A young refugee’s giant footsteps

The refugee crisis is often in the news, and like other complex, global issues it can be hard to relate to. Perhaps focussing on the arduous journey of just one unaccompanied minor would help.

The Walk – One little girl. One BIG hope.
In 2021, from the Syria-Turkey border all the way to the UK, The Walk brought together celebrated artists, major cultural institutions, community groups and humanitarian organisations, creating one of the most innovative and adventurous public artworks ever attempted. At the heart of The Walk is ‘Little Amal’, a 3.5 metre-tall puppet of a young refugee girl, created by the acclaimed Handspring Puppet Company. Representing all displaced children, many separated from their families, Little Amal is travelling over 8,000km embodying the urgent message “Don’t forget about us”.

Four months, 5,000 miles: A refugee puppet looks for homeThe New York Times
The puppeteers were watching Tamara closely in order to mimic her behavior and create a 9-year-old Syrian refugee named Little Amal, the lead character in “The Walk,” one of the year’s most ambitious pieces of theater — and certainly the piece of theater with the biggest stage. The plot of “The Walk” was simple: Little Amal had lost her mother, and was looking to find her. But the logistics to pull off the almost $4 million project — a 5,000 mile journey from Turkey to England — were anything but.

She set off from Turkey in July.

Puppet of young Syrian refugee embarks on 5,000-mile journeyEuronews
Walking through the streets of Gaziantep, Turkey, a 12-foot-tall puppet of a 9-year-old Syrian refugee girl, called ‘Little Amal’, attracts the attention of passersby. Towering over crowds, it’s the beginning of a transcontinental trip that organisers hope will bring awareness to the refugee crisis, and the plight of millions of displaced children around the world.

And arrived in England in October.

Refugee puppet Little Amal welcomed at St Paul’s Cathedralindy100
The crowd cheered as Little Amal neared St Paul’s, and a group of children chanted “Amal! Amal! Amal!” The 3.5-metre tall puppet then climbed the cathedral’s steps before handing a gift – a wood carving of a ship at sea from St Paul’s birthplace at Tarsus in Turkey – to the dean, David Ison. Dr Ison addressed the puppet, saying: “The dome of St Paul’s is known around the world. Our doors are big enough to receive you. Our hope here for London is that it is big enough to receive all those who seek refuge in this city.”

The journey of Little AmalThe Atlantic
Amir Nizar Zuabi, the project’s artistic director, says, “The purpose of The Walk is to highlight the potential of the refugee, not just their dire circumstances. Little Amal is 3.5 meters tall because we want the world to grow big enough to greet her.”

Highlighting these journeys is a contentious issue, however.

Giant puppet ruffles some feathers on a long walk through GreeceThe New York Times
On Monday, the local council of Meteora, a municipality in central Greece, voted to ban Amal from walking through a village in the area, which is home to a UNESCO World Heritage site known for its cluster of Orthodox monasteries built on towering rock formations. The objection raised by several council members was that a puppet depicting a Muslim refugee should not be permitted to perform in a space of such importance to Greek Orthodox believers. The local bishop opposed the project for that reason, while a local heritage group complained that the initiative could bring more refugees to a country that has already taken in tens of thousands.

The Walk: Little Amal puppet’s 8,000 km march across Europe to highlight refugee crisisWorld Socialist Web Site
If Amal was a real girl, she would not have made her way to Manchester so easily. Her way would have been blocked by barbed wire and national borders. Most likely, she would not have passed through Turkey, but would have been thrown into a concentration camp funded by the European Union (EU) as part of its Fortress Europe barring the way to asylum seekers. An EU deal signed in 2016 allows Greece to deport refugees that manage to reach its territory to Turkey. […]

Had Amal managed the journey across Europe, at the mercy of people smugglers, on reaching the port of Calais in northern France she would have joined 2,000 migrants, including 300 unaccompanied children stranded at the site of “The Jungle”—1.5 square miles (3.9 sq km) of refugee camps demolished in 2016. Police in Calais carry out daily evictions there, seizing tents, sleeping bags and blankets. They placed boulders to impede access to aid agency vehicles providing water, food and clothing.

But she did make it to Manchester, and then continued further north to the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow this week.

Migrant justice = Climate justiceUN Climate Change Conference (COP26)
The climate crisis is forcing people to move, and it will force millions more to move in the future. The issue of safe passage is an urgent one. Little Amal, a young refugee and 3.5m high puppet, has just completed a remarkable 8000km journey – The Walk, produced by Good Chance Theatre in association with Handspring Puppet Company. Along the way, Amal met with refugees like her, many affected directly by the consequences of the climate crisis. As borders are raised, how should we respond to this growing need to move to find safety?

Giant Syrian refugee puppet Amal attend COP26 in GlasgowThe Scotsman
The giant puppet’s visit comes at the Gender + Science and Innovation Day at the conference. The day focuses on not only the ways in which women, girls and marginalised people are disproportionately impacted by climate change, but also the importance of their leadership and participation in driving solutions.

Glass in Manchester

Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre have a new Philip Glass work, Tao of Glass, “an exploration of life, loss and a single question: Where does true inspiration come from?” It’s a collaboration with Phelim McDermott, who has worked with his music before.

Tao of Glass review – golden odyssey through Philip Glass’s music
Tao of Glass, co-directed with Kirsty Housley and with a score by Glass himself, is – on one level – the story of McDermott’s long-held dream of creating a piece to his music. Aided by three puppeteers and a small band of musicians, he acts out his story not as a narrative, but as a collage of fragments. His initial idea, he tells us, had been to stage Maurice Sendak’s children’s book In the Night Kitchen, about a boy falling into a surreal underworld. But Sendak died before work could begin, and the project came to nothing. Yet what do we have here? A falling puppet boy, a model piano that ingeniously transforms into a toy theatre of kitchen cupboards and utensils, a fantasy flight inside a milk bottle, all to a specially composed score.

It all sounds extraordinary.

Meditating in Manchester: Tao of Glass – in pictures
This world premiere at Manchester international festival combines Philip Glass’s mesmerising music and performer-director Phelim McDermott’s theatricality.

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Philip Glass: from Einstein on the Beach to a superfan in Manchester
As a young Glass fan, McDermott saw ENO’s European premiere of Akhnaten in London in 1985. After picking up his ticket, he says, he spotted the composer in the street and followed him around Covent Garden until Glass disappeared into a sushi restaurant. “I guess there was a fantasy – if I stopped him, what would I say? A little bit like when I saw Quentin Tarantino at a crime writers’ festival in Nottingham. On some level, Tao of Glass is me finally daring to stop Philip and ask him a question.”

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I love how he has a matching anecdote.

Philip Glass: I once had Salvador Dali in the back of my cab
An element of this show is Phelim McDermott’s love of your music. He says in 1985 he followed you down the street and was too shy to say hello. Have you ever had a moment where you were starstruck?

Oh yes. In my early days as a composer, I had day jobs as most people do. For a period of time I was driving taxis and Salvador Dali got in my cab. Can you believe that? With the moustaches and everything. And I was dying to talk to him.

But it was a very short ride. I took him from a restaurant back to his hotel, only about six blocks. And I was thinking, I’ve gotta say something. I never could think of anything to say to him. Better that, because I’m afraid that if I said something, whatever it was, it would have been probably very stupid. In the end I can say I missed meeting him by very little.

Reminds me of the time as a student when I almost met Peter Greenaway. We were both on a train to Cardiff, for a showing and Q&A of The Baby of Mâcon at the Chapter arts centre. Yep, just too shy to meet a hero. Good to know I’m not the only one.