Being Human 2017 – Borderline Review and Q&A Transcript
Updated version of an article published originally by Being Human.
By Hari Reed
“The only dream that could unite us all is to live in a world where no-one judges us because of our sexuality, or where we’re coming from, or our political point of view, or our religion. I think when we reach that level of humanity, and start understanding each other – that is what unites us much more than what divides us. That’s the real dream; everything else is just capitalism and materialism.”
Baraa Halabieh, Borderline Q&A at the Garage Theatre, Norwich
Borderline – The UK’s First Comedy about The Calais “Jungle”
A refugee is a person who loses and finds. The stereotypical refugee loses their place in the world, then finds another. Loses their identity, then regains it, or finds another. Loses and finds family, community and – perhaps most importantly – home. Refugee History organised four events in Norwich for the Being Human Festival 2017 that address the refugee’s experience of losing and finding home. The refugee has historically ‘found a home’ in the humanities, which tends to keep its doors open when others close theirs. We believe it is essential both to honour this tradition and to help ensure that it continues today.
The most highly anticipated of Refugee History’s Being Human events was PSYCHEdelight’s brave new play Borderline: a satire of the Calais Jungle devised by an ensemble of refugee and European performers, and directed by Sophie NL Besse. The play enjoyed great success in its first year, with repeated sold-out performances in London, appearances in Brighton, Leeds and Germany, a Guardian documentary and a residency with Counterpoints Arts.
Borderline was performed at The Garage in Norwich to an audience of Year 11-13 students from City College, Fakenham Academy, Attleborough Academy and Wymondham High Academy. Despite a cast member breaking his finger in the first scene, the performance ran smoothly, eliciting a range of laughters from the audience: awkward, joyful, tentative, embarrassed. Other audience members wept audibly at rising star Mohamed Sarrar’s a cappella performance of ABBA’s dissonantly appropriate “I Have A Dream.” [And my destination / makes it worth the while / pushing through the darkness / still another mile ... I’ll cross the stream / I have a dream].
Borderline boasts a varying cast of refugees from Afghanistan, Sudan and Syria, who experienced Calais first-hand, alongside European experts in physical comedy. The cast developed Borderline as a comedy because, as the director Besse explained to me, the actors ‘want to connect with the audience, to show that they are also funny nice people and not only refugees who went through a traumatic experience. That they are not a burden or miserable people.’ As a comedy, Borderline is able to highlight absurd elements of European border control and show a side of the ‘Jungle’ camp omitted from mainstream media representations: the camaraderie, resilience and ingenuity of its inhabitants.
Besse’s aim is ‘to work on integration and prove that we can do a lot of things together despite language barriers and cultural differences.’ Her work exists to ‘fight clichés: I wanted to build a bridge between refugees and the audience thanks to humour.’ Thus Borderline provides a forum in which to discuss the kind of ‘home’ a refugee might find in the humanities, by demonstrating ways that the humanities can host literal and figurative refugees. It allows us to imagine a language that would span activism and academia, and forge links between them. Borderline also amplifies the voices of typically marginalised refugees, providing a platform for individuals to communicate their own views about their own situations, via their chosen channels.
Borderline also poses a serious challenge to the refugee ‘victim narrative’. The play shows solidarity with refugees while criticising in unique ways the disempowering idea that all refugees are helpless victims. As the first comedy about Calais to emerge in the UK, Borderline experiments with a new lens for viewing the ‘refugee crisis’ as a whole, and hints at ways that the humanities might become more hospitable towards refugees, by providing a blueprint for artistic and intellectual collaboration between refugees and non-refugees.
The performance was followed by a Q&A session with the cast [see transcript below] and a workshop run by Protection Approaches. The workshop focussed on individual cases of identity-based violence, from the American South to Australia and Rwanda. Role play and interactive activities were used to draw attention to processes that lead to prejudice and hatred. We hope that this event has, in conjunction with the other Being Human events in Norwich, emphasised both the general importance of humanities research, and the specific need to open neutral and cross-societal spaces of dialogue about refugee and migration issues.
Watch the Q&A or read the transcript below.
Q&A with Borderline Cast and Year 11-13 Students
[before video begins] Q1: What was the process of developing the play?
