Four Months, 5,000 Miles: A Refugee Puppet Looks for Home
In “The Walk,” a 12-foot tall, 9-year-old Syrian girl named Amal trekked from Turkey to Britain to find her mother. In a politically divided continent, were any minds changed?
LONDON — A dozen puppeteers were crouched in a rehearsal room here studying the every move of a cheeky 8-year-old girl named Tamara, who was trying to steal a bright pink soccer ball from the middle of the floor.
Tamara looked nervous and kept glancing over her shoulder, as if to make sure no one was behind her. Then, suddenly, she ran straight for the ball, scooped it up in her arms and ran off.
Amir Nizar Zuabi, a Palestinian theater director and Tamara’s father, seemed pleased. “See, everything she does is with urgency,” he told the puppeteers in June. “Everything is life and death.”
The puppeteers were watching Tamara closely in order to mimic her behavior and create a 9-year-old Syrian refugee named Little Amal, the lead character in “The Walk,” one of the year’s most ambitious pieces of theater — and certainly the piece of theater with the biggest stage.
The plot of “The Walk” was simple: Little Amal had lost her mother, and was looking to find her. But the logistics to pull off the almost $4 million project — a 5,000 mile journey from Turkey to England — were anything but.
Throughout the trek, the 12-foot-tall puppet — which required up to four people to control — would make over 140 stops in eight countries, at venues ranging from refugee camps to the Royal Opera House in London. Those would include theatrical spectacles, including a final event in Manchester, England, as well as spontaneous encounters, with Amal (whose name means hope in Arabic) simply walking through a city or village and seeing what happens.
Refugees had dominated Europe’s newspapers in 2015-16, when millions fled Syria’s civil war, but people are still crossing the continent every day. And with the coronavirus pandemic, the conditions in which refugees and migrants have been living, and the treatment they have met, have only gotten worse.
David Lan, the former artistic director of London’s Young Vic Theater and one of the project’s producers, said in a break from the rehearsals that the meaning of “The Walk” was obvious: “Don’t forget us.”
But he said the team didn’t want to achieve that by only focusing on the horrors that refugees face. “She is a child, so she will have terrifying times and be lonely and frightened,” Lan said. “But our focus is on the potential, the joyfulness, that she can bring.”
“The Walk” evolved out of “The Jungle,” an immersive play set in a refugee camp that had acclaimed runs both on London’s West End and at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn.
But the new show was a different proposition, mostly taking place outside traditional venues. And hard-line immigration measures were surging as the project got going. Just days before the rehearsal, Denmark passed a law allowing the nation to relocate asylum seekers outside of Europe while assessing their claims. Soon, Britain, where some ministers had trumpeted a desire to create a “hostile environment” for migrants, said it wanted to do the same. In other countries, barriers were being proposed to keep migrants out.
In that context, “The Walk” seemed as much a provocation as theater. Zuabi insisted that wasn’t the case. “We’re not coming to provoke. We’re walking a 9-year-old to find her mother.”
“If you don’t like it, it’s OK,” he added, gently.
Whether locals across Europe would agree, Zuabi would soon find out.
First Image: Much of the journey included unscripted events, like walking down a street in Adana.Credit...Tara Todras-Whitehill for The New York Times | Second Image: A young boy looks up in amazement at Little Amal.Credit...Tara Todras-Whitehill for The New York Times
On a balmy evening in July, Little Amal took her first stumbling steps in the narrow alleyways of Gaziantep, a city in southern Turkey just 40 miles from the Syrian border. It’s the city where many of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees have settled.
Excited children and adults crowded around the puppet, and raised lanterns and lights to guide her way.
Designed and operated by a team that includes members of Handspring, the company best known for its work in “War Horse,” she towered above the crowds, but, like a toddler, looked unnerved by them. She often hesitated as she walked, swaying slightly, her chest rising, before suddenly rushing forward with rapid, unsteady strides.
The four puppeteers controlling her — one inside on stilts, two operating her hands and a fourth to steady her from behind when needed — made her turn repeatedly to look back, as if searching for her mother. Then she’d cast her eyes down in disappointment, and walk on.
Those involved in the project said they hoped events like this would prove that art can create a connection between Turks and Syrians, the residents and the refugees.
“When people have a hard time understanding each other, culture and art have always been a very important unifying method” said Recep Tuna, the Turkish co-producer of the “The Walk.” But as Little Amal kept moving, it was already clear that the project wouldn’t convince everyone.
Sherif Chinar, a barber who’d just closed his shop for the day, beamed with excitement at the procession. He immediately understood the concept, he said. “It’s someone who loses their family and is walking on foot to find them.” The project was a great idea, he added.
