A play about Syrian refugees – it’s right up my alley, I thought when I saw the notice online. It ties in nicely with my research. I should see this. I emailed my friend Pattie and told her about it. It’s called The Opposite, I said. The playwright is a Syrian now living in Calgary – Sleman Aldib. It gets you thinking about what it would be like to be a refugee.
Pattie was game.
A couple days later I’m standing in a very small foyer of the West Village theater on 10th avenue, and it’s 7:05. The play was supposed to start at 7:00. Pattie and I are tired; it’s been a long day for both of us. I had a meeting that required a certain amount of energy, and I raced all day to finish a freelance article. I rode my bike to campus so my legs are a bit achey and I am hauling around my pannier with my computer in it, which is irritating the collection of knots I’ve been cultivating in my neck and shoulders.
Wasn’t it supposed to start at seven? Pattie asks.
Yes, I say, shifting the shoulder strap of my pannier so it put less pressure on my muscle knots.
We are startled to hear a voice behind us – a youngish man who looks to be of Middle Eastern descent, speaking in what must be Arabic. A young woman beside him begins to translate and it dawns on me that the play had begun. Is this how the play will unfold, is my first thought – with the 40 or so audience members standing cheek to jowl in this small, hot foyer? With me holding my devilishly heavy pannier with itsdevilishly heavy computer?
The man continues speaking in Arabic and the translator says something about Calgarians, finding out what it means to be a refugee.
And it starts to dawn on me that we are meant to experience some of the things, tonight, that refugees experience. I heave the pannier from my shoulder and set it on the ground.
Good grief. It’s not that heavy.
Eventually we are asked to approach the man and the translator and pick up a sheet of paper. A form, with writing on it which appears to be in Arabic, and some empty blanks to be filled out, presumably.
Once everyone has a form we are shepherded into the theater, down a dark hallway toward a lit performance space with a few chairs, some tables with people sitting behind them. The line of audience members slows and stops. I peer around the people in front of me.
It appears that we are being asked to sign in at the first table. A woman is cruising down the line-up, directing certain people to other tables where people sit waiting – they are actors, presumably, taking on the role of … some sort of office worker? Something to do with refugee processes, presumably. It’s a play about refugees.
The audience members gradually filer into new line-ups at the various tables.
A woman approaches me – she has very short dark hair and speaks in rapid Arabic. She gestures at my form, then at one of the tables on the other side of the stage.
Am I supposed to get in that line-up? I ask. I smile. It seems a bit comical; we both know this is not real. I’m playing the role of … a refugee, presumably. I have never acted before. I never even took Drama as an option, not even in junior high. I smile.
The woman with very short hair replies in Arabic, a bit more impatient now, and gestures toward the other table. She gives me a light but definite push on the arm.
There is something unsettling about her touch. It is not painful. It is not particularly aggressive. But it is unexpected. I am not accustomed to being pushed toward a line-up.
I make my way across the stage to the far table. It is manned by someone in a long white coat who appears to be performing some sort of perfunctory medical examination on the people in his line-up. I mean the audience members.
When it’s my turn he gestures at my form and says something I can’t understand. I show him the form and he seems unhappy with it, but I have no idea why.
Say Ah, he says, only he doesn’t say, “say ah.” Well, he says “ah,” but not “say.”
Is there something wrong? I ask, knowing he can’t understand me.
He says something in Arabic that leaves a definite impression of unhappiness. He puts a check mark on my form and waves me toward the other side of the stage. I look, and there are three tables there. My pannier strap has settled delicately onto the knot on my neck. The muscles begin to spasm.
Which table? I ask.
He speaks in Arabic, his tone is irritated.
Sorry, I say, but which…
He is already stepping toward the next person in his line-up.
I shuffle across the stage and choose a random table. A man gets in line behind me and holds up his form. He’s gotten two signatures and two check marks. Is this what we’re supposed to do? He says.
I shrug, grimacing as the pannier strap cuts into my shoulder.
I only have one check mark so far, I tell him. I don’t even know which station I’m supposed to be at.
We stand in silence, shuffling forward as the line advances. At length the very young man at the table nods at me. It’s my turn.
I offer up my form and he gives me a small square of paper with the number 3 on it. I thank him, even though I have no idea what the number is for. I decide that it will be important later, and tuck it between my thumb and forefinger, careful not to wrinkle it. The young man offers me some crackers and he may be offering water, I can’t tell. There are bottles of water and cups on the table but I’m not sure if he was gesturing toward them, or just the crackers.
