“A reflex, a sudden twitch of the finger. The hole in his chest small, but as he spins I see the exit wound. A dinner plate of flesh missing from his back. I have killed. I am a killer.”
With a squeeze of her pantomimed rifle, Avital Lvoval begins an hour as a legendary Syrian sniper.
English playwright Henry Naylor’s Arabian Nightmares have embarked on a national tour, bringing the stories of three women in the Middle East firmly into the American imagination. Angel, the first one act play, tells the story of the 19-year-old Rehana, a sniper in the Kurdish Women’s Protection Force. Echoes, returning to the states after a run at 59E59St Theatres last year, tells two parallel stories of women living two hundred years apart from each other – Samira is a 15-year-old modern British muslim, driven to join the caliphate. Her counterpart, Tillie, is a 19th-century girl who moves to Afghanistan in search of adventure and a man to marry.
“At home and here too, there’s not a sufficient understanding of what’s going on in Syria. And this is something we talked about in Angel, where a lot of the journalists fled from Syria for fear of being beheaded, which is quite understandable, but it just means that there’s a vacuum in the coverage. So people are quite in the dark and are feeling ignorant about what’s going on, so my hope is that the plays provide some insight if nothing else. We found that the shows have been getting quite a healthy audience,” said playwright Henry Naylor.
Angel is arguably the stronger of the two plays, with the the sharp-eyed Avital Lvoval as Rehana, The Angel of Kobanî, a northern Syrian town that fought off ISIS invaders and turned the tide of the war in Syria. For the next hour, Lvoval tells a story that is half-truth and half-legend; no one knows the reality of the Angel.
A nearly-mythical figure in the Syrian Civil War, Rehana is rumored to have killed over 100 ISIS fighters. In 2014, one of the only foreign journalists still left in the region – Carl Drott – photographed a young blonde girl during a military ceremony in Kobanî. She told him she had left law school in Aleppo to serve after her father was killed. She captured the imagination of the Kurds in the region, and rumors have flown ever since. Twice she’s been reported dead by ISIS supporters, twice her supporters have claimed she is still alive and fighting. Here, Naylor and Lvoval fill in Rehana’s story – a Syrian farmgirl who leaves the Turkish border and the promise of safety to find her father. Lvoval turns her nearly-empty stage into a battleground, delivering a relentless performance as a pacifist-turned war hero.
Avital Lvova: From my part I watched loads of videos of those girls, training, being in the YPJ, people in the region, and the way they speak – but a lot of it is also finding in the text the parallels to your own life, and how you can relate to those little moments, and how they relate to your own life. Because, really, it’s all in the text, but if you find the truth, through your own experiences, and you find it in the text. And then you go from what you can’t relate to, how to do you about that. You can’t relate to killing someone – but then you think of when was a time that I hurt someone, not killed, but hurt, and then you take it one hundred times up – I guess, I’ve never killed someone.
Henry: I had debates with myself with Angel, I had the debate where I consider myself a pacifist. What would I do if someone turned up in my back garden threatening to kill my family? And that’s the backbone of Angel – it’s someone who considers themselves to be pacifist, and, under those circumstances, becomes a killer.
Avital: I think, when things are not – when you can’t be in control of a situation, if you don’t have a choice – I think it’s about letting go of control. As a person, I found that very difficult to do. But when you find yourself – lose control, that’s when you get to that point [of desperation].
Henry: So you let yourself lose control like Rehana loses control?
Avital: Yeah. Because she tried to control it, she tried to. But she couldn’t.
“Ask me who groomed me for Jihad, I’ll say Nigel Farage,”
says 15-year-old Samira in Echoes, part of a now-familiar narrative: a teen driven to extremes after seeing their faith slandered, their people attacked.
Henry: We did Echoes in London straight after the Paris attacks, and we were gonna pull the show then, but we didn’t. And the whole run sold out in about two hours, and I think it’s because people wanted to understand what’s going on, and they wanted to understand the motives that impel the jihadists.
Echoes tells the story of two girls hundreds of years apart in Ipswich, a town 60 miles north of London. Tillie (played here by Rachel Smyth), dressed in a long white dress, longing to escape 1800’s Ipswich, joins the Fishing Fleet – getting free passage to India if she marries one of the sailors. She and her husband, a brutal lieutenant, end up in British-occupied Afghanistan. Samira, (Serena Manteghi) dressed in stark contrast in a black hijab and abaya, is radicalized and marries an ISIS insurgent after the election of Nigel Farage – the former leader of the extreme-right party UKIP and Britain’s first taste of an anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim leader.
“Since Brexit there’s been even more huge retaliation against people who are deemed ‘Not To Be British.”
Serena: The research I found most useful was into discrimination and the backlash towards Muslims and the Muslim community in the U.K. It was really about getting [Samira] to a point where she feels so isolated that this seems like a really good prospect, to leave her home and her family and friends. And that was really devastating, since Brexit there’s been even more huge retaliation against people who are deemed ‘Not To Be British’. So it was more into that, and cases of girls who are – there are so many cases of girls being violently attacked because they are wearing the hijab on their way home from school, and things like that.
I did research the Birmingham Brides, as they are called, and I spoke to a lady – who couldn’t talk too specifically about who she was treating – but had been speaking with people who had come back. She was talking a lot about the recruitment videos and things like that…I unfortunately didn’t get to see any of them. The videos towards men are like real videos, supposedly. She said it makes you seem like you’re gonna be Bruce Willis, out there taking people down. And that a lot of the ones geared towards women – or a lot of the rhetoric, anyway – is geared towards that nurturing, caring, wanting to help and protect and build this religious utopia.
Henry: It’s funny, I was gonna write two different plays. I went to Afghanistan in around 2002, straight after the war. And I was being shown around Kabul by this fixer, and we went past this hill in the middle of Kabul, and the fixer said, “Oh, that’s where we beat the British.” And I said “What?” And he said “We beat the British Empire here.” And I said “No, you didn’t,” and he said “Yeah, yeah, that’s where we beat the British.” And I said “Noo,” I was being this arrogant English sod, and it’s all been written out of British, history, this humiliating defeat we experienced at the hands of the Afghans, and it’s extraordinary really.
And that was the story I was going to tell, and I was going to tell the story from the perspective of a male officer, but at the same time I wanted to write about Jihadi brides, and I was doing research on two different shows at once. And I read this extraordinary book about the Fishing Fleet, which was a book about women being posted out to India, and the parallels between the women of the Fishing Fleet and the jihadi brides were just extraordinary. You had children as young as 14 setting out to build an Empire, going out effectively on a blind date to meet a husband out there, people who felt excited by the prospect of building an Empire, often impelled by religion to go and do it, and the parallels were very close.