[video begins] Gareth: There’s a lot more humour and resilience about the refugees than was being portrayed back here in the newspapers, and she [Sophie, the director] worked with quite a few of these boys over there-, primarily men in the camps, and maintained the relationships when she got here. Then she got together a group of European performers as well, and she wanted to do an integrated thing. So the integration was one of the primary aims of the project, but we were actually telling-, everything you’ve seen, there’s a story that someone has told in this group, that they’ve actually experienced.
So we started with a lot of storytelling. It took about six weeks, and we had a clown facilitator in to do a lot of the physical comedy because some of the boys, when they started-, there are two Afghan boys who are not here, one of them could barely speak English at the beginning, so we had to rely on physical theatre quite a lot. So there was a lot of storytelling at the beginning. Then we would take a nugget of a story, then play with it and do a lot of weird, playful stuff. A lot of the [cast], I suppose, they come from quite totalitarian regimes and are not necessarily used to doing quite open improvisation stuff, so that was quite a strange experience for some of the performers. Then gradually we had enough material for about two hours, which was then cut down and put into a narrative structure. So it went from the beginning of the journey to the demolition.
Q2: Was it a challenge to bring a satirical edge to a serious topic? Was it hard to make it funny?
Yassin [Edited]: I think it’s quite difficult, yes. Because when you think about Calais, the first time you come to Calais-, I never thought I would one day come to meet a lot of refugees from lots of different countries, different cultures. It was very difficult – when you saw there was no food, nothing is available for life. It was difficult. But slowly people came together; a lot of people came to the Jungle from different countries, especially the UK. They created a dome for the theatre – this helped a lot of refugees to be confident. That’s why, when the first time Sophie told me, “Yassin, would you like to come to join this theatre? Do you want to make comedian show?” I told her, “Sophie, comedy in Jungle?!” Because it’s difficult, it’s very problem. But I told her, “Yes, of course, I like comedy”. I think we had a good idea about comedy. In one way, it’s going to be happy for all people. In another way, we make our story from Jungle. Your audience isn’t going to become tired watching, and also you can see some stories.
Gareth: When Sophie was in the Jungle, there was a lot of humour there, a lot of people mucking around. I went back to my Aunt’s, who’s a bit more right wing than most people I know, and I said, “All of these Afghan boys are really silly.” And she was like, “Are they? I didn’t think Muslims had a sense of humour!” She’d been watching the telly, you know, and she just sees them firing their guns in the air in this kind of square – that’s what she sees. So I was like, “Yeah, they’re actually really daft”. Sophie saw that and she said, “I don’t want to make a tragedy about it, I actually want to bring out this kind of satire.”
At points, the people who are European, we sometimes felt a bit uncomfortable laughing at stuff that belongs to them – that’s the experience that they’ve been through – but there’s a boy called Enayat who’s not here, and he said, “I’ve had enough tears in my life, what I want to have now is laughter. I don’t want to cry anymore.” So that was our main driver. I suppose, with satire, if you’re going to go there, you really have to push it. You have to go and make it extremely ridiculous, otherwise it just sounds a bit rude. It just sounds like you’re being rude, but you take it that extra step and it becomes absurd.
Q3: I thought that song, the Abba song [I Have A Dream], really worked very well. It was really emotional and good. Can I just ask, what are some of your dreams?
Abdul Rahman: Go back to Syria.
Baraa: I think the question is trying to make the answer simple, but it’s hard, because in every stage of your life you have different dreams. Even sometimes when you achieve that dream, you discover that that’s not your real dream, and you start chasing something else. So I think the only dream that could unite us all, is to live in a world where no-one judges us because of our sexuality, or where we’re coming from, or our political point of view, or our religion. I think when we reach that level of humanity and start understanding each other, that’s what unites us much more than what divides us. That’s the real dream, and everything else is just kind of capitalism and materialism.
Yassin [Edited]: I think it’s quite difficult, because we know when people are born in their countries, they have a dream in – sorry, my English isn’t very good but I try speaking. I do apologise about that. – They are born in their country, so they like to continue something in their country with family. You think about your dream in your country, but when you suddenly, for political reasons, or any reasons, have to leave your country, you only have two dreams: to be safe, and coming to visit your family. Of course you leave some of your dreams, because those dreams are dependent on your country. When you’re going to the new country, it should make your new dream. Your other dream is dependent on your culture. I think it’s quite difficult. Most of our dreams are going to be: peace in the world together, be friendly and keep going, share all talent, all nice behaviour. These are the same in all countries. I think the best wish here, together, is going to be peace, and sharing all issues and stories.