I’m dying of thirst (well, not dying exactly), having had Indian food for dinner. I am normally very careful to drink my eight glasses of water per day.
I am unable to imagine putting a Saltine in my mouth. But the water…
He is saying something now, gesturing toward another set of tables.
Which one, I ask, getting a clear feeling of déjà vu. I know before he speaks that he will not tell me exactly where to go next.
He waves in the general direction of nothing in particular, and I shuffle away, choosing the shortest line-up. A man and woman get in line behind me. They are giggling. I guess this is where we were supposed to go, the woman says. I guess, the man says. My goodness, what a time we’re having.
A young man cuts through my line-up, ushered by one of the women working in this surreal office area I now inhabit. The young man is of Middle Eastern descent and I wonder if he is Syrian. I wonder if he has lived this surreal experience in real life. In Lebanon, perhaps, or Jordan. I wonder if he is having flashbacks. As he cuts through the line-up he rolls his eyes. None of us seem to know how to react. Do you laugh? Do you show respect by not laughing?
It’s a play, right? We all know this is not real. But the people working here – I mean the actors in this play – are taking it very seriously. In fact, here is one of them now. It’s a woman with thick, wavy hair pulled back from her face.
She says something in Arabics, grabbing my form. I reach out for it. It seems important that I keep it, that I take care of it. It’s mine.
I clutch my number 3 square. It is still smooth and flat between my thumb and forefinger. I decide I shouldn’t grab at my form so I fold my hands gently, taking care not to disturb my number 3 square.
You did not get a signature here, the woman says in English. Some of them speak English. She points to one of the blanks on my form. Where were you? Which station? Who did not sign this?
I look at the form. The writing next to the blank is in Arabic. The characters are lovely black squiggles and they have nothing to say to me, no matter how long I keep my eyes on them.
I don’t know which station it was, I tell her, and I feel foolish. Then I am traveling back in time, across the ocean, to a tiny village in the south of France. I am fourteen, it’s my first day at the lycée. You will learn French so quickly now, my father says. The principal is speaking to me, a stream of elegant syllables that rise and fall like Mediterranean waves. She seems to want me to go somewhere. A class, I assume. So I start to move, looking back at her questioningly. Am I going to the right place? Je vais ici?
No, not there, says the woman with the thick, wavy hair. Go to table four, and get a signature.
Then the other woman appears, the one with the very short hair. She looks at my form, then looks at me as if deciding if I’m worth the time and effort. Go over there, she says finally, gesturing at nothing in particular. Then come back and see me, so that you can … just come and see me. She gives me the slightest of shoves and is gone.
There is a place on my arm that is cool to the touch. The air brushes over it and settles.
I return to table four. It’s the one with the very young man with the crackers and water. My tongue sticks slightly to the roof of my mouth as I turn down the offer of crackers. You just need to sign it, I tell him, handing over my form. I lift my pannier over my head and settle the strap over my other shoulder, the one with fewer knots.
The very young man’s irritation bleeds into his words and he points to a signature on a different line.
She told me to get you to sign it, I say, but he is gesturing for the next person in line. He waves me back to the first table, the one where people were signing in at the very beginning. The line is very long.
My friend Pattie crosses the stage going the opposite direction and we exchange glances. We start to smile, then stop. She cradles her form in the crook of her arm. I remember her saying that she isn’t feeling one hundred percent. She has a bit of a cold. Or it could be allergies. I wonder if she is irritated with me. She is probably tired, and possibly cranky. She is a school teacher and tomorrow is a school day; she will be getting up early in the morning and the play started late.
I have so much respect for the families at my school right now, Pattie says. Many of the children in her class are from newcomer families. Many have escaped violence and other unimaginable situations to get to Canada. Pattie is not irritated.
I nod and we move along our respective paths.
I make it through the sign-in station and am sent to the photo station. A woman with spiky brown hair starts to take my picture, then stops. Points at my chest.
What? I say, knowing I am not speaking the right language. What is it?
With a toss of her head she approaches, takes the pendant of my necklace in her fingers, and tucks it gently beneath my t-shirt.
Oh, I say. Is “Oh” the same in Arabic?
I don’t know if anyone but myself has ever touched this necklace. The two pendants are small and round and silvery, engraved with the initials of my children.
My mother gave me this necklace. She has the same necklace but hers has three pendants.
I find myself thinking about my siblings, the fact that our names all begin with J. Is it a coincidence?
