'How do you build yourself from zero?' Ignite Festival play aims to shed light on refugee experience
The Opposite puts Calgarians in the position of fleeing a war-torn country
What would you do if Calgary became a war zone and you and your family were forced to flee?
Where would you go? What would you take? How would you start over in a new country?
Those are the questions a new play premiering at the Ignite Festival for Emerging Artists hopes to provoke.
"We're going to show people what it means to be a refugee, what's the feeling that you would get, for example, if a war came to Canada," Sleman Aldib told The Homestretch on Tuesday.
The artist behind The Opposite, which opens in Calgary on Wednesday, says the play is extremely personal. He moved to Calgary in 2015 after living through the horrors of war in his native Syria.
Back home, war had disrupted his life, but arriving in Canada came with its own host of challenges — everything from learning English, to adjusting to a new culture, to constantly encountering misconceptions about what it means to be a Syrian refugee.
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"Some people think they don't have arts or theatres in Syria. Some people asked when I came to here, 'Do you use cell phones? Do you have malls?'" he said. "I have to tell them, yes, we have everything. We could do whatever we want in Syria before the war."
In The Opposite, Aldib seeks to broaden the perception some Calgarians have of Syrian refugees by having them switch positions. The play opens by exposing audiences to the experience of being in a refugee camp. The dialogue is in Arabic, which, Aldib acknowledged, will leave many audience members confused, maybe even uncomfortable.
And that's the point.
"For me, it's telling them what's the process and what's the struggles they have, the Syrian refugees," said Aldib.
The second half of the play is a monologue in English that details what it has been like for the thousands of Syrian refugees who have arrived in Canada over the past few years to start again.
"It's very important, because most of us have a very bad experience with the war," said Aldib.
"I lived for five years in the war and I left after a big explosion in my city, so I wanted to explain to people what the struggles are. What's the meaning to be depressed too much, to be sad too much. And then after you come here, how do you build yourself from zero?"
'Productive friction' encourages understanding
Ignite Festival director Charles Netto said The Opposite is a good example of "productive friction" an artistic term used to describe work that pushes audiences out of their comfort zones so they can gain a new perspective.
"So that idea that as an audience member, you go in and feel some discomfort, feel some friction, but it becomes productive for you to be able to think about or understand another experience, another point of view," he said.
"Because that growth can always be a little uncomfortable for us as audience members."
Netto said Aldib's play is an important work for a city that is becoming increasingly diverse.
"I think it's really important that the arts reflect the city that we live in, and we have a growing Syrian population. So I'm ecstatic that the festival gets to represent that population and that voice."
The Opposite runs at the West Village Theatre June 6 and June 7 at 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.
The Ignite Festival runs until June 8.
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With files from CBC's Ellis Choe and The Homestretch