Restoring resilience on the Beirut stage

Guardian Unlimited: Arts blog – theatre

Restoring resilience on the Beirut stage

Ben Harrison

September 18, 2007 12:20 PM

Next Wednesday I'm flying back to Beirut, my fourth trip there but my first since last year's war. After attending a conference in Alexandria of international theatre makers from the Arab region, the Balkans and Europe in 2003, I have been more and more involved in developing theatre projects in the Middle East, principally in Lebanon but I amalso Jordan. At the meeting a whole new world of culture, both political and theatrical, opened up. From stories of Palestinian theatre groups performing cultural interventions at Israeli checkpoints, to the daring and witty theatre work of Lebanese artists like Lina Saneh and Rabih Mroue, I saw a possibility to create bridges between East and West at a time when the world was being asked to accept a binary model – for us or against us.

I couldn't have made Roam, which was a show about global politics and air travel set in Edinburgh airport that my company Grid Iron did with the National Theatre of Scotland, without the participation of the Lebanese actor and writer Saseen Kawzally. He knew all there was to know about the politics of the checkpoint and the civil war. Saseen was a translator on our 2005 Beirut project where we re-made our 2003 show Those Eyes, That Mouth and made a new piece in Arabic, The Story of the Death of Najib Brax. We then invited him to Edinburgh in 2006 to perform in Roam. After the show he returned to Lebanon, which three months later suffered the devastating aerial bombardment of the Israeli Defence Force. The next time I saw him was on BBC World, travelling with a BBC unit attached to a Red Cross convoy, comforting the elderly woman sitting next to him, under fire from the air. Two months later he was at my front door in Edinburgh.

This was the first time that war and my personal relationships had entwined so intimately. It felt so real, so personal, seeing him on the television, and I became more politically involved. But although marching, lobbying and letter writing are important, perhaps the most vital contribution one can make is within your field of expertise. Saseen witnessed a truly shocking event when he was working in South Lebanon last year and this story is forming the basis for his play, which the National Theatre of Scotland is developing. The great flexibility of NTS artistic director Vicky Featherstone's "Theatre Without Walls" project means that rather than having to bring the Lebanese actors to a workshop building in Scotland, I can go to Beirut and run the first stage of the development in the context from which the piece emerges. The NTS Workshop can re-make itself, in effect, anywhere in the world.

Things are tense in Lebanon at the moment, as the presidential election looms. I always feel a bit nervous boarding a plane to Beirut, because of the reputation attached to the name of that city. When I was growing up there were two cities synonymous with bombs, Beirut and Belfast. It is part of the tragedy of places that have been war zones that they are permanently associated with conflict. But Beirut is a vibrant, energetic, young city, buzzing with possibility. It's a place where East and West truly meet. Or at least it was before last year. The thing I'm most anxious about is not the security situation but seeing how what happened last year has altered the spirit of my friends and colleagues there. However, the key characteristic of every Lebanese I've ever met can be summed up in one word – resilience.

Melanie Joseph Reports from the U.S. World Social Forum

From Melanie Joseph, Artistic Director, The Foundry Theatre:
Hi everyone, 
I’m recently back from the first ever U.S. Social Forum and I’m delighted to report that it was exponentially better than I expected.  Sunder is inviting a bunch of us who were there to come to Solas bar on E 9th street on Saturday the 21st for an informal download with anyone who would like to join us.  We’ll be there from 5pm to 9pm.  He will be sending out a separate invite but in the meantime, I wanted to share a couple of impressions while they’re still jumping around in my body. 
First off:  the whole event went off without a hitch — it was well organized:  things happened when and where they were supposed to happen; geographically, all the sites that housed the workshops, events etc. were easy to navigate, and other than the fact that Atlanta rolls up the streets at 10pm, the city was hospitable and helpful if a little perplexed by how many of us there were: more than 10,000 participants; about 85% were people of color, plus I’d say more than half were under 35.  There was a significant presence of indigenous peoples there – another  terrific surprise AND it there were women women everywhere. It was pretty glorious to be amidst a genuinely diverse grassroots gathering of people from THIS country  –  a first for most people there. I learned so much I’m still trying to get my bearings.  Sadly, there weren’t many artists present as far as we could tell.  There was a small film festival and there were performances at 7 Stages every night; Ralph Pena brought down the whole Ma-Yi playwrights lab, and Bonnie Metzger and Rha Godess were there along with Sunder and me.  But we didn’t run into any other colleagues. I remain hopeful that this will change perhaps for the next one (or for the next WSF in Jan 2009 that will be held in in Belem Brasil  — which is in the Amazon for heaven’s sake!)
There were about 900-some odd workshops, panels etc organized by the people who came (3 time slots/ day/ 3 days) and there were 2 large plenaries each night (programmed by the USSF organizers.)  
One of the framing devices (the first plenary) was parsing through the fall out from Hurricane Katrina.  It’s amazing how many issues are contained in the political and social disaster that that region of the country has become – race, immigrant rights, health care, gentrification, economics, endless human rights abuses,  corruption, international politics.  It was a brilliantly comprehensive place to begin this forum. One of the jaw-dropping things we learned was that there is by all accounts, a sanctioned slave trade of workers from Central and South America going on down there, made possible by a new “guest worker” visa developed from the principles of NAFTA.  These workers can actually be sold from employer to employer, and it’s legal.  So not only is there incredible black-brown racial tension as a result of all these workers coming up here and all the local unemployment; not only has there been a marked rise in homelessness as a result of busloads of workers being literally dumped out on the sidewalk because the ’employers’ who bought them didn’t exist in the first place; not only is the rebuilding in Mississippi only focused on new casinos so thousands of people remain homeless; but the levee repairs thus far only benefit white neighborhoods, the 9th ward is in exactly the same jeopardy as it was before.  The list goes on and on — BUT what was inspiring was to hear from all the incredible people working on these issues locally in the gulf coast – I am still gathering up all I found out and if anyone is interested, I’d be happy to send along more information as I parse through it all. 
There was a lot of knowledge sharing/popular education going on at the workshops — many of which were designed to help people better understand the various ways neoliberalism impacts local issues in their communities. I heard what might be the clearest analysis of the evolution of a “global city” — in this case Miami.  (this term is part of a recent field of geographical economics that’s looking at globalization on the city level — maybe 10 years old now).  It was an awesome overlay for understanding the ways NYC continues to evolve as a city for the rich and the poor.  So I was also really excited to come across a new alliance that’s just beginning to form called the Right to The City, that links local activists of color from around the country who focus on local, urban issues.  I attended a terrific workshop about this initiative where they connected the dots, city by city, between gentrification and zoning laws, and homelessness and ecological issues to the business of international banks and NAFTA and various other global institutions. Enlightening. Throughout the Forum it felt like there was a real groundswell of energy coming from framing change in this way i.e. taking on our own cities/neighborhoods/communities while building a national alliance of folks with a simillar focus.  Plus I couldn’t help thinking that the Right to the City process might be something artists could really take part in – especially given our own issues of affordable housing and work space, and the ways we’re used to gentrify affordable neighborhoods out of existence.  Here’s an article about their 1st meeting  
More about this as time unravels. I attended another workshop in this vein organized by the Institute for Policy Studies and The Cities for Peace campaign about the proliferation of “municipal foreign policy” actions in U.S. cities. It explained how local communities take direct action on foreign policy initiatives – city councils passing resolutions against the war, in support of the Kyoto Accord, against the Patriot Act.  There were all these amazing city council people from Chicago, San Fran, Kalamazoo, Iowa City etc.  — I wish one of them would run for President!  IPS is planning to do a Municipal foreign Policy Training Day in about 6 months.  I’m hoping they will bring it here to NYC … I’ll keep you posted. 
I also met an amazing group of medical workers who are practicing social medicine here in the States — – and in NYC at Einstein College of Medicine and Montefiore Hospital!  I knew almost nothing about the growing movement of this health care approach.  It’s a hugely inclusive approach to health care that underscores its treatment methods with a deep sense of social politics and humanity.   In fact there is a renowned international school of Social Medicine in Cuba and I met its first U.S. graduate who is now here in NYC and who I hope to invite to do a roundtable with us.  One of the doctors I met told me that at her AIDS clinics in Haiti, when people come they don’t ask for AIDS medicine, they ask for food.  The understanding is that the principal disease is poverty and medical treatment has to address this as well.  Doctors For Global Health is one of the org’s here and what’s cool about their mandate is that they include the right to art as a one of the factors of promoting a healthy community.  Their website is   I am hoping to organize a gathering with some of these folks in the fall.  Stay tuned.
All this to say: I am under the cautious but secretly inspirited impression that there’s a future actually growing here in these United States — I’ve heard it said that there is a burgeoning grassroots effort already at work in this country — and judging from what I saw at the USSF, it’s much more powerfully poised than I even suspected or imagined.  
Of course I had a number of critical thoughts as well – some warning thoughts waft in and out of what I saw at this USSF but I am feeling they may be less of a stopping critique than fodder for the discussion of what’s next.  Point is, I feel a next — here.  Makes me want to stay for a bit longer in this city, in this country … just to see what happens.
Sunder and Bonnie went to a whole other set of workshops and had their own eye-opening experiences.  Hope lots of you will be able to drop in on the 21st for their impressions. Plus Sunder is inviting lots of people we met who are not artists so it should be an interesting crowd.  Hope to see you on the 21st.
Melanie Joseph
Producing Artistic Director, The Foundry Theatre  (T) 1-212-777-1444  (F) 1-212-777-1441
140-142 Second Ave.  Ste 405 New York, NY 10003  U.S.A.

