Meet Little Amal, the puppet girl refugee about to walk 8,000km

Show caption Little Amal’s route to Manchester. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian Theatre Meet Little Amal, the puppet girl refugee about to walk 8,000km Later this month, in one of the most ambitious live artworks ever staged, a giant puppet will trek from the Syria-Turkey border to Manchester, in a moving-theatre show of solidarity with asylum seekers Claire Armitstead @carmitstead Sun 4 Jul 2021 15.00 BST Share on Facebook

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On the last Tuesday of July, a big little girl will step out into a Turkish city, a few miles from the Syrian border, to begin an 8,000km trek to Manchester. Little Amal is nine years old and is searching for her mother, who went off to find food and never returned. She is the central, and only, character in a spectacularly ambitious theatre project. The Walk will face down international Covid restrictions in a visionary act of solidarity with the plight of refugees, defiance of the borders that put their lives in danger, and belief in the humanity of ordinary people faced with a global humanitarian crisis.

Little Amal’s intercontinental odyssey will be hard to miss in the eight countries whose borders she will cross between July and November, because she is 3.5 metres (nearly 12 feet) tall. She’s a puppet, who will be enabled to make her epic walk by relays of puppeteers, several of whom are themselves refugees. She will bear a single message, on behalf of all the thousands of displaced children who will come out to meet her along the way: “Don’t forget about us.”

The Turkish border city of Gaziantep will offer the first of more than 100 community welcomes that will punctuate her journey. She will be taught cooking skills at a workshop with young Syrian refugees, who will also hand her a suitcase of gadgets they’ve designed to help her on her journey. But for now she is holed up in a hangar-like space in London’s Docklands, learning how to walk and articulate her feelings, as her support team buzzes around her, under instruction by video link from the South African puppet masters who built her.

It’s the second day of production, and Amal is being rehearsed in two halves. Her stilt “legs” will emerge from a cage-like exoskeleton that lies on its side on the floor: the dress that will conceal it is still being made, and her sturdy boots are yet to be transformed from shiny silver metal to the illusion of scuffed red leather. But her upper body is already in action, her beautiful face not quite smiling, framed by floaty brown ribbons of hair.

Little Amal taking a test walk on the South Bank in London. Photograph: Nick Wall/PA

Nine young puppeteers will operate her, in rotating teams of three, with one on each hand and one on stilts, who will also control her facial expressions via a complicated system of strings known as “the harp”. They are gentle and respectful as they take turns at learning how to create a personality through the movement of her long limbs. Despite the surreal comedy of seeing her statuesque torso teetering around on a pair of little human legs, already she can convey shock, shyness and curiosity through the lowering of her eyes and the graceful undulation of her arms.

Even before she hits the road she has been creating quite a stirwith celebrities including Gillian Anderson, Anish Kapoor, Gary Lineker and Chiwetel Ejiofor having signed up as publicity ambassadors. On the sidelines sits producer David Lan, who gives a sense of the scale of the undertaking. Basically, he says, The Walk is a single theatre show that will take place over four months on an 8,000km stage. “Except,” he sighs, “I’ve just been told that it’s actually probably closer to 9,000km, which was a bit of a surprise.”

It’s just one of many surprises already being sprung by a project in which nothing can be taken for granted. Border closures caused by the Covid pandemic forced a four-month postponement of the walk, while lockdowns made fundraising even harder than usual, so, with just three weeks to go, the project is still £40,000 short of target. Once it is up and running, weather, mechanical glitches and the bureaucracy of borders will all have to be managed on the hoof by the 25-strong entourage that will accompany Little Amal over land and sea, by boat, lorry and on foot.

For 18 years director of London’s Young Vic, David Lan is one of four producers who have masterminded The Walk, along with director Stephen Daldry, film producer Tracey Seaward and the theatre company Good Chance, which was founded as a creative response to the Calais refugee camp that became notorious as the Jungle. It is in that camp, back in 2015, that the creation story of Little Amal begins.