But further along stood Ugur Taschi, a hotel owner, complaining loudly. “I hate them,” he said, jutting his chin toward the crowd. “They make a big crush just for Syrian refugees. I don’t need the Syrians here.”
Despite her enormous height, big red boots and determined expression, Amal appeared vulnerable. Her long hair, made of ribbons, lifted in the breeze. Her upper body and arms, made of bamboo canes, looked like they could snap.
Eventually, the puppeteers walked her to a park where Syrian children sang to her, in both Turkish and Arabic, and another group gave her a handmade trunk, filled with gifts for the journey ahead.
The next day, she was supposed to undertake her second walk. But like a real refugee, her trip was interrupted. A Turkish soldier had been killed on operations in northern Iraq, and was scheduled to be buried just outside the city. In deference to local sensibilities, “The Walk” — just one day old — came to a stop.
From Gaziantep, Little Amal’s journey went smoothly. In Adana, Turkey, children flew flocks of homemade birds around her. In Cesme, she looked out to sea while surrounded by hundreds of empty pairs of shoes, a reminder of those who’d gone before her (and not made it). While she was on the Greek island of Chios, choirs sang to welcome her.
But then the team — about 25 people — tried to visit the Greek World Heritage site of Meteora, known for Orthodox monasteries perched upon towering rocks. Amal was supposed to have a picnic with local children, the monasteries a scenic backdrop. But the local council banned the event.
Council members tried to explain the decision by saying a “Muslim doll from Syria” shouldn’t be performing in a space important to Greek Orthodox believers. (Amal’s religion, in fact, has never been specified.) But for some, the cancellation was about more than religious differences. With the escalating crisis in Afghanistan, tensions around migration were once again rising in Europe. In Greece, some feared a repeat of 2015-16 when more than a million refugees passed through the country, using it as a gateway to Germany, France, England or elsewhere.
A heritage association in Meteora made its opposition clear on its website: “The bitter truth is those who said ‘Yes’ to Little Amal actually said ‘Yes’ to all those who come after her.”
Lan, the producer, didn’t try to change the council’s mind. “If we’re not welcome, we don’t go,” he said, and the team rushed into planning a new event.
But things didn’t calm down.
Just days later, in Larissa, central Greece, people pelted Amal with eggs, fruit and even stones. Others thrust religious symbols at her. Fans tried to defend her. Police intervened.
Then in Athens, right-wing groups said they’d protest her planned event, anti-fascists said they’d protest in support of her, and the police had to use tear gas to dispel the crowds.
While the organizers downplayed the hostility, the puppeteers found it telling. “It was scary, shocking, but I think it was really important,” said the puppeteer Emma Longthorne. If everyone embraced Amal and the world’s refugees, she added, the company would not need to be walking at all.
Perhaps surprisingly, resistance to Little Amal stopped as she crossed from Greece to Italy, another country where politicians have often let anti-immigrant sentiment boil.
On the morning of Sept. 10, she stepped into the opulence of the Vatican. Her puppeteers — who Lan said had grown in confidence and became more playful as they knew she wasn’t suddenly going to fall over — took her on a stroll through St. Peter’s Square. There, she bent down to hug a bronze statue depicting 140 migrants — that included Jews fleeing the Nazis — as if she recognized herself among them.
Then, she met the Pope.
When Pope Francis, who has long been vocal in support of refugees, saw Amal, he tried to shake her hand, settling on a finger as it was all he could grasp, smiling throughout. The encounter “was such a theatrical moment,” said Roberto Roberto, the project’s Italian co-producer. “It was all very simple and affectionate.”
The next night the puppeteers took Amal to the Teatro India, one of Rome’s main theaters, where they placed her on an oversized mattress in an outside courtyard and tried to make her look like she was sleeping.
Paintings, collages and digital works by the Syrian artist Tammam Azzam flashed up a wall behind the puppet. They were nightmarish visions of the war-torn home she’d left behind — bullet- and shrapnel-riddled apartment blocks, their facades blown off to reveal long-abandoned homes.
Azzam, who left Syria in 2011 and now lives in Germany, called it a “moving dream” of a decidedly unsafe place.
Zuabi, the project’s artistic director, said he’d chosen Rome for Amal’s nightmares because of the stark contrast between the city’s wondrous architecture and the realities that the project was trying to draw attention to.
“This voyage,” he said, “is hardship and beauty combined.”
First Image: Packing up the pieces of Little Amal for transport between stops in France.Credit...Elliott Verdier for The New York Times | Second Image: The puppet was created by the same company that worked on the celebrated play “War Horse.”Credit...Elliott Verdier for The New York Times
“The Walk” was a project whose ambitions required constant cash injections, including for regular Covid-19 tests. By the end, it would cost more than 2.8 million pounds, about $3.8 million.
“We never stopped fund-raising,” Lan said. They even sold T-shirts online to bring in money.
The project’s most symbolic moments would occur beachside in France.
Around 10 a.m. one bright Sunday, Little Amal’s team and fans gathered in a church parking lot in Grande-Synthe, a small town near the north coast, trying not to get mixed up with two families waiting to baptize their newborns.
A group of refugees and migrants was soon meant to rap for Amal, but Céline Brunelle, an artist helping with the event, said they hadn’t all shown up. “It’s early,” she said, by way of explanation. “And they might have spent the night trying to get to England.”
Migrants daily try to cross the English Channel, by boat or by hiding on trucks. Brunelle said she was quite happy if the rappers missed the show if it meant they had made it.
Amal eventually set off from the church, but was met by a policeman blocking her way. She stamped her huge shoes at him in frustration, paced forward and back as if unable to work out what to do next, until the rappers appeared, red scarves tied round their heads, and starting calling for her to follow.
They led Amal to a town square — locals leaning out of apartment windows along the route, hoping to get a better view — then performed a track in French, telling Little Amal they understood her pain but “we know you’ll make it.” As the bass pounded, the puppeteers tried their best to make Amal look like a music fan, spinning her around repeatedly.
“I see myself in her, even though she’s a small girl,” José Manzambi, one of the rappers, said afterward.
He’d come to France from Angola four years ago and, now 21, was hoping to stay and become an actor. But he was still waiting for a residence permit.
Northern towns like Grand-Synthe and, on the coast, Calais, are divided on the issue of refugees. The political climate in France is also moving to the right ahead of presidential elections next year.
Natacha Bouchart, the mayor of Calais, refused “The Walk” a permit for the day’s final event on the city’s beaches, so it had to be moved some 30 miles away to the resort of Bray-Dunes. (A spokesman for Bouchart declined to comment).
A few hours later, on the beach, Amal walked out toward the sea, her hair blowing in the cold wind.
She was joined by 30 other huge puppets — some made to look like fish, others dressed like kings. Then Joyce DiDonato, the famed American opera singer, began serenading them all from a boat stuck on the sand.
After a half-hour concert, Little Amal’s time in France was over. The lead puppeteer, with the help of several assistants, extricated himself and stepped off the stilts. Amal was packed into a crate, ready for a train trip under the sea. Unlike many refugees, hundreds of whom you can see daily seeking help around Calais, she would make it to England before morning.
Little Amal’s journey was meant to end on a cold, wet Wednesday night in Manchester, with a parade through the city’s streets overseen by Simon Stone, the Australian theater and movie director.
A few hours beforehand, several of the puppeteers reflected on the experience. Fidaa Zidan, a Palestinian actor, said she felt overwhelmed but also exhausted. “Like Amal, I want to go back home,” she said.
Mouaiad Roumieh, a Syrian refugee living in France, said he didn’t want the trip to end. “The group here, they are now like my family,” he said.
But what had the huge theatrical project actually achieved? Were any minds changed? Little Amal had trekked up and down England, met by cheering families, but the country’s conservative press, which can be hostile to immigration, barely paid attention.
In the British tabloid The Mail on Sunday, Peter Hitchens, a columnist, wrote that he’d seen one of Amal’s events. “Syrian refugees are not little girls but strapping young men,” he contended. “I wonder how a huge puppet of such a person would be greeted.”
Zuabi, the project’s artistic director, said that changing views wasn’t the point. “As artists we felt this is an issue we had to engage with,” he said. “If I was a cobbler, I’d be fixing shoes for her.”
“I’m happy we’ve touched hearts,” he said. “I hope we also touched minds.”
In an outdoor arena in Manchester, as Little Amal took her final steps, she was surrounded by a flock of wooden puppet swallows. Then a burst of smoke appeared in front of her.
Onto it an image of a woman’s face shone, fleetingly. Then a gentle voice could be heard from the arena’s speakers.
“Daughter, you’ve got so far — so very far away from home — and it’s cold, so stay warm,” the voice said in Arabic. “I’m proud of you.” It was Little Amal’s mother, now, apparently, a ghost or a memory. “Be kind to people,” she added, “and always remember where you came from.”
The 4,000-strong crowd turned toward Little Amal, who stood straight and defiant as the puppeteers pulled her up to full height. She seemed to take a deep breath, her chest rising, and exhaled. And then she strode forward, out into her new city, to try and build a new home.
(c) 2021, The New York Times