On a beautiful afternoon in Brooklyn, I sat down with Sarah Sakaan to talk about her upcoming show, Anna Asli Suriyah. She’s developing the piece with theater company Polybe + Seats, of which she is a member.
We sat on the roof of my office, Sarah brought a cheese plate, and I did something brand new for me, I recorded the interview, instead of being emaily about it. The result was more candid and conversational, and it made it easier to veer off track a little bit, which was great.
Sarah Sakaan is an actress and writer, and this is her first play. It began as a one-woman piece, which I saw a workshop presentation of at Brooklyn Winery a while back. For that version, Sarah had interviewed family members, asking them about Syria and about how they felt about the current conflict. Each person, despite the distance between their homes in America and their native country of Syria, was affected by the uprising, the violence, the uncertainty. In watching Sarah embody her sister, her father, her cousin, I could see the chaos in their hearts, the danger seeming so near.
The interviews are still the foundation of this iteration, and I’m glad they are. But they are joined by developmental work done by the actors in the show, led by Sarah, and director Jessica Brater. This kind of devising process is something that Polybe + Seats does exquisitely well, and I’m glad that I’ve had opportunity to work with them on some devised pieces in the past.
There are alot of things about Anna Asli Suriyah that I find fascinating, and they are all about Sarah. She is a very strong performer, a generous collaborator, and a thoughtful writer. She has a real, strong, connection to Syria and to America, and manages to integrate them both into her identity as an artist.
The only place I’ve ever felt truly connected to is New York City, and now that we’ve moved so far from its center, that connection feels waning. As I age, I find myself having a small longing for New England, where I spent most of my youth. My great grandparents came from different countries in Europe, but I don’t feel anything more than a passing familiarity with those cultures, or perhaps a longing to identify with something that I feel, by ancestral rights, I should be able to identify with.
Sarah has a link to Syria and its culture. It’s a link that is part of her consciousness, and her emotional life. The link is not a decision, it’s a fact.
I set my laptop to record, we munched on cheese and crackers.
We started out by talking about how Sarah is forming the piece, turning the interviews into monologues, and Sarah told me she was not using her family’s real names.
Why aren’t you using the real names?
I’m not using their real names because they’re my family, and some of them may need to go back to Syria at some point. The reality is, there’s a dictator in power, and there’s a civil war taking place there, so if they need to go back there, who knows how the power is going to shake down. There’s an element of me protecting them.
Have you been to Syria?
I’ve been to Syria a few times. We used to go spend a few months in the summers. The first time I went I was eleven. And then I went again when I was 14. And then when my sister, who one of the characters is based on, was living there. She was there from 2007 through 2011, through the start of the uprising. She left a few months into that, basically when it first started to get serious, and more violent. She really had alot of resistance to leaving, but when the US government announced for the third time: “US passport holders need to leave the country,” she came back. She was devastated when she got back, and that was part of the reason…
I had alot of distance from her when that happened. And I wasn’t really wanting to like… Because she was there, and so much of my family was there, and my father is from there… I basically denied paying attention. Like not reading the news, I was sort of self-preserving in trying to keep myself apart from what was going on. So she came back, and was crying and obsessively checking the news every two minutes, and I was just like “knock it off.”
“You’re back, you’re here.” I wanted to have my sister back. “You’re not there anymore, let’s restart your life here.” And then it’s continued, and it’s just sort of baffling that it’s continued for so long.
So the impetus for me writing this piece was the fact that every time I’d go home, I’m originally from Memphis, I have alot of Syrian family in Memphis, and increasing numbers of Syrian family in Memphis. It’s just like every time I go back, I’m in this conversation, and I can’t escape it when I’m around my family. When I’m here by myself, and am selectively reading the news, y’know, I’m isolated from my Arab Syrian roots, and able to give myself a little bit of space. But the reality of it is that there isn’t that much space. When I’m home, or when I’m talking to my family, and my cousin will be like “I just talked to my mom in Syria, and their house got raided, and she wasn’t wearing her head cover and all these men walked in the house without any warning.” And it’s like in casual conversation, I hear about this violation of my aunt.
The idea to start the piece came from these conversations. Having coffee and just casually talking and then something would drop in that was really devastating and really current, and I realized that I as a storyteller had an opportunity to tell a story that’s not being told, of people who are actually experiencing a thing inside out.
Why do you think this story is important?
Partly because for me, when I’m living my life as an actor in New York, people don’t look at me as a Syrian. Y’know I’m sort of like this American, modern, woman. I’m not wearing hijab. It was sort of surprise for me, the reaction of people, when I’d say, “yeah, my dad’s from Syria.” People have no idea what people from Syria are like. I wanted to draw attention to the fact that alot of people are dying, and I don’t think people are paying attention.
What do you think would happen if people paid attention?
I don’t even know. A positive thing would be intelligent discourse, and to have the opportunity to have more dialogue about it, instead of just conversations about arms, and if the people who are fighting are terrorists against the Syrian government or civilians fighting for their rights. I mean, they need freedom of choice. There’re elections going on, and for the first time, there are three candidates, but they’re all supporters of the regime. And it’s been this ominous, threatening thing, like “you must vote,” and people are voting out of fear, even if there’s not a candidate they want to support.
There are so many problems, there are so many complicated things. But the main thing for me is to express that this is a tragedy that’s happening, and there’s alot of loss. Not only lives, but also culturally, and historically. Syria is an ancient place that has alot of beauty and history to offer the world, and it’s just being destroyed.
Do you want to inspire your audience to take action? Is this a political piece or is it more personal?
It’s inherently political, but it’s more personal for me. It would be great if people would help refugees, or have a better attitude about people who have to flee their homeland, and to think about that. No one wants to be a refugee, and these are real people who are dealing with this.
Do you have an opinion on what US policy should be with regard to Syria?
The thing that I realized was that there was alot of hope among Syrian people, in my family, when there was a discussion of US intervention, that the US, which is where they’ve made their home and have chosen to be Americans, and want to be Americans, and are proud to be Americans, were like “oh look, we’re doing something to help this country that’s being devastated by its own government.” There was this feeling of hope, and then nothing happened. It was really devastating.
There’s alot of feeling in the US, or at least on facebook, that when these kinds of issues are brought up, like in Syria, Ukraine, South Sudan, all of these places around the world that are having a terrible time, that there’s a call for action to do something about it. And then on the flip side there’s a call for the US to stay out of the affairs of other sovereign nations, and that the US should focus on its own, vast problems.
Honestly, in Syria there’s not really the standard of living and the level of opportunity to have a comparative conversation. I feel like things are really bad in alot of countries, and the US, you can have discourse without being imprisoned. It’s not comparable, the amount of freedoms that the US has. The opportunity, it’s like accident of birth that people in other places don’t have that opportunity. I believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every individual, and I think that that’s the main thing. People should have a right to freedom of speech without being threatened, or endangered. And that’s one thing for me, doing this show, is celebrating that I have the power of speech, and freedom to tell this story. Instead of denying what’s going on, or not engaging in the conversation, it’s my responsibility as an American, as the daughter of an immigrant who left his country, in part, to gain access to freedoms he couldn’t at home, to make this play.
This is part 1 of a 2 part interview.
Anna Asli Suriyah (I Come from Syria)
by Sarah Sakaan, directed by Jessica Brater
Starring: Sarah Sakaan, Ayse Eldek, Nuah Ozryel, Tom Giordano, and Pascale Signeurie.
August 9-26, 2014
at Beit Jeddo Hookah Lounge
in the Bay Ridge neighborhood of Brooklyn
check out polybeandseats.org for more.