journalist who made ethically questionable choices in order to capture the most dramatically compelling photos of the genocide.  What’s most interesting perhaps is that ‘Alex’ is Franzmaan’s creation, these are issues that Franzmann is grappling with, as a playwright from Walthamstow creating a dramatically compelling play about a Rwandan-British character. 

Like I said, I understand this concern, part of me shares it.  But a larger part of me thinks that once you get beyond the initial curiosity of the objectify-someone-for-their-intense-experiences stage, and you get to friendship, compassion, empathy, and love, then all of these perhaps more superficial questions melt into irrelevance.  If you love someone, you won’t question whether or not you’re objectifying their story or using their pain for catharsis.  Love and connection don’t work that way.  If you love someone, then their story becomes inexorably linked with yours, and you tell them and mourn them and celebrate them both together. 

A dear friend in London found out about the death of a family member during a rehearsal this summer, where 3 of her closest friends were with her.  We all chanted that day, we all cried, we all sat for hours holding one another.  Was it cathartic?  Surely.  Did we all cry for our own individual reasons?  Without a doubt.  But we cried for her too, and for one another, and for everyone we’ve ever loved.  We all understood all of this, there was a complicity that day, a permission.

Sometimes I think artists—especially western artists—should worry less about deserving this permission, and just strive to connect more with the people whose stories they are telling.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Journal Entry - 14/6/12

Nandita and I have been invited on a day-trip to the beautiful mountain region of Pehelgam by our two unlikely new friends. Being away from the public gaze of our small town has relaxed us all noticeably, and our conversations have grown increasingly more casual over the course of the day. While Aamir bombards Nandita with enthusiastic stories about his love life, Syed is answering my questions about the history of Kashmir and its recent (current, really) conflicts. Boyish Aamir is without question the louder of the two, so I have to strain to follow Syed’s intricate and articulate web of events and ideologies through Aamir’s punctuated exclamations of “She is my sweetheart!” and “I am loving all of the women!” Syed’s just gotten to the part about Hari Singh signing a conditional accession agreement with India when Aamir stops all conversation by loudly declaring “I am so fast!! Sometimes I do it in three minutes!!” I fall over laughing, “Dude, that’s not something you brag about.” Syed grins incredulously at his ridiculous best friend.

We love these boys. Syed, the intellectual of the pair, has a simple and direct way of speaking about human nature, giving him the ability to communicate a perspective on war and conflict that is neither sentimental nor dramatized. He also has strong political beliefs and stands passionately behind the ideology Kashmiri independence. Aamir is all heart, like a big clamouring teddy bear, and couldn’t care less about idealogy. In one of the simplest and clearest examples of the complexity of war, it is Aamir who has borne arms, thrown stones, clashed with police, and led ambushes; politically passionate Syed would root his friend on from the sidelines, but never physically engaged in fighting himself.

A second example of the complexity of conflict: Aamir and Syed’s close friend Sameer, who they have considered a brother since primary school. Sameer is a Kashmiri arms dealer and military contractor who works with the Indian Army posted in Kashmir. Nandita and I constantly rib the three boys by telling them that one of these days, Aamir is going to get shot by a gun sold to the CRP by Sameer. They laugh it off, they really aren’t bothered by the glaring contradictions in their beliefs. Aamir himself goes from telling us stories of cradling dying children shot by “those bloody bastard Indian Army” to inviting us to have lunch with his friend Mr. so-and-so Commander or Police Superintendent.

This is something I found echoes of in all of my travels: the more steeped in conflict a place becomes, the less possible it is from anyone to speak of the situation in simple us-and-them terms. Even in a region with a clear-cut oppressor and oppressed, the blacks and whites of governments and ideologies will inevitably fracture into a million shades of grey wherever individual people are concerned.

I say something to this effect, and Syed tells about a day during the 2010 unrest when a CRP officer showed up at his polyclinic with a badly mangled hand. Syed, who runs the clinic, was in the process of bandaging the man when he received a frantic call from Aamir. Aamir explained that he was hiding next door because he’s just come from a skirmish with a group of CRP officers. Aamir found himself momentarily alone with an officer in an alley with a stone sink. He grabbed the officer’s hand, rammed it in the sink, and smashed it repeatedly with a large rock. Then he fled as other officers began firing. Syed, unable to respond in present company, told his friend he’d have to call him back. Syed is tutting and smiling as he tells me this story. “Of course, on one hand, I believe in resistance, and I am happy that Aamir has done this thing, but then this is a human being in front of me, you know? It touched me like anything.”

