Syrian refugees put Arab twist on Oliver!
The organizers of the musical hope to stage more performances in Azraq and the famous Jordanian refugee camp Zaatari
The musical version of the Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist has been performed in Arabic for the first time this week by a group of Syrian refugees and Jordanian children.
The show - that opened in Amman on Sept. 1 - was highly popular as the free tickets were quickly dispensed to eager fans for all three performances.
The idea for the project began in March with a series of workshops at a community center in Al Hashmi Al Shamali - a neighborhood of the Jordanian capital - where many Syrian refugees live.
Workshops were setup, bringing together approximately 100 Syrian refugees and underprivileged Jordanian children, as well as Iraqis and Palestinians.
The group was then cut down to 36 to make up the cast for the British musical.
“Oliver! is a great play to do because it’s about a kid fighting for his rights just like me,” Fadi, the 13-year-old Syrian who plays Oliver said. His father had to abandon his kitchen appliances business in Syria.
“I totally get this,” Ibrahim who plays the role of the Artful Dodger explained about the musical’s similarities with life in Amman. “Hashmi is full of kids like this,” the 14-year-old added.
The production was the creation of British couple, Charlotte Eagar - a film producer and former journalist, and scriptwriter William Stirling.
The project was created with the aim of raising awareness about the Syrian refugee crisis, as well as the role Jordan has played in welcoming them, despite the strain that the UNHCR says the country is under.
Where it all started
“The idea came when mothers of Syrian refugee children asked us ‘we wish you could think of something to do for the kids’” Eagar told Al Arabiya News.
“We wanted to do a musical because we thought the kids would enjoy singing,” she explained. “And that we could do an album and sell it to raise money to help Syrian refugees.”
Eagar explained that the musical Oliver! was chosen as it depicts a story about a young orphaned boy who lost his place in the world, yet stands up for his rights - making him “a good role model for the kids,” she said.
Cameron Mackintosh, who controls most of the show’s stage rights, gave the production his full support, told Eagar “you can count on me” and paid two thirds of the costs for the running the show.
Sponsorship was also given by the Ministry of Culture, UNICEF, Oxfam and Queen Rania al-Abdullah of Jordan.
Khaled Abol Naga, who directed the show, decided to update the story and set it in a modern Arab city.
“There’s similarities in the Arab world and Victorian England [the time period the original musical is set in] because there is not much of a welfare state in the Arab world - if you are of a lower level in society you have to fight for your life and it’s a tough time,” Eagar explained.
Naga told Eagar that “Dickens wrote Oliver as a slap in the face for Victorian England, I want this to be a slap in the face for the Arab world.”
It’s not over
The experience has had a positive effect on the children involved, “not only did they learn to sing - which they do beautifully, but they also gained a great sense of companionship. They have gained new friends and we are now calling themselves ‘the Oliver family’,” Eagar said.
Fadi’s mother said: “He has changed a lot in the past few months - he was very shy before and didn’t have any friends. Now he is happy and self-confident and has a lot of friends.”
Eagar said there was a ‘gender element’, explaining “the children were much quieter at the start - girls one side and boys the other, but now they are just a bunch of kids.”
The organizers of the musical - that ran for three nights - hope to stage more performances in Azraq and the famous Jordanian refugee camp Zaatari, as well as various other places.
“We might do it before Christmas too, but it’s not cheap and we will need to get money to finance it.”
There are plans to also record the children singing the songs from the musical, half in English and half in Arabic for an album to raise money and awareness for the Syrian refugees and underprivileged Jordanian children.
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