Articles, Current Issue, Reviews, Volume 14

Review of Syrian Refugees, Applied Theater, Workshop Facilitation, and Stories: While They Were Waiting written by Fadi Skeiker, reviewed by Sonja Arsham Kuftinec


I have a personal connection to Fadi Skeiker’s generative reflections on applied theatre work with Syrian refugees, one that echoes his thoughts on the resonances of insider/outsider power dynamics and themes across refugee communities. In 1995, towards the end of the Balkan Wars, I worked as a theatrical facilitator in a refugee camp. My Croatian father wondered what the hell I was doing. “Do you think what the refugees really need right now is theatre?” What I discovered, and what Skeiker emphasizes, is that once basic needs for food, shelter, and security are met, the refugee has a deeper need–as we all do–for existential meaning-making, a sense of agency and purpose, and the capacity to shape personal narratives. As Skeiker elucidates, “Applied theater is one of the few alternative practices that can safely address the trauma that refugees have encountered yet invites them to rationally and emotionally process their current situations” (5).

Skeiker frames his study in partial defense of applied theatre writ large–arguing for theatre as a therapeutic tool grounded in attention to artistic embodiment and narrative detail. He does this through a specific focus on work with Syrian refugees in the context of 2011 government crackdowns and Arab Spring revolutions. Before 2011, he notes that most workshops in the Middle East were led by “expert” outsiders with an implicit missionary agenda focused on women’s empowerment: “the classic colonial notion of Westerners doing social justice or missionary work in a Global South setting” (4). He offers his Arab “insider” status as a way to unpack gendered and cultural power dynamics within and around the workshop setting while producing a “counter narrative” to anxieties about Syrian refugees (5). Skeiker thinks through these dynamics via four chapters across three sites of work in Jordan, Germany, and Philadelphia (where he currently teaches).

In the first chapter situated in Jordan, Skeiker offers particularly compelling examples of how he grapples with Arab conservatism around gender without resorting to didactics. The centerpiece of this chapter recounts a “social experiment” conducted with two workshop participants, male and female, each invited to buy felafel in Amman and to report on their experiences with frozen images (drawing from a Theatre of the Oppressed vocabulary). Through this spontaneous intervention, Skeiker enabled participants to understand the other’s perspective: that Arab women indeed experience harassment in public spaces and that solutions to cultural dilemmas should come from “within the community” rather than through external interventions (15). Through this illustrative anecdote Skeiker also activates his ethical grounding as a facilitator: listen and seek to understand rather than taking sides. This empathetic modeling enables complexity to emerge through what Skeiker names as a “truth process” (16).

A second chapter in Jordan focuses on restoring to the refugee a sense of their own narrative through monologues. Participants reach collective insights, Skeiker argues, through grounding in the personal and the intimate. As one technique, Skeiker details how name stories can situate the social self. Hiba, for example, considers her name as “giving without waiting to receive,” a reflection that invites her to help others in the camp and find a sense of belonging to her “new home” in Jordan (37). Such monologues offer ways for refugees to forge deeper connections—to their current situations and to each other’s stories.

The third chapter situated in Germany details how Skeiker as facilitator navigates the institutional policies of a country foreign to him, while also addressing the specific community of migrants he encounters. By posing questions rather than assuming answers, such as “what ground rules will create a safe place?” (55) Skeiker indexes the maneuvers of the refugee around re-establishing a sense of community. The refugees also learn how to narrate their stories to make themselves legible as “legitimate” asylum seekers in the eyes of the state; personal narrative thus works not only an expressive mode but also as a performance enabling juridical navigation.

In the U.S., Skeiker engages in comparative analysis of bureaucratic procedures and the orientation of the state towards the refugee. Where European countries seem more concerned with assimilation, the U.S. focuses on vetting and employment. He thinks through the efficacy of the workshops via expressions of care, meditations on home, and what he refers to a “corporal dialectics” (77). In that space of shared re-imagining of the journey of displacement, Skeiker points to moments of breath-taking collective respite.

