Kaouthar is Algerian by birth, but she has lived almost all of her life in Syria. With the war raging in Syria, Algerian nationals had to leave the country – a country that to Kaouthar was more home than Algeria was. Her possessions are currently in three different countries and she does not have permission to return to Syria. Her boyfriend is still there too.
We recall an ancient prayer that asks for the courage to change things that can be changed, the patience to accept things that cannot be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish these things from each other. If circumstances were different, one might find the courage to cling to treasured goals in the face of adversity – but sometimes giving up may be the braver thing to do.
We are sitting in the kitchen of the Saari Residence, which is maintained by the Kone Foundation. All of us are from different countries, but most from the same time zone. Talking and enjoying the long summer evenings, we are all happy to be here in Finland – if a bit surprised too. The surroundings couldn’t be more different from, say, Alexandria in Egypt – with its clouds of dust and its noisy, chaotic traffic – where we met the first time in 2010 on a course for theatre students.
The 417 International Theater Group currently has eight members. We live in Algeria, Finland, Greece, Lebanon, Egypt, Switzerland, Jordan and Denmark. Our backgrounds differ in many ways: geographically, culturally, religiously, artistically, socially and economically. What some of us may see as an ordinary and everyday phenomenon may to others be strange and unfamiliar.
One specific difference concerns freedom of movement: we Europeans can travel easily from one country to another, whereas our Arab colleagues see travel as something that requires perhaps months of bureaucracy and an uncertain outcome. Last time, when the group met in Egypt, one person was unable to get a visa. “Shoot a video criticising visa practices in front of the embassy as part of our presentation,” some suggested. The video was not made though, as it might have meant that next time it wouldn’t even be worth submitting an application. There is a difference between bravery and foolhardiness.
The conditions for artistic endeavours also differ from one country to the next, and freedom of expression is not self-evident everywhere. On the other hand, art is a means of processing things that happen in society. In Syria, for example, art is even used to take a stance against the war and to express what the country is going through. This does not please everybody – as the cartoonist discovered when an attempt was made to crush his fingers so that he could draw no more.
In the work of our group we began with our personal experiences, for the very reason that our backgrounds are so diverse. At times it seems that the only certainties in our work are the constant misunderstandings. But the linguistic and cultural differences force us to focus on understanding what the other person is trying to say. We have to remind ourselves that even using your own language and communicating with people of a similar cultural background can involve misunderstanding – so it’s no wonder that we have difficulties getting through to each other at times.
But amidst all the confusion, we remain committed to overcoming these obstacles. The world is rapidly becoming more global, and understanding each other’s differences is a lesson to be learnt the world over. Sharing personal experiences is one way of helping to understand the world, which is what we are aiming for with the performance we are currently working on.
Despite all the differences, there are plenty of things that unite us. We cannot give up simply because other people’s ways, preferences or means of expression are different from ours. But boldness, patience and wisdom are sorely needed in this process!