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'It Had To Be Love': A Syrian Playwright's Struggle To Tell A Story In Arkansas

Kholoud Sawaf, creator and director of <em>10,000 Balconies</em>, stands at TheatreSquared in Fayetteville, Ark., on Friday.
Sarah Bentham for NPR
Kholoud Sawaf, creator and director of 10,000 Balconies, stands at TheatreSquared in Fayetteville, Ark., on Friday.

It was two days before opening night, and director Kholoud Sawaf darted around the set, making sure every detail was in order. Jasmine and tuberose to perfume the air. The sound of birdsong. Lighting to evoke daybreak in her hometown, Damascus.

Sawaf was recreating the Syria of her memories on a stage at TheatreSquared, housed in a gleaming new building in Fayetteville, Ark. Her play, 10,000 Balconies, is loosely based on Romeo and Juliet, with star-crossed lovers named Rumman and Jasmeen. The idea, Sawaf said, was to show Americans a richer view of Syria than war and misery.

She envisioned a love story. Set in Damascus. Performed in Arkansas.

"How naïve," Sawaf said one recent day, with a wry laugh that comes from hindsight.

The workshop production of 10,000 Balconies that opened over the weekend follows a three-year nightmare, a devastating collision of art and politics.

Sawaf's ordeal exposes the deep, open wounds of the Syrian civil war. And it's a reminder that the Trump administration's travel ban, largely absent from headlines, is still causing heartache all over the world, including at a theater in Northwest Arkansas.

"I can't help but be angry," Sawaf said. "I don't like to create from a place of anger, but I can't help but be."

Laura Shatkus, associate director of <em>10,000 Balconies,</em> and Mohamad Alrefai, actor and cultural consultant for the play, sit at TheatreSquared.
/ Sarah Bentham for NPR
Sarah Bentham for NPR
Laura Shatkus, associate director of 10,000 Balconies, and Mohamad Alrefai, actor and cultural consultant for the play, sit at TheatreSquared.

From Damascus to the Bible Belt

In 2012, a year into the Syrian conflict, Sawaf had just finished college and was in Damascus figuring out what to do next. She'd worked in television throughout the region, but was feeling a pull toward theater. At a mentor's suggestion, she decided to apply for grad school in the United States.

Sawaf had never left the Middle East and didn't know where to begin, so she did a Google search for theater programs in all 50 states, in alphabetical order. Because of the weak internet connection, Sawaf said, she didn't get very far. Alabama, Alaska, Arizona...

"Arkansas!" Sawaf said, jokingly pronouncing the last "s" like she did before she learned it's silent.

"Bad internet — that's how I ended up in Arkansas."

Participants in a community workshop discuss cultural elements of the play prior to opening night.
/ Sarah Bentham for NPR
Sarah Bentham for NPR
Participants in a community workshop discuss cultural elements of the play prior to opening night.

She had to adapt to life as a headscarf-wearing Muslim woman in the Bible Belt. She couldn't just walk around Fayetteville like any other University of Arkansas student. She felt scrutinized, whether it was glares from the bigots or cloying smiles from the do-gooders.

"I just want to walk in the grocery store and be invisible," Sawaf said. "I don't want anybody to smile at me, and I don't want anyone to isolate me and stare at me and have a billion questions because I wear a hijab."

After grad school, Sawaf remained in the United States on theater fellowships. During one program in New York, she began to think about a play that would challenge the narrow lens through which much of the West views Muslims and Arabs, specifically Syrians. She asked herself what it would take to move an audience away from ingrained notions of terrorism and oppression.

"It had to be love," she said.

She hadn't read much Shakespeare at the time, but she felt drawn to the timeless story of Romeo and Juliet. She began writing a loose adaptation told through two young lovers who quote Arabic poetry to one another from balconies in the picturesque old quarter of Damascus.

Kholoud Sawaf (second from left) participates in a community workshop discussing cultural elements of her play.
/ Sarah Bentham for NPR
Sarah Bentham for NPR
Kholoud Sawaf (second from left) participates in a community workshop discussing cultural elements of her play.

The project sounded timely, even hopeful, amid the ugliness of the 2016 presidential race, when campaign rhetoric vilified immigrants and Muslims. The Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art awarded Sawaf's project a $250,000 grant, through TheatreSquared in Arkansas. (The foundation is an extension of the Doris Duke Charitable Trust, a financial supporter of NPR.)

With the funding, Sawaf's vision came into focus.

"All the possibilities that you start imagining," she said. "OK, run with the dream. Here's an open door."

Sawaf got busy writing and refining the script. But when she showed early drafts in workshop sessions, she said, she was stunned to hear feedback full of assumptions and stereotypes about Muslims or Arab culture. She said one critic accused her of misrepresenting Syria by leaving out honor killings.

"That has shaken me for three years," Sawaf said. "I was like, OK, I have to take it into closed doors, and work hard before I could expose it again."

Sawaf retreated into her writing and became choosier about who got to see it. She was still plugging away when, in early 2017, the project suffered another blow. President Trump took office and within days announced a travel ban on several majority-Muslim countries, including Syria. That killed any chance of bringing in Syrian artists and musicians.

Worse, Sawaf's parents had just resettled in Canada, but they felt as far away as ever.

"We were very hopeful that that would allow us to see each other," she said. "And it only feels more painful to be just across the border and not be able to do it."

They were stuck: Sawaf's parents in Canada, where her mom was being treated for breast cancer. And Sawaf in Arkansas, feeling the love drain from the love story she was trying to write. Because of the travel ban, if she left the U.S., she wouldn't be allowed to return.

"You can't help but feel that you are in prison," she said. "Even if the prison is big, and gold."

She fell into extended periods of despair and grief — over the war, the travel ban, her mother's illness, the isolation in Arkansas. She couldn't write, couldn't think. For weeks, Sawaf said, she could barely get out of bed.

"There was definitely moments of collapse, just complete suspicion, complete questioning, complete 'Can I do this?' " Sawaf said.

Mohamad Alrefai performs on stage in the play <em>10,000 Balconies</em> at TheatreSquared in Fayetteville, Ark., on Friday.
/ Sarah Bentham for NPR
Sarah Bentham for NPR
Mohamad Alrefai performs on stage in the play 10,000 Balconies at TheatreSquared in Fayetteville, Ark., on Friday.

A small group of friends and artistic collaborators stuck by Sawaf in those dark stretches. Among them was grad school friend and 10,000 Balconies associate director, Laura Shatkus. She had tears streaming down her face as she talked about watching Sawaf work through the trauma.

"It's been a rich, extremely rich, artistic experience to watch the thing go from something that scared her and made her upset to something she approaches with total joy," Shatkus said.

Sawaf credits Shatkus for helping to revive the play. Ultimately, though, Sawaf said, she knew she had to find it in herself to save the project.

She started by letting go of some of the Shakespearean influence and allowing in themes she once fought to keep out, such as war and displacement. Still, she insisted on addressing the pain on her own terms. Instead of violence, there's a graffiti battle. Instead of a forced displacement, a Syrian couple gets to decide whether they want to stay or go.

And there are scenes that show how life endures on the margins of war — people still get married, gossip about their neighbors, dance to pop songs.

"Pomegranates and jasmine and grapes and trees and balconies," Sawaf said. "The Damascus I carry is the one that I hid and brought with me. It's not what they see in the news."

Sawaf agonized over the separation from her parents, but they tried to bridge the distance with family conference calls about the play. Her parents were prominent journalists back in Syria, and they weren't shy about sharing their ideas for the script. Sawaf laughed recalling a 5 a.m. text from her mom with a suggestion for the character Jasmeen.

"They both got copies of Romeo and Juliet in Arabic and they started to read it so that they're up to date with what I'm creating," Sawaf said. "They're really cute."

After working through some of the loss and grief, Sawaf said, her creativity began to flow again. A breakthrough came when her dark sense of humor returned, in a line she wrote about striking a yoga pose to avoid sniper fire. She recalled thinking, "OK, that can be in the play. Now I'm back."

But the clock was ticking. Her artist's visa was running out. She had to scramble to come up with a cast and crew. Hadi Eldebek, a New York-based musician who's collaborated with Yo-Yo Ma's Silkroad Ensemble, wrote the original music. And, Sawaf said, she lucked out with the actors, finding Arab and Arab-American artists in other cities.

