Thirty-two locations over 32 scorching days and most of them during the holy month of Ramadan – the itinerary of The Caravan project is packed from dawn to beyond dusk. Starting today, Sabine Choucair and her troupe of actors will travel the length of Lebanon, a feat that can be accomplished in as little as five hours by car without stopping – four and a half, if you drive like a local.
But this particular entourage will make several extended stops. Traveling as part of a mobile storytelling initiative, from the Enmaa camp in Akkar in the north to al-Borj camp in Tyre in the south, the actors – Syrian refugees living in the Bekaa Valley – will enact their own experiences as tales. It is an ambitious trail and one that will cross psychological borders within the tiny country. Lebanon – renowned for its rich tapestry of cultural-religious-social identities, which often meld into each other – is a fitting venue. But it also adds another layer of challenge to Choucair’s mission of creating “relatability” between the refugees and the host communities.
Born and raised in Lebanon, Choucair, 32, has made and performed theater for as long as she can remember. From eliciting “laughter and vulnerabilities” from the refugee communities stranded on Lesvos to working with disenfranchised communities throughout India as part of “Clown Me In,” an initiative that she co-founded, her repertoire has spanned the globe.
This year, she has spent the majority of her time training a group of Syrian refugees from the Bekaa Valley, who will relay their stories to Lebanese and migrant communities throughout the country. Having grown up in Lebanon during the civil war years, changing homes several times before she finally moved to Beirut at 15 years of age, Choucair is intimately familiar with the terrain.
Unlike traditional theater, where audiences go to a performance venue, this mobile troupe will go to their audiences, she points out. In a conversation with Refugees Deeply, she explains the premise and the promise of telling stories directly through refugees’ voices.
Refugees Deeply: How did you come up with the idea of traveling from one place to another to relay the stories?
Sabine Choucair: We want the stories to reach as many people as possible in Lebanon and abroad. We think these individual tales convey a lot about us as humans being and ultimately the values in life that are important to us when all the layers are stripped. In order to get as many people as possible to attend, we decided to take the performances to different villages and cities in Lebanon – and hopefully abroad in the future. We are using social media platforms so people know about our traveling troupe before it arrives at their locality. We believe that going to people is very important instead of waiting for them to come to us.
Refugees Deeply: So the idea is that the refugees tell their own stories, unfiltered?
Choucair: Yes. Using the voices of the refugees instead of writing the stories and transposing them is a very important element of this project. Each story has a lot of layers. Aside from the facts of the story, we maintain the original voice of the storyteller, which also allows them to experience the different feelings while narrating them. It is often therapeutic for the refugees to hear their own voices and to be able step outside of their situation and to listen to their own stories.
Refugees Deeply: What do you hope to achieve through The Caravan?
Choucair: I don’t believe that the project will change the world, but at the very least it is a drop in the sea. My hope is for audiences to leave each performance with new thoughts and perceptions of what it is to become a refugee. Equally important is that it is a space for refugees to be seen as human beings and not numbers. Our hope is to humanize their stories and make them “relatable” to the rest.
Refugees Deeply: Tell me about a story that provoked a strong reaction within you, as an audience member.
Choucair: Every single story has been important to me. But one of the most touching ones was The Bus, narrated by a group of children. I had been working with these kids and we were playing storytelling and theater games. With face masks on, they started telling this story, adding details to it as they went along. I was just amazed at how this narrative was invented, how quick and playful they were in imagining it. For me, this story sums up the absurdity of war, the resilience of people and the impact of conflict on young minds. All of this was happening as we were laughing and having fun. This had an unsettling yet profound effect on me.
Refugees Deeply: We are releasing a series of audio recording by your actors as part our World Refugee Day special coverage, in order the showcase the voices of those displaced by conflict and strife. What would you like our readers and listeners to walk away with?
Choucair: I just want them to listen. And listening is not just hearing the stories but also getting involved and confronting this reality that can affect any of us. I am hoping they will react. I am hoping the storytellers will receive some love and The Caravan project new energy and support.
Refugees Deeply: How have the men, women and children relaying the stories found this experience?
Choucair: At first they were skeptical about the process. But once they started understanding and enjoying it they actually didn’t want to stop. Telling these stories became very important to them. The fact that they are hearing their own voices on different social media platforms and TV and radio stations is creating a significant empowering impact on them. One of the women who told the story of The Emergency called me one night after a TV program that aired her story and told me that she felt she did something very important for her late daughter and for other people who may have experienced something similar. She was crying out of happiness.
As the troupe embarks on this month-long story telling journey, we will continue to release the audio recordings of the Syrian men and women who relay heartrending experiences, while the children share their vivid imaginations that even war and hardship could not possibly stunt.
The first recording is called “The Bus”: