Rosa x damasca (common name: Damask rose or the rose of Damascus) is a rose hybrid of Rosa gallica and Rosa moschata. The bright pink flowers, with their dense petal structure like layers of a tulle petticoat, are prized for their scent and used to make rose water.
UK Vogue infamously made an embarrassing error when it referred to Asma al-Assad, wife of Bashar al-Assad, as ‘A Rose in the Desert’ in early 2011. It was an ill-considered piece of journalism on many levels and seems terrible in hindsight, but to be fair to Vogue, the fashion magazine could hardly have foreseen the utter devastation of the Syrian conflict that was to subsequently unfold – especially when it seems that no one, including those working in politics, quite could.
The scent of roses permeates through the performance of Queens of Syria at the Young Vic. It floats through memories of the morning air and mingles with other aromatics. Basil, warmed in the heat, also rises on the wind along with endless adornments of jasmine. The latter is a scent that also saturates the pages of The Shadow of the Crescent Moon by Fatima Bhutto. It is these small senses – smell and also taste – that weigh down the testimonies of the thirteen performers who fled from Syria to Jordan. On the one hand we have the grand narrative of the Syrian war and the backdrop of wider tragedy in the Middle East. On the other, we have the most human of information. The memory of a scent, the way the very water tastes different from place to place: “Only the water of Damascus will quench my thirst!” We have the big political carcass and then we have this, thirteen women who cannot return to the place they call home, cannot taste the water or smell the air because all of it has been ruined, destroyed, snatched from them.
Queens of Syria began in 2013 when the women started performing Euripides’ Trojan Women in part as therapy. What we are now presented with is not just a performance of Trojan Women, but snatches of the chorus’s dialogue interspersed with the real stories of the Syrian women and clips from a documentary explaining their connection to the Ancient Greek work. It is, in this respect, as much a play about performing a play as it a straightforward performance of a script. The spliced formation of the narratives foregrounds the sense of fragmented lives and also an actor’s relationship to the historical text they perform, how our own narratives necessarily intermingle with the historic works we keep returning to.
It is also a performance, like Euripides’ original, of great anger. “We are not here to entertain you. To sing songs,” one of the performers shouts at the audience. The anger demands answers, directly asks why the West has ignored the situation and left people to die. They ask this and I genuinely sit there in the dark trying to come up with an answer. Trying to think through the votes that parliament has had on whether to intervene, firstly in 2013 and then in 2015. I think of Hilary Benn’s imploring speech and the publication of the Chilcot report. Yet all this time the political discussions have been on how military intervention would work and when each time different decisions were reached, the humanitarian side of the crisis remained unaddressed. Even when refugees started appearing in Europe it remained unresolved. People were scared of immigrants and talked of “economic migrants” as though these people had got on death boats for the fun of it, for the adventure of a new life in Europe or Britain. I think about their question and, of course, I have absolutely no real answers because between understanding the logic of a Labour parliamentary decision and not understanding the fundamental unfairness of existence and the absence of a compassionate god, there is just this void. And within this void more people continue to die.
Along with confronting the world’s silence, the performers also discuss their relationship to theatre and why they are standing here on the Young Vic stage. One woman says that she believes in the “power of theatre”. That, “In the West they respect the stage.” She says this and I feel cracks appearing across my chest. Because I think: but we don’t. Most of the time we don’t respect the stage, we dismiss it as a frivolity. We take for granted these incredible freedoms, these platforms that we have – literal platforms like the stage and virtual ones – and we use them only to stand on and scream circulatory insults into an echo chamber of the tired, dead-eyed people that we should be united with in creating something better. We rush on through, not noticing the scent of the air or the taste of the water because we never expect for one moment that those will be taken from us. We are so secure, so privileged that often the only concern is other people coming to this country. Whereupon people panic and start to say, but this water is actually mine and I need it for my children because if your children also drink it then there might not be enough left for me – even as litres gush unused from the tap.
In February 2012, the journalist Marie Colvin died whilst covering the siege of Homs. As with her previous work in Sri Lanka, Colvin had refused warnings to leave the incredibly dangerous city because she believed that if she stayed there the western press could not ignore the situation. She believed that her presence would ensure people listened to what was happening in Syria and, ultimately, acted accordingly. When she died there was an outpouring of grief that combined with the fatalistic idea of “they don’t make journalists like that anymore”. Which was an odd viewpoint to take rather than one saying, “we should make more journalists like her. We should make more people like her.” Colvin was unique, but her message was not. Her message, whatever the country she was in, was that no one should be ignored, especially in times of need.
There is another rose called Rosa mundi. This rose exists as the result of a natural colour mutation from Rosa gallica officinalis (also known as the Red Damask rose). The name is effective because it means ‘rose of the world’. Because roses, like humans, are not really from Damascus or Malmaison in France at all, they are just from the world. The English country garden is itself an explosion of plants from across the globe. It is made beautiful because of all the colours, textures, heights and widths. As Oscar Wilde knew, only the most selfish of giants keep their gardens closed to those who want to come in.
Queens of Syria is on at the Young Vic until 9th July 2016. Click here for more information.