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Thursday, August 11, 2022

A Refugee Puppet Searches for His Way Home After Four Months and 5,000 Miles

Tamara, an 8-year-old girl who was attempting to take a bright pink soccer ball from the centre of the floor, was the subject of a dozen puppeteers who were crouching in a practise room here, watching her every move closely.

Tamara was apprehensive, and she kept looking over her shoulder, as if she was checking to see if anybody was following her. When she saw the ball, she ran for it, grabbed it up in her arms, and dashed away from the scene.

Tamara’s father, Amir Nizar Zuabi, is a Palestinian theatrical director who also happens to be Tamara’s father. As he explained to the puppeteers in June, “Everything she does is with a sense of urgency.” “Everything is a matter of life or death.”

The puppeteers were paying close attention to Tamara in order to mimic her behaviour and create a 9-year-old Syrian refugee named Little Amal, who would go on to become the lead character in “The Walk,” one of the year’s most ambitious pieces of theatre — and certainly the piece of theatre that took up the most space on stage.

The storyline of “The Walk” was straightforward: a little girl named Amal had lost her mother and was on the hunt for her. However, the practicalities of completing the almost $4 million project — which included a 5,000-mile trek from Turkey to England — were anything from straightforward.

During the journey, the 12-foot-tall puppet — which could be controlled by up to four people — would make over 140 stops in eight countries, at locations ranging from refugee camps to the Royal Opera House in London. Theater productions, such as the final event in Manchester, England, as well as chance meetings with Amal (whose name means hope in Arabic), who just walks around a city or hamlet and sees what occurs.

The plight of refugees grabbed the headlines in Europe’s media in 2015-16, when millions left Syria’s civil conflict, but individuals continue to flee across the continent every day. And, as a result of the coronavirus epidemic, the circumstances in which refugees and migrants have been forced to live, as well as the care they have received, have only become progressively worse over time.

The essence of “The Walk,” according to former creative director of London’s Young Vic Theater and one of the project’s producers David Lan, was evident during a break from rehearsals: “Don’t forget us.” Lan was speaking during a break from the rehearsals.

However, he said that the team did not intend to do this just by concentrating on the atrocities that migrants had to endure. “Because she is a kid, she will go through horrible experiences and will be lonely and fearful,” Lan said. “However, our attention is focused on the potential, the delight, that she has to provide.”

The new event, on the other hand, was a completely different idea, taking place largely outside of regular venues. As the initiative got underway, the number of hard-line immigration restrictions increased dramatically. Denmark approved a bill only a few days before the rehearsal, enabling the country to temporarily transfer asylum applicants outside of Europe while their cases are being reviewed. Soon after, the United Kingdom, where several ministers had expressed a desire to create a “hostile environment” for migrants, said that it, too, wished to do so. Other nations were proposing barriers to keep migrants out, and the United States was one of them.

When she turned around to look back, the four puppeteers manipulating her — one on stilts inside, two working her hands, and a fourth to stabilise her from behind when required — made it seem like she was looking around for her mother. Then she’d walk away, her eyes turned down in despair as she went.

Those engaged with the initiative expressed their hope that events like these would demonstrate that art can be used to build bridges between Turks and Syrians, as well as between locals and refugees.

The puppeteers eventually brought her to a park, where Syrian youngsters sang to her in both Turkish and Arabic, while another group presented her with a handcrafted trunk, which was stocked with presents for the voyage ahead.

The next day, she was scheduled to go for her second stroll around the neighbourhood. Her journey, however, was cut short, just as it would be for a genuine refugee. A Turkish soldier had been killed while participating in operations in northern Iraq, and his body was to be buried just outside of Mosul. “The Walk,” which had only been open for one day, was brought to a halt in order to respect local sensitivities.

Jonathan James
I serve as a Senior Executive Journalist of The National Era
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