Gareth: We’ve been on tour for over a year now, so we’ve talked a lot about these things. It’s quite clear that, like Yassin said, you get brought up in your own country, and you’ve got your future planned in your own country. Your ability to progress and to follow your ambitions is often linked to where you’ve got in your education, where you are in your social standing, in the hierarchy of that particular country, if your parents can give you a bit of a nudge on. That’s what happens everywhere. Some of the boys have gone from having quite a nice life, which was progressing rather nicely, and they were doing rather well, you know, with beautiful houses, nice cars, computers, lots of material goods, but also doing well in their jobs, their careers. Then transferring from that into this country, where they’re suddenly at the bottom of a hierarchy, which is so difficult to navigate. Even for us it’s hard to navigate, you know, this class system and all the rest of it. But to arrive here and find yourself right back to the beginning point again, is quite a shock, really. It’s a bit of a waking nightmare. I’m saying that as if I’ve been through it myself, but just from our conversations.
Q4: When you came to this country and started doing the theatre here, how difficult was it to connect with the people here that you now know?
Yassin: Shall I answer? Baraa’s English is better than mine...
Baraa: So I was in Calais refugee camp for six months before coming to the UK and I arrived a year and a half ago. It took me six months to get refugee status. I met Sophie through mutual friends, and we met the rest of the guys. To be honest, we are lucky to be in London, because London is so multicultural and cosmopolitan. For most of our shows, we’ve got amazing audiences just like you guys, and we feel the vibes, and it’s amazing. We went to Newcastle, we went to Stockton, and we went to Brighton, and honestly, all these positive vibes we receive from the audience give us amazing power to keep going and keep performing.
Gareth: Do you think you’ve found it easier to make connections in this country because of this show, compared to people who have just arrived and didn’t take part in anything?
Baraa: I think theatre is one of the perfect platforms where refugees, or humans, can express themselves in much better ways. I met other members of the cast from different countries. It opens your mind and it gives you space to bring your talent out. You have a good time; you’re meeting people at the same time. For me, being in the UK, I felt and we feel that we are really welcome. But there is a big difference between how the British people treat us, and how the Home Office and the British Government are treating us. There is a massive gap. We struggle for months to get our refugee status. Some of us are still struggling with the Home Office.
We have some [cast members], they’re not here, they’re Afghan guys, they haven’t got the refugee status for more than a year and a half now, and they’re struggling. So we need to find the difference when we’re talking about ‘refugees feel welcome’ – yes, the British people in general make us feel welcome, but the Home Office make it harder and harder. To be honest, we were really shocked when we saw the referendum results, but we believe that you guys, the guys we are meeting after every show, you are who represent the UK, not your government. You are the real face of the United Kingdom.
Q5: I came today and I didn’t know what I would see.
Gareth: We didn’t either, to be honest!
Q5: When I saw your show it was really amazing. I’m so interested; I think it’s the best show I have seen here in the UK. I’m an Egyptian writer and I lived in the Jungle for 3 months. Can I be involved with you?
Gareth: Yes, is the short answer.
Baraa: Let’s stay in touch.
Q6: I was wondering how, on that previous note, you think as individuals we can help the situation? What can we do to help?
Gareth: Abdul Rahman’s got a good answer for this. He came to my old school in Wales and he told his story to all the Sixth Formers. They all came up and they wanted to do a collection, and he stopped them and he said ‘no’.
Abdul Rahman: You can help just with a smile. Maybe a smile can change somebody’s mind about a country. Really, maybe one smile will change everything.
Baraa: After you do the smile and make someone happy seeing your lovely smile, you can write to your MP. It won’t take a long time for you to write to your MP, and make your MPs feel that you want them to do what they’re supposed to do. There are thousands of underage refugees in France and some of them came under the Dubs scheme, if you know it, but the government tried to block it. Yes, this is a simple thing you can do: write to your MP.
Q7: While you were creating the piece, what did you find most challenging when it came to getting across the message?
