The lights are off, not a sound can be heard. Everyone's eyes are fixed on the stage, waiting to see what will happen next. Every chair is occupied, the air in the room crackles with tension.
Maisam Naser also has stage fright. She is a social activist, entrepreneur and theatre actress. The living conditions of young people in her country, Jordan, prompted her to found "Wahj Al Shams" (Sunshine) in 2016. The non-profit organization works on addressing and transforming community issues and conflicts, through art and theatre.
"In Jordan, art has a bad reputation. Few people understand and appreciate art and its effectiveness for positive social change," Maisam explains. "People here believe that art and artists have their own hidden agendas that are distant from our culture and its values. Artists are misperceived as rebellious hippies with unstable incomes. Many young artists fear not having sufficient income and not being able to provide for their families."
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Maisam made it anyway, although being a female artist in Jordan is even more challenging. "Many female artists have experienced exploitation and harassment, including myself." Her voice quivers as she says this, and an expression of harshness and sadness flies across her face.
She founded Wahj Al Shams to create a haven for emerging artists and talented youth. "I wanted to build a small and safe community where they can live the theatre experience, improve their social skills, express themselves freely, and be active members in the community," she says. "In Jordan, there is a lack of spaces for youth that are fundamental for their physical, social, cognitive, and emotional development."
A long and rocky road
In the beginning, the road was bumpy for Wahj Al Shams. Back then, Maisam didn't have the financial means to rent an office or practice space. "I remember how hard it was for us to train and to perform in public spaces. Sometimes the conditions were really harsh, but that didn't stop us from making our dreams come true. At that time, we just wanted to be seen and heard, and we wanted people to understand what art and theatre really mean," she says.
Six years later, the organization has its own office and more than 840 enrolled students. The focus remains on providing equal opportunities for young people from all walks of life in Jordan. At the same time, Wahj Al Shams aims to build a respectful, diverse and inclusive arts community where everyone is welcomed and accepted without prejudice.
Some of the participants are classified as at-risk youth. They are victims of domestic violence, engaged in negative behaviours and attitudes such as drug abuse and dropping out of school, or suffer from mental health disorders. And this is precisely what Wahj Al Shams addresses in their plays. In this way, the young people can deal with the social problems of their generation in a creative way and in a protected environment.
The curtain opens. Piece by piece, the view of the stage expands: several seating groups made of plastic rattan furniture, a trash can, a brick wall in the background. Bright light from above. Young people sit at some tables, sometimes in groups, sometimes alone, bent over a book.
The play that is being shown today is called "The Suitcase". A group of young students meet in the cafeteria. Under one of the tables they discover a mysterious suitcase. They wonder what could be in the suitcase. Maybe it contains a valuable treasure? But the suitcase cannot be opened.
Theatre has always been the place where I could escape reality for a moment. Where I could be whoever I dream of becoming.
Appearance Fathiyyeh. Her hair is tied back from her face with a colourful scarf and barrettes, and her apron is just as colourfully flowered. She pushes a mop in front of her.
Fathiyyeh's real name is Bara'a Abu Khalid. And in real life, she's not a cleaner either, but an actress. "I started acting when I was 12 years old. Theatre has always been the place where I could escape reality for a moment. Where I could be whoever I dream of becoming. Seven months ago, Maisam discovered me at a theatre performance. She offered me to re-join her team." Bara'a‘s eyes sparkle as she speaks. "I still remember how excited and happy I was. I will always be grateful for this opportunity. I feel alive on stage, and I never want to give up this feeling ever again."
Maisam's students are between 15 and 25 years old. She knows that it is easier to change negative behaviour patterns at that age, because their personalities, ideas and beliefs are still developing. With her work, she wants to give young people the opportunity to express themselves in creative ways.
Theatre and conflict work
In addition to theatre work, the organization also offers psycho-social support. "This helps our students to address their problems, strengthen their self-esteem and find the right path. Some cases are beyond our capacities. Then we get professional support from a network of trusted psychologists that we have built up," Maisam explains. "We are very proud that through our work we have been able to help many young people get from the cliff to the top."