Ten Gems on a Thread II

By Catherine Filloux

Originally published by The Drama Review 48, 4 (T184), Winter 2004

At home we have different mothers, but in the forest, we all have just one.
—Cambodian Proverb


Soon after I arrive in Phnom Penh in November 2003, I visit Sre Ampil, the
farm/orphanage of a French-Khmer art historian, Monsieur Son Soubert.1
Son Soubert is the son of Son Sann, a prime minister from the 1960s, and his
farm is about an hour from Phnom Penh in Kandal Province. Son Soubert tells
me he has held many positions in the government throughout his life and, during
Pol Pot, he was trained by sympathetic pied noirs to run a “superette” in
Nice, France. My own mother is a French-Algerian pied noir, whose family
settled near Nice. On his farm the air is light, the countryside green, and
Monsieur Soubert’s orphanage hopeful. There is a new orphan, the youngest
child here, who has just arrived today. He is holding a skinny, yellow “doll,”
and when my Cambodian-American friend and translator, Chath pierSath,
asks the doll’s name, the boy says, “Chubby.” When Chath asks the orphan his
name he also says “Chubby.” He shows us how he can touch his nose with his
very pointy, cute pink tongue. We gather around the boy—I hesitate to call
him “Chubby”—and his older brother. The two boys cling to each other.
Chath, Son Soubert, and I are with a Polish-Canadian aide worker and her
Greek boyfriend. We linger around the two new orphans, unable to leave. It
seems we encircle them as if we are the world, all of us from our different
places on the globe. I feel we stay there in a way to send them our good wishes
for life—a life without parents, but still a lucky life, perhaps, in a kind and
gentle orphanage. One cannot see the full picture, of course. As we pass the
girls’ dorm, there are many flowers blooming outside and Son Soubert says to
us that it is obvious this is the girls’ quarters. It looks pleasant and peaceful.
The children wash their old, hand-me-down clothes at a collective well, and
throw them over makeshift lines to dry; the amenities are few.
In the blazing sun we walk through fields to visit the stupa of Son Soubert’s
father, who died recently. It is shaped in a large, wooden, pastel-colored lotus,
which we enter to pray. Later, in the orphanage’s community room where the
children dance and sing for us, I see a picture of Son Sann in China during an
interim government period in the 1980s, and also in the picture is the Khmer
Rouge leader Khieu Samphan, smiling. The food for lunch is delicious, and
the orphans attending to our guest table keep dropping ice cubes into our
cokes, hovering around reminding us to take the various sauces.

Pol Pot
I think a lot about Pol Pot when I arrive in Cambodia this trip. I wonder
how a man can destroy a country, all the time knowing it is not one single man
who destroyed it and that the country is not truly destroyed. I feel anger at
Saloth Sar (Pol Pot’s real name), but of course the anger is very useless and has
no place whatsoever to land. What would my anger add to the enormous boiling
pot of anger surrounding Pol Pot? I then think of those who might have
abetted him: the French communists, the Americans during the VietnamWar,
and certainly others. More than anything, I can now conclude that Cambodia’s
frailty, vulnerability, and darkness is not unique to this country but a continuum
of our world. And that when I see this country, I cannot help but see
myself. For none of us is perfect: we struggle with hardship, great mysteries,
and with constant incomprehension. This realization does not make things
better, except that it is humbling.

Lakhaoun Niyeay
The students in my six-week playwriting workshop at the Royal University
of Fine Arts (RUFA) are second-year undergraduate B.A. students in classical
and folkloric dance, circus performance, and various types of traditional theatre;
or teacher/students in drama, going back to get their degrees. Thirty students
have signed up for the class, including my moto-driver, Pich Kakada, a
talented male dancer of khaol (mask-performance); there are many morewomen
than men in the class. The assignment will be to write and rewrite a short play
with some relationship, however minimal, to a wat (Buddhist temple). Our
course will end in a two-day Playwriting Works-in-Progress Festival, The Wat
Plays 2003, modeled after the HB Playwrights Foundation’s Festivals in New
York. Because we don’t have time to stage the plays, we will do readings in
which the students will also act. When I explain the nature of a “reading” to the
students they have a hard time understanding the concept, and I don’t blame
them. At the end of each day, there will be a discussion between the audience
and the playwrights.

The Royal University of Fine Arts opened its doors in the 1960s, a visionary
school spearheaded by the talented architect, Vann Molyvann. RUFA had just
begun when the Khmer Rouge ransacked everything. There is currently very
little money to rebuild the school’s infrastructure, including the curriculum
and the classrooms. Lakhaoun Niyeay, or “spoken-word theatre,” is low on the
list of priorities and there are currently very few new plays.
To give some background about spoken-word theatre in Cambodia, I will
start with the inspiring Queen Indradevi, of the Angkorian period, who formed
a dance troupe in the Royal Palace and wrote stories about the former lives of
Buddha. In Cultures of Independence: An Introduction to Cambodian Arts and Culture
in the 1950s and 1960s, Ly Daravuth and Ingrid Muan provide a delicate
overview of Cambodian theatre: in the all-male theatrical form khaol, the performers
wear masks to reenact stories from the Reamker, the Khmer version of
the Ramayana. In yike, performers use song, stylized gestures, spoken word,
and a narrator to tell the story. The newer bassac theatre came from China in
the 1930s to the Kampuchea Krom region, now South Vietnam, and is known
in Vietnam as hat baoy. These singing performances became audience-pleasers
in Cambodia.

In the 1960s renowned playwright Hang Thun Hak translated A Midsummer
Night’s Dream into Khmer, replacing some of the gods and spirits with Khmer
equivalents. The Cambodian filmmaker Yvon Hem says, “Khmer don’t like
to watch realite´. They like everything that is exage´re´”—whatever is not reality.
I invite His Excellency Pich Tum Kravel, one of Cambodia’s leading playwrights (the subject of my first article; Filloux [2002] 2004), to speak to my
class. Kravel survived Pol Pot and presently works for the Ministry of Culture.
He has carefully documented the history of Cambodian theatre, much of it all
but lost during the Khmer Rouge years. Kim Pinun, the Vice Dean on the
faculty of choreographic arts, who serves as my liaison at RUFA, sets up a microphone
and a fan for Pich Tum Kravel. In the 1960s, Kravel explains to the
students, the government subsidized him as a playwright because at that time
spoken-word theatre was a source of pride for the nation. When Kravel returned
to Phnom Penh from the killing fields, he saw his plays ripped up and
eaten by bugs. Kravel tells the class he believes a political theatre can exist in
Cambodia today. In 1983, he and playwright Chheng Pon worked on a play,
Dam Noeur Cheat Kampuchea (The March of Cambodia), in which there were
100 actors. The play was produced 10 times and the theatre was always packed.
Kravel says he has adapted to many political
regimes throughout his life and
has found a way to be political in his writing without insulting the powers that
be. Kravel’s teacher, Hang Thun Hak, wrote political plays, such as Kanha
Chariya (The Ethical Girl, 1955–1960), which is about bribery and corruption.
The police would sit in the first two rows with the script and wait for the
actors to add any extra lines. If they did, they would be arrested, and it was
King Sihanouk’s mother, Queen Kossamak, who protected them.
My friend and translator, Chath pierSath, asks about role-models in Cambodian
society. Kravel answers, “Though it sounds like we are looking down
on ourselves to say this, the younger generation of Cambodians don’t read.
For example, the moto-drivers as they wait for a fare do not read but play
cards, while in Vietnam even a moto-driver pulls out a book.”

“Playwriting is like tearing yourself in two,” Kravel tells the students. You
are both the writer and the audience. He mentions to me in French the trois
unite´s and to the students in Khmer, “time, place, and action.” His ultimate
recipe is: “short, meaningful, easy to understand/hear, visually entertaining.”
As he leaves, Kravel says that the class is especially helpful for the young students.
“All we can do is build a bridge between what we had and what exists

A female folkloric dancer writes for her wat play about a ceremony called
Pchum Ben, which falls during the period of the waning moon. Lured by beating
drums, ancestral spirits, ghosts, and ghouls of hell come to the pagodas for
15 days to wait for offerings from the living, who will receive good luck.
Other wat plays are about a pagoda boy hiding a delicious lobster dish from a
monk; a thief who makes appeals to Buddha; a matchmaking trick played with
an urn of ashes; an alcoholic mother who is visited by a wise monk; a monkey
who inspires a jaded princess; and a Buddhist nun who tries to raise money for
her delinquent grandson.

Two young, female classical dancers display strong talent for playwriting.
Tieng Min Chnas Torl (Hardship Does Not Defeat Honesty) is a witty short
play about a young girl, Mech, and her male cohorts who steal car parts for a
living, taking refuge in a wat. In Ormnach Khmean Kunathor (Tainted Power),
a car owner runs over an old man on a moto and is more concerned with the
body of his dented car than the old man. When a monk coming out of a nearby
pagoda urges the car owner to leave, the car owner pulls out his gun and fires
it threateningly into the air.

Some of the students write Buddhist parables in which fate forces a person
to repent. In the short play Kam Tarm Chorn Keng (Sin Comes Back to You), a
grandmother on her way to a wat is run down by a mean boy on a bicycle.
Suddenly, the boy falls in a ditch and sees the error of his ways.

I also invite playwrights Hourt Sithan and Ros Kuntheara, two of the three
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authors of Robuos Chivit (A Wounded Life, 2001), a play based on a true story
involving sex trafficking, to speak to my class. (The third author is Kim Bophavy.)
Ros Kuntheara is the play’s director, as well. Hourt and Ros encourage
the students to write about social issues rather than falling back on tried-andtrue

Security Briefing
In my routine “security briefing” at the heavily barricaded American Embassy,
I learn from a man I’ll call “Chip” that the most dangerous thing to do
is to ride on a moto. When I first enter the embassy, my backpack and I are
thoroughly checked with X-ray machines, my cell phone is tagged and put in
a cupboard along with my moto-helmet. There are more cars in Phnom Penh
now and more fender-benders, Chip says. He also tells me that I should report
any suspicious activity involving people gathering intelligence on members of
the embassy. In Cambodia, the Muslim population, the Chams (also targeted
during the Khmer Rouge time), make up less than four percent of the population.
He tells me there is no evidence that they are involved in anti-U.S. activities.
I also learn about counterfeit money in Cambodia; the main currency
is dollars, and he says people counterfeit expertly down to five-dollar bills.
Don’t be afraid to hold the money up to the light. Also, the police are at best
harmless. Soon their AK-47s will rust and be useless. But all the same, don’t
make eye contact. Bottom line, Chip assures me, things are fine in Cambodia
right now, which makes his job boring. The U.S. is currently building a large
new embassy in one of the prettiest parts of Phnom Penh. The U.S. staff just
held a mural competition for young Khmer artists to cover the large wall that
will surround the embassy.

Shortly after the “briefing,” Chath pierSath and I are invited to dinner at
the large villa of a worldly, experienced state department man, who works at
the American Embassy. He is currently training his Khmer maid to serve a` la
continental style. His home is palatial with room after room, chilling air conditioning,
every kind of liquor imaginable, and a photo of King Sihanouk
shaking JFK’s hand. But neither leader is looking at the other: for one, Sihanouk
is so much shorter than JFK that unless he tilts his head awkwardly up,
he can only look at the American president’s tie. Our host knows everyone;
he is very interested in learning from other people, so he asks questions of me,
being a playwright, and Chath, as a Cambodian-American. He asks Chath if
he thinks villagers harbored great resentment for the city people before Pol Pot
came to power? Where did that hatred and violence come from? Does it date
back to Angkor? Cambodia is Asia’s Poland, the man says, sandwiched between
Thailand and Vietnam, as Poland is between Russia and Germany. I am
later told the man is CIA.