The play <em>10,000 Balconies </em>is loosely based on the story of Romeo and Juliet. It is set in Damascus, Syria, and its star-crossed lovers are named Rumman and Jasmeen.
/ Sarah Bentham for NPR
Sarah Bentham for NPR
The play 10,000 Balconies is loosely based on the story of Romeo and Juliet. It is set in Damascus, Syria, and its star-crossed lovers are named Rumman and Jasmeen.

The cast arrived just a couple of weeks before opening night, so there had been little time to memorize lines and rehearse. Mohamad Alrefai, an actor who came from Syria a couple years ago, said he never doubted that Sawaf could make it happen.

"I knew that she's really going to fight for it because she believes in it," he said.

"We are not giving up."

A bittersweet opening night

On opening night last Friday, ticketholders streamed into TheatreSquared, which was decorated with flourishes from Damascus. There were mother-of-pearl boxes, a wooden backgammon set, posters of landmark mosques and palaces. Guests were offered Syrian pastries and tamarind juice.

Audience member Ruta Jaudegis said she was eager to learn from 10,000 Balconies. When asked what springs to mind when she hears "Syria," Jaudegis' voice caught and her eyes grew wet.

"Refugees," she said. Her own family had fled Lithuania during World War II. "Breaks my heart."

Upstairs, the actors and musicians led audience members in an interactive workshop to acquaint them with the instruments, melodies, and poetry they were about to hear.

Jodie Root and Greg Gilmet took part, dancing by the end of it. The couple said productions like this in Fayetteville made them embarrassed to admit the preconceived notions they had of Arkansas when they moved here from Minneapolis, home to a lively arts scene, two years ago.

"I can come five blocks and see a show by a Syrian playwright? In Arkansas? Who would've thought," Root said.

"What they're trying to do here is very important," Gilmet added.

In the lobby, Sawaf clutched flowers from a well-wisher and observed the crowd arrive. The look on her face was a blend of excitement and anxiety. She said the absence of her parents was hanging over the evening.

<em>10,000 Balconies</em> is an interpretation of <em>Romeo and Juliet.</em>
/ Sarah Bentham for NPR
Sarah Bentham for NPR
10,000 Balconies is an interpretation of Romeo and Juliet.

She was standing next to a computer display showing maps of Damascus and Fayetteville side by side. On the screen, the cities were just two grids, crisscrossing lines marking streets and neighborhoods where ordinary people live.

"It's far, but it's not far. It's here," Sawaf said. "They're this close to each other."

The production she was about to show isn't exactly the love story she set out to tell. It's still evolving; she's still healing.

"It's definitely a combination of love and loss, and it feels unfinished," she said. "And I think I'm OK with that."

The sound of drumming swelled from the lobby. A procession was forming to lead guests into the theater. A woman in the crowd released a long zaghrouta, the high-pitched ululation that marks celebrations in many parts of the Middle East.

Sawaf had to run. It was showtime.

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Hannah Allam is a Washington-based national security correspondent for NPR, focusing on homegrown extremism. Before joining NPR, she was a national correspondent at BuzzFeed News, covering U.S. Muslims and other issues of race, religion and culture. Allam previously reported for McClatchy, spending a decade overseas as bureau chief in Baghdad during the Iraq war and in Cairo during the Arab Spring rebellions. She moved to Washington in 2012 to cover foreign policy, then in 2015 began a yearlong series documenting rising hostility toward Islam in America. Her coverage of Islam in the United States won three national religion reporting awards in 2018 and 2019. Allam was part of McClatchy teams that won an Overseas Press Club award for exposing death squads in Iraq and a Polk Award for reporting on the Syrian conflict. She was a 2009 Nieman fellow at Harvard and currently serves on the board of the International Women's Media Foundation.
Marisa Peñaloza is a senior producer on NPR's National Desk. Peñaloza's productions are among the signature pieces heard on NPR's award-winning newsmagazines Morning Edition and All Things Considered, as well as weekend shows. Her work has covered a wide array of topics — from breaking news to feature stories, as well as investigative reports.