Some former residents of the Jungle in Calais have created a play from their experience as refugeesby Frank Andrews / November 30, 2016 / Leave a comment
Last Thursday some friends took me to the Paris suburb of Créteil to watch “To Be or Not,” a play performed at the university there. The cast were a group of 15 former residents of the Calais Jungle, all of them originally from Sudan, Afghanistan and Iran. The University of Créteil, in the middle of a sprawl of government housing tower blocks, was one of the first in France to set up a higher education programme for asylum seekers.
The stage was small, the theatre was bright with crude lighting and the wooden seats were uncomfortable. We sat in silence. Suddenly from behind us we heard singing and clapping. The troupe came down through the audience and danced around the stage, smiling and winking. Most of the men were young. They wore jeans, t-shirts and trainers. The singing stopped and two broke away from the group and assumed the roles of guards, corralling the others into a tight huddle at the back of the stage. They cowered and whimpered. Several were beaten and dragged off by their hair to a part of the theatre out of sight. Their groans filled the hall. The remaining men tried to hide behind one another. One man— bald and about thirty who, as I later learnt, was called Waleed—shrieked and writhed as he was dragged offstage.
None of the men spoke French, so the play was mostly conducted in silence except for the sounds of trainers against the lino floor, the slaps as the men were manhandled by the guards, and the numerous cries of distress. They were very rough with each other in the many moments of violence.
Hauled one by one onstage, they sat in the shape of a boat’s prow. This was how they would travel from Libya to Italy. The only sound was the boat’s captain barking “Left! Right! Straight!”
The boat swayed abruptly to one side and one of the men fell out and off the stage onto the floor where he shouted and gasped. Waleed cried out and scrambled to rescue him, desperately calling out. The other passengers held him back as he fought to help his drowning friend, who eventually stopped struggling and fell silent. Waleed sat down again, and all was silent apart from his sobs.
The captain shouted “Italy!” and two Sudanese men playing Italian border guards brusquely pulled the men off the boat. A short Afghan man with cropped hair and a blue polo shirt shouted “No fingerprint, no food!” He was carrying a bag of bread.
Some gave him their fingerprints and sat on the other side of the stage eating hunks of baguette, but others fought against the guards, who kneed them in the stomach and forced them to spread their hands. The last person to give his prints was a young man with big teeth who thrashed and kicked. The guard quickly moved a hand to his stomach and made the “dzzzzzzzzzzzz!” sound of a taser. The young man went stiff for a second. He was made to hold out his hand, and said quietly: “Okay, okay, okay.”
The Afghan who had played the border guard held up the French flag with a few others and started singing a slow, sad song in Pashto. I looked to my left and saw that one of my friends was crying.
It had been four weeks since we had both left the Jungle as volunteer aid workers and I still hadn’t come to terms with what I felt looking back on it all. Everyday I had known my role, the people I was going to encounter and try to help.
I doubted that after the demolition of the Jungle they were in a better situation, but now I felt I could do nothing for them. Despite doubts about what I could offer in the Jungle, it was comforting to feel in some way useful. I almost missed it, and that made me feel guilty.
To many who had spent months, even years there, the Jungle had been the closest thing to a home they had had since leaving their countries. Despite all the sadness and violence, for some the camp had represented something positive. Friendships were made, and communities formed.
Being taken to their designated “Welcome Centre” (Centre d’Accueil et Orientation) to begin their asylum application meant—for many of my friends at least—that once again, they were on their own, and in several Centres conditions are rumoured to be even worse than the Jungle. The destruction of the camp reminds them of the impermanence of their situation.
The man who had played the boat’s captain started playing a drum. As the others danced and sang, and the audience stood and clapped along, the young man with big teeth stood alone at the back of the stage facing away from the audience, sobbing, covering his face with his hands. I stood and clapped and cried, embarrassed, trying to smile and wipe my tears away with my sleeve.
During the Q&A after, the men were asked about their journeys and plans for the future, and their answers were translated into French. Abdalghaany, from Sudan, asked: “What can we, as asylum seekers, do to change our negative reputation?”
Someone answered (slightly over-optimistically, I felt) that if they kept telling their stories they would change public opinion.
The director—a bearded Parisian in his thirties—told us that nothing in the play had been invented: “They really watched their friends drown in the Mediterranean, and they really were tasered into giving their fingerprints at the Italian border.”
I saw one of the men who had played a guard put his head in his hands. The people sitting next to him on the stage whispered words of support and put their arms round his shoulders.
Outside the theatre, Waleed rolled a cigarette: “This is the sixth time we have performed the play, and it still makes me cry.”
I thanked him for everything, and made a crap joke about his next stop being Broadway. He thanked me for coming, gave me a hug and walked away to the bus stop.