In 2014, ISIS militants had the northern Syrian town of Kobane under siege, its citizens outnumbered and outgunned.
Against all odds, the attackers are pushed back by local forces, including a contingent of female Kurdish fighters known as The People's Protection Unit (YPJ – Yekineyen Parastina Gel). From this battle was born a contemporary legend, that of Rehana, the 'Angel Of Kobane', a farmer's daughter turned sniper credited with over 100 assassinations of ISIS fighters.
'Angel' is Rehana's story, adapted into a stage play by writer and satirist, Henry Naylor. Ahead of its Australian debut, we talk to Henry about Rehana and the work she has inspired.
When did you first learn of Rehana the 'Angel Of Kobane'?
I’ve always been fascinated about events out in the Middle East, because of my old flatmate. He was a cameraman for the BBC, and covered the war in Afghanistan in 2001. After the war, he helped me to visit to Kabul. It changed my life, walking through the ruins and devastation. And so ever since, I’ve been fascinated by the region. In fact, so much so that for the past 16 years, I’ve been cutting out and saving newspaper articles on the events out there. One of those stories was Rehana’s.
What about her and her story inspired you to write 'Angel'?
I was particularly attracted to Rehana’s story, because I think there’s a tendency in the west – a rather patronising tendency – to portray Middle Eastern women as passive victims. That’s clearly not true. Over 35% of the soldiers defending Kobane were women. Which is a much higher proportion of female troops on the frontline than any Western Army. On another level I was keen to tell her story. I don’t think that events out in Syria are getting the press attention that they should. For two reasons, really. One – I think that there’s a feeling in editorial circles that people are fatigued with Syria. Which is crazy: after the election of Donald Trump – it’s the biggest story there is in the world, right now. And the second reason, which is understandable, is that it’s bloody dangerous out there. And ISIS’ brutal treatment of Western journalists, has made editors reluctant to despatch their staff to the frontlines… So the story isn’t being covered. And for my part, I think the arts have a role to play in informing the public. The very existence of Rehana and her exploits has been heavily disputed since she appeared on social media.
How do you respond to claims the 'Angel Of Kobane' is an urban legend, or even an invention of anti-Jihadi propaganda?
Yeah, you’re right. That is the case. She has become an internet myth. Truth is, not much is known about her. Yes, there was a person called Rehana. She was a law student who jettisoned her studies to fight for the Kobane resistance. But that’s about all the facts we know. And beyond that – accounts differ. Some people say she was a prolific sniper who shot 100 Jihadis. Others say that number is vastly exaggerated. Surprisingly, even some Kurdish YPJ fighters play down her significance. They say that all their fighters are heroines, and feel it’s unfair to single one out. People don’t even know whether she’s alive or dead. Firstly, the Jihadis posted pictures of a grinning soldier holding up the severed head of a woman who they claim is Rehana. Then, the Kurds responded, by posting a picture of Rehana looking alive and well – and flipping a V sign at the camera. One of them is wrong! And there’s no doubt that people have bent her story to suit their own agendas (and I’m sure I can be included in this).
Are these claims acknowledged within the performance, and how are they dealt with in the narrative?
Not at all. As a dramatist I’m trying to create an illusion of real people talking on stage. And you can’t do that if you’re constantly questioning the facts of the characters’ existence. As a writer, you have to take some poetic licence. Or make some educated guesses. The fact is, the show’s a drama, not a history essay. You have to write a story which is entertaining and moving. You have to decide on a truth and stick with it. And I believe we’ve done it convincingly. I’ve intensively researched life in the Kobane region. It’s a very agricultural area, and so I’ve made ‘my’ Rehana a pistachio farmer’s daughter. After all my research – I’ve become a bit of a pistachio-growing-expert, I reckon!
What does actress Avital Lvova bring to the lead role of Rehana?
Avital is fabulous. There’s quite a huge trajectory to Rehana’s story, it’s an epic, and so it needs a special type of actress. She needs to play a naïve schoolgirl at the start of the story – and a hardened killer by the end. And Avital nails it. Besides, she also has to play dozens of different characters – so you’ll get to see her full range!
As the final instalment of your 'Arabian Nightmares' trilogy, does this play bring any sort of closure to the series as a whole?
It’s funny you know. I never set out to write a trilogy. But the Middle Eastern story keeps evolving and changing so fast – that I keep finding something new I want to say. The first play ('The Collector') was about the corruption of American soldiers in an Abu Ghraib-type prison. In the second ('Echoes') I compared Jihadi brides to the pioneers of the Victoria era. And now, 'Angel'. Instead of writing one play, I’ve written three. Truth is – I might even write a fourth or a fifth instalment, if a great story leaps out at me. So in an answer to your question, there’s no real closure. Heck, I might do a George Lucas and do seven parts!!
The performance season includes a Talking Point at Illawarra with both you, and local resident and former Kurdish refugee Burhan Zangara. What do you hope to get out of these sessions?
I’m really excited to meet Burhan. People from the region always have fascinating stories to tell. Who knows? I might get an idea for a fourth 'Arabian Nightmares' story…