ZAATARI REFUGEE CAMP, Jordan: Under a huge white tent in the desert dust of Jordan, 100 Syrian children rehearse King Lear, one of Shakespeare’s great tragedies. Syrian actor-cum-director Nawwar Bulbul has worked with them for more than two months at Zaatari refugee camp in the hope of drawing attention to their plight. “I seek to revive laughter and joy among children to help them express themselves,” said Bulbul, who worked on several hit soap operas at home before fleeing after falling afoul of President Bashar Assad’s regime.
“I seek to reproduce their childhood,” he continued, “which has been destroyed by war.”
Jordan currently hosts more than 500,000 Syrian refugees including 100,000 in Zaatari – more than half of them children.
Laughter, joy and childhood innocence are not commonly associated with the story of Lear, an aging monarch who decides to divide his kingdom among his three daughters.
Because of a misunderstanding, he disinherits the only one who truly loves him. The others betray Lear, destroying his kingdom.
The king goes mad, raging against his misfortune.
“Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow!” he rails in a storm, calling on the sky to send “sulphurous and thought-executing fires” to “singe my white head!”
This Lear will be played by 13-year-old Deraa native Majd Ammari. Naturally, he won’t utter those thundering lines in the English but in classical Arabic.
“This makes me happy,” said Majd, whose 10-member family fled Syria last year. “I really want to become an actor when I grow up.”
Bulbul notes his adaptation of the play “has nothing to do with politics and the Syrian uprising.” He has modified the play to make it more suitable for the children.
“I only took the roots of the story,” he said. “That there is a dying king who wants to divide his realm among his three daughters. Two of them are liars and the third is honest.
“I focused on the comparison between lying and telling the truth,” the Homs-born actor said. “I focused on what is interesting for children. All children like acting. A boy likes to play the role of king, prince, knight, while a girl wants to become a princess.”
Bulbul said he chose Lear because he feared “a play about the bombs that fell on people’s heads in Syria would not interest” children who have become jaded by the death and destruction they have seen.
The actor, who left Syria after being blacklisted for joining anti-regime protests, said he got little support in Zaatari. He depended on friends to buy the tent and help gather equipment and props.
Boys line up to the right and girls, most wearing hijab, to the left as Lear stands in the center holding a wooden scepter, listening to his daughters pitch their expressions of loyalty.
All are under 15, and most come from Deraa and the Damascus area.
“We want to tell the West: ‘Leave the children out of this dirty game of war.’ They have nothing to do with war, but they always pay the price,” Bulbul said. “Children should be playing with toys and learning science, arts and music.
“When I first came here,” he continued, “children were using the language of war ... tanks, bullets and bombs. That’s changed now. To me, this is an achievement.”
Bulbul plans to stage the play Thursday, World Theater Day.
Written invitations have been arranged for U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon, actress and U.N. special envoy Angelina Jolie and French football legend Zinedine Zidane.
“To me, the children are the real revolutionaries,” Bulbul said.
“Performing Shakespeare’s play in the heart of Zaatari is a different kind of a revolution against politics and society.”
Bushra Nasr, 13, plays Lear’s eldest daughter Goneril, while Weam Ammari, 12, plays wronged daughter Cordelia.
“The play brought joy to all of us,” said Nasr, who fled to Jordan with her five sisters and two brothers a year ago. “We needed that.”
Ammari, who has five sisters and a brother, said she had finally found something to entertain her.
“My role was not easy at first because I had to speak classical Arabic,” she recalled. “But now, everything is smooth and I have a lot of friends. It makes me feel much better.
“I do not feel lonely any more in this place.”