club al-Hakawati grassroots refugee theatre

Club Al-Hakawati : a conversation

Grassroots theatre action. An interview with Ahmed Shah and club members

“Its about equality, human rights.
Nobody gives us our voice.
We take it.”

Al-Hakawati – an ancient never-ending tradition of storytelling in the Arabic world. Way back when, there were the Seven Hanging Odes, the Mu’allaqāt, telling tales of Antar and Abla and a myriad other legendary characters. Poems hanging on a wall. Since then, the old tales live on and new ones grow through oral storytelling. Now, in Berlin, there’s Club Al-Hakawati telling stories through theatre. And much more besides. Many of the members are refugees but anyone who cares about social justice can join.

“It’s perhaps become a bigger thing here in Germany because of people being displaced. They’re separated from their families and they don’t know each other so well. Stories help to fill the gap, to connect us,” says Mayada, one of the club members. We’re sitting round a table at Theater X munching on date cookies waiting for the club to gather. Ahmed Shah arrives. “But this is in no way any kind of therapy” he says, “that’s not what we are. Opfer (victim), that word’s kind of an insult. It’s not enough for refugees to just survive, they need to live.” Ahmed – theatre-maker, motivator, activist, … whirlwind!

He talks about Theater X, the home of Club Al-Hakawati. “This is a grassroots organisation and we started doing projects as activism. Now we’re pushing for a resurgence of community theatre, here and internationally. Like they used to have in England before Thatcher, like Peter Stein did in the 70s at the Schaubühne, here in Berlin. We’re reinventing that, but this time with people of colour. We’re small – we want to stay true to our roots, we want to make theatre – it’s live and direct. We reach a lot of people. And we’re trying to reach more, touring to other countries. So we’re very interested in collaboration, exchange, new ideas. Here, we went onto the streets for the carnival – a revolutionary tradition from below. No author, many voices, dialect, gender-mixing. We don’t want integration, we want to develop our own voice. We get criticism at the same time as support, but what matters is that everyone gets their rights, their voice … their story gets heard.”

Club Al-Hakawati Karneval
Karneval. Photo © Club Al-Hakawati

Mayada chimes in with hers: “My father’s a Palestinian who was born in a Lebanese refugee camp which got destroyed. So he moved to Syria and then to Germany and became a double refugee. He can never go home, never touch the earth of his homeland. This earth means so much – more than gold – the beautiful red colour, the smell. I was born here in Germany, so I could go. I flew to Jerusalem and they detained me at the airport, asking me questions for seven hours but I finally got through. My father had asked me to bring back an olive tree so I found one and crammed it into my bag hoping it would not get confiscated on my way back. When I got home, I gave it to my father and it was the most emotional moment of my whole life. He looked so happy, so sad – ‘This is the only connection I will ever have with my own land,’ he said. We both cried – tears pouring down our cheeks. I also brought a bag of earth and shared it with other people and all of them were so happy – this earth, it matters so much.”

Ahmed again: “We also work with kids through our Jugendtheater Büro – one of the first independent political theatres for kids. Not telling them, letting them ask.” And Club Al-Hakawati’s part of all this. The name’s about wordplay, language and text as well as telling stories. It’s more than a theatre group, it’s a club.

So, what’s this club all about? Ahmed: “We support each other, help each other, raise issues together. There’s a great opportunity to mix the languages – Arabic, German, English even. It’s not the pure form but we’re the hakawatis of the modern age. Our stories come from the experience of being marginalised, taking our ideas like Malcolm X – by any means necessary.”

Others arrive and Ahmed throws the question out. Hamudi takes it up: “It’s about refugees, humans, people stuck on the border, next to a huge rubbish heap in Greece. They meet people – Mr Sauber?  He’s not so clean – he shakes your hand, you see the blood. How do you trust? They’re stuck, their story is their only key to get through the border. It’s about the 1,000-year old problem of people who hate each other – like the Kurds and the Arabs – because of the evil spirit, the Djinn stirring it up.” Back to Ahmed: “The first Hakawati we did was at a carnival – all individual stories told simultaneously so you didn’t know which one to listen to. This year, we’re off to Hamburg for the carnival. The most recent show, Guernica, we’ve written in verse – rhymed verse, felt verse. This tradition of poetry in Arabic countries is very strong, so we’re mixing poetry into the movement, the acting.”

guernica reloaded club Al-Hakawati
Guernica Reloaded. Publicity material.

