Stockholm in the summer is a totally different city from the winter city I have visited and performed in many times. This is a city of smiles, of light, of shimmering waters, of bars and cafés filled with chattering people spilling onto the streets, of cyclists and myriad languages.
I am here to attend the ninth Women Playwrights International (WPI) Conference – surrounded by most astonishing and invigorating group of talented committed women, bubbling with ideas, filled with zest and the joy of being amongst our own. I have been in women’s conferences before, or mostly women’s but they have never been with a group made up entirely of creative people. And the feeling is so different.
At the inauguration, current President of WPI reads out a message from Mayor of Buffalo, New York where the first ever conference was held in 1984. It is a declaration. In honour of the continued valuable work of women playwrights, he has dedicated the week of the conference as Women Playwrights Week in Buffalo, and will celebrate it with a series of city-level activities! I find it impossible to imagine such an event happening in any Indian city. All our mayors do is dedicate days and weeks to personalities, real or mythical, that will garner them votes and votebank.
The opening session is dedicated to Arab writing. In a continuing western centric world, even with the increase in translated works from many corners of the world, where else would we get to hear about excerpts from fiery writing from this part of the world, a part of the world where women’s lives are even more difficult than for the rest.
The first speaker is the magnetic Nidal Al Achkar, founder of Al Madina Theatre, Beirut. She has a rare presence, a compelling one as she takes us briefly through the history of theatre in Lebanon and Arab world through difficult years of religious fundamentalism. She explains how she has held onto theatre and encouraged new writing and productions in the face of arrest and threats.
Shondos Shabayesk, a young journalist turned storyteller talks of storytelling to remember and resist through her days in Tahrir Square during Egypt’s revolution last year. “In the 18 days of Egypt’s revolution and onwards, storytelling was taking place between people in casual gatherings and random encounters. The stories kept reminding us of what we were part of, of what we were finally able to achieve, and it gave us hope. The stories were like opium during hard times.” She now gathers people to tell their own stories, for that is how stories are born.
The afternoon is given over to professional actors reading out excerpts from selected plays with writers presenting themselves and their contexts and answering questions. There are plays from Maldives and Mauritius, from Kurdistan and Palestine to Iceland and Canada. I’m drinking all this in. Where would I find such a diverse group of playwrights and their work in one place? I feel an adrenalin push as I mingle and listen, and absorb.
In the evening, there are several performances to choose from and I choose to attend In The Lost and Found: The Red Suitcase – directed, written and performed by young Lana Nasser from Jordan, winner of last year’s Etel Adnan Award which was commissioned three years ago to encourage Arab writing. It is a commentary on the current socio-political climate of the Arab world, and on a woman’s journey of creating new meaning and finding autonomy.
Lana, in a strong and riveting performance, examines herself in language, culture and the media drawing on personal experience and women’s stories confronting many social taboos.
Where in the Islamic world can she safely perform, I wonder. And marvel at the language of the arts.
The writer is a noted danseuse and social activist