by Bryn Haworth*
Something odd has been happening at the Home Office in London. Hitherto, the department charged with managing immigration has been a model of transparency and sobriety, at least by its own account. But recently it seems to have succumbed to the perpetual silly season that is modern government and has been making news for all the wrong reasons.
The first bout of silliness came when it sent up to a hundred letters to European Union nationals living in the UK, ordering them to leave the country or face deportation. It emerged that someone had blundered and the Prime Minister, Theresa May (not so long ago the head of this department of state), spoke of ‘an unfortunate error’. This came as little comfort to the recipients of the letters. British in Europe, a coalition of 11 citizen campaign groups across the EU and the UK, wrote to the EU’s representatives in the Brexit negotiations saying that the Home Office “cannot be trusted” and asking “If serious errors like this can be made whilst the UK is still administering a system based on EU freedom of movement rights, what is likely to happen when it is running its own system, having ‘taken control again’?”
But summer is not just a time for annoying the foreigners you find residing on your own soil. As the Guardian reported, the department has also been having a go at artistic foreigners from far flung shores just for good measure, and specifically Arabs, despite ‘backing from the Fringe Society, numerous Edinburgh venues and the British Council who put pressure on the Home Office.’
As the first night of the world’s biggest theatre festival loomed, the department’s special epistolary team were busy writing letters to a number of Arab artists, refusing to give them the visas they required to attend. They wrote to Arab actors, directors and playwrights, but also to Arab dancers who might otherwise have pirouetted into the country unopposed. Hit hardest was a dance double-bill featuring a Sudanese dancer based in Cairo, Nagham Salah, and a Palestinian dancer, Hamza Damra. Music was also hit: Conchita Wurst, the Eurovision winner, was forced to cancel her show after the Syrian members of her band were refused entry. In total, nearly a quarter of the visas for performers and organisers were rejected, some more than once.
With the festival in full swing, some of the letters refusing entry were read out at an event named Chill Habibi. Emma Thompson even turned up to read one letter, which stated that a scribe at the Home Office was “not satisfied on the balance of probabilities, that you will leave the UK at the end of your visit … I am not convinced you are genuinely seeking entry to the UK for a purpose that is permitted by the visitor rules and that you will not undertake any prohibited activity.” Thompson sighed, adding “Why would anyone ever want to visit this country?”
Sara Shaarawi, an Egyptian playwright, might be able to answer that question. Having lived in Glasgow for six years she is the coordinator of Arab Arts Focus, a group whose aim is to showcase work from across the Arab world and the Middle East and give it a platform at the famous fringe. Sara spoke to the Guardian of how dispiriting it had been to encounter bureaucratic resistance to cultural exchange, even when all the paperwork was correct. The group’s ongoing struggle with immigration services had already cost them £5,497.
“We never thought the issues with visas would be this bad,” she said. “It’s a continuous nightmare and it has cost us a lot of money, and hours and energy in trying to just bring people over the border … The term Arab is very loaded in the media now, so we wanted to bring something that dismantles that and celebrates our region, breaks down stereotypes and creates space for people … to tell their own stories.”
One of these stories has been heard, even though the department refused to allow half its cast of four into the country and delayed the director’s arrival by a week. Your Love Is Fire is a play by Mudar Al-Haggi directed by Rafat Al-Zakout. It describes the struggles of Syrians to deal with the aftermath of the revolution and the dire consequences of civil war. It also, unwittingly, has come to represent the struggle simply to stage a play here if you’re from an Arab country. Changes had to be made to the script in order to work with half a cast and some reviews suggest that the play’s meaning became muddled as a result. Nonetheless, Edfestmag was able to describe the play, set in Damascus, as a success:
‘Two characters – Hala and Rand – are discussing the possibility of fleeing to Germany. Rand, however, will not consider leaving for Europe without her boyfriend Khaldoun, who serves in the army and is unwilling to desert due to fear. Here, the play takes a look at the heaviness of not knowing how to proceed, or where to turn, or what to say. It explores the aching disappointment of waiting for a change that never comes. The introduction of The Author, a character with a different kind of perspective, is a creative decision that adds even more poignancy to the production. Now living in a refugee camp in Germany, The Author tells of how his work has been affected by his exile.’
Audiences were informed of the cast’s visa difficulties before the show began and many reviewers praised the results. The Skinny reported ‘The production is aided by its affecting use of multimedia elements and stark set design, which convey with shocking immediacy the violence that permeates the lives of Syrian residents and continues to resonate in the minds of refugees. Overall, the performance offers a convincing taster of a new play with great promise, made all the more powerful and significant by our society’s attempts to silence refugee voices.’ The blog concluded the play was ‘Worth seeing as an act of solidarity, as much as for the play itself’.
Another reviewer, named Tychy, voiced the more immediate Western concerns of the average liberal theatergoer: “Welcome to the Edinburgh Fringe, which is this year curated by President Trump. Not curated in the positive sense that he has selected the performances, but in the negative one that his tiny hands have been rummaging through the existing Fringe guide, ripping out its pages”.
Maybe this exaggerates the reach even of the most powerful man in the world – so far, Trump’s preoccupations in Scotland have been confined to golf – but it does hint at the inscrutability of the actions of the Home Office. Have they merely displayed the traditional cumbersome and indiscriminate workings of bureaucrats the world over, or do they have it in for Arab artists in particular?
The director of Your Love Is Fire, Rafat Al-Zakout, had little time to ponder their dark motives. He was determined to get what he described as a ‘black comedy’ onto the stage, however much the original had to be adapted for the purpose. “This is not the version of the play we wanted to present”, he told the Guardian, and yet “we lost everything we had in Syria, so we will shout and scream whenever we can.”
It is, perhaps, his description of the joys of being in a theatre troupe which best sum up the melancholy of the situation. He told the Vile Blog “My favourite thing about theatre is the unique bond that ties the entire team together, from the production crew to the director to the actors”.
Sadly, for whatever reason, the Home Office decided to put a stop to all that with a couple of politely worded letters. Perhaps the forthcoming play from Mudar Al-Haggi, Ya Kbir, will be a portrait of the kind of bureaucratic authority that has frustrated the Syrian playwright: it translates roughly as Big Brother.
*Bryn Haworth is an English writer living in Kent. He has previously worked in many diverse fields, including as an academic in Prague, where he set up an MA programme in literature at Charles University. He has also lived in Greece, Ecuador and Saudi Arabia, and has recently started work on a comic novel.