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Journal Entry - 9/6/12

Driving from Jammu to Srinagar in the middle of the night we pass through 4 or 5 military checkpoints, and I’m starting to get a feel for why Arundhati Roy chooses the word “occupation” to describe the situation in Kashmir. I’m not ready to make a judgment on that either way, but I can say that of all of the places that I’ve been this year, the atmosphere I now find myself in most closely resembles what I experienced in the West Bank.

Hurriyat, the separatist organization at the heart of the independence movement, is currently very active; there are daily releases of instructions and statements from party-leaders; and in our month here, regional political strikes were an almost weekly occurrence. The JKLF, Hurriyat’s military arm, has an ideology of Kashmiri self-determination and freedom (as opposed to accession to Pakistan, which I erroneously thought before coming here).

Militancy was officially abandoned by the party in ’95, but there have still been deaths both during border clashes, disappearances, “encounters,” and protests. The last big flare-up was in 2010 when 112 locals were killed during region-wide protests over an alleged encounter that left 3 “Pakistani militants” dead at the hands of the Indian Army. The casualties were later established to be Kashmiri civilians who were lured to the border area and murdered by army personnel (presumably for cash compensation and/or promotions).

The learning curve is steep, and Nandu and I have quickly adapted our vocabulary to suit our new friends. “Here in India” becomes “here in Kashmir.” The local “Indians” are actually “Kashmiris.” Unless of course we’re talking about “mainland” Indians. By which we'd mean the Central Reserve Police. And the Army. And Nandita.

Everyone watches everyone here. NGOs—as they’re connected with foreigners and mainlanders—are suspect. As an “Indian” and an American here under the auspices of an NGO that we are building a new relationship with, and who are still figuring out the most basic rules of accepted social conduct for women in Kashmir (I have to train myself out of habits I didn’t even know I had—like dancing in the streets), Nandita and I aren’t getting the sense that attempting a public performance with—or even about—soldiers is a very good idea. We shift plans and keep a low profile, sticking to projects that might leave room for the theme without being overtly political. We conduct a devising class for young men at the local Government Degree College. We hold theatre workshops at an orphanage for young girls affected by conflict. The sessions are joyful and fun, and when it comes down to picking themes to devise around, war is the farthest thing from my mind. I’m thrilled by the girls’ suggestions and interests: “The Taj Mahal,” “London,” “The Moon.” When you’re in a conflict area, it turns out, one of the last things you want to talk about is conflict.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

I am sitting in Nandita’s apartment in Pune, enjoying the feeling of the hot summer breeze on my bare legs and shoulders one last time before we head up to Kupwara.  I had braced myself for both the June Indian heat and the North Indian religious values, but somehow my brain had neglected to make the important leap of considering those two elements in combination.  Nandu abruptly connected the dots for me as I unpacked my ill-planned wardrobe of tank-tops and cut-offs: “In Kashmir?  Are you crazy?!”

As I soaked in the sights of this incredible new country on the drive from Mumbai’s airport, my head was a flurry of questions.  Who was everyone honking at?  Was the guy in a dress shirt who stopped and interrogated us on the back-road a real cop?  Why was everyone sleeping on the fruit stands?  And seriously, what was up with the honking?

Nandita has answers for “what” and “how,” but consistently furrows her brow every time I come to “why.”  In a place with such a multiplicity of narratives, she tells me, “why” isn’t really a question one asks.  Things just are. 

After a few days here I’ve relaxed into a quiet observation that allows for this kind of unquestioning acceptance.  I wander for hours through twisting streets that take me past garbage heaps leading to gorgeous perfumed gardens on pathways that appear and disappear with a logic of their own.  After crossing a stretch of beach I arrive at a massive octagonal structure filled with pigeons and seeds, a sign attributing its presence to the Lodha Charitable Trust.  Is Lodha trying to keep the pigeon population confined to this area of beach?  Or does he just really like pigeons?  Maybe he’s a Jain?  These questions melt into a silent  and goofy smile as I step back and observe this massive birdfeeder.  Whatever the reason, it’s here in front of me now…and how weird and awesome is that?!

Nandita and I picked “Kashmir,” and everything else seemed to pick us after that.  An organization running orphanages for girls affected by armed conflict has invited us to conduct a theatre project at one of their centers near Srinagar.  Their level of support and hospitality has been incredible—even before our arrival in Kashmir they are on the phones with us constantly, sorting our travel and putting us in touch with some of the center’s older girls who are studying in Pune so that we can stay with them and discuss our ideas for the piece. 