"We are very proud that through our work, we have been able to help many young people."
Mustafa Al Souan is one of her protégés. In "The Suitcase," he plays a student in black pants and a light shirt under a grey pollunder. He became aware of Wahj Al Shams through a Facebook ad. They were looking for young artists, it said. Mustafa applied. "I never thought Wahj Al Shams would change my life. Before I joined the team, I was struggling with many problems in my personal life and health wise as well. Maisam, the team and my friends there helped me a lot. I consider them now as my second family. I have never experienced similar support from anyone in my life."
The actors on stage have gathered around the suitcase. Two of them tug at the handles. There is a scramble, wild gesticulating and loud discussions. The voices are clear, articulate. Every movement, the facial expressions and gestures are perfectly rehearsed.
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Maisam watches the performance with pride. The young people enrolled at Wahj Al Shams not only receive acting lessons. Supported by forumZFD, the organization has also been offering trainings on topics such as conflict transformation and "Do No Harm". In these, they learn to make sure that their actions do not cause harm. This contributes greatly to their personal development, Maisam reports: "I am surprised how much my students were influenced by the trainings they received. To see how they suddenly use and understand terms like debate and dialogue is amazing. I am sure the knowledge and skills they have now will help them cope better with their problems."
Mustafa also confirms this. He says he has learned a lot from the trainings: "I now feel fearless and capable to do anything I want. Wahj Al Shams has helped me become healthier and more aware of the impact my behaviour can have on me and the people around me. Before joining the team, I was very reckless and sometimes acted inappropriately. This has gotten me into many difficult situations. Now I think carefully before I take action, and I make sure I don't regret my decisions in the future."
Although the living conditions for young people in Jordan are anything but easy, the participants in Wahj Al Shams do not allow themselves to be deprived of hope for a better future. The support of partners like forumZFD is important on various levels. For their own professionalism as well as the effect on the audience, it makes a big difference whether Wahj Al Shams perform in a public place with improvised costumes and no decoration, as they did in the beginning. Or whether they have a stage concept with lighting and sound technology, suitable props and costumes at their disposal, as they do today.
"Working with forumZFD has opened multiple doors and opportunities for us. Their partnership approach is different from the ones we had before. They always emphasize on the importance of involving targeted communities in the project design." Maisam elaborates a bit, "At first, it was hard to understand what is meant by a focus group discussion and how it can assist us in our work. Now we know that it allows us to better connect with our target groups. We understand their needs and can respond to them through our work. Since then, we also get much more positive feedback from the audience. Many of them say they can relate to cases and characters we present on stage."
The heated atmosphere on stage subsides. The students in the fictitious cafeteria have understood that they cannot open the suitcase without addressing their social problems. The audience also seems calmer now, thoughtful. Several hands reach up to take pictures with their phones. Some of them probably belong to parents, siblings or friends of the actors.
Although Wahj Al Shams empowers their students to become active members in the community, their parents and families are sometimes still opposed to their children's involvement in art and theatre activities. Maisam therefore tries to involve the families in the process by inviting them to the theatre trainings and performances. Once they see the positive impact on their children, they become more accepting and appreciative.
"Because of Wahj Al Shams, many students have been able to change their lives. For example, one of them took a narcotic medication to treat a mental health problem. He was supervised by one of our psychologists and participated in life skills and theatre trainings. Slowly he was able to stop taking the medication, which was one of the biggest achievements for him and for us as well. Similarly, we helped about 60 percent of our participants who had dropped out of school to resume their studies. Most of them are now studying at universities or have obtained professional certificates," Maisam concludes.
As the curtain closes, the applause continues to reverberate for a long time.
forumZFD Jordan has been working with Wahj Al Shams since 2021. Since then, they have staged a number of successful plays highlighting various social issues, including gender-based violence, bullying, child marriage, drug abuse, and women's rights. "The Suitcase" has been performed six times in different regions of the country: including the Royal Cultural Center in the capital Amman, Balqa University in Salt, the Garage Art project in Irbid, and the Shlenner refugee camp.