Review Antwerp


A timeless story of people fleeing their homes

Inspiring and touching evenings with music, drawing, video and theatre


Four cultural events took place in the intimate setting and cosy atmosphere of the  “Upper Deck”, the café of the Red Star Line Museum. All of them were made by refugees interviewed for the Specially Unknown project, in co-creation with fieldworkers who interviewed them. The refugees created four special performances – each in another art discipline, to tell their stories. The fieldworkers took care of the surrounding program: each evening they welcomed the public, gave an introduction of the idea and the background of the event, filmed the program and gave an inspiring speech on a topic. Their dedication and cordiality created a pleasant and friendly atmosphere each time.


Each evening focused on a different period in the life of thousands of people who had to flee their homes for some reason. These four themes –  Memories (of a life back home) , Flight (journey to a new life), Belgium (moment of arrival)  and Impact of Migration (a new begin?) – were chosen because they were prominent in the interviews with the refugees taken for Specially Unknown.



The first evening the theme was Memories of a life back home. Syrian singer, entrepreneur and filmmaker Sally Ghanoum, in Belgium since 2015,  told about what connects her to her homeland: a tree in her village Mashta al Helou where hundreds of Syrian refugees from over the country sought shelter.


Her story, “The Daughter of Dilbi”, is about how a so called dilbi tree got ill, started losing branches in the midst of war, how that scared and devastated all refugees in Mashta al Helou (even trees are dying!), and how the artists refugees turned this tree to become a symbol of strength and hope. One of them, a sculptor made a Statue of Birth out of the fallen branches of the tree; the others organized an art festival around it.


Sally told this touching story by a short video made and sent by her students in Mashta al Helou, and by singing angelic Syrian music, serenely accompanied with the soft tones of the Kurdish version of Ud, played by Mohamad Hussein.


She emotionally involved people by asking them for ideas on what would they do if this tree were theirs – which brought several poetic answers. She thought the public to sing a refrain of a Syrian song, recorded their singing in order to send it to the people in Mashta al Helou, as solidarity, but also to be used for the Dilbi Art Festival which, despite the war, is organized each year.  At the end, Sally handed over the Statue of Birth  –  brought from Syria to Antwerp –  to Karen Moeskops, the director of the Red Star Line Museum.



The second evening was the most intimate one. The theme was the Flight – on the way to somewhere else.  Performance “Crossing Worlds – Domozy’s memories” by the Syrian visual artists Saif Lama’à,  a.k.a. Dumuzi, took the audiences through his dangerous journey to Europe in an unique way: he draw it in front of their eyes.


For this intense story, the Upper Deck was made even more “intimate” than other nights. It was transformed into an artist’s studio: there was no stage, public was set very near around Saif. Lights were dimmed, only one spot was directed to his canvas where he was drawing his story while telling it. Canvasses, pencils, brushes, charcoal – that’s what he used to tell his visual story. Black stripes became at the end whole scenes, very detailed, with a lot of emotion and expression; even the intense atmosphere was captured – pure magic.


The public was absorbed in this performance. Saif shared later that also for him this was a very special experience and that the longer he was doing it, the more comfortable he felt. He said that this could become his way to tell his story and cope with all the thoughts and trauma related.



Video “Performing the self – the interview” was about a third important moment in the life of a refugee The moment of arrival (in this case, of course, defined as: Belgium). It was made by an Italian filmmaker Enrica Camporesi with an interviewee of Specially Unknown, Palestinian actor Fady Al Ghora, in Antwerp since 2014.


The video is a recording of a shadow theatre play. We see the shadows of a refugee and a Belgian protection (immigration) officer trying to communicate while waiting for an interpreter to start an interview, whereby strange and sometimes funny miscommunication and misunderstandings arise from different cultural and existential approaches, experiences and expectations, but also from the power relations. The officer is asking bureaucratic facts, the refugee is  answering poetically, about things that matter to him.


This brings light on different aspects and perspectives on questions like what is truth, what is important about a person, what makes somebody’s identity: the law and passport, or human nature, views, emotions, memories and opinions.


A refugee lawyer, an interpreter and an employee of a reception desk of the Red Cross who took part in a panel discussion after the projection, confirmed that they experienced similar situations and recognized the discomfort they brought.



The last evening, the theme was  An Impact of migration: a new begin?.  Iraqi theatre maker Hussein Mahdi, in Belgium since 2015, in his theatre-solo “I am Hussein, who are you?” shared how his life until arrival to Antwerp was always about having to fight for something: back home, to escape, to come to Europe – and then, once in Antwerp he didn’t have anything to fight for any more, and found himself in an existential dilemma: what do to? To chill out, or to find something to fight for, climate change, for example.


He emotionally engaged people in the audiences with this topic in different ways: by asking them about the motto and the driving force of their lives;  by inviting some of them on a stage for a tea and a talk about the happiest and saddest moments in their lives. The answers were moving for all present: for a refugee from Iraq the happiest moment was when he was selected to play for the Iraqi national football team, and for an Afghani man the saddest moment was when he realized that he left everything, but absolutely everything and everybody behind. These answers also encouraged the public to respond warmly to Hussein’s invitation to think and talk to each other about their happiest and saddest moments, and other similar questions.



But this was not the end. It is actually a beginning of something. This week was only a pre-view of what will happen in October 2019 in the Red Star Line Museum: these intense and touching stories will be performed during an exhibition for a longer time and for much broader audiences.