BERLIN — When Hussein al Shatheli, a 31-year-old gregarious Syrian-Palestinian actor, speaks about hardship and his difficult journey from Damascus to Berlin, he does it in a subtle way, with a grin; as if there is no place or time for complaints. To truly understand what he has been through, you need to read between the lines.
Shatheli was born a refugee in a Palestinian family that had escaped to Syria after Israel was formed. In October 2015, like thousands of other young men, Shatheli decided it was time to leave Syria, the country that had been his home. He was determined not to be drafted into the Assad regime-controlled military forces, and forced to participate in the killings.
Shatheli is part of Exil Ensemble, a group of six Syrian and Palestinian actors who found a refuge in Berlin and are currently in residency at the Gorki Theatre, one of the most innovative theatres in the city. Their most recent play, Winterreisse (Winter Journey) is a tragicomic documentary drama that is based on the actors' true stories. It premiered on April 8, and is playing at Gorki through to October.
One of those stories is Shatheli's route from Syria to Germany, documented in the play with the innovative use of animations and maps in the background, helping to recount his journey. In real life, however, it is hardly his favourite topic. When asked about the events that led to his departure from Syria, he answers briefly:
"In 2012, I graduated from the Academy of Performing Arts in Damascus and continued working as an actor in Damascus, organising workshops, doing dubbing etc. Later on, there was no possibility to delay the draft. I felt that my options are becoming limited."
But on the stage he tells his story frankly and in more detail. How he tried every possible way via land, sea and air to make it to the promised land of Europe, sleeping on bus stations, ducking border patrols and struggling with hunger and cold. He explains, to the mainly German audience, why people decide to leave their homes.
"Normally I don't talk about it that much. But today I want to talk and share it with you; all of you," he tells the audience, speaking in English.
- Hussein al Shatheli
The original idea behind Exil Ensemble was simple; to offer the opportunity of work to artists starting out in a new country.
"The idea started because there are many artists who were forced to leave their countries as they are not able to work there. So we started thinking how we can develop the idea into a real-life project. And we came up with this platform, the Exil Ensemble," says Ayham Majid Agha, the Syrian director and actor who is also the creative director of Exil Ensemble.
For Agha, it was important to troupe a group of professional actors. There is no place for amateurs here. "Sometimes I come across projects of directors working with amateur refugees and I get angry because I often see this as a lack of responsibility. They are brought to the spotlights for [a] few months and then abandoned. You can't do this to people," he argues.
Winterreisse touches on many important topics moving beyond the war in Syria or the journey of hundreds of thousands of refugees. The play moves to a different level of the narration of the mass exodus. It documents the attempts of the six main characters to understand a new country and build a new life from scratch. Along Shatheli and Agha, the audience follows the stories of Karim Daoud (Palestinian from Qalqilya), Maryam Abu Khaled (Palestinian from Jenin), Kenda Hmeidan (Syrian) and Mazen Aljubbeh (Syrian). The play alternates between seriousness and sarcasm and humour.
In the play, Niels, a real life German friend of the artists, is the group's guide as they decide to leave the bubble of safe and multicultural Berlin to explore the rest of their new country. Their first stop is Dresden, an east German city which was subjected to an immensely devastating bombing campaign by Allied forces during World War Two.
"I prepared a folder with pictures of the bombarded, destroyed city. I wanted them to feel at home. I wanted to start with something familiar for them and give them hope demonstrating the beautiful reconstruction and revival of a city that rose up from ashes," says the guide during the play.
Instead the group comes against PEGIDA's demonstration, (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West). Through humour, the new arrivals try to understand this xenophobic movement and slogans like "Angela Fatima Merkel" or "Kartoffeln statt Doner" (Potatoes instead of Doner).
The play touches also on sex and sexuality. In one scene, Ayham Agha, addresses how Arab men are perceived in the West ("We Arabs, we can't control it.") and sarcastically speaks about the smartphone apps designed for the new arrivals by the German authorities, which controversially include information on how to date women in the West. Meanwhile, the only female character, Maryam Abu Khaled, seems to be a bit lost in the new dating landscape. There must be something for me in between an arranged marriage and an open relationship, she ironically remarks.
Berlin is definitely a free space for artists here to openly talk about many issues. "In Jenin refugee camp [where Abu Khaled comes from], it would be impossible to do a play like this. I wouldn't be able to stand in front of Jenin's audience and speak about a boyfriend, an open relationship, or even any relationship at all," Abu Khaled tells TRT World after the play.
In terms of theatre success, the group has accomplished a lot since holding their first rehearsals in November 2016. The tickets to their shows are sold out weeks in advance. They often perform to a full house, with a standing ovation after each performance. But they are also facing criticism from within the Syrian and Palestinian community due to the group's cooperation with an Israeli director, Yael Ronen.
"We have come across many preconceptions, comments like 'it is all Mossad.' Many seem not to be able to understand that if you leave your country, like Yael did eight years ago, it means you don't agree with its system and you are not able to live there, so you leave," says Agha, defending Ronen and the ability of the group to speak more openly about Palestinian-Israeli conflict thanks to Ronen.
But such controversy aside, the actors seem to share a feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment that they have been able to produce good theatre far away from home, and portray the state of refugees and exiles in a unique way.
"We definitely convey what it means to be a refugee or in exile in a different way than the news. We are in front of the viewer, with real stories and characters who went through that experience," says Kenda Hmeidan, a 24-year-old actress from Damascus.
"It is not a newspaper article that you read. It is much more intimate and, in a way, much more difficult with all the personal details."
Surprisingly the stories, although they are from far away, are often very relatable to the audience in Berlin.
"I really liked it and I really enjoyed all these life stories, even though they are harsh sometimes, not the most happy ones. It really touched me, and I could relate to them because I also moved from Romania to Germany at the age of 18, so some aspects I could also feel," says Elizabeth, a historian, who declined to give her surname.
The troupe's next play, Skeleton of an elephant in the desert, will premier with the new theatre season in September.