The Boss
The first reason my students give for not writing about the Khmer Rouge
period is because of the wat theme. Wats were destroyed and monks killed
during the genocide. Many of the younger students in my class were not born
during the Pol Pot time. A Cambodian friend explains that Pol Pot’s righthand
man, Ieng Sary, Brother Number Three, has been taken off the list of
Khmer Rouge perpetrators in current history books because of his “integration”
in Prime Minister Hun Sen’s present government. The “facts” of history
depend upon the regime in power. A Cambodian friend of mine has a colleague,
now 27, who lived in the provinces and as a younger man he and other
students burned a figure representing the King to show their hatred. Now, this
kind of burning is strictly illegal and severely punishable. My friend tells me
he recently did some work on program notes for a performance related to a
famous actress who was murdered a few years ago. The Ministry of Culture
said the notes could not be used in the program because of “the boss.” People
disappear, my friend says. The students in class tell me that the Pol Pot period
was not taught to them in school. The curriculum focused mostly on territorial
issues regarding when, how, and by whom Cambodia’s land was taken.
The older teacher/students in my class categorically say they don’t write
about the Pol Pot time because they are scared. With the recent shootings of
pop singer Touch Prey Nich
and radio journalist Chour Chetharith, who
played Nich’s songs, artists are afraid to speak up. The person currently in
power has succeeded in silencing artists by scaring them. I ask them if they
attribute the current poverty, corruption, and lack of “rule of law” to the Pol
Pot time and they say yes. Before the Khmer Rouge period, in the ’60s, there
was poverty and corruption, but not to this degree, they say.

From here the conversation predictably moves to Vietnam, which they say
supports the current government. Thailand, their other neighbor, is also responsible
for working against Cambodia’s best interests, they say. And of
course the Khmer Rouge period brought other countries’ involvement—
China, France, and the U.S.—into question. The current King sided with the
Khmer Rouge movement during the ’70s. A British friend, a journalist who
is present in class, asks if Cambodians are perhaps not always blaming outsiders
and playing the “victims.” The teacher/students forcefully reply that they
voted in the elections but their votes were not honored. They have also been
involved in protests in the past, but because the current government is powerful
in its repression they are less so now. Another reason for not writing
about the Pol Pot time is the difficulty of remembering the nightmarish past,
one teacher/student says. The question of why Cambodians don’t do anything
to change their situation is one my British friend also brings up. An artist who
just graduated from RUFA says that medical and law students in Cambodia
speak openly about the government. They are not dependent on the government
for jobs and they “don’t care” if their words put them in danger.

I imagine that surviving a regime such as the Khmer Rouge would place
persons in a vulnerable psychological state, with their ability to trust eroded
and their instinct to fear exaggerated. I feel the need to honor survivors as exceptional
human beings. I think about the chilling American TV footage during
the Pol Pot regime in which the journalist Ed Bradley sits near a fence on
the Thai border, reporting the violence that may be going on inside Cambodia,
a country closed to the world. I believe the years that went by before the
U.S. acknowledged the genocide, and the years when we supported the Khmer
Rouge because it opposed the North Vietnamese are very important historically.
The world was divided between those safely outside the fence, and those
inside the fence experiencing horror. This question of responsibility certainly
obsessed the Polish lawyer, Raphael Lemkin, leading him in 1946 to create a
new word—genocide—to define this kind of horror. Lemkin spent his life
trying to make genocide an international crime. He is the subject of my most
recent play, Lemkin’s House.

A Khmer acquaintance tells me that if I get angry at the current politics of
the country, I should learn to distance myself from the anger. A turning point
for him was when a big car tried to force his moto off the road—a regular
occurrence. He decided to stay put in his lane and the car owner pulled him
over and held a gun to his head. I’m sweating at a party when he tells me this
story. I feel a heater blowing air at my back.

The Prince
I deliver a package for a friend to Prince Norodom Sirivudh via his assistant.
Later that morning the Prince calls on my cell phone to invite me to lunch.
I’m taken to a house near Independence Monument, where there are many
guards in many different kinds of uniforms outside. A gate is opened and I enter
the compound and go into an office. On the walls are black-and-white
pictures of royalty. There are neat stacks of paper, some telephones, a sound
system, and a boom box made of wood. There is a snapshot on the desk of the
Prince and his oldest daughter who lives in New York with his ex-wife. After
a while the Prince enters, dressed in a khaki suit. We talk half in French, half
in English, both of which he speaks equally well. He is 52, extremely sympathetic,
as well as sympathique. He insists that I say the informal tu to him, and
that I certainly not call him “His Excellency the Prince,” but by his first name,
“Sirivudh.” We have in common two Cambodian-American female friends,
who are both remarkable young women, involved in legal activism and human
rights. To me these women are the future of Cambodia, and they both feel
friendship and respect for this prince. It is because of them that he invites me
to lunch in his kitchen, and also because the royal family has always been interested
in artists.

Right now the Prince is in a very difficult position politically. FUNCINPEC
(the Royalist Party) and the Sam Rainsy Democracy Party gained
enough seats in the July 2003 election to share power with the Prime Minister,
Hun Sen, but have refused to work with him because of his strong-armtactics.
When King Sihanouk reprimanded the factions for holding up the process of
governing, they agreed to meet and find a balance of power. These meetings
ended in another stalemate because the head of FUNCINPEC, Prince Ranariddh,
linked the P.M. to the killing of pro-FUNCINPEC radio journalist,
Chour Chetharith. How a balance of power can be reached is at the core of
Prince Norodom Sirivudh’s challenge. Many believe he would be FUNCINPEC’s
best choice for a leader in any coalition.

The Prince admits that he is not always as “good” as bespectacled Monsieur
Son Soubert, whom I mention meeting earlier at his orphanage. There is in
the royal family an appreciation for the good things of life, and the Prince
serves a nice bottle of white wine for lunch. He speaks to me of his house arrest
in 1970 at the beginning of the Lon Nol regime (he was also exiled from
Cambodia in the 1990s by Hun Sen). While under house arrest they never let
him go outside. They tried to break him. To counter his jailers’ intentions, he
constructed a schedule for himself everyday where he would “take a walk”
imagining he was on the streets of Paris, New York, and Phnom Penh. In this
way he got “exercise” and “to go to work.” His goal was to make himself tired
so he could sleep on a regular schedule. He also decided to learn one page of
the Larousse (French dictionary) daily.

Now at night, only when he is sad, he composes orchestral pieces on his
synthesizer. He composed one recently for his good friend and senior advisor,
Om Radsady, who was shot and killed outside a Phnom Penh restaurant in
broad daylight in February 2003. On a CD the Prince plays this very melancholy,
beautiful piece of music for me. He softly sings, along with the CD, syllables
I do not really understand. Perhaps they are “Om Radsady,” repeated
over and over. He has also composed a piece for the Cambodian pop singer,
Touch Prey Nich, who is currently in a coma after having been gunned down
with her mother as they left a flower shop. Nich’s mother died. He offers me
a room in this residence if I would like to stay (there is an eclectic group staying there already, including a comedian having political trouble, traveling monks,
and a male Khmer scholar who needs peace and quiet). He wants to take me
to the seaside at Kep, and tells me not to hesitate to ask for anything for my
class. He spends a long time with me and says he enjoys talking of other things
besides politics.

The Prince tells me that for him there is no way to explain the Khmer
Rouge. He believes that the fact that the people didn’t and still don’t rise up
against their killers, who in some cases live in full view, would neve
r happen
in Europe. “Is Asia more tolerant?” he wonders. If he is put in power, his first
goal will be to do something about the inhumane prisons.
As we confer, presents wrapped in pink paper are delivered by two women
and, with some embarrassment, he perfunctorily opens them and hands me a
book on the royal family, his CD, and a pamphlet with the King’s text from
Cambodia’s Independence. As I leave I am introduced to a Minister of Finance,
walking up the stairs in an expensive, dark suit. He gives me his card. I
know it’s time to go. I am driven back to my hotel in a big jeep by a driver
whose face is disfigured.

A Stone’s Throw Away
In the residential neighborhood where I live there are palatial homes right
next to cobbled shacks of corrugated metal, bricks, and tile. Laundry hangs in
front yards; fruits and fish dry on the roof. There is a lot of construction in
Phnom Penh, and some men are working on the pleasing frame of a roof, right
outside my window. Behind that roof is a tiled blue roof, which shines in the

My colleague and translator for the written word, Kang Rithisal (Sal), regularly
brings me translations of the students’ plays and helps me with Khmer.
“Kicking air” means unemployed. “Crossing the river” is delivering a baby:
it’s a hard job and you may drown. An “orange cat” is a lemon or lime. Sal uses
expressions in English like “a stone’s throw away” and “a comb of bananas.”
Sal’s older brother, Suon Bun Rith, has encouraged Sal to become proficient
in speaking and writing English.

Bun Rith is the Program Coordinator for AMRITA Performing Arts, an
NGO newly created and directed by the deeply committed American Fred
Frumberg. The group produces Cambodian performing arts both in Cambodia
and internationally. Amrita is a Sanskrit word meaning eternity. Bun Rith
tells me his commitment to the arts in Cambodia was galvanized one day when
he was organizing a traditional khaol mask performance. After the show he
noticed that one of the performers had managed to quickly clean off his
makeup and get on his moto to leave. The performer was calling to Bun Rith
from afar, asking if he needed a ride home. Bun Rith realized that the performer
needed to get a fare—the only way he could pay for his makeup. Bun
Rith declined the ride so the performer could take a paying rider. He walked
all the way home that night, thinking about how he might make a difference
in the arts.

I ask Sal, who is in his early 20s, to tell me what he learned about the Pol
Pot time in school. By way of an example, he tells me a complicated story
about a corrupt teacher at the college where he graduated, who seems to be
involved in levels of fraud that sound bizarre and insidious. Sal confides that he
continues to help his friends who still work at the college and are treated like
slaves. A group is trying to fight legally against this teacher but, Sal says, since
the police and legal system are corrupt, they may not get far.

The Wat Plays
In reading interviews of Cambodian artists, I learned that historically many
of the male artists went to wats to study as young boys. In a “Comment” in the
Phnom Penh Post, Nadezda Bektimirova writes:
Monks are trusted by the people, which is why the politicians wish to
use the Sangha’s authority for the implementation of their purely secular
tasks. But as the previous political experience of Cambodia shows, the
monks will be trusted as long as they stay independent of any politicians,
as long as they are neutral and free to express their own opinion on different
issues. (2003)

I am impressed by the way, from the start, the students jump into the playwriting
process. Discussion and rewrites help them, in varying degree, to consolidate
locales and sharpen plots. A young, male circus artist performs an
autobiographical monologue about how he gave up painting for the circus,
blending his words with circus acrobatics. He and many of the students are
doubtful when I suggest this idea of mixing forms, but the result is exciting
and energizing for both the performer and the audience. In a few cases teachers
give stories to younger students to write. An older male teacher/student
listens attentively when women in the class offer suggestions for his play about
a man who has two wives.

