Overcoming Borders Through Theatre: Shelby And Arabi Have A Story To Tell

By Rosanne van Kommer

— Two strangers from different backgrounds meet on a boat heading to the same location. Their reasons for leaving home are different, but are they really so different at heart? This is the central question in the play created and performed by 19-year-old Shelby Demmerer, a second-year student, and 24-year-old Arabi Ghibeh, one of the guest students who followed Dutch language courses at AUC earlier this year.

Demmerer moved to Amsterdam in January of last year from Suriname to start her education at AUC. She left Suriname because the Netherlands gave her more opportunities, and because a liberal arts education wasn’t an option in Suriname. Ghibeh came to Amsterdam in October of the same year from Syria, which he left to avoid being conscripted into the army.

The two met when Demmerer became involved with the Right2Education team by picking up the guest students for their first trip to AUC. A group of volunteers helped the guest students figure out the Dutch public transport system and showed them the way for the first time. After their first meeting Demmerer and Ghibeh stayed in touch through random encounters in the hallways between classes, as well as on social media. Though their backgrounds seemed to be very different at first, Demmerer and Ghibeh found that there were also similarities. “He was always talking about acting,” Demmerer recalled, “He just has this dream of becoming an actor, that was something he was very happy about and he shared it with everyone.” Ghibeh’s passion for acting made Demmerer think about her own past experiences in theatre, and she decided to contact him about a possible collaboration. “I thought he’s acting, I’m acting, so how about we just make something together?” she said.

They decided to make a play that was based on their real lives and experiences, emphasising the similarities between them, rather than the differences. The untitled play was performed twice on a single day in April 2016 as part of ‘Excursie Noord’, organised by Stichting Nieuwe Helden in collaboration with Tolhuistuin and Over Het Ij Festival. The audience consisted of participants of the Informal European Theatre Meeting (IETM). “The location helped us get to the idea,” Ghibeh said. The stage for the play was one of Amsterdam’s ferries.

The play is about a Syrian man and Surinamese woman coming to Amsterdam by boat. They meet on the deck and start a conversation, but both characters have different outlooks on how they relate to each other. Demmerer’s character highlights their differences, while Ghibeh’s shows their similarities. “With the ways we think, perspectives we have, things we believe in, dreams, things we wanna achieve, things we stress about, we are kind of the same,” Demmerer said.

The content of the play is almost completely autobiographical. “The character I did in the play is me,” Ghibeh said, “It’s me talking about my real life.” This required the two actors to open up to each other about their personal stories. Demmerer found this quite difficult in the beginning. “I built kind of a wall,” she said. These walls nearly ruined the plans they had for the script till they spoke to director Tim van der Heuvel. He asked them “Why are you not just being you?”.

Demmerer realised that although their stories differ, she knew what it was like to come to a new country and deal with the stereotypes and labels that accompany being a foreigner. “When I came here and said I was from Suriname people said all these stereotypical things, they try to put you in a box,” she said, ‘I was tired of these boxes and that was something I really wanted to avoid with him.” She avoided speaking to Ghibeh about his experiences in Syria and as a refugee in the Netherlands because she assumed he wouldn’t want to talk about it. As it turned out, Ghibeh didn’t mind talking about these experiences. “I think I talked too much and didn’t listen enough,” Demmerer said.

Working together on the play and experiencing the full process from concept to performance was a new experience for the young actors, but both Demmerer and Ghibeh hope to continue this in the future. For Demmerer acting will remain a hobby, but for Ghibeh it will hopefully serve as a continuation of his acting career. “I did a lot of acting in Syria and I came here to get a career in acting again,” he said, “this was the first time I acted in a different language than my mother tongue, but in the future I want to do it again and act in Dutch as well.” Ghibeh is currently involved with project Wijksafari Bijlmer, a theatre production that takes participants through the south-east part of Amsterdam.

The performance by the two actors is in many ways a reflection of real life. Although they didn’t arrive here at the same time, the dialogue of the play is coming from their real lives and the connection made between the two characters on stage carried on off of it as well. The friendship between Demmerer and Ghibeh shows that contrasts in background are no reason to be held back in getting to know each other. “There are big differences between our cultures and traditions, but we share the same passion for the future,” Ghibeh said.

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