Guernica Reloaded: Fear and the City, is a piece based on Picasso’s painting of the Spanish city of Guernica, the first ever city to be bombed from the air (thanks to Hitler at the behest of Franco). The Facebook blurb says: “In the midst of their struggles and their flight from the falling bombs, the stories of the people who are experiencing this war day by day can be found again. We survivors tell.” Mayada explains, “Each of us chose a figure from the painting and built a story around it. Mine was based on my aunt’s story – she works as a bodywasher in a Syrian hospital. As I wash the bodies of children after the attack, I tell of a little girl looking for her mother. She can’t identify anyone from their faces so she searches for a hand with her mother’s ring on it.” Hamudi’s story was about a small child he saw in Syria whose home had been bombed. The walls had collapsed all around her and she stood in the middle screaming: “Papa I don’t want to die, take me out of here.”

And what are you all here for? Are you trying to change the world or simply raising questions? “More than anything, its spaß (fun)!” laughs Hamudi, “I got to know Berlin through this place. We try to show what we live. Not just us, refugees in general. To express our feelings and experiences. To fight for something better. It’s a shitty life, but we just want you to know what we’re going through.” Mayada: “It’s not just about life here – it’s about the lives we had before. People still living in other countries, living with war. Any and every kind of war. I’ve always lived in Germany – I never saw bombing – but I saw a racist war, an emotional war, a discrimination war. I’m half Polish, half Palestinian. I was born in Berlin – I’m German. But when I was a kid they always asked me, from where are you really?” Another member, Moia: “It’s about equality, equal rights. Why are we people different from other people? We’re here to show everyone the truth.” Hamudi again: “Sometimes it’s enough to talk about it – to open up the problem. You don’t have to find a solution, that’s maybe too hard. But at least, let the people see that something is happening,” Ahmed interjects: “The politicians come – we talk to them and they’re like yeah, yeah. But they see a play for an hour, and wham – they get it. That’s the power of theatre. That’s what we’re doing. We don’t want to be treated as background for a play. Nobody gives us our voice, we take it. We need the debate. But the stories from there can’t always correspond to the way people think here. They’re different places, landscapes, cultures. Even if it means talking about unpalatable things for either side, we have to find a way.” Yes, so it’s important to keep talking to everybody – to the other? Using the moderating influence of fully-engaged discussion to reduce the extremes, before propaganda takes control. “Absolutely,” says Ahmed, “And for us, it starts with theatre.”

al-hakawati grassroots theatre club
Club Al-Hakawati Workshop. Photo © Julia Grime

We move to the stage. This week, the club are working on the Holiday Academy, a 4-day workshop for the public themed around ‘Heimat’. Everyone sits in a semi-circle and a discussion about the different words for ‘home’ ensues. Zuhause (home) hause (house) da heim (hostel) heimweh (the pain to be away from home). Heimat (homeland) – some of us are heimatlos? (we have no homeland). We’re using language, but also movement to transcend language, to build scenes to express the different meanings. The movement becomes a dance, a code. A universal code for the audience. After all, doesn’t movement convey alienation better than words? Do things slowly – there’s more power. Bodies speak so much – how do you trust? The look in his eyes?

al-hakawati refugee grassroots theatre club
Club Al-Hakawati Workshop. Photo © Julia Grime

Each person is given one of the key words. They feel their word and then act it with their body, their eyes. Coming into the space from the side of the stage. Sometimes bringing the outside, the shitty world, other people, inside with them. How do you shake that? Can you shake it? Then the others tell what they see.

And in this way, each member of the audience will build a story for themselves…  you’re being hunted, trying to find a way in  …  he’s a refugee. From the police  …  he’s moving so slowly, but running  …  even if you’re comfortable you don’t feel safe  …  you try to go away, listen to music, but nothing works. You’re never free  …  it’s like you’re making your grave  …  that fear of wide spaces  …  the fear of small spaces, being trapped, collapsing buildings  …

And everyone in the group thinks about what they’re seeing and builds it into their own performances to tell their stories. And everyone starts to understand a little bit more…



Photo credits
Homepage  :  Theater X Logo
Main photo :  Guernica Reloaded. Publicity image.
(Photos courtesy of Club Al-Hakawati)

14 March 2018:
Club Al-Hakawati, Theater X, Berlin

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