Smile, says the woman behind the camera, only she doesn’t say “smile,” she says something in Arabic and I smile. Do you smile for a picture like this? Is it for my documents? What if you’re not supposed to smile? Will I have to come back?
Was I supposed to… I start to ask her but she is nudging me along, away from the photo station, and I run right into the woman with very short hair.
You were supposed to come and see me, she says. She looks at my form with disgust. Or she seems disgusted. Or am I imagining that?
Oh, right, I say. I’m sorry.
She shakes her head and I travel back in time. I am in French class at the lycée. We have just written a dictée and I have been unable to decipher the words we were meant to write down as the teacher read out a passage from a novel, very slowly. The boy sitting behind me is marking my paper, which must surely be illegible to anyone who actually speaks French. I have written French syllables using my French fountain pen, but the pen has simply made lovely blue marks on the page. The French teacher has a very clever system for marking, though. Each student starts with 20 marks, and you lose one mark for each error. The boy behind me (I think his name is Salmon, which is funny because in English he is a fish) is putting up his hand. Madame, he says. What do I do now – la Canadienne, she has lost all 20 of her marks and we are only on the second sentence. I do not look back at Salmon; I tell myself that I am traveling in time, back to last year, when I was not la Canadienne, I was an honors student at Riverbend Junior High School. I was talking with my friend Sheryl in her basement, we were laughing. I have a hard time hearing the French teacher over the laughing but she seems to be saying: Eh bien, Salmon. You will simply go into the negative numbers.
Never mind, says the woman with very short hair. She seems willing, suddenly, to overlook the egregious errors I have made with my form. I feel terrible. I should have been able to figure out this system with its check marks and signatures. What is wrong with me?
Just sit over there, she says, pointing to a row of chairs. There are no empty chairs.
Just stand over there, she says.
I glance around as I walk across the stage, looking for Pattie. I can’t find her … is it possible she has gone home? Perhaps she has gone to look for the washroom? To get a drink of water? But no, there she is, sitting in a chair along the opposite wall. I feel more relief than would seem to be required.
I take my place beside the row of chairs at the back of the stage and wait. It seems there is no alternative; the others have not finished their tasks. Some are having photos taken; others are saying “Ah” to the doctor. I lift the pannier from my shoulder and set it on the ground. The muscles in my neck and shoulders seize up. I tell them to settle down. How long have I been here now – it can’t be more than thirty minutes. I glance down at my number 3 square. At least I’ve managed to keep it neat and tidy.
The lights go out, then blink on. The room buzzes with chatter, but the handful of people working in this surreal office have frozen, as if playing a game of tag, the one where you have to stop moving if someone touches you.
Then I see the man who spoke to us at the beginning, in the foyer. He walks across the stage with a suitcase and stands on a platform.
He speaks of Syria, of coming to Canada because of the war. He asks us to imagine. He calls up an image of Calgary, the tower crumbled to the ground. Our Stephen Avenue mall crawling with ISIS. Imagine. This is what it’s like.
I am unable to imagine. I try but I cannot picture it. I want to tell him it is not his fault; I am simply incapable.
But this is not real, of course, he says. None of this is real. If you were actually refugees in our country, trust me, we would not treat you this way. You would see such kindness.
I notice that the office workers – I mean the actors – have gathered around them. They are taking turns speaking to the audience. It’s off the cuff; they do not recite lines.
They, too, speak of coming to Canada. They are glad to be here. They are studying at colleges and universities. They are from Syria, except for the woman with the very short hair. She is from Egypt. They feel bad, they say, for treating us this way. We are sorry, they say.
And I realize the play is over. I realize that the woman with the thick, wavy hair is speaking to me, turning to me, coming over to me. I’m sorry, she is saying.
And I realize I am crying.
I’m sorry, she says again. I don’t treat people that way.
Oh, no, I tell her, and I realize she is hugging me. I realize I may have hugged her first.
We step back and give ourselves our personal space. That was so … I try to think of the right word.
My friend Pattie appears and she, too, is hugging the woman with the wavy hair. She, too, is crying. She, too, is saying that the play was so…
And then we think a little harder and we come up with some words. Amazing. Powerful. Profound. Pattie is wondering how to get the play to come to her school. I am planning a blog post.
Everyone needs to see this, I say, and the man who spoke to us in the foyer appears beside me, asking us to move back into the foyer; they are trying to set up for the next play, which will begin at 9:00.
I step out of his way and share some of the words that Pattie and I have come up with. But I can see that he has work to do, we need to get going.
I seem to be having trouble leaving this place, I tell him.
And he smiles.