“Wow, wow, wow,” says Omad Shakour, putting aside the cigarette that went out a while ago. “My whole body was trembling. I was sweating like crazy. I could barely talk; my throat was completely dry.”
Shakour, an asylum seeker from Sudan’s Darfur region, takes a deep breath and keeps on describing his ordeal. Actually, that ordeal was the first time he had ever performed onstage.
“That was the first time I had acted, the first time I really appreciated the significance of art. By nature I’m a very shy person and I’ve suffered from social anxiety. I was unable to express myself. There, onstage, I built up my confidence. Since then I’ve adopted the theater.”
It’s hard to believe Shakour when he repeatedly describes himself as shy. After all, not many shy asylum seekers from Darfur study at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya. On the sofa in an apartment he shares with a roommate, it seems nothing could excite him. But until June 2015, when the show “Legislative Theater at Holot” was first performed at the Holot detention facility in the south, things looked different.
“In February 2014 I was sent to Holot,” he says. “I didn’t know what was going to happen to me; I was depressed. In one way or another, everyone suffers from depression at Holot. I was imprisoned for an unlimited period, for no reason except for that I was seeking asylum.”
Instead of letting the routine get the better of him, Shakour became the master of his own time. “I prepared for the possibility that I would be forced to stay there more or less forever, and decided to treat Holot like a boarding school,” he says.
He used his 180-shekel ($52) monthly allowance to buy minutes for his phone. He registered for the computer-science course in a tuition-free online school.
After about three months at Holot, he met cinema director Avi Mograbi and lecturer and theater director Chen Alon. “We went down south like two white anthropologists and simply began talking to them,” Alon says. “We came and spoke to the prisoners, and we came and spoke again. When we said ‘theater’ they laughed in our faces and didn’t understand what we wanted. In the end they said: “We’re bored; maybe you can teach us a course.”
The course, says Shakour, included skills such as meditation and body movement, before even starting on the acting process. “I wasn’t familiar with theater until then; I had never seen a play. It always seemed to me like entertainment for the rich. On the other hand, I thought ‘I’m here already, at this boarding school. So why not join? At least I’ll improve my English.’”
Portraying an Eritrean
For a year Alon and Mograbi came once a week to an abandoned hangar near Holot and worked with the asylum seekers on “Legislative Theater at Holot.”
“The desire to learn gave rise to the desire to create, and to connect the work to the struggle,” Alon says, adding that he worked with asylum-seeker actors using the Theater of the Oppressed method developed by Brazilian Augusto Boal. The basis for the play was the UN refugee convention, along with additions by the participants.
Shakour chose to play an Eritrean soldier who was killed while trying to desert from the army. Later, as an understudy, he played an Israeli soldier on the Egyptian border who convinced his commanders to let the refugees enter Israel. “I prefer positive roles, and those soldiers did good deeds,” he says.
The work on the play was documented in Mograbi’s film “Between Fences,” but Shakour is a little embarrassed about his appearance on-screen: “I didn’t know those shots would be part of the film,” he says. “There wasn’t the pressure of the cameras and the lines to memorize. I didn’t do so well; I looked pretty sad there.”
He performed regularly with the group and improved his English, but the Holot theater's influence was greater than he had imagined. “I was in a kind of culture shock during my first three years in Israel. I didn’t have a language for communicating with the people here; my concerns were how to get through the day, every day,” he says of the period before his incarceration.
“In Holot I met only Sudanese, but in the play I met people from different backgrounds — Eritreans, Israelis. I received the tools for contributing to social change.” He says he had been unaware of the situation of the Eritrean asylum seekers in Israel; the Eritreans can’t cite a civil war the way Sudanese can.
It’s understandable why he was less concerned about other people’s problems. He arrived in Israel alone at the age of 22, after 27 members of his family, including his mother, were murdered.
“After high school I was supposed to be drafted into the Sudanese army, but I couldn’t imagine wearing a uniform and fighting against my people,” Shakour says. “For three years I lived in flight; I kept moving from place to place. The government and the army automatically suspect us, the Darfurians, of belonging to the rebels. That’s why the moment I deserted I could no longer return home.”
In the end he reached Egypt. “The Bedouin smuggler said there were many Sudanese living in Israel and gave me three options: remain in Egypt and risk death, raise more money and try to get to Europe, or give them all the money I had and they would bring me to the border with Israel.”
After a long hesitation he chose the third option. “I had heard very negative things about Israel. I thought it was a place of bad people who kill other people. I had no idea that Darfurians were living here; I was in shock about that.”
Crossing the border
In February 2010 he dared an attempt to sneak in. “There were 13 of us, but I think that only seven managed to cross the border. I’m not sure. There was a lot of shooting between the smugglers and the Egyptian soldiers.” He spent his first three days at Saharonim Prison, a place he suddenly describes as “something happened that changed my life.”
What exactly? He refuses to say; he’s saving that moment for a short-story contest he plans to take part in. “Those days expanded my horizons” is all he’ll agree to say.
He lived in Netanya, Hadera, Tel Aviv and Rishon Letzion before moving to Herzliya two months ago. He was released from Holot after 18 months, on the order of the High Court of Justice.
“I was obsessive about studying when I got out, but I didn’t have money and didn’t know anyone who could help me,” he says. Shakour thus left the Holot theater group — “For almost a year I worked 12 to 15 hours a day to pay my debts to friends, and on weekends I studied programming.”
Another meeting with Alon, the theater director, changed his life again. “He suggested that I register for formal studies. I told him he knew better than I that there’s only one college that grants a bachelor’s degree for studies done in English, and it’s very expensive,” Shakour says, referring to the IDC Herzliya.
“He asked me what I had to lose — and he was right.” Although Shakour had no proof that he had finished high school, Alon sent him to a professor at the IDC Herzliya, who in turn sent him to another one.
I eventually he received a scholarship from Israel at Heart, a nonprofit group founded by American Jewish philanthropist Joey Low, which also provided him with living expenses. “It’s impossible to believe how amazing people can be,” he says. Recently he completed his first semester in economics and business administration; no more online courses for him.
This week he was granted temporary residency thanks to a decision by a Jerusalem appeals court. Now he can renew his visa once a year instead of every two months, and he’s eligible for health insurance and other benefits. He’ll be able to leave the country without any problem, but despite his excitement, Shakour replied “yes and no” when asked if he sees his future in Israel.
“I’ve been living here for eight years already and have made friends who have become my second family,” he says.” On the other hand, it’s impossible to find a better place than the place where you grew up, the place where your childhood memories were formed, the place where you really feel you belong.”
Charged with new energies, he's returning to the stage for the Holot theater’s third performance, which is taking place Friday at Tel Aviv’s Tmuna Theater. This play is a combination of the group’s first two plays, in addition to a scene from “The Child Dreams” by Hanoch Levin. Shakour hopes it won’t be his last appearance as an actor.
“The theater has become a learning tool for me,” he says. “Stepping into the shoes of another person lets me understand various situations and solve them in new ways, from a perspective that was unfamiliar to me. In addition, it’s important to me to tell our story, that of the refugees, to Israelis, many of whom don’t know what we experienced on our way here — and that’s the best way I know.”