The girls tell us that based on their backgrounds, the theme of ex-combatants should come fairly organically and will be relevant and worth exploring.  Nandu and I brainstorm side-projects and the issue of access comes up.  If we reach out to combatants and ex-combatants in Srinagar, she counsels, we should stick to female fighters.  This is purely for practical reasons, given who we are and where we are going.  I smile inwardly and realize I’ve managed 9 months on this project without really having to grapple with the subject of gender.  Strangely, this “restricted access,” the technical narrowing of our scope, doesn’t feel like a restraint or limit.  I’m not too hung up on ‘why’ we’ll be working with women instead of men.  Yesterday I was looking at an octagon full of birdfeed.  Today I’m looking at sleeves in the sun, unparalleled hospitality, and the female perspective on conflict.  That’s what is; that’s what’s here in front of me.  Awesome. 

A grant from the European Cultural Foundation lands me back in Lebanon for a week of follow-up on “A Drop of Honey,” the script that I left behind for Mike to translate and stage.  Mike and his students have done an excellent job, the team reports.  The video hasn’t been cut together yet, so I get to live the entire thing through hearsay; little by little I begin to piece an image of the performance together via a mixture of photos, descriptions, and anecdotes. 

I meet with the students who performed the piece, and they point out—quite rightly—that coupling the ex-combatants’ civil war stories with their own stories from today will emphasize and clarify our allusions to similarities between the growing civil tensions then and now.  Excitement builds.  The team discusses re-writes. We draft a proposal for a 2-year plan to bring the piece to 20 schools.  We evaluate our remaining budget and plan another showing, this time for potential funders and participating schools. 

It’s very strange to work so intensely with and around a piece that you’ve never seen performed.  In some ways it feels like a dream, or a game, and the only thing grounding the experience in reality is the faith in the people who report back to you after experiencing the thing first-hand.

While I’m in the country, fighting breaks out in Tripoli, Lebanon's northern hub.  It’s on the news, it’s happening in a place I visited last week, and it’s not so far away from where I am now.  It’s also the very reason that the five of us decided to write a play about civil conflict, targeted towards a Lebanese high school and university audience.  But in many ways, for me, it’s still not “real.”

The fighting in Tripoli continues.  A few days after I leave Lebanon, Assaad writes me this: “Ailin if you pray, please pray for Lebanon, for all of us as a team and especially for Ziad and I who are called to many speeches, talks and activities to stop the slide towards a civil war.”

And that’s as close as I get to understanding, and perhaps as close as I will ever get.  I re-write the script, and draft grant applications, and keep this blog, and pray.  Not because I can feel the weight or “reality” behind any of these things or their effects myself, but simply because they’re real to the people who I care about.

Crispin's Poem
(translated from Kinyarwanda)

In foreign lands, it’s foreign.
I knew how to create
When I was still young
And I knew how to fight as well;
But it wasn’t me
I did it because of the forest
Because in foreign lands
There were conflicts.
Those who laugh, let them laugh
Those who talk, let them talk.
I knew to eat forbidden things
Because I detested
Those who spoke to me of the future.
Good things became
Bad for me,
What was cooked became raw.
I wanted to go to the place they spoke of
They spit on my face
And when I asked “why?”
They threw stones at me.
I understood that
In foreign lands, it’s foreign.
When we live in foreign lands
Our emblem is shame.
It’s serious
In foreign lands we cross a strange cunning
Who fixes you in his unrelenting gaze
And who embraces you in reprimanding you;
Instead of asking you
how the night passed
He shouts at you.
I arrived at Nyabihu
With great shame.
I arrived at Marembe
At the end of my strength.
By dint of chasing the wind
I arrived at Kasonyi
Dying of shame
Full of regrets.
At last I arrived at Bunyakiri
I arrived at Kabogoza
And God shielded me with his hand.
There where I lost
Those who I called my family,
There too I lost my irreplaceable one.
I arrived at Kigogo
I found my sight
And I took the student’s path
I smiled for the first time
I studied with courage
As if learning to create
As if to revive my mother.
But those I called mine
Did not permit me
Saying, "Come quickly, we need you
in the army, others like you
have already taken half of Rwanda."
Angry, I asked:
"What is Rwanda? "
They responded with:
"What? "And hit me.
I knew that in foreign lands, it’s foreign.
I take my bow
And I fight
See, I had so many misfortunes
Since I was called soldier.
I plotted
And I amused myself
With the property of others
I laughed and I bashed my head against those I met
Saying: "Those who have no country
Spend their time in the brush. "
It’s there that I decided,
I will take the road and return.
And the road showered me with luck

I went to my homeland
Where I got another parent, RDRC.
He raised me
Today I am an artist.