Baraa: The main challenge was that you’re making comedy, but the situation is tragedy. So we were doing, like, black comedy, satire, about the situation. When we started promoting before the premiere, and inviting people to come to see the show, they said, “How are you doing a comedy about the Jungle?” We said, “No, we’re not making fun of refugees, we’re making fun of how the UK government are dealing with the situation; how you can see volunteers going there, doing nothing, without having any idea what to do.”
We show the donations, the silly stuff being donated to Calais. I was there, and there were people donating wedding dresses, lingerie, silly things, and toys. So it was hard, but after we did the premiere, the people understood. Even devising some of the images we needed to get the right balance and to keep-, because most of the scenes which you saw, they really happened. Like the fashion show already happened in Calais in the dome, in the Good Chance theatre. The donations, the queue for donations, the clinic – all these things really happened.
Gareth: It is Marie’s first show today, she’s just joined us. I wonder if you could answer that question, maybe: what do you find challenging about it?
Marie: Today? I find you very welcoming, and I don’t have the feeling you actually were going through a difficult time, or like a challenging time, because you feel so-,
Cast member: Not like refugees?
Marie: You feel so authentic and so yourself, that it’s very impressive. It was super easy for me to just start working with you guys. Literally, I heard of the project last week, and everything went really fast, and I’m here now, and you already feel like friends. It feels like family.
Q8: You were able to create something so beautiful – which it really was, credit to you. Do you think that now you’ve managed to get your story across and you’ve said this to so many different people in these different places, that it helps you guys – to be able to get your story across in some way through drama? Does it help you guys as people? How does it influence you guys?
Baraa: I think drama and theatre help everyone. Not only because we’re coming from-, so the thing I just want to talk about, just to make it clear: I don’t see myself as a refugee. When I am asked to introduce myself, I’m a Syrian citizen with refugee immigration status. So my immigration status is “refugee”. Being a refugee is not my identity, and we should understand this because, two years ago, I was just a Syrian citizen, but to be in the UK, I need this status to be legal. For example, let’s say, if after five years I become a British citizen, nobody is going to call me a refugee, because my immigration status is going to become “British citizen”.
So theatre helps to heal your wounds indirectly and to open your mind, feel yourself more and be open to others and more understanding. As I said, after every show we become more passionate about it. Our next show is going to be in January, to India. We’re performing at the Kerala International Theatre Festival, so for nine days we’re going to be performing in India, and we’re really looking forward to this. It’s going to be the first show with a non-European audience. We’re looking forward to what the audience is going to be like. In February, we’re going to perform in Denmark, so I think we’re doing well so far. Roberto, what do you think?
Roberto: What do I think? I only joined a couple of months ago. I know it’s cheesy, but it is like a family. I felt welcome straight away. As soon as I joined, I literally went to a rehearsal and then the following week we were in Germany performing. Everything was very quick, everything went very fast. But, you know, they’re really welcoming and everyone knows what they’re doing, so it is really easy to become part of the group. I personally find it really beneficial for myself because, even if you are politically engaged with an issue, at the same time you’re still buying into the narrative that the media is trying to sell you. So I get to the point where, you know –, the limit of empathy. You can only empathise with a certain number of people. Once people become big numbers, you stop seeing them as people. So being involved in this project has, sort of, reopened my eyes to the fact that every time we watch the news, we’re talking about people. We’re talking about stories. We’re talking about families. We’re talking about real human beings. It’s not just a number – like 600 people there, 1000 people there.
We forgot the human dimension, and this is what this show is helping bring around – the human dimension, the fact that there are so many individual stories that are converging in Calais. They’re converging in Lampedusa. They’re converging in London. This is what we need to remember – that now in Europe there are so many stories from all around the world converging. We choose, we have the choice to respond in a certain way, so we can respond and be welcoming, or we can respond in the way that some media want us to respond, and close everything. Close our borders, lock our doors, and say it’s not our business. I’m alright, Jack, you deal with your own crap, I don’t care. It’s literally the choice that is given to us as a society, as a country, as a continent: what do we want to do, and how do we want to respond to these people who are asking for help and who need support because they’re going through tough times? Are we supporting them, or are we choosing to jut leave them to their own fates?
Gareth: I’d like to thank the Being Human festival for inviting us here.