Memories inspire refugee playwright Ahmad Meree

MAAN ALHMIDI
SPECIAL TO THE GLOBE AND MAIL
PUBLISHED JANUARY 6, 2020

When Ahmad Meree sits alone in his living room, he misses his family. When he eats his meals, he tastes the food he once ate with them. When he sleeps, he dreams of the happy and the horrible moments he had in Aleppo, Syria.

This inescapable stream of memories inspired the 28-year-old man to write Adrenaline and Suitcase, two plays that will run for two weeks at Toronto’s Theatre Passe Muraille starting Jan. 16.

Adrenaline premiered at the Registry Theatre in Kitchener, Ont., where Meree now lives, two years ago. A solo performance, it tells the story of Jaber, a Syrian man spending his first New Year’s Eve alone in Canada. One year before, Jaber was hiding underground with his family, trying to survive the Syrian regime force’s heavy, continuing shelling, which destroyed most of the al-Shaar neighbourhood in eastern Aleppo.

The play asks a pivotal question: Is it more difficult to live in a safe place alone or to live in danger with your family? “What is the price that all [refugees] pay for safety?” Meree says.

Suitcase, which he wrote in 2019, is a story about a couple trying to flee Syria but who find themselves waiting in a transitional place where they are deeply questioning their reality – where are they, will they make it to safety, what should they take with them and what should they leave behind. “They are stuck. They don’t know their destination and they can’t predict their future,” Meree says.

Relying on his own experiences helps him channel the collective memory of millions of Syrian people who have fled their homes. “When I write and produce my plays, I create my opportunities myself,” he said. “I have fewer chances [in Canadian theatre] than the others as a person of colour with accent and named Ahmad,” Meree says.

Over the past three years, Meree has performed Adrenaline in five Canadian cities including Victoria and Toronto. His coming debut at the Passe Muraille will mark a debut of another sort. “It will be the first time Theatre Passe Muraille presents, during its season, a play in Arabic,” says Majdi Bou-Matar, who co-sponsored Meree to come to Kitchener as a refugee in July, 2016, eventually becoming the director of both of his plays. “It’s a great milestone … for the theatre and for Ahmad himself,” he adds.

Like Meree, I’m also from Aleppo. I left Syria for Turkey in the spring of 2014. More than two years later, he and I both landed in Canada but didn’t meet until last December when we both attended an event for the Syrian community in Toronto. A few days later, I visited him in Kitchener. Meree, who has a long black beard and a wide forehead, looked me in the eye and told me that the weight of my own story was “heavy” – that I survived similar circumstances as he did. “It may look poetic a bit, but it’s real,” he told me. “You carry those experiences in the way you walk, the way you look, in your muscles and in your memories.”

While sharing memories of our time in Aleppohe told me how at first he couldn’t tell if he was alive after a missile exploded in front of his home in 2012. “The dust was everywhere. My father was in the bathroom so I yelled: ‘Dad are you still alive?’ He said: ‘Yes, get me a towel,’” Meree says with a grim laugh.

Before Meree left Aleppo, one thought wouldn’t leave his mind: How to tell the world about what was happening.

Fleeing a war zone is not enough to survive, he says. The biggest challenge for refugees is to stand on their feet again as their wounds heal. In his opinion, there is no way for refugees to overcome the trauma of war, but that doesn’t mean they will end up living in depression and isolation. “You may admire life more than other people since you were close to death,” he said.

The unprecedented tragedy in Syria left most of the country’s people living in uncertainty. Every refugee is trying to predict the future, but not one of them has a clue. They are stuck between anticipation and apprehension, he says. Meree reflects on the sense of injustice that Syrian refugees feel. “You don’t have a choice. You can’t even visit your country.”

When fighting broke out between rebels and the Syrian regime forces in Aleppo in the summer of 2012, Meree fled to Egypt, where he studied acting at the well-known Academy of Arts in Cairo, completing an arts degree. He was fulfilling a lifelong dream, but it wasn’t always easy: Some nights, he had to sleep on the street, getting by with only a sandwich for a couple of days at a time.

When his student visa expired in 2016, he had two choices: Go back to Syria and be drafted to compulsory military service or try to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe, travelling in unsafe conditions.

Luckily for him, by that point, he had made some connections with fellow Syrians and others from the Middle East living in Canada, because of social media. Among them was Bou-Matar, who decided to help him.

The Lebanese-Canadian director, who’s based in Waterloo, Ont., founded MT Space in 2004, a theatre production company dedicated to marginalized voices. Although Bou-Matar came to Canada as an immigrant, not a refugee, he had an emotional connection to Meree’s story and was impressed he had managed to earn a degree, winning student writing and acting awards while completing his studies. “He seemed to be a serious and committed person to his art,” says Bou-Matar, who began a fundraiser among the theatre community, raising 13,500 to help bring Meree to Canada as a privately sponsored refugee.

“His work is funny, it’s humorous, it’s political and it’s very personal … it presents the Syrian story from a very specific human and political perspective,” Bou-Matar says, adding that a career in theatre is not easily accessible for newcomers whose first language isn’t English.

But Meree didn’t waste any time. Days after arriving, he started writing Adrenaline, his first play. Subsequently, he became a resident artist at the Registry Theatre in Kitchener during 2018-19 season and was also hired by MT Space as an actor. He also landed an acting job with Moving Target, a theatre production company in Winnipeg. “It’s kind of snowballed quickly, and I’m very proud of [him] … he is hardworking, committed and fast learner,” Bou-Matar says.

The plays are visual and involve a lot of body language. “The [audience] experience is dependent on the entire physical-visual experience of the music and the light and the emotion that Ahmad projects,” Bou-Matar says.

Meree wants to tell the Syrian story from a human perspective, which can create authentic human empathy. “I’m sharing my story, my people’s story with our new community – the Canadian community,” he said. “The audience will have a better understanding of the refugees’ stories in a world where there’s still a lot of racism.”

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