Just two weeks now until Arab Nights opens at the Soho in London - and so this week I'm sharing Syrian author and Journalist Ghalia Kabbani's moving thoughts and musings on her contribution to the production...

Ghalia Kabbani | Friday November 9th 2012

How can I express what is happening in Syria through 'One Thousand and One Nights'? This was the question which jumped to my mind after a call from the director Poppy Burton-Morgan to contribute to her play which reflects the atmosphere of the Arab Spring.

Once I started thinking of the proposal, I imagined Scheherazade trapped throughout those years inside the stories, threatening her with death night after night. Does my country Syria not live with this fear daily? Hasn’t every Syrian who lives in Syria been ready to be arrested, tortured and killed at any moment, for decades?

Who says that Scheherazade is destined to continue telling the stories striving to find the time to save herself from her executer? Who says that Syria and the Syrians have to continue to show their false loyalty and live in fear of a hypocritical system, under the influence of a tyrant while the world around them is embracing freedom and democracy?





I am going to write about Syria to free Scheherazade from that historic burden of being a ransom for other women, and so she is going to be my symbol for Syria, who also has to offer her duties as the continuation of loyalty.

Freeing Scheherazade from this daily fear is the symbol of my play. I had to recall all of the metaphors which I had read or heard, and have entered our popular vocabulary, such as when we call a woman who is showing off ‘sitt elhosn' - the lady of beauty” and we use Shahrayar as symbol of control, and the example of  “brave Hassan” to describe a young man who lets no obstacle stand in his way. And let us not forget the stories of the Djinnis and the tales in the palaces (including those of maids and slaves), and whatever else can fill the imagination.

All these are expressions we use in our conversation and proverbs without being aware of their reference back to these tales. Even expressions of love and sex, they are stored in the collective memory, and people believe that they are their own, unaware that they belong to these tales.

Scheherazade and Syria share more than one element in common. There is the oppression and fear and the children Scheherazade bears while she is telling her stories for year after year. With every child she conceives, she suffers, as her child could lose her at any moment. Her children grow up watching their mother living in fear of the daily possibility of death, as every day she searches her imagination for a new tale. So why doesn’t the time come for the turn of her children to free their mother and face up to the tyranny of their father Shahrayar?

Is this not what the children of Syria, in Daraa city, who were arrested did? Some of them were sent back as disfigured corpses to their parents - like Hamza Al Khateeb - whose parents received his corpse with his genitalia removed. “He was trying to rape women!” That was the official reason for killing him. A thirteen year old child was accused of rape because he and his friends wrote on his school wall: “people want to bring down the regime.”

They were only children. Children who were aware of the modern technology of satellites, internet, smart phones, instant news, scandalous photos and the stream of information reaching people despite the control of the regime. Those children watched the Tunisian President Ben Ali and President Mubarak of Egypt falling from power. Since the people there gathered in squares seeking the freedom denied to them for decades, the children of Syria asked: why are our parents suffering quietly from fear every day, and why do they whisper their views? Why don’t they express them loudly? But more importantly - why are they asking their children to do the same thing, teaching them hypocrisy in life! Children brought up to hide their true opinions, repeating at school the slogan that supports the Baath Party, saluting the president’s life ‘He is our leader forever'. After images from Tunisia and Egypt revolutions flooded the country, children of Daraa asked: why does Syria not have a Tahrir Square, a place for revolution?

Perhaps if it was not for the children in Daara and what happened to them, a revolution would not have erupted to ruffle the waters which have remained stagnant for half a century.

To express all of this, I did not want to use one of Scheherazade’s existing stories as a theme, instead I decided to create my own using the style of “the nights”, a story generated from another, with the help of my recollection of tales added to by new thoughts on the current situation in Syria.

I imagine a female writer, Rana, who lives inside the country and wants to work with a group of children to produce a work inspired by “the nights”, she contacts Ayman, her friend who lives in the Diaspora, asking him to provide her with an electronic copy of “the nights” because her Internet is slow and it is not easy to access it through her PC. but Ayman can’t find a valid copy of the stories. So Rana, working from memory and folklore, starts to create her first story about Scheherazade which leads to a story of “Lady of Damascus”, the daughter of a Brocade cloth maker: (a fabric well-known for hundreds of years exported from Syria and worn by the royal families in Europe).

As Jasmine is the symbol of Damascus it occurred to me to have it as the signature of the 'Lady of Damascus' embroidered upon the cloth, just as Brocade is the symbol of the authenticity of Syria’s history.

When the 'Lady of Damascus' is accused of killing her children, it is the unique weaving of brocade, which she has taught her children that saves her. She recognises the shroud she asks for while waiting for her death, is weaved and signed the same way she taught her children, so they prove her innocence years after the Queen of Djinnis has abducted them.

Back to Scheherazade as we see her in the play - bearing three children who grow up while she tells her stories. I thought that it is time for an end to this daily threat of death. The children have grown up with her anxiety every night. So they face their father Shahrayar with their decision: it is their turn now to tell their own stories, they are the new narrators, and they will carry their mother’s burden. It is time for Scheherazade to sleep undisturbed.