The ARTIST TRAINING is one of many initiatives that have evolved in the wake of the summer of migration 2016 to, simply put, welcome Refugees. In its 5th year and 3rd funding period at UdK now, it still does so, but with a slightly different scope and wealth of experiences. In an effort to reflect on this past period, the Artist Training recently reached out to and caught up with some of its former participants and protagonists – “Conversations on exile” is a series of interviews around the themes of migration, art and work and will be published later this year. For this series Zainab Alsawah shared her experiences.
Zainab Alsawah is an actress from Syria. Born in Damascus in 1990, she grew up in Homs (Syria), where she studied English Literature at Baath University. There she started doing theater with the Labour Theatre Troupe under the direction of Farhan Bulbul. After fleeing Syria in 2013, she lived in Osnabrück for two years and resettled to Berlin in 2016 to study acting at the University of the Arts. During her studies, she performed at Theater Münster, Theaterdiscounter Berlin and Hans Otto Theater Potsdam. She has also acted in film and television. For her own project Zahn des Löwens at the University of the Arts, she won the DAAD prize for outstanding achievements of foreign students studying at German universities. Since August 2020, she has been an ensemble member of the Oldenburgisches Staatstheater.
Manuela Goschy (TEXT) Daniel Nartschick (PHOTO)
Hi Zainab. Would you introduce yourself?
Zainab Alsawah Hi. I am an actress from Syria. I came to Germany at the end of 2013 and started to study acting at the University of the Arts Berlin in 2016. I graduated in November last year and will soon start a two-year engagement with the state theater in Oldenburg.
You weren’t a participant of the program, but you supported the ARTIST TRAINING in the last three years, first with moderation/translation in our workshops, later in marketing/communication, while you studied acting at UdK. How come you decided to pursue acting as a profession in Germany and change paths from what you had started in Syria?
Zainab Alsawah Well, I kind of changed paths, but not completely. I had started doing theatre in Syria with the Labour Theatre Troupe in my hometown Homs while I was studying English Literature. I was 19 years old at that time. That was when I discovered my passion and I knew that I wanted to do this for the rest of my life. But I also knew that in Syria, you can not survive with theatre alone. So the plan was to continue studying, get a "normal" job to earn money and still do theatre on the side. In Germany, I saw a chance to do this professionally and I was still at a reasonable age to study something new, something that will make me happy, so I went for it.
Was it hard to get started with studying?
Zainab Alsawah Yes, it was difficult to get started, especially if you were not from this country and you had been speaking the language for only two and a half years, as was my case. My language skills were enough to get accepted, but the first year was very hard, since we had to improvise a lot, and so I wasn't as fast as my classmates. But I also wasn't the only one who had these difficulties in the acting department, there were other students from different countries, and that is something I liked about studying at the UdK. I felt equal chances were given to all applicants regardless of their origin and importance was attached to diversity among students.
And what is your view on the German theater scene in those regards?
Zainab Alsawah I am lucky that I now have a German degree in acting. But generally speaking, it is very hard to get accepted and acknowledged as a professional if you are not from here. A lot of foreign actors and actresses suffer from discrimination in the field and most of them get casted only to play roles with a migration background, mostly because they look different or maybe have an accent. Casting in the film and television industries relies heavily on stereotypes, even for Germans, so you can imagine how it is for foreigners or people with a migration background. One might think that it could be different in theatre, where the element of illusion is somehow taken away by seeing the actors live on a stage and where a lot of situations are performed abstractly. So actually, it wouldn't be a problem if, for example, Othello would be played by a native German or if a PoC actress would play the mother of a blond character. But this is sadly often not the case. Some theatres are doing massive steps in this direction, but we are still not at the point where it is no longer a statement to diversely cast a play, but rather a normality.
I would think that Berlin is quite progressive in regards of diverse casts compared to smaller German towns. How do you feel about moving to Oldenburg now?
Zainab Alsawah I am very excited about moving to Oldenburg. Yes, Berlin is probably more diverse than any other German city, but that doesn't mean that I can only find my place as an actress in Berlin. I got a fair chance in a theatre where people are really interested in working with me, and that is exactly what I was looking for. As to Berlin, it is a nice diverse city, but it did not offer me what Oldenburg is offering me.
Are there certain characters that are often ascribed to you?
Zainab Alsawah For film and television, I usually get asked to do castings for Arab roles, and I think you can imagine what the German stereotype for an Arab woman is, so I won't bother you with the details. Of course I am not talking about every casting I did, but there is a majority. I don't mind playing an Arab character, I mean I am an Arab woman in the end. It is rather the stereotyping that bothers me. To be seen as a certain type of actress could become a problem if I someday want to work as a freelancer, so I have to prove myself in the next few years in order not to fall into any kind of categorization. In Oldenburg I will be a part of the ensemble which means I will be able to play different roles with different biographies.
Has living in exile opened or closed doors for you?
Zainab Alsawah I have to admit that I got some roles because of my background and they turned out to be very good experiences. But the fact that I got accepted to study or that I got a two-year-contract at a theater didn't have to do with where I come from, and I am very happy about that. It was my goal to have the same chances as any other German actress and to be cast for what I can do and not for where I come from. Of course, what I went through changed me and made me the person and even the actress that I am now. People who gave me these chances were also interested in my biography, but I like to think that they made their decisions because they could see me in any role.
Your German is perfect, you earned a degree and found a job. One might think it must have been easy for you to integrate, as far as the German standard of integration is concerned.
Zainab Alsawah I don't know how I feel about the word "integration". I mean, I live here now and my whole life is here and this is the only place I can call "home" since I can't go back. Of course, you have to adapt to some degree in order to feel that way. But the important thing is that you find a way to express yourself, because then people can start to interact with you and then you can start to feel like you belong. Otherwise it is hard and you would feel out of place. So I think "integration", if we want to use that word, starts with the way you feel about the place you live in.
What are your aspirations for the future?
Zainab Alsawah I hope I can have good experiences in my field and play roles that challenge me and that I get to know and work with open and creative colleagues. Someday, maybe in five or ten years, I want to have or be a part of a theatre company where I can bring in my own ideas and realize my own projects. There are a lot of stories yet to be told in this crazy world of wars and injustice, and I would like to make my contribution to the documentation of fates that often get forgotten in the exhaustion of everyday life.