Euripides and the Syrian Refugee Crisis: “Queens of Syria”

by Anastasia-Stavroula Valtadorou, PhD student, University of Edinburgh

In her blog post “The Genesis of the Idea: A Chain Reaction”, Rossana Zetti asked some intriguing questions about the study of Classics in the modern (academic) world: is knowledge of Greek and Latin still essential for anyone who wants to pursue a PhD in Classics? Should any approach to the Classics via translations or other intermediaries be considered incomplete or less genuine? Is dissociating Classics from a traditional philological approach a legitimate way of avoiding the elitism often associated with the study of Greek and Latin?

In my view, there is an important distinction that needs to be made. In terms of the study of Classics at university level, we should always bear in mind the fact that the particular topic of a PhD thesis may or may not require excellent knowledge of Greek and/or Latin. For example, a student preparing a critical edition of an ancient text during his/her doctoral studies is clearly expected to know that language to a very high level. A candidate undertaking close philological analysis of a Greek or Latin literary text should be able to master the ancient language in the same way that scholars of Italian literature, for example, analyse literary works while reading them in their original language and not in translation. Yet, there are, of course, other valid ways to study the ancient world at university level and one of them is via Classical Reception. In this case, the knowledge of any ancient language is rightly regarded as nonessential for someone interested in exploring how the classical world is presented in fields such as popular culture.

Considering all this, we need to take into account the fact that there is a world beyond academia (oh, yes, it’s true!); people who do not want to study Classics at the university, but who are nonetheless very interested in the subject. They naturally approach classical texts through translation, and often find fascinating ways to express themselves and their experiences through Classics. And this is where an author like Euripides becomes relevant – once again.

This was evident to everyone who had the chance to attend one of the screenings of “Queens of Syria” held in February 2018 in three different Scottish cities (Edinburgh, Glasgow, and St Andrews). “Queens of Syria”, an adaptation of Euripides’ The Trojan Women in Arabic with English subtitles, was performed initially in 2016 and then taken on a UK tour with the Young Vic Theatre. Its cast, an all-female group of Syrian refugees, had the courage to express their personal loss, pain, sorrow, and their hopes for a better future through their unique retelling of Euripides’ drama. The play has been acclaimed as “the most urgent work on the London stage” by the critic Susannah Clapp and has been screened in other UK cities as well.

In Edinburgh, the room was packed: more than 40–50 people from different university departments came to attend the event. This was particularly striking as the event took place during the reading week, when most people are usually away. When the screening of the performance and the documentary film about the production was over, there was a lively discussion with the executive producers Charlotte Eagar and William Stirling and one of the cast members, Reem Al Sayyah, a young Syrian woman currently living in the UK. The discussion was mainly focused on the present situation in Syria and how individuals living in countries like the UK and USA can help improve the current reprehensible state of affairs there.

When the screening ended, I was very much moved by this touching and emotionally-charged production, along with the other members of the audience. But as a young Classicist, I was also struck by the fact that while this modern adaptation of Euripides was undoubtedly modern, personal and innovative, it was at the same time close to the Greek text. In “Queens of Syria” the women express the difficulties they faced when they were forced to abandon their cherished homeland, a painful experience universal to all refugees across time and space, and masterfully articulated by Euripides’s Trojan captives too. The Syrian refugees repeatedly speak in the play about their close, personal connection to the land of Syria, its trees, and its natural beauty, the hurtful separation from their other family members (not only the blood relatives but also the in-laws), the great importance attached to the (male) children and the significance of their survival–all vital issues that appear time and again in the Greek text itself.

The journey of this successful modern adaptation of Euripides’ play has not yet ended. After the screening, members of the audience offered to arrange for the production to be screened in major US universities as well. The success of this production strengthens the argument that Classics should be open to all, regardless of their gender, age, level of education or their country of origin, given that all people can contribute towards the better appreciation of these ancient cultures.

Therefore, the democratisation of Classics is something that needs to be taken seriously by everyone, inside universities and beyond. The choice of whether to approach Classics via translations or in their original language should be made by each person separately and individually, but both paths lead to the wonderful, fascinating world of Classics and should be viewed as equally legitimate.

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