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Behind Barbed Wire, Shakespeare Inspires a Cast of Young Syrians

On a rocky patch of earth in this sprawling city of tents and prefab trailers, the king, dressed in dirty jeans and a homemade cape, raised his wooden scepter and announced his intention to divide his kingdom.

His elder daughters, wearing paper crowns and plastic jewelry, showered him with false praise, while the youngest spoke truthfully and lost her inheritance.

ZAATARI REFUGEE CAMP, Jordan.

So began a recent adaptation here of “King Lear.”

For the 100 children in the cast, it was their first brush with Shakespeare, although they were already deeply acquainted with tragedy.

All were refugees who had fled the civil war in Syria. Some had seen their homes destroyed. Others had lost relatives to violence. Many still had trouble sleeping or jumped at loud noises.

And now home was here, in this isolated, treeless camp, a place of poverty, uncertainty and boredom.

Reflecting the demographics of Syria’s wider refugee crisis, more than half of the 587,000 refugees registered in Jordan are younger than 18, according to the United Nations. About 60,000 of those young people live in the Zaatari camp, where fewer than a quarter regularly attend school.

Parents and aid workers fear that Syria’s war threatens to create a lost generation of children who are scarred by violence and miss vital years of education, and that those experiences and disadvantages will follow them into adulthood.

The “King Lear” performance, the conclusion of a project than spanned months, was one attempt to fight that threat.

“The show is to bring back laughter, joy and humanity,” said its director, Nawar Bulbul, a 40-year-old Syrian actor known at home for his role in “Bab al-Hara,” an enormously popular historical drama that was broadcast throughout the Arab world.

The play owed its production largely to Mr. Bulbul. Smoking hand-rolled cigarettes and speaking with the animated face of a stage actor who never stops performing, Mr. Bulbul described his journey from television star to children’s director.

When the Syrian uprising broke out in 2011, he joined with gusto, appearing at antigovernment protests, leading chants and drawing the ire of the security services. A play he produced was banned, and a fellow actor who supported the government informed him that he could either appear on television to rectify his stance or expect to be arrested.

“I told him I would think about it, and a week later I was out of the country,” Mr. Bulbul said.

Last year, he and his French wife moved to Jordan, where friends invited him to help distribute aid in Zaatari. The visit exposed him to what he called “the big lie” of international politics that had failed to stop the war.

There are people who want to go home, and they are the victims while the great powers fight above them,” he said.

Children he met in the camp made him promise to return, and he did — with a plan to show the world that the least fortunate Syrian refugees could produce the loftiest theater.

The sun blazed on the day of the performance, staged on a rocky rectangle of land surrounded by a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. The 12 main actors stood in the middle, while the rest of the cast stood behind them, a chorus that provided commentary and dramatic sound effects. The audience sat on the ground.

When each of Lear’s first two daughters tricked him with false flattery in elegant, formal Arabic, the chorus members yelled “Liar! Hypocrite!” until the sisters told them to shut up.

And when the third sister refused to follow suit, the chorus members yelled “Truthful! Just!” until the king told them to shut up.

Continue reading the main story  Video

PLAY VIDEO.  VIDEO|5:35.  Syrian Refugees Cross Into Uncertainty

Refugees fleeing fighting in Syria in May, 2013, relocated to the Zaatari refugee camp in northern Jordan where they face dusty days and cold nights in an uncertain existence with no end in sight.

In later scenes, the king was heckled by the Fool, who wore a rainbow-colored wig, and 8 boys performed a choreographed sword fight with lengths of plastic tubing.

A few scenes from “Hamlet” were spliced in, making the story hard to follow. And at one point, a tanker truck carrying water roared by, drowning out the actors and coating the audience in a cloud of dust.

But the mere fact that the play was performed was enough for the few hundred spectators. Families living in nearby tents brought their children, hoisting them on their shoulders so they could see.

After Lear’s descent into madness and death, the cast surrounded the audience, triumphantly chanting “To be or not to be!” in English and Arabic. The crowd burst into applause, and a number of the leading girls broke into tears. Mr. Bulbul said they were overwhelmed because it was the first time anyone had clapped for them.

After the show, as journalists interviewed the cast, the parents boasted of their children’s talent.

“I am the mother of King Lear,” declared Intisar al-Baradan when asked if she had seen the play. She had brought about 20 relatives to the performance, she said, adding that her son was also a great singer.

Other parents described the project as a rare point of light in a bleak camp existence.

Hatem Azzam, whose daughter Rowan, 12, played one of Lear’s daughters, said the family fled Damascus after government forces set his carpentry shop on fire.

“We were a rebellious neighborhood, so they burned every shop on the street,” Mr. Azzam said.

He arrived in Zaatari a year ago with 5 other family members, but one of his brothers got sick and died soon afterward, and his elderly mother never adjusted to the desert climate and died, too, he said.