The older teacher/students also sometimes serve as mentors. The actress
Sok Ly, who skillfully performed in my play Photographs from S-21 in 2001, and
is in my class this time, coaches the young, male circus artist in acting for his
monologue, with strong results. My suggestion that Sok Ly and the circus artist
work together is originally met with surprise by both, but the result provides
communication between generations and disciplines.

Our dress rehearsal for the two-day Playwriting Works-in-Progress Festival, The Wat Plays 2003, is on 10 December—Human Rights Day. On this day, my
friend and colleague, Kay Matschullat, who will direct my play about Cambodia, Eyes of the Heart, in New York in October 2004, generously arrives for 10 days from New York to help me and to explore Cambodia. She energetically smoothes comings-and goings
between the readings, stages the sprawling curtain call, and teaches a warm-up for the playwrights/ actors to do before performances. The students immediately warm to Kay’s enthusiasm and openness.

The two-day Festival is held on 11 and 12 December, and both days the audience is filled with RUFA students in their early to mid-teens—all dressed in their crisp black-and-white uniforms. It is a full house, with few Westerners. Out of the 26 short plays, many are about thieves and the absence of “rule of law” in the country. It is difficult for the audience to sit through readings of 26 short plays in a two-day period, and hard for some of the artists to accept that the performances can onlybe readings. The emphasis placed on what has been written is difficult for many of the students and audiences to understand. This is a great lesson: readings are limiting on one hand, and beautiful on another. The possibility of listening to written words in a play is a luxury we tend to forget.

On the first day of the Festival the plays run like clockwork (if a slow clock)
and we have plenty of time for discussion. The young female playwright
whom I find the most talented, the one who wrote about the female thief who
steals car parts, is called to the mike to explain how she did it. Then, promptly,
another audience member tells her how he would rewrite her play. The desire
for an audience to get involved in the critique appears to be a universal in the
theatre, as does the fact that you can locate the playwright in the wings, hovering,
as he or she holds the script, following along with the actors onstage.
The first day of the discussion yields many lectures from male RUFA teachers
in the audience. There seems to be a precedent at the school for older males to
tell students what to do. At one point one such teacher criticizes the lack of
authentic context for true Buddhist thought in The Wat Plays. The fact that
for the younger generation the wat has turned into a new kind of place that is
not always used for sacred worship seems to worry him. Instead of seeing what
the students have written, he reprimands them for what they did not write. I
leap to the microphone to defend my writers, explaining the idea that this is a
Works-In-Progress Festival.

On the second day of the festival, the playwrights onstage are more self-possessed
during the discussion and many of them take the microphone to answer
questions and make comments about their plays. When one audience
member asks a female teacher/student why she chose the sad ending for her
powerful play about a brutal rape, she defends her decision, explaining the reality
of such events. Another audience member recognizes that the play about
the car accident is honest in its final violent image: a man shooting a gun into
the air. A Western audience member asks about the use of “ghosts” in some
of the plays and a playwright explains how offerings to dead ancestors bring
luck to the living. There is less lecturing by the male RUFA teachers in the

The six-week course and Festival confirm my suspicion from 2001, when I
taught two brief master classes at RUFA: some of the young Khmer artists are
born playwrights.

The clear spirit of fun, play, inquiry and an innate sense of the dramatic are
present at RUFA. The variety of artistic disciplines and ages in the near 30-
person class makes the experience extremely unique. The students’ hunger to
get involved is palpable and, even when I give simple quizzes on the Khmer
reading material I have photocopied for them, the students seem punchy with
excitement, as if this kind of rigor and follow-through are rare. The condensed
nature of the course provides needed momentum and, though the quality of
the plays varies, we are able to establish a cohesive forum for criticism and discussion.
The students’ ability to think outside of their specific traditional art
forms is new and sometimes difficult, but ultimately seems to be enlightening
for them. I see young students’ faces change as they gain the confidence one
gets from trying and succeeding at something brand new.

Frumberg, the director of AMRITA Performing Arts, tells me, “The biggest
impact of the playwriting course and the Festival was nurturing and encouraging
creativity in both thought and writing, and promoting dialogue
among art students and between students and teachers, both of which are
rather groundbreaking and crucial steps in our current development” (2004).
He says he was particularly excited by the number of women who attended
and the amount of talent I discovered in many of them.

The power of playwriting as it is forged in a new way, in a new place, with
new stories that need to be told, is exciting. A breakfast meeting reveals that if
my class is to continue in the curriculum, I will have to find a way to pay the
teacher’s salary. No existing teacher at RUFA will have the energy to continue
my class on his or her salary of U.S.$24 a month.

As Bun Rith says good-bye at the end of the second day of the Festival, he
shows me his new business card for Fred Frumberg’s NGO, AMRITA Performing Arts, which has an orange lotus on it. He explains that a lotus flower grows in dirty water and only needs sun. Some lotus flowers stay underwater and are snapped up by fish before they can see the light of day. Some flowers take longer to surface.

Trees Falling Down
On the last day of class, Kay Matschullat and I see that someone has chopped
all the branches off the bodhi tree outside the theatre. Before we begin our
goodbye party, Kay talks to the students a little about directing. One question
posed by a student is what must a director do if an actor is unable to connect
with other actors onstage? The Khmer answer, given by another student, is for
the director to take the actor out to dinner. Kay explains that she believes there
is a technical craft to acting, which actors need to learn to draw upon. Soon
after, Sal, Chath, and I bring out bananas, gelatin squares wrapped in leaves,
and soda. The students surprise us with a highly colorful frosted cake with violets.
We laugh and blow out the candles together. We dance and sing for the
rest of the class period, some of the students sharing classical dance, circus performance,
and songs. Kim Pinun, my liaison at RUFA, presents me with a
large wooden sculpture of a Khmer woman, breasts exposed, and assiduously
affixes a paper on the back, saying: “Souvenirs—To Catherine Filloux from
Kim Pinun (Cambodia).”

The next day Kay teaches an acting workshop for the professional National
Theatre actors, with whom I worked in 2001. Kay is enveloped by these performers,
who work on scenes from The Wat Plays. Kay and I are told that spoken
theatre students are taught certain vocal inflections for certain emotions.
This casts light on the sing-song style which is sometimes used by actors in
Cambodia. As Kay works with the students, I note that Nou Sandab is hilarious
as well as convincing as the alcoholic mother. Seng Bunaron plays the old
man run down on his motorcycle by the wealthy car owner. Kry Onn plays
the man who comes to the old man’s rescue. Kay and I are told by my friend,
a RUFA student who has just graduated, that Moliere’s L’Avare (The Miser)
was translated into Khmer in the 1960s. Kay observes that Bunaron would
make a wonderful miser in Moliere’s play, and Kry Onn, who has attended the
entire Festival and wants to direct, could direct the play.

I run into the man in charge of theatre operations and ask what happened
to the bodhi tree. He says it was in danger of falling and destroying the theatre,
so they had to prune it.

Back in New York on 15 January 2004, I hear on NPR that Uta Hagen has
died. I call Billy Carden at HB Playwrights Foundation to give him my sympathy.
He quietly speaks to me about her illness and her contribution to the

I go running up West End Avenue in the snow and on my way back home
at 79th Street and West End, by chance I’m stopped by police sirens and a cavalcade
of black cars and limousines, followed by a car with flowers and a coffin.
The sirens blare and cars and pedestrians stop to look at the spectacle. Death is
in the sirens, in the black cortege, in the temporarily hushed intersection of
busy New York streets. You can see family members sitting in some of the cars,
dressed in elegant black.

As I run back home, I think that when people died in Cambodia during the
Pol Pot time, there were no sympathetic phone calls, no coffins, no sirens, no
flowers, no hushed acknowledgment, no reverence. But just days ago I drove
past the beautiful villa of Ieng Sary, Pol Pot’s right-hand man, and saw the
guards reverently protecting his wealth and his privacy. Ieng Sary is the man I
indict in my play Silence of God, for currently living a free, luxurious life in
Cambodia, one of the poorest countries in the world, next to the millions who
survived and/or lost family during the Khmer Rouge regime.

In my mind the faces of my students appear: from the 18-year-old classical
dancer who looks like a little girl and writes truthfully about the death of her
mother, to the teacher/student who writes about the brutal rape. This teacher/
student’s hair is still wet from washing when she comes to class after lunch and,
despite the heat, she always looks refreshed. When I talk to her about her
work, she looks me in the eyes earnestly, and when the actors from the National
Theatre perform her play, she blushes. As a playwright I find it hard to
distance myself from anger toward the injustice I witness, as my acquaintance
at the party advised. Maybe it’s the writing bond. The trust given to me for
very little reason, except that these student artists are full of grace, light, and
joy, despite their hardships. A gun, a careless bullet in their path? The air between
all of us is so fragile: life. I can never forget my students’ faces, or th
names—but can a writer dare sign his or her name in Cambodia?

Also on 15 January 2004, the same day I hear about Uta Hagen and coincidentally
see the funeral cortege, back in Phnom Penh activists Chhin Laa and
Keo Chan from Cambodia’s opposition Democracy Party are gunned down
and killed. A week later, trade union activist Chea Vichea is shot dead.
One way to sign a letter in Cambodia is Sok Tuk Chea Thamada. “Peace and
Pain as usual.”

1. This is a continuation of an article about Cambodia, “Ten Gems on a Thread,” which
first appeared in @nd…a New Dramatists Publication, in 2002 and later in Manoa: In the
Shadow of Angkor: Contemporary Writing from Cambodia 2004. In 2001 I did a theatre project in Cambodia, returning two years later on a Fulbright Senior Specialist grant to
teach playwriting at the Royal University of Fine Arts. My most recent play, Lemkin’s
House, will be produced at the Kamerni 55 Theatre in Sarajevo in December 2004. Eyes
of the Heart will be produced by National Asian American Theatre Co. (NAATCO) in
New York, in October 2004.

Bektimirova, Nadezda
2003 “Comment.” Phnom Penh Post, November/December.
Filloux, Catherine
2004 [2002] “Ten Gems on a Thread.” Manoa: In the Shadow of Angkor: Contemporary Writing
from Cambodia 2004 16, 1:177–87. First published in @nd…a New Dramatists
Publication 1, 1.
Frumberg, Fred
2004 Email to author. Phnom Penh, 13 April.
Ly Daravuth, and Ingrid Muan
2001 Cultures of Independence: An Introduction to Cambodian Arts and Culture in the
1950’s and 1960’s. Phnom Penh: Reyum Publishing.

