An encounter with a refugee opens our eyes to the human pain behind the conflict.
Moving to a new home can be hard. But it’s especially hard for refugees from war-torn nations finding themselves in a strange new land, reeling from the trauma of the past, adapting to their new life, and resisting strangers’ dirty looks and the creeping fear of feeling completely, absolutely alone.
Audience members get a taste of that in Tania El Khoury and Basel Zaraa’s As Far As Isolation Goes. The online experience features a single audience member coming face to face with Basel Zaraa himself over Zoom, as he shares what it’s like to live as a refugee in a foreign country.
At just 15 minutes long, As Far As Isolation Goes has a relatively simple flow. Basel comes onscreen, introduces himself, and instructs us to draw tiny figures carrying bags and luggage, walking to an unknown destination. Basel laments how in the live version, he would be the one holding my arm, massaging it, and doing the drawings. I can’t help but wonder how different that experience would be, as I give my arm to a perfect stranger while he uses it as a medium to tell his story. I think of how simplified these stories are, captured in crude drawings on my arm, and how I will never truly understand what it means to escape a life or death situation.
In any case, Basel begins to tell his ‘story’ as a Palestinian refugee born in Syria, lucky enough to escape to London, while his parents remain trapped in war-torn Damascus, unable to escape. Yet he hopes and believes that one day they will be reunited once more. The problem then is adapting to his new life, still reeling from the journey, now alone, all the losses forming a psychological burden that can never be shaken.
As a street artist and musician, Basel’s work deals with raw emotion as portrayed through song, as he plays three separate pieces of media for us. Each one deals with the pain of isolation and being in a detention centre, whether it’s the trauma of bombs raining down, or, in the second piece, a fellow refugee artist in London, alone in the darkness of her flat, as she uses spoken word to sing of ‘lost friends’. We are asked to write or draw something on our arm while watching the videos, and in reflecting on the idea of isolation and its effects on refugees, all I wrote was ‘hope’, because god knows how much they need to carry on.
The session ends with Basel returning to engage us in a short talkback session. It is a slightly awkward experience – with no clear direction as to where this conversation is going, I don’t entirely know what I should be saying, and I begin to talk about how I want to feel something, but I’m afraid of coming across as privileged and pitying in my perspective. I hear their pain but do not know it, having never experienced isolation to that extent.
Basel reassures me that what I feel is fine, and that as much as there is a degree of suffering we see in these songs, they are in a better place than before. We end the session, and it feels somewhat incomplete, as if we’ve opened up a conversation with the drawings, the videos, and the discussion but don’t quite know what the next step is, or how it really all comes together to make a greater point beyond how isolation is experienced and detrimental to refugees.
But maybe starting that conversation is enough, and at the very least, allows us to fix our attention on everything Basel has dedicated to doing in these 15 precious minutes. Because by engaging us, it means that he is no longer alone, and this seemingly innocuous Zoom call pulls both him and myself out of the isolation we feel, if only for a moment. This is as far as isolation goes: the choice must be made to reach out and keep forging a connection, lest the solitude consumes you with pain and fear.
As Far As Isolation Goes runs on Zoom till 30th May 2021 as part of the 2021 Singapore International Festival of Arts. Tickets available here
The 2021 Singapore International Festival of Arts runs from 14th to 30th May 2021. Tickets and full line-up available here