He hesitated to send his children to school, fearing that they would get sick in the crowded classrooms, and he kept them from roaming the camp because he did not want them to start smoking or pick up other bad habits. But the theater project was close to home, and his daughter was so excited about it that he let her go.

People get opportunities in life, and you have to take advantage of them,” Mr. Azzam said. “She got a chance to act when she was young, so that could make it easier for her in the future.”

The mother of Bushra al-Homeyid, 13, who played another of Lear’s daughters, said the family had fled Syria after government shelling killed her niece and nephew.

“The camp is an incomplete life, a temporary life,” she said. “We hope that our time here will be limited.”

But after a year here, she worried that her eldest daughter, who was in high school, would not be ready to go to college.

Bushra, grinning widely and still wearing her yellow paper crown, said she had never acted before but wanted to continue.

“I like that I can change my personality and be someone else,” she said.

US Army’s new grooming standards: Is it racially biased?

The U.S. Army is coming under fire for changes to its appearance and grooming standards, which some say discriminates against black women who wear their hair natural.

THE STREAM Team posted:
Proposed updates to Army grooming policies are being called into question over its ban on natural hairstyles common among women of color.
Proposed updates to Army grooming policies are being called into question over its ban on natural hairstyles common among women of color.(Patrick Kane/AP)

Army Regulation 670-1 has not been published or made official yet, but the new rules were detailed in a PowerPoint presentation that was leaked on March 20.

Among the grooming regulations are updated restrictions on how women soldiers can wear their hair. An example from the Army’s PowerPoint is shown below:

  1. Within and outside of the Army, women of color have been calling the guidelines racially biased. A White House petition has amassed more than 3,000 signatures to date requesting that the Army reconsider:
  2. These new changes are racially biased and the lack of regard for ethnic hair is apparent. This policy needs to be reviewed prior to publishing to allow for neat and maintained natural hairstyles.
  3. Opponents of the new policies say they specifically target women of color who wear their hair natural. Natural is defined as any hair that has not been chemically processed to alter its texture.

    Unauthorized hairstyles now include twists, dreadlocks, Afros and braids that are more than a quarter-inch thick – styles commonly worn by many African-American women.
    After the new measures take effect, soldiers who wear these hairstyles will have to remove them or cover them with wigs or extensions if they do not want to face administrative discipline.
  4. Army veteran “Tonya” [name has been changed to protect identity], who has dreadlocks, spoke to The Stream about her opposition to the new rules, which she called “deliberate.”
  5. “It’s very targeted because we all know who they’re talking about even though they never explicitly say the world ‘black’ or ‘African-American.’ We all know who typically wears these types of hairstyles and then they went as far as to include pictures of black women in the PowerPoint.”
  6. The updates to grooming regulations were approved on March 6 by Secretary of the Army John McHugh. The Stream reached out to the Army with questions regarding the new grooming guidelines, and was referred to previous statements made by Sergeant Major of the Army Raymond F. Chandler.
  7. “We’ve gone through a series of revisions and briefings to try to find something that’s reasonable, affordable and feasible within the Army that aligns itself with our professional responsibilities,” said Chandler’s statement.

  8. According to a study by the Pew Research Center, African-American women represent nearly a third of all women in the armed forces and enlist at higher rates than any other demographic.

    “Tonya” says, from her observation, the majority of black women in the Army wear their hair natural. She noted that especially while deployed, women don’t always have access to tools that would allow hair to be maintained by straighteners.
    In the photo below, a blogger provides tips for women soldiers on how to maintain professional, natural hair while serving.
  9. “I don’t think they see the health behind it. Getting these extensions, these braids, can put a lot of stress and strain on our hair,” “Tonya” said. “When you’re in Iraq, these hairstyles serve the purpose to protect you.”
  10. Some soldiers have pointed to what they say are inconsistencies in how grooming rules are applied. Earlier this year, the Department of Defense released regulations allowing turbans, headscarves and beards to be worn while in uniform to ensure protection of religious freedom for service members of diverse faiths.

    The Army did not respond to questions regarding whether cultural considerations were made for racial and ethnic minorities.
  11. According to market research firm Mintel, 36% of all African-American women said they wore their hair natural in 2011.
  12. Furthermore, in the past 12 months, nearly three-fourths (70%) of Black women say they currently wear or have worn their hair natural (no relaxer or perm), more than half (53%) have worn braids, and four out of 10 (41%) have worn locks.
    1. The Army has yet to publish the full regulation, but “Tonya” says the message sent by the proposed rules is clear.
    2. “This is how I was born, what my hair does naturally. So what they’re telling me is that people who look like me, people who have these characteristics, don’t belong in the military. You can’t tell me that we’re an army of one or that we’re a brotherhood and a sisterhood, that we all bleed army green, if just one group of people’s natural look is considered unacceptable. That isolates me.”
    3. What do you think? Should the Army adjust hair guidelines to consider hair textures of ethnic minorities?

adonis49

adonis49

adonis49

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