Catherine Filloux is a playwright whose plays include : The Beauty Inside (InterAct
Theatre Co. & New Georges, 2005); Eyes of the Heart (NAATCO, 2004); Silence of God (commissioned/produced by Contemporary American Theater Festival,
2002); Mary and Myra (CATF, 2000/Todd Mountain Theater Project, 2002). Photographs
from S-21, a short play, has toured the world. Her opera libretto, The
Floating Box (composer: Jason Kao Hwang), premiered at the reopening of Asia Society
in New York, 2001 (CD: New World Records). She has received commissions
from Theatreworks/USA; Silapak Khmer Amatak for an opera libretto with Cambodian
composer Him Sophy; and Ohio State University, where she was the 2003 James
Thurber Playwright-in-Residence. She has received awards from the Kennedy Center
Fund for New American Plays, the O’Neill National Playwrights’ Conference, the
Rockefeller MAP Fund, Asian Cultural Council, and Fulbright Senior Specialist. Her
plays are published by Smith & Kraus, Playscripts, Inc., and Vintage. She is a member
of New Dramatists.

Off Balance in Greece

by Deborah Brevoort

Originally published in @nd, a New Dramatists publication, in the fall of 2002, used with permission

In October 2000 I set off for Greece with fellow New Dramatists playwright Fiona Templeton to attend the International Women Playwright’s Conference and to make a pilgrimage to the sites of Ancient Greece. Both Fiona and I were in the process of finishing new plays inspired by Greek tragedy: Fiona was writing Medead, her poetic adaptation of Medea, and I was working on The Women of Lockerbie, written in the form of a Greek tragedy, about the women whose lives were devastated by the Pam Am crash over Lockerbie, Scotland.

The Women of Lockerbie was many things for me: it was my own private love song to Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. It was also my own personal argument with them. Each of the Greek playwrights have different views about the Gods, and their metaphysics run the gamut from hope to despair to silence. Depending on the day, I can alternately embrace the notion of grace-in-violence expressed in the Aeschylan odes, the bleakness and despair of the Euripidean landscape, or the silence of Sophocles who doesn’t offer much of an opinion about divine matters, but instead celebrates human achievement. I wanted to see who would win the argument in The Women of Lockerbie and in my fifteen drafts of the plays to date, all three writers have won at different stages of the writing. I was heading into what I was hoping would be my final draft and thought that spending some time in the landscape that gave birth to these writers and the tragedies would shed some light. I was also hoping that the conference would provide some insight, because the focus was going to be on re-interpreting and adapting the classics.

Day 1 : Ancient Corinth:
Fiona and I arrive in Athens on September 28th, four days before the conference is to begin. We rent a car, braving the worst traffic on the planet earth, and head north to the Peloponese. Fifteen minutes outside of Athens, we are in spectacular scenery, driving on the edge of mountains along the Saronic Gulf. In less than two hours we pull into Corinth. Fiona is looking for Medea. I just want to see where she did it.

The first thing we see at the crime site is a bleeding tree. Perfect. The trunk has a curve that is oddly reminiscent of the Venus de Milo with red sap dripping to the ground. I wonder if this tree, or one like it, was here when Medea murdered the kids. A tree like this could give you ideas. Bloody ones. Suddenly, the legend where Daphne turns into a tree also makes a new kind of sense. Anybody looking at this tree, oozing with blood, a red puddle at it’s feet, would naturally think that it’s human.

Everywhere, there are rows and rows of statues with no heads, cut off by the Christians in order to put a stop to Goddess worship. I wonder if they saw this tree too. I also wonder if they read Aeschylus. Probably not. Or if they did, were they perhaps trying to enact his notion of grace through violence?

There was a Temple in Corinth that people would visit to cure their ailments. Fiona and I stand before a display case filled with body parts made of marble. A foot, a hand, an ear, two breasts, a penis and what looks like a pair of ovaries, brought by the devoted as offerings. Fiona mentions the myth of Osiris, the god of fertility whose body was chopped into pieces and thrown across the land by his brother, the god of darkness. I think of The Women of Lockerbie, about a mother searching for her son’s body which was also strewn in pieces over the Scottish landscape. The mother finally achieves a rebirth, but only after a violent act. What is this link between body parts and fertility? Between violence and rebirth?

I see my first ancient Greek theatre–or the remnants of one. Little do I know that it is a fraction of what awaits us at Epidaurus. But I immediately “get” Greek theatre in a way I never did before, even after years of studying it. You are seated in the side a mountain, literally, and you’re looking out over miles and miles of land and sea. The landscape is the set. It’s the ultimate in site-specific theatre. And all those images of nature that abound in the Greek dramas? Well, many of them are simply descriptions of what is before your very eyes. And the narratives, the recounting of stories in the odes by the chorus? Well, I don’t know how they were performed exactly, no one really does, but I imagine the chorus pointing at the landscape to show the audience where something happened, or pointing to the water to show you where the ships left for Troy or to the distant mountains when they mention the Delphic oracle. I think of Paula Vogel who says that the audience hears with their eyes and sees with their ears, and of a commercial producer who, during a particularly confusing section of one of my musicals, said to me in exasperation “I can listen, and I can look, but I can’t do both!” At first I dismissed his criticism, but in time, came to see that he was right. The playwright must pay careful attention to the eyes and the ears, to the way they work and the way they receive their information. Looking out over the Corinthian plains to the Gulf waters and the distant mountains of Delphi, it seems to me that the Greek playwrights knew this too.

Day 2: Mycenae
My very first introduction to the Greeks was back in the early 1980’s when Molly Smith directed a 4-hour long production of Kenneth Cavender’s translation of The Orestia, at Perseverance Theatre. I was instantly hooked. That production marked the beginning of my love affair with Greek tragedy which continues to this day. Since then I have seen Mnouchkin’s Les Atrides , Chuck Mee’s Orestes in several different productions, Electra, and Liz Diamond’s Trojan Women at Oregon Shakespeare. But aside from that, Greek tragedy just isn’t regular fare in the American theatre. I was about to discover it’s not regular fare in Greek theatre either. The plays are performed during the summer months for the tourists in what are reportedly dreadful productions. I am told that the Greeks generally don’t have much interest in the tragedies because they are forced in elementary school to diagram the sentences and dissect the grammar which pretty much kills the urge to have anything else to do with them after that.

If Corinth was Fiona’s Mecca, Mycenae is mine. This is the place that I most want to see in Greece. The site of The Orestia.

Walter Kerr, writing of The Orestia, says that the pleasure of tragedy is the renewal it promises. “Agony is the heartbeat. Death is the crucible. Renewal the goal.” Maybe that’s why I like The Orestia so much. After numerous murders, venom, anguish, and torment there is reconciliation and redemption. Athena washes Orestes of his sin. There is hope. Even in The Trojan Women, the bleakest of tragedies, there is hope.

It has to do with going to hell and back. Hope must be hard won, or it’s not worth anything. The lower you go, the higher you can fly. If a play can take you into the heart of darkness and show you a pin of light…well, that’s transcendent. It’s what I’m looking for when I go to the theatre, at any rate. Unfortunately, I don’t find it too often.

Fiona and I pull into Mycenae heading for the ruins of Agamemnon’s Palace. The first thing we see is a sign for “Atreus Camping.” I slam on the brakes and we sit on the side of the road howling with laughter. If there’s one thing I don’t ever want to do, it’s Atreus Camping thank you very much. I’d prefer a wilderness hike with Oedipus or a weekend getaway with Macbeth over that any day.

We continue on and the signs become more ridiculous. Orestes Pizza, Hotel La Belle Helene, Electra Laundromat. And then we come upon the piece de resistance: “Clytemnestra’s Rooms–with bath.” More laughter. This time,
we get out of the car to take a picture. “Didn’t these people read The Orestia?” Fiona asks me.

Agamemnon’s Palace
It’s so great to travel with another playwright. I didn’t know Fiona very well before this trip, but I have to say that she is a perfect travel companion. She loves the tragedies as much as I do, and has an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the myths, history and language. Between us, we’ve got the bases covered.

The entrance to Agamemnon’s Palace is through the Lion’s Gate, a giant marble arch with lions above it. I think of Cassandra, standing outside these gates refusing to enter and raving about the “lion woman” who will eat her in the palace. Was she referring to these lions, perhaps, who look like they’re trying to eat the sky?

“This whole palace reeks like a mass grave dug open” Cassandra ranted, prophetically. How right she was. Today, the walkway to the palace is lined with grave excavations everywhere you look.

We step into the courtyard, outside the palace door. And I experience it again. Vertigo. I first noticed it in Corinth when Fiona and I were climbing the acropolis there. I thought I was just jet-lagged, and didn’t mention anything. But now, I’m dizzy again–so dizzy that I have to steady myself against the wall. Weird, I think. Then I ask Fiona if she’s feeling it too. She is. We’re looking out at Argos, in the distance. This is the spot where the women watched the ships sail off to Troy, and where Electra stood for seven years, waiting for Orestes to return and avenge Agamemnon’s death. I wonder if this landscape and the vertigo it produces had anything to do with Electra losing her balance.

We go inside the palace and before we know it, are holding on to the walls again. This time the vertigo is coming from the mountain that stands alongside the palace. There’s something in the design of this place that’s doing this to us. It’s in the proportions and the angles. The closeness of the mountain to the palace, the size of the mountain, the hubris of the palace daring to sit this high next to the mountain. What did this mountain and these angles and proportions do to the people who lived here? To their thoughts, perspectives, world views? What happens to a culture when you physically lose your bearings at every turn? Was this deliberate? Were the architects of these palaces trying to say something by the way they positioned these walls, courtyards, walkways?

Day 3: Epidaurus
Walter Kerr also noted that the three periods in history that created the greatest plays (Ancient Greece, Elizabethan England and Moliere’s France, to his thinking) were times when going to the theatre was a common activity for the mainstream populace. He also noted that the plays that came out of those time periods were both populist forms of entertainment and “great masterpieces.” Arriving at Epidaurus, and seeing the ancient theatre makes me think that he was right. There are 20,000 seats there. That’s like Madison Square Garden, only bigger. People in ancient Greece went to the theatre, in the way that we go to the movies or concerts. The only difference is our popular entertainment today consists of movies like Home Alone 2 and Dumb and Dumber, while theirs was The Orestia, The Trojan Women, and the Oedipus plays of Sophocles.

The theatre I saw in Corinth suddenly seems like a sad little pile of rocks compared to this. I wonder if the astronauts can see Epidaurus from outer space. I bet they can. I mean, the theatre is carved into the side of a mountain. It’s huge.

