Henry Naylor only began writing plays three years ago. After spending many years as a stand-up comedian, he decided to bring a more theatrical and far less humorous approach to the stage with a trilogy of plays set in the Middle East called, collectively, Arabian Nightmares. Now the focus is Angel, a play — and the name of a real-life heroine in 2014 Kobanî, Northern Syria.
Naylor says he's always had a keen interest in news. "My bread-and-butter as a writer was writing for topical TV shows," he says. "And I've been following developments in the Middle East all my career. I think my shows set in the region are informed by 25 years of news reports."
Naylor was particularly fascinated by the Siege of Kobanî, saying it's one of the turning points of the modern age.
"Before the siege, the Islamic State had seemed invincible. They'd steamrollered their way through Iraq and were expected to do the same in Syria," Naylor says. "But the people of Kobanî, armed only with aging Russian rifles, stood up to them, and drove them back. Ever since, IS has been in retreat."
But the incredible thing about the battle was the number of women in frontline combat. More than any Western army, over a third of the defenders were women who were willing to lay down their lives to fight for their rights — "the ultimate feminist struggle."
In the thick of the fighting was a young, female law student, whose name is thought to be Rehana. Not much is known about her, and accounts differ, but some say she shot 100 Jihadis. "She became one of the sniper-squad called the YPJ, and was supposedly an exceptional shot," says Naylor. "As a dramatist, I could see the appeal of her story — it had an extraordinary arc. She began, believing in the rule of law, and then ended up believing in the rule of the gun. Amazing."
Now the Angel has become an internet myth, and Naylor doesn't know if she's dead or alive. But because the details are so vague, he found her story to be a blank canvas, allowing him to use it to relay the stories of the many different women in the region. So all of the events in Angel don't necessarily happen to Rehana, but they've happened to someone in the region, making Angel a symbol of a larger struggle.
It was Naylor's previous shows — like Echoes, which compared Jihadi brides in Syria to Victorian pioneer women — that got him interested in the roles of women in the Middle East. "In the Western media, they're frequently portrayed as passive victims," he says. "I found this not to be the case. They were, and are, active participants in the conflict. Whether you agree with them or not — Jihadi brides and Kurdish snipers both see themselves as making bold, feminist decisions."
Naylor accepts the challenge to inform where the media has failed to lift the veil on what's really happening in the Middle East — especially Syria — but he understands why publications would be hesitant to venture there. Conditions are extremely dangerous. "If I was a Western news editor I think I'd be reluctant to send my staff out there, too. But nevertheless, there's been an extraordinary battle between the forces of freedom and tyranny, and people barely know about it," he says. "The Siege of Kobanî has been compared to Stalingrad in its ferocity. After 9/11 it's probably one of the key events of the millennium so far. And yet there was barely a journalist on hand to cover it."
As for the reactions to Angel, they've been overwhelmingly positive, from critics to members of the Kurdish community to folks who'd had their eyes opened to the Syrian conflict for the very first time. One example is a member of the Adelaide housing committee who stayed behind after a performance in Australia to embrace the actress, Avital Lvova, who portrays the Angel. The woman was apologizing. "She said she's always responded to refugees very negatively, made erroneous assumptions that they were 'spongers,'" says Naylor. "But the show helped her realize how desperate the Syrian situation was and that the horrors that had befallen many middle-class Syrians could, in another time and age, just have easily happened to her. That was very gratifying — that we'd moved someone so much she'd been forced to reassess her values."