The fourth residency of Tell me a Tale in Turkey was in Midyat, a town in the province of Mardin, in south eastern Turkey.  Midyat is just over 40km from the Syrian border and also only a few hundred km from Iraq and Iran.  Due to this it is a very multi cultural area where some families speak Turkish, others Kurdish and others Arabic.  There are also three dominant religions- Islam, Christianity and Zoroastrianism.  There is the ‘Arabic’ side of Midyat and also the ‘Kurdish’ side.  Some people say the two sides don’t get along, some say there are no problems, others say everyone used to get along but now don’t. My own experience was in Kocatepe Ilkoğretim school (a primary school for children aged 7-14) and I thought that the children from different backgrounds seemed to work well together and I didn’t witness any cultural tensions.  This does not mean to say there are none- I heard teachers saying in other areas of Midyat there were schools which only Arabic students attended- or Kurdish students, and that there would be issues between schools, but this is certainly not something that I witnessed first hand.

Midyat was the first area in this project where I had absolutely no connections with anyone.  However what I did know about Mardin (the province where Midyat is in) is that it is seen as an ‘at risk’ area.  Unemployment and poverty are serious problems and there used to be a lot of political violence in the area. In the last five years however this has reduced and many people are moving back to the area after having moved away due to fear of terrorism.  Because I had no connections with the area I had thought it best to ask the Midyat department of education which school they thought would benefit most from the project.  Many weeks and phone calls later (after I had got permission to do the project from the head of the dept of education in Midyat, the head in Mardin, and from the Mayors office in Mardin) Kocatepe Ilkoğretim was recommended to me.  Once the project started however it didn’t take long to realise that it was in fact the best government school in the area.  The school had a huge performance space and many after school activities that the teachers ran (including a drama club).  Being sent to this school for the project was extremely frustrating as there are many more schools in the area that were much more ‘disadvantaged’ and therefore would have been more appropriate for the project criteria.  It showed me that knowing local people in the areas I’m going to is really important as I am unable to trust just one source.  Better yet to plan future projects whilst I am in the area.

Saying that, I see our time in Midyat as a big success.  We worked with two age groups (9-11 year olds and 12-14 year olds) and had asked the teachers to recommend students with low self confidence.  The students we worked with would certainly have never previously been involved in any school drama production and we witnessed a huge difference in confidence in the participants by the end of the residency.  With the younger group we worked on the folk tale of Şahmaran- an old Ottoman folk tale.  We created a multi-lingual production by telling the story in English, Turkish, Kurdish and Arabic.  I have always been interested in multi-lingual performances as theatre is indeed a ‘universal language’ and working in a group where people speak so many different languages seemed like a perfect opportunity to use this.  Some people in Turkey may think by doing this we were making a political statement, other people might think it is ‘dangerous’ to encourage people to speak native languages other then Turkish.  What we were doing however was celebrating the diversity of the group we were working in and sharing many different people’s mother tongue.  With the older group we worked on creating new stories after ‘The End’ of well known folk tales.  This older group in particular were very shy and watching them develop over the two week period was beautiful.  They took their roles very seriously and I remember feeling shocked one day when a participant who seemed so quiet in class came to rehearsal dressed in a full blown king’s costume that he had rummaged up at home.  It showed me how I’m not always aware of the effects that the workshops have on some individuals and how much they think about them in their own time.  One teacher said after the final performance (translated from Turkish);

‘It was amazing to see some children who we had never seen speak before get up on stage and act out a role’.

A participant commented (translated from Turkish);

‘This was the first time I have ever been on stage and I feel so happy.  I got on stage in front of so many of my friends and I feel very proud… I was really nervous when I first went on but with your support I managed to pull myself together and now i feel very good.’

Another important thing that I learnt in Midyat is that teachers are able to get paid for running after school activities in government schools.  This was incredibly encouraging to see.  The amount of activities obviously depends on the staff in the particular school as they are not obliged to run these clubs. However it did show me that it is possible for schools to run an after school drama club as long as they have a staff member willing to do so in areas in Turkey outside of the major cities.  To get paid to do this the teacher has to have a specific university certificate to say that they can teach the subject as an activity (even if they are teaching table tennis they have to go to university and do a course which will give them an official certificate for a ‘table tennis teacher’).  This has got me thinking a lot about the sustainability of the project. If I was able to offer training to teachers that would result in a certificate that the government would recognise then teachers would be more inspired to become drama workshop practitioners at their schools.  I’m sure this is no easy thing to achieve but it would certainly be one option to trying to achieve sustainability in this work.

While I was in Midyat I also ran a one off drama workshop at Acırlı Ana Okul which is a village pre school near Midyat.  Pre-schools in Turkey are for children between 4-7.  The government are currently trying to make it cumpulsory for children from the age of 5 to go to school (currently the age is 7).  It is now compulsory in 32 of the 81 provinces and Midyat will be joining the list within the next few months.  Because of this there were many talks for parents in Midyat whilst I was there about the importance of early years education which was interesting to see.  Running a workshop at the pre-school was also great fun.  It was in an arab district so many of the children who were 4 and 5 didn’t speak any Turkish, and none of the teachers spoke any Arabic so watching them communicate was fascinating.  Once agin though through a workshop based around movement many children slowly came out of their shells.

Now that I have met many people local to Midyat I would like to go back and do another project there.  Even though I didn’t see any issues between the Kurdish and Arabic cultures first hand I did hear that some schools were for people from specific cultures only.  Midyat would be the perfect place to do a joint project with two or three schools where the children don’t usually mix to try and work towards integration.  It’s a place so mixed with culture and diversity over thousands of years and it feels perfect to embrace it.

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