Once again, I am “getting” Greek theatre in a way I never did before. Once again, I’m looking out at miles and miles of scenery. In this case, mountains. And I wonder…how the hell do you compete with that? How do you keep the play from getting lost, when you have this giant postcard thing going on behind the stage?

The evidence suggests that the Greek odes were danced, and contained some kind of abstract gestural language. Seeing Epidaurus, I suspect that is right. No realism here. It won’t work. Everything has to be heightened and enlarged. Greek theatre is about the extremes of human behavior. Huge emotions. Big ideas. Of course. What else could you put on this stage against this backdrop?

Then, some tour guide walks to the center of the stage and begins to whisper. I am up in the very last row–in what seems like a quarter mile climb up the hill–and I can hear every word she says. And then it hits me. The Greek tragedies were delivered by the word! The word was the only thing that was powerful enough to grab and hold the audience’s attention in this landscape. The protagonist would step off the choral platform, go to that spot in the center of the stage and recite words that could be heard 20,000 people away, at the top of the hill.

But it’s not just any word that they were speaking. No. It was poetry. And everything they said was expressed “on the line.” Every thought, every emotion. On the line. Language, blown out. No subtext here, guys.

Funny. These kinds of words are what I yearn for in the theatre, and never seem to find anymore. One would think that as our theatres became physically smaller, the word would become more prominent, bigger, more important. But the opposite has happened. As our theatre spaces have shrunk, so has our language.

Days 4 & 5: Athens
The International Women Playwrights conference is a huge disappointment. Not only have most of the seminars and panels on adapting the classics been canceled, but the conference leaders can’t get keys to get into the university class rooms for what few seminars are left. I cut out.

Fiona was more generous than I was. She hung in there. So did Gay Smith, who we ran into at the conference. But I spent my days roaming the Parthenon and Agora, climbing around the theatre of Dionysus, and searching for the cave where the Furies lived. This is where Orestes was tried for the murder of Clytemnestra. And where Athena uttered “Wisdom comes to us in fragments,” my favorite words from The Orestia . I found it, thanks to Gay, who had hunted it down too. The cave is about 20 feet off the main path to the Acropolis. One look at it and I know they’re still in there. The cave entrance looks like the earth’s navel and the maws of hell. It’s littered with beer cans and broken bottles and spray painted with graffiti. It looks like Dull Griet is going to charge out at any moment, turning the whole scene into a Brueghel painting.

I go to the Temple of Zeus. Once again, I’m dizzy. Everywhere I go in Greece, it seems, I experience vertigo. Why, why, why? The brochure tells me that the Temple is not perfectly symmetrical. It was designed this way, so that the monument would look like it was alive and breathing and so that it would have a sense of movement. Well, it does that all right. It has so much movement, it gives me sea legs and I keep having to look at the ground to regain my balance. But I think there’s another reason for the design that they don’t mention in the brochures. It’s a reminder. That we are small, small, small. That we are mere bugs in this landscape, specks of dust under these massive, elegant pillars. And for some reason, as I’m standing there, reeling, it makes me think that Aeschylus was right. There is grace in the world, even in violence. And violence is often the way that it comes to us. Why this Temple makes me think this, I’m not sure. Maybe it’s the beauty of those pillars, the shock of blue sky between them that slaps you to the ground with it’s sheer intensity and power. I mean…it’s so damn beautiful it hurts. And I think that perhaps this is the pleasure of tragedy, too. Beauty that hurts. That makes you wince.

Day 6
God bless Fiona. She’s been hanging in there at the playwright’s conference, w
hile I spend my days climbing the ruins of Athens. I lure Fiona away for a day to join me and Gay on a day trip to the Temple of Poseidon. On the bus ride down the coast I read in another brochure that this Temple is also asymmetrical, like Zeus’s. I’m beginning to think that there’s a conspiracy afoot and prepare myself for another case of vertigo.

The wind is blowing hard at Poseidon’s Temple (perfect, huh?) which stands on a point of land jutting into the Aegean Sea surrounded by water on three sides. It’s blowing so hard you can hardly walk. Bus loads of tourists are swarming around the site. I hear a tour guide say that Lord Byron carved his name into Poseidon’s temple and later died by drowning. I back away. I’m not going anywhere near that temple. I hear a tourist scoff at the story and say that it’s just a coincidence. But I don’t think it is. Poseidon is real and he’ll kill you. I lived in Alaska, I know. And the Lord Byron story is just weird enough to be true. Life has that kind of crazy poetry to it: carve your name on Poseidon’s house, and the sea will be your grave.

Athena’s Temple is on the hill below. As I’m standing there looking out over the Aegean, I just know in my bones that Euripides had this place in mind when he wrote the opening scene of The Trojan Women . I imagine Poseidon and Athena sitting here, in their respective spots on the hill, plotting the havoc they will wreak on the Greeks when they sail by on their way home from Troy. A large cruiseship passes by and it looks so small that for a moment I think I can reach out and pluck it from the water as if it were a toy. And I think…Aeschylus was wrong. Euripides was right. There is no grace. The Gods kill us for sport.

Day 7 & 8: Delphi
But maybe Sophocles is the one who’s really got it right. I mean, he’s smart enough not to venture a viewpoint on matters metaphysical and perhaps I shouldn’t either. The next day, as we begin to wind our way up into the mountains heading for Delphi after crossing the Theban plains where Oedipus once ruled and wandered, I think of his celebration of human achievements in my favorite moment of all in the Greek tragedies, the Ode in Antigone, “Countless are the world’s wonders, but none so wonderful as man.”

The world is full of man’s wonders. I’ve just spent the last week looking at them. When we finally reach Delphi, and climb the mountain to stand beneath the tall pillars surrounding the oracle, I’m looking at them once again. The world is full of women’s wonders too, I think, especially in places like Lockerbie, Scotland where the women of that village, through the simple act of washing the clothes of the dead, created a monument of action that had as much size, depth and magnitude as these monuments of stone I’ve come all this way to see. As a playwright, I guess all I can do is celebrate them in my plays by summoning the biggest and best words I can find, and leaving it to the audience to figure out what the hell it all means.

Ten Gems on a Thread

By Catherine Filloux

Originally published in @nd…a New Dramatists Publication, Winter 2001-2002,

and in In The Shadow of Angkor: Contemporary Writing From Cambodia; Manoa, University of Hawaii Press, 2004.


For the past ten years I have been writing plays about Cambodia. In early 2001 I went to Phnom Penh, Cambodia on a Playwright’s Residency grant from the Asian Cultural Council. During the two and a half months I was there, I did two plays with Khmer (Cambodian) actors from the National Theatre, and research for my new play “Silence of God,” to be produced at Contemporary American Theater Festival next summer.

1) Hall of fame

These are the women I place inside my personal hall of fame. Chanthol Oung, the director of the Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center, is wearing a well-pressed white blouse, which highlights her dark and youthful face, as she shows me upstairs to her cool office. As though in a mantra she does not stop to breathe until she is done: “Confidential Crisis Shelter, Legal Representation, Reintegration, Vocational Training, Community Education, Monitoring Violence, Capacity Building.” She says there are men who will appear in her office, dressed in police or military uniforms, to demand their battered wives back. She tells me she says to them, calmly, “We will let your wives know you are looking for them.” There is a foreigner, she says, who raped young women, paid off the police, bribed the court and then came to find Chanthol, yelling at her through his car window. She couldn’t hear what he was saying, because at the time she was outside the Center, driving away in a closed Jeep. A general in the government owns a brothel where women or girls are locked up. Two women throw letters out of windows from inside, asking for help. She says, the mayor has closed down the brothel, but it is still open.

The second woman in my hall of fame, Kek Galabru, is dressed in a floor-length, purple, iridescent, silk dress and a white silk scarf, which she drapes around herself in various ways during my visit. She is the founder of LICADHO, the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights. When she speaks about the Cambodian Prime Minister she looks in a certain direction, into the city of Phnom Penh, as if he is there, hanging in thin air, right outside the curtained-window. I can see him in her gaze. Her face changes from radiance to shadow. Information suggests that he could be involved with kidnapping, theft, bribery and drugs. The French, who give money to human rights, don’t want to know about this corruption.

I ask her about hope and she looks at me: “Yes, you must have it,” she says.

I meet Vannath Chea, the president of the Center for Social Development, on my birthday. She is also gracefully dressed, serving tea at a round table in her office. She’s curious why I want to meet her. She says she is humble before the problem of “reconciliation” in Cambodia: the question of how to move on from the genocide. She bought land for a house. The house is near Tuol Sleng, the Khmer Rouge extermination center, now turned genocide museum. As they were digging the foundation they found bones of arms. The bones were tied together with electrical cord. She shows me how, underground, the bones were still tied, by putting together her own lower arms. She had the bones burned on her own property and the ashes were placed in a pagoda in Kandal province. Everyday she prays to the bones at an altar in her own house. She hopes that what she accomplishes each day can be done for the spirits of those who are under her house. She gets Kleenex for us, as we sit together at the round table. Maybe we can go to the pagoda, she says.

She cannot read my plays, she says, because she has no time to read. She glances at the piles of paper on her desk: she doesn’t even get to the newspaper. When I tell her I have come to Cambodia to do theatre, she says that the arts are like women, the first to be degraded in poverty and war.

The fourth woman, Sochua Mu, Cambodia’s Minister of Women’s Affairs, comes to pick me up in her Jeep. Her driver takes us to an Italian restaurant where we sit outside. She tells me she must, at once, dress the part of the Khmer woman and try to teach the men she works with that women are also precious gems. In Khmer culture, women are cotton and if cotton falls in the mud it is permanently soiled. A gem, which the man is, never gets soiled. So Sochua says to the men, “Women are precious gems.” Sochua has been serious in taking a few men, who have tarnished the precious gems, to court.

2) Pich Tum Kravel

I wait for Pich Tum Kravel and Mao Keng at the Ministry of Culture, in Kravel’s office, which has a prefab quality. Kravel’s suit coat and tie rest dignified on the back of his chair. The office is empty of any papers or books. I make a series of calls, on my cell phone, one to Kravel. I never once reach Kravel on his cell phone. It is always answered by a group of women whom I imagine to be sitting in a circle around the cell phone, picking it up, calling out Khmer words to me, to each other, to Kravel — who is certainly not there. After a while a woman appears in the office where I am waiting. She’s totally mystified to find me. She quickly turns on the air conditioner, returns with tea and quietly closes me into the room.

Kravel and Mao Keng arrive. Kravel is the foremost living playwright of Cambodia and he has taken a post in the government as “Undersecretary of State for the Performing Arts, Fine Arts and Libraries.” An accomplished, erudite and sophisticated man, he gracefully takes the Khmer translation of my play and promises to study it.

