Mihbaj sheds light on Syrian conflict

Playwright Riad Ismat highlights effect of war on family, its members’ struggle to identify who to support after outbreak of conflict in 2011.

2016/09/04 Issue: 71 Page: 12

The Arab Weekly
Dunia El-Zobaidi

London - Syria was once seen as a peaceful grinder of all re­ligious ethnicities, just like a mihbaj, Arabic for “coffee grinder”, which is the title of a play that sheds light on the humanitarian tragedy of the Syrian war.

Playwright Riad Ismat highlights the effect of war on a family and its members’ struggle to identify who to support after the outbreak of the conflict in 2011, which has since degenerated into fully fledged war.

Naifeh is an elderly Palestinian refugee in Syria and a mother of three sons, who are the characters in Mihbaj. One son is sent to fight with the regime, leaving his moth­er and two brothers, both farm­ers, behind. As drought continues in Syria, the sons encourage their mother to leave the home she had settled in many years ago but she dreads being a refugee again.

“Naifeh’s age was her greatest strength and weakness because she has been a refugee for almost her entire life. Given what she had to settle for (as a Palestinian refugee), she could not contem­plate the idea of going through that again. Her only concern is her sons,” said Nicole Palomba, who played Naifeh.

“Her character is essential be­cause of her age. Of course, her sons… are naive in the way they see the war in terms of being black and white, while she sees it with a tint of grey,” commented Lighting and Sound Designer Sari Shrayteh.

“Even though one of her sons is (fighting) with the regime, she thinks there could be something good about it. However, the other two sons deny any grey area com­pletely. She is the most aware char­acter of all,” Shrayteh added.

Naifeh continuously accuses her sons Jasem and Adnan of being jealous of their brother Fares who has left for war but the brothers insist they disagreed with Fares’s actions only.

“It’s beyond jealousy,” explains Blain Neale, who plays Jasem.

“Jasem doesn’t see Fares in the same light anymore after he left for war. He thinks that Fares had aban­doned him so it’s more resentment than jealousy,” Neale said.

According to Shrayteh: “Jasem is pushed into violence because of the regime and their violence, but at the same time he thinks the mother favoured Fares.”

“I don’t think that she (the mother) does love him (Fares) more. Actually, she didn’t see him change because he’s been away for so long. Last time she saw Fares, he was a doe-eyed nationalist and she has no idea what he is like now,” Palomba said.

As far as the brothers are con­cerned, Fares is a face of the re­gime and stands for the wrongs that the regime has committed and the miseries of war that befell them. “They see (Fares’ action) as a betrayal as they believe he has joined the wrong side,” Shrayteh said.

“Adnan felt betrayed because Fares had the choice to postpone his enrolment in national (military) service but he didn’t. Fares was getting all the praise for bringing in money while Adnan works just as hard but, because of the drought, it’s hard to get anything out of it.” said Ricky Shah, who plays Adnan and Fares.

The cast, the creative team and the director’s crew did their own research to help them understand the humanitarian aspect of the Syrian conflict, which has turned into an international proxy war and turned millions of Syrians into refugees, in addition to tearing apart families by animosity and fa­natic allegiances.

“I tried to find the physicality of the Syrian people. We watched a lot of newscasts especially when people are agitated in their de­bates,” Assistant Director Ryan Lester said.

“My character (Adnan/Fares) leaned more towards the peshmer­ga (Kurdish fighters). I thought the character needed some depend­ability and things have got to get better. I related the family in the play to my own family. I have an older brother and a younger sister and I think I am the favourite in my family! So I guess it was hard for my character to accept he wasn’t the favourite,” Shah said.

Shrayteh had a first-hand experi­ence with conflict and its effect on the people that proved to be very handy.

“I lived in Lebanon for 21 years! I was very interested in the Leba­nese civil war, the politics of the region and the dynamics of power. After you remove the politics and propaganda of war, what remain are the effects of it on the family. Our work is more towards the hu­man side rather than political.’ Shrayteh said.

Mihbaj was staged at the Theatre Royal Stratford East in London.

Dunia El-Zobaidi is an Arab Weekly correspondent in London.

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