Skeiker notes that his reflexive study of theatrical workshops with Syrian refugees can be read as both scholarly “account” as well as “approachable recipe” (2). Thus, reading audiences could range from scholars of Middle Eastern theatre looking to expand their perspectives on social drama, students learning to consider effective techniques of applied theatre, and those who study refugees more broadly. Skeiker offers clear techniques, generative questions, as well as cautionary notes about the kinds of relationship-building, cultural sensitivity, and institutional savvy required for effective theatrical practices that also illuminates the politics of “belonging.”

In an epilogue, Skeiker meditates on home and homeland and how “the refugee” exists as a byproduct of international struggle and transnational trade in the era of the nation-state. Refugees, he claims, are also astutely aware of how their status has been politically produced, seeing “the aid of the West” as a “responsibility for helping to perpetuate the very war that has left them displaced” (89). Skeiker centers his case studies on personal agency and the restoration of human dignity rather than with political organizing. (The keyword “empowerment” appears more than any other in the index). That is not to say that Skeiker avoids dwelling with political power, but rather that the route to analysis moves through the shaping of stories. When told together in a case study format rich with reflections, those stories prompt a set of meditations and questions larger than any individual. Acts of displacement can prompt us to consider the discourses of division: between homeland and host, the social and aesthetic, the political and the therapeutic. Stepping back, or rather through the embodied and collective refugee narrative, can prompt even deeper thinking on what structures these binaries. The persistence of struggles around matters that “should have been settled long ago” (1) suggests that the refugee exists at the nexus of what has not been fully resolved, particularly around what constitutes the nation-state as “home.” Yet, working through these struggles also testifies to how theatre can help craft new spaces of belonging.

Sonja Arsham Kuftinec, University of Minnesota

Prof. Sonja Kuftinec researches and creates theater as a form of culture-building and conflict transformation in the Balkans, Middle East, and Midwest United States. She has devised theater with soldiers, scientists, and students, performed ecological rituals in puppet pageants, and dances with an activist flash mob. Her current work focuses on theater as scientific communication and navigating health precarity through interactive scenarios with a homeless/housed theatre company. 

Arab Stages
Volume 14 (Spring 2023)
©2023 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center Publications

Founding Editor: Marvin Carlson

Founders: Marvin Carlson and Frank Hentschker

Editor: Edward Ziter

Performance Reviews Editor: Katherine Hennessey

Book Reviews Editor: George Potter

Editorial and Advisory Board: Fawzia Afzal-Khan, Dina Amin, Khalid Amine, Dalia Basiouny, Katherine Donovan, Masud Hamdan, Sameh Hanna, Rolf C. Hemke, Areeg Ibrahim, Jamil Khoury, Dominika Laster, Margaret Litvin, Rebekah Maggor, Safi Mahfouz, Robert Myers, Michael Malek Naijar, Hala Nassar, Juan Recondo, Nada Saab, Asaad Al-Saleh, Torange Yeghiazarian.

Managing Editors: Melissa Flower Gladney and Juhyun Woo

Table of Contents:

“Indigenous Avant-Gardes”: The Shiraz Arts Festival and Ritual Performance Theory in 1970s Iran by Matthew Randle-Bent

Up There by Wael Kadour, Introduction by Edward Ziter

Baba written by Denmo Ibrahim, directed by Hamid Dehghani, reviewed by Suzi Elnaggar

Decolonizing Sarah: A Hurricane Play written and directed by Samer Al-Saber, reviewed by George Potter

Layalina written by Martin Yousif Zebari, directed by Sivan Battat, reviewed by Sami Ismat

Mother Courage adapted and directed by Alison Shan Price, reviewed by Hassan Hajiyah

Playwright Showcase, New Arab American Theater Works, reviewed by Katherine Hennessey

Review of MUKHRIJĀT AL-MASRAḤ AL-MIṢRĪ (1990-2010): DIRĀSA SĪMIYŪṬĪQĪYAH [Female Egyptian Directors (1990-2010): A Semiotic Study], written by Hadia Abd El-Fattah, reviewed by Areeg Ibrahim

Review of Theaters of Citizenship: Aesthetics and Politics of Avant-Garde Performance in Egypt written by Sonali Pahwa, reviewed by Suzi Elnaggar

Review of Syrian Refugees, Applied Theater, Workshop Facilitation, and Stories: While They Were Waiting written by Fadi Skeiker, reviewed by Sonja Arsham Kuftinec

Need help with the Commons? Visit our
help page
Send us a message
Skip to toolbar