When I ask if my project is in place, Mao Keng, the director of the National Theatre says very simply to Kravel, in Khmer, that the actors are “waiting.” Kravel straightly translates in French, “Les acteurs attendent.” We laugh at the simplicity of what Mao Keng has just said and at his deadpan expression. Kravel is worried that the standard of acting has been lowered: there was a time when they had actors who could do Shakespeare, he says, and Moliere. Kravel himself was called the “Romeo of Cambodia” before the Pol Pot time. He wrote a play based on a famous poem “Tum Teave” by Pikhoh Sour; this was the Khmer Romeo and Juliet, and Kravel played Romeo. When I ask him to write down in Khmer the words, “I am a writer,” because I need to know the phrase for my new play, his handwriting is like all French-educated Khmer: beautiful and careful. I remember, when I learned to write French from my grandparents, all the different lines in the notebook to make sure you got the heights of the letters right. I ask Kravel, as I ask everyone, about Pol Pot. How could it be? It is not a question, he says, that he knows the answer to. Throughout his life, he says, he has had to adapt to various political regimes: Sihanouk, Lon Nol, and then the Khmer Rouge. He simply looks at me and says, “I survived as a ‘cultivateur.’” He says the word “Cultivateur” in my own native tongue, matter-of-factly. A “laborer”: one more disguise in his life.

Later I hear from a Khmer friend that Kravel changed his name after the Pol Pot time. He put “Tum,” based on Romeo, in the middle of his name. “Pich” is a friend of Tum’s. His chosen last name, “Kravel,” means earring. The earring leaves a hole so you can never forget, Kravel tells me later.

We are having dinner with a group of Khmer male academics, by the Mekong River. Beer girls flock around us, pleading with the host to buy their brand. I am sitting next to Kravel, with whom I have come to talk, and confess my sadness at seeing beautiful Miss Heineken and lovely Miss San Miguel with long red prom-like dresses and sashes. He simply says, “It’s for money.” Then he picks up his glass and looks at me seriously. “I ordered a Coke,”
he says. He believes my play will help younger generations to remember and understand. It creates a memory, he says, for Khmer people who will see it, and remember their own experiences. Some young people don’t even know about Pol Pot or believe their parents when they hear about the period from 1975 to 1979. It is a strange amnesia: a kind of anti-amnesia, I think to myself, because as much as some people want to erase the memory, it is there, perhaps even more strongly, because it is being resisted.

Even in his name Pich Tum Kravel resists. He has become a new person and, as such, survives.

3) Why did he correct my memory?

On the first day we meet in the red-curtained theatre of the French Cultural Center, the actors slip off their shoes at the bottom of the stairs and we sit in a circle on the gray-carpeted stage. We go around the circle to say our names. My interpreter, a visual artist who graduated from the Royal University of Fine Arts (RUFA), translates for me, as I tell the actors that I’ve been writing about Cambodia for ten years. My plays and oral history are passed around the circle and the actors look at my writing.

Eleven of the actors and actresses are from Mao Keng’s National Theatre, the only professional troupe of modern theatre actors in the country. A country in which there are virtually no contemporary plays produced. One actress is from the Royal University of Fine Arts, which before the war was a prestigious training center for Khmer performing arts, but now lacks funds. One actor, Arn Chorn-Pond, is a Khmer survivor, artist and activist, who divides his time between the large Cambodian community in Lowell, Massachusetts and Cambodia. As we sit in the circle I say to the actors that I have found, through the years, I like to write what’s close to my heart. “If you were going to die tomorrow what would you write?” I ask. I demonstrate that it would be better if they act out the story, rather than to narrate it in the third person.

We break from the circle and the actors take some time to think about what they will write. After lunch, around two, the actors come back holding their papers: some are folded into squares, some in notebooks, some with words all the way to the very edge of the paper, as if to save on precious space. There is a kind of nervous hush. I sit next to my interpreter, Dom Nang Pin, whose mouth is very close to my ear. He feeds me the words in English in a furtive whisper as the first actor, Bunron, runs onstage — ducking, hiding behind a bush, calling, gesturing downward with his hands, urging his friend to hide. He unwraps some food from his krama, his scarf, fearfully checking the perimeters, stuffing his mouth, his being, his life. What is the food? I ask Dom.


Bunron pounds his chest, gasping for air. His friend, who is invisible
— Bunron is doing this all alone — tells him he will steal some more potatoes tonight. In the field in the distance they look out at us in the audience. We are now armed guards with scythes, swords, knives, sickles. We sit further down in our seats. Bunron tells his friend, “No, don’t go, tonight. You stole today, they’ll kill you this time.” The friend, the invisible one beside him, says, “What does it matter? To die of starvation or from their blade?” Bunron makes a strong case for him not to go. Bunron asks, who will take care of his friend’s old mother?

The friend does go to the field, to steal more potatoes. Bunron watches him. We watch Bunron. After he is finished, Bunron bows to us and makes his way down the stairs. At the bottom he puts his shoes back on. I get up from my seat and hug him. It is not customary for a woman like me to hug him, in Khmer culture, but he is gracious and accepts it. And I tell Bunron that I love him for what he is done with such beauty and courage. Dom translates. Bunron nods. He makes the same movement and expression he will always make: one of accepting the inevitable, as if to say, “It had to be done. We had to do this play.” But I can see that it has cost him to recreate the story. Later that week I ask him about it and he says that, yes, it can give him a headache, and can give him bad dreams, but he wants to do it. He assures me and the others that he wants to do it.

Bunron chooses another National Theatre actor, his friend Kry Onn, to play his friend in the piece he has written. Twenty-seven days later, they perform the piece, which is called “Because of Hunger,” at a press conference for Khmer journalists as an introduction to our work. The press immediately asks, with a camera pointed at me: “Why the Khmer Rouge? Is this about the tribunal?” “It’s a play,” I say. “Theatre.” The actors say the same.

After Bunron and Kry Onn perform, we ask for questions. One of the journalists in the audience says, “The Khmer Rouge did not have swords, they had bayonets.” In our circle later Bunron asks, puzzled, “Why did he correct my memory?” Bunron knows what he remembers. “He probably wants to share his own story,” I say apologetically. Bunron is an artist, a survivor of a regime that tried to kill all artists, and now can tell his story, as an actor. The journalist does not seem to have had that same opportunity.

4) Lamentation of a Widow

When she does her piece, it is almost as if I am watching a silent film, except that Prak Vanny whispers to herself. Later when we stage what she has written, she moves the actors around to fit her memory; she directs them. She takes Chhouep Tang, the young man she has chosen to play her husband, by the shoulders and physically moves him to the place on stage where she wants him to be. What she does is recreate her piece — in rehearsals, in run-throughs — each and every time with the same amount of dignity. It is a short piece, maybe two minutes, but it is as if by repeating it, she gives it the impact it so clearly deserves for her: the minutes leading up to the last time she saw her husband. She was wrapping rice in banana leaves, there was a knock on the door, it was a Khmer Rouge officer. She is the oldest in the group, and it is eerie to see handsome Chhouep Tang play her husband, young as he would have been at the time. Fitting that she chose him. I learn that she was once a playwright herself, as well as an actress.

One actor is skeptical when she has finished showing us her piece. He asks, “Shouldn’t you tell us on stage what happened to your husband?” I am surprised by his question because every movement she makes from the moment she starts to wrap the rice in the banana leaves to the moment she leaves for work, miming putting the hoe over her shoulder, makes it clear what happened to her husband. And there was never any doubt, for anyone who ever watched Prak Vanny’s piece.

5) Coming Home

After the first day of watching the actors’ pieces I go home exhausted and get in bed. On TV is the film Coming Home in Khmer, with English subtitles. I cry for what I saw on this first day and for the actors’ bravery. I wait for the scene in which Jon Voight’s character makes love to Jane Fonda but it has been cut. The movie rolls along and I can hardly tell where it fit in.

6) Photographs

Rithy Panh, the French-Khmer filmmaker, has chosen Than Nandoeun (Doeun), one of the National Theatre actors, to direct my short play, Photographs From S-21, and has cast the actress Sok Ly as the Young Woman and Roeun Narith as the Young Man. Narith was the lead in one of Rithy’s recent films.

Doeun, Narith and Sok Ly make up their own subgroup and decide to rehearse in the mornings in the French Cultural Center Cinema theatre, where we will have our performances. There are tensions surrounding how much they are getting paid, and they ask that I come up with more money for the four performances. The director at the French Cultural Center agrees to find the balance of the money and we are able to pay all the actors a better fee in
the end.

Photographs From S-21 will be done in tandem with the group of actor-written pieces, Night Please Go Faster, titled after Monika Yin’s piece, about the flooding of her squatter hut, and a prayer she makes to her missing parents.

At Tuol Sleng, or “S-21,” the extermination center, in humid sunshine, the Khmer photographer Remissa Mak takes photos of both actors Sok Ly and Roeun Narith. He recreates the poses of the two victims in my play. Doeun, the director, wants to use Remissa’s blown-up photos as the set design, so that the souls of the photos will walk out of their frames embodied by Ly and Narith. I offer my hand as the child’s hand reaching up to the Young Woman in the photograph, and I lay on the ground as Remissa tells me how exactly to clutch my fist like a child on the bottom of Sok Ly’s black shirt.

There is almost no barrier for me when I listen to the play in Khmer and, during rehearsals, I give my notes to the director, Doeun, through my interpreter Dom. To me the rhythm seems slow and the tone sometimes one note. My comments don’t seem to have much effect.

Doeun has created impressionistic light and sound for my play which surprise and intrigue me. In retrospect they create a kind of theatre which is more poetic and non-linear than what I’m used to in the U.S. Doeun, an actor himself, does the sound for the play by breathing into a microphone from the booth in the back of the theatre. During the performances, by the end of the play, the theatre is totally silent but for sniffling. And when the lights come up no one moves from his seat.

On the Saturday that Photographs From S-21 and Night Please Go Faster are to open in Phnom Penh, Vannath Chea, the woman whose house was built above the bones in Tuol Sleng, takes me to the pagoda where the ashes of the bones are. She and the other women in the Jeep tease me that I won’t make it back in time for the performance, and that, when the Jeep breaks down, a lady walking on the side of the road, carrying four packages, a baby on her back and a bundle balanced on her head will have to take me in tow too. Along the way we see schools all named after the prime minister; the one road that is paved leads to his private home. I see a helicopter in the distance landing at his compound.

Along the road, pork is drying in the sun. A man pulls a cart piled high with cucumbers, there is a lushness to the green along the river. The older women walk barefoot in skirts, so fit, so graceful, their hair so naturally swept. People brush the dirt outside their homes with a thatch broom.

In Kandal province about an hour from Phnom Penh the Jeep turns into the pagoda and after a few minutes we find the monk who takes us to the altar where the ashes are in a marble urn. We pray to the urn. The monk says that when they did the cremation, the flames sparked many colors, and that they are special bones. He had a dream the night of the cremation that a doctor was giving him a shot. I ask if he thinks the bones had been those of a doctor and he says, yes he thinks so. He tells us that he takes very special care of the urn, bringing offerings every holy day, Saturday, and that he will not leave this pagoda because he would not want to leave the bones. I make an offering to him for the ashes in the urn, and for the souls of those portrayed in the plays to be performed that night. Every night before their performance, the actors Narith and Ly burn incense and pray to the two nameless victims in the photos they are playing.

When Rithy, the filmmaker, first read Photographs From S-21, he asked me if I’d be interested in writing a play about Bophana, a female Tuol Sleng victim about whom he made a documentary. Bophana was first written about by Elizabeth Becker in her definitive book about Cambodia, When The War Was Over. I go to the archives in Tuol Sleng and find the dusty, old box in which Bophana’s confessions are kept. I look at the box of absurd confessions which Bophana was forced to write in careful lettering, and at the attentive archivist.

Yes, I say to Rithy, I want to write about Bophana. I discover she is almost a national heroine. So many know her strong and resistant face. She fought to her death, defying the Khmer Rouge leaders by writing love letters to her husband, who was also killed at Tuol Sleng. Later when I ask Elizabeth Becker, she generously offers to let me see her translations of the Bophana files.

A Khmer friend used the word “unnecessary” to describe the Pol Pot time. When he speaks of the period, of its perpetrators, he starts to laugh: it’s a kind of helpless snicker, which I interpret to depict the insanity he feels about Pol Pot and perhaps the shame. He says he has never been to Tuol Sleng. Tourist busses unload at the gate, right in the middle of the city, and tourists flock in. Photos of “Pol Pot’s clique” hang at the entrance, though most of the clique is living free. The white tombs of those who were found when Vietnam invaded in 1979 are covered with white flowers that drop from trees above. A man selling tickets near the souvenir shop eats white turnips which he dips in salt. Beggars wait for the tourists at the gate. When I go there, I ask my moto driver, Saly, to come in with me. He points out to me the photo of Sin Si Samouth, the famous singer who was killed during Pol Pot. He tells me what a great singer he was and takes me to buy one of his CDs.

7) Directing and Producing

Before each performance of Photographs and Night Please Go Faster I pull the red velvet curtains on the stage so they’re even on both sides. I hang a black sheet over the backstage door that is ajar and I turn on the air conditioner. I commiserate with the young Khmer man who often tells me the French subtitle machine is broken and there is no one that can be reached to fix it because it is the weekend. I am delighted when the subtitle machine is fixed by someone who happens to be nearby. I listen to sound-tapes of frogs that sound like ducks; I dissuade the actor who made a new sound tape from using melodramatic music during another actor’s story. I remember the filmmaker Rithy Panh being sensitive to the actors’ melodramatic style when he came to watch a rehearsal. I get someone to take down a banner welcoming lawyers to a convention simultaneously being held in the theatre and I get someone to re-hang the photographs for the set of Photographs From S-21. I make sure the door is open in the back of the theatre so Kry Onn won’t be locked out when he runs offstage during Bunron’s piece. I try to air out the theatre a little from the smell of burning incense after the actors have prayed. I repeat that we want Khmer pre-show music, not Charles Aznavour. I send the stage manager Pok Dirama out to buy new batteries for Doeun’s microphone. I pay Sok Ly for her wig. I smile at Ros Navy’s daughter who plays herself in Ros Navy’s piece about when her daughter became very ill and a traditional Krou Khmer wanted to burn incense and pray rather than go to the hospital. I pick up the trash in the theatre and bathroom. I get the tickets from the French Cultural Center office, I take the money from the audience, I give programs out in Khmer, French and English, and if the program is in English I also give the spectators a flashlight, so they can follow along with the translated text in the dark. I try to encourage mothers with babies to take them outside if they start crying.

My favorite thing to do is to watch the actors carry in plates of fruit when they arrive for performances, two or three hours early, and to see them laugh at me because I am working so hard, and seem so busy.

(8) Saly

We arrive at night at my moto driver Saly’s house, driving through a maze of squatter huts over planked passageways, above a large sewer system. Most of the huts are open in the front and lit with candles, though occasionally one has electricity and, in some cases, a television which looms larger than life
in the dark. As Saly parks and honks his horn, I have no way to know where we are or how we got there. At the open doorway, we step over a board that blocks the entrance for the baby. Saly’s one-room house is made of cardboard and planks. As I glance at some cut out magazine pictures of women singers on the wall, he says, “We are very poor.” My heart is beating fast, and I am trying to smile, as I nod. His wife, laughing, shows me their baby. I touch the baby’s cheek and he also giggles; he looks like Saly, who is in his thirties but looks younger. The baby has a bandage on his navel and I remember Saly telling me he was at the hospital recently. Saly’s wife has a dazzling smile, as we sit down together on the floor in the glow of a kerosene lamp. There is a mosquito coil nearby and some noodles Saly’s wife has prepared. Saly quickly shows me an English tape he has been using to learn English. The baby enjoys playing with the cassette tape until Saly takes it away. I thank his wife for letting me have Saly everyday as my driver. Saly translates and she laughs and thanks me. I keep my eyes fixed on her beautiful, glowing face.

When we drive, Saly and I speak English and he asks me questions. He wonders if he can say “gentle woman” like he says, “gentleman?” I think about it, saying people usually don’t use the word “gentlewoman” but I don’t see why not. He says I am a gentle woman and that the woman who introduced us, Laura, is also a gentle woman. Saly tells me in English that, “Sometimes he is not clever” and that he dreams with his eyes open. At night, he says, shaking his head, he is dreaming and his eyes are open. He wants to talk to me about the Pol Pot time but his English is not good enough. I reassure him that it’s normal he dreams with his eyes open because he survived a bad war, and for the same reason, he may not always be able to think cleverly. And anyway, “No one is clever all the time.” He thinks about this, as we drive.

My friend Laura and I help Saly buy a new house. This one is not above the sewer water of the squatter’s village. It’s made of wood and thatch, and has some running water, electricity and primitive toilet facilities. It is better, Saly agrees. I see that he has pinned up a poster I gave him of an Angkor art exhibit. Saly comes to all the rehearsals and works putting up posters, buying water and bread for the actors, and giving any comments he has about the show. When it rains he hangs some of the wet posters on the seats of the theatre to dry. Near the end of the rehearsal period, he comes in with three circles on his forehead from cupping: he says his wife has given him a treatment because he hasn’t been feeling well. On opening night we rush to the change shop to get change for the bills I have to pay the actors. He is happy when the lady accepts no fee for giving us change. In the glass case below the lady, are bills from all different countries, stacked in small piles with rubber bands.

On the moto going to the theatre Saly says he won’t be coming to opening night. I ask him why, since I had invited him long ago, and he says no, he must go home, the air conditioning makes him sick. I take a deep breath. I touch his shoulder and say, “Saly, I want you to come tonight. You should come.” He nods, and says he will come. After the performance when he sees that it went well and that the audience was pleased, he admits he is relieved. He wasn’t sure whether the performance would be good, he tells me, as we drive home. He was afraid some people weren’t good, he admits, and he didn’t know if the audience would like it. Now, he says, he knows it is good and he is very happy.

(9) The Dump

As the path narrows Saly and I start to smell smoke, see more trash, a naked person walking dazed, and some scrawny dogs. He lets me off to walk into the dump on foot. To the horizon in every direction is trash, with smoke from burning waste rising in the haze of dawn. Children are lined up to get breakfast from a French non-governmental organization that provides meals, before the kids go scavenging through the trash–to make money for their families. A nurse treats a man who lifts up his pants’ leg to show her the bloody side of his leg and ankle, cut up from metal in the dump. A little girl holds a baby and scrutinizes me. Also scrutinizing me are Saly, and two other moto drivers, Heng and Kim. They have accompanied me and Laura, my friend who runs her own NGO “Global Children.” Some kids joke with each other in line as they wait for their food. In the dump itself are older women, with kramas wrapped around their heads, searching through trash with a pick, steps behind a bulldozer rotating trash. The scavengers look for anything they can melt, recycle, collect, to get a few pennies. In the dump itself, people live in makeshift huts on top of the trash. It’s morning time and a mother is cooking soup for her family; I can see the steam from the rice rising. I am confused to see children with backpacks making their way through the dump, as if on their way to school. The children I see have an air of simple necessity, as if they are the kids I usually notice playing badminton on the side of the road.

Kim, another moto driver, drives me away from the dump. He says he thought his life was bad but seeing this makes it seem better. As we wend our way back through circles of huts, my cell phone rings and I stop to answer it. When I finish talking, I see two young boys running towards me, with a plastic pink toy phone, calling into the receiver in English, “Hello? Hello?” laughing with glee.

(10) Never Again

Shortly after I return from Cambodia, I am introduced to a Khmer man who has received a human rights fellowship at Columbia University and works for LICADHO. He and I sit on a couch in the beautiful, plush lobby of the Columbia International House and the man keeps returning to the Pol Pot time, saying, “But, you want to know what happened to me…” The first few times he says it, I try to kindly say, “No, that’s all right I don’t need to hear…” but when he continues to repeat, “You want to know what happened,” I finally nod and listen to the story of how he survived Pol Pot. We talk about how the prime minister has the ultimate and only power in the country. And I remember what a Vietnamese artist told me: “Cambodians want peace at any price.” I say goodbye to the man and he gives me his email address. He says he will be beginning a project against torture. That day in May, as I walk home in New York, I renew my commitment. I remember, after my trip to the dump, talking to a woman from Human Rights Watch who said that part of a human rights violation is government collusion. I asked Saly, as we stood in the trash, if he thought Hun Sen had ever seen this place and he looked at me and said, “Fucker.” “Where did you learn that English word?” I asked him. He said, looking down at the ground, that someone he knew taught it to him. I, and the other moto drivers, got a good laugh. “It’s a good word,” I mutter.

Youk Chhang, the young director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, says a human soul cannot be destroyed. He is neither scholar nor lawyer, just collects pieces of paper, he says. He writes, “Searching for the truth!” at the end of all his emails, below his name.

Before my trip my father sends me a poem by JosÈ-Maria de Heredia about travelers who “Watch in unknown skies, rising from the deep: Stars they’d never seen before.”

There are stars. Precious gems, to chart the way. Searching for the truth.


I am indebted to Joanne Jacobson for her generous support in writing this article.