An aerial view of the Calais refugee camp in 2016. Photograph: Pascal Rossignol/Reuters

As news of the vast tent city spread, volunteers flocked to the northern French port to see how they could help the 10,000 refugees who were, at its height, estimated to be camping there, hoping to cross the Channel to the UK. For all four producers of Little Amal, it was a lightbulb moment. “The day I went to the Jungle changed my life,” says Tracey Seaward. “I decided then and there that I had to do whatever I could to help. I now have two parallel careers.” A regular producer on the films of Stephen Frears, she also produced Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony for the London 2012 Olympics and is one of three trustees of the international charity Choose Love, which is also a partner on The Walk.

The question that faced all artists who went to the camp was what, besides volunteering and giving money, they could do to make use of their particular strengths. Playwrights Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson – known to their friends as “the two Joes” – decided to build a “Theatre of Hope”, where refugees could take part in workshops and have a space to perform for each other, or be entertained by visiting artists. And so their company, Good Chance, was born.

Among those who were drawn to the large, white geodesic dome was Girum Bekele, one of the puppeteers who will be operating Little Amal. He is an Eritrean who found his vocation as a teenager when a travelling player turned up at his village with a set of juggling balls. After learning to juggle with whatever came to hand, he dedicated himself to acquiring as many different skills as he could.

The Sultan’s Elephant, a 2006 performance by the Royal de Luxe theatre company that was one of the inspirations behind The Walk. Photograph: Sophie Laslett

Bekele won’t talk about why he left Eritrea and how he got to Calais – it would be too dangerous for his family and friends back home – but in his mid-20s he and a small group of friends decided to brave the journey to Europe. Once he arrived at the Jungle, like many he found himself stuck there for months. He describes how everything changed the day he heard music wafting out of the strange new marquee. He went to investigate and immediately knew he had to be a part of it. Kitted out with sticks and juggling balls, he soon demonstrated his astonishing skills, and he became a Theatre of Hope regular until he found a lorry that could smuggle him into the UK.

After his application for asylum was granted, he made contact again with Joes Murphy and Robertson. The Calais camp had by then been bulldozed, along with the Theatre of Hope, but he found them working on a new project to bring to London all that they had seen and experienced. It was a play called The Jungle, and he was offered a role in it. The show opened at the Young Vic in December 2017, where the Observer’s Susannah Clapp described it as “one of the most vital productions of the year”, and transferred to the West End, where Guardian critic Michael Billington described it as “that rare thing: a necessary piece of theatre”. It went on to New York and San Francisco. Among its many characters was a young girl, whose name – Amal – means hope in Arabic. Her journey has a special significance for Bekele, who had travelled many of the same roads. “When I’m with Little Amal I will look after her,” he says, simply. “I know what it is like to hope and to fear. She doesn’t know what’s going on or what is going to happen to her.”

Puppeter Girum Bekele with artistic director Amir Nizar Zuabi. Photograph: Sonja Horsman/The Observer

The Jungle was co-directed by Daldry, who takes up the story on the phone from New York. The idea of The Walk was hatched over lunch with the two Joes, while the show was still running, he says. “We were talking about what would come next and were trying to find a central idea to focus on.” A walk seemed as good an idea as any, as a reflection of the refugee experience, but it raised a question: “If we were going to do such a thing, what would be the catalyst for people’s understanding of what it was; what had to change, and what would be the emotional connection? We knew that we wanted to take Amal, but obviously we weren’t going to cast a real little girl.”

Their thoughts turned to the puppetry in the National Theatre’s War Horse and of the public spectacle The Sultan’s Elephant, which brought a million people out on to the streets of London back in 2006. “Great puppetry has a huge empathetic power, but it couldn’t be mechanical and we wanted it to be on a human scale,” says Daldry. By the end of lunch they had agreed that Handspring, which had animated the horses in War Horse, was the team for the job.

Handspring’s Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones say their first task was to manage expectations. “The first question was: ‘How tall can you make a puppet of a little girl? We have something like five metres in mind,’” they say. “We have worked outdoors with lifesize elephants, but when the wind blows, puppets that size become like yachts, with an impulse to sail off, so we reckoned that 3.5 metres was as high as we could go. It’s twice as high as an average person, so would be easily visible in a crowd. Materials would have to be as light as possible: cane for the chest and pelvis; carbon fibre for the limbs and head. We pulled in four ex-War Horse builders to help. After a month she was functional – just.” Her first outdoor walkabout was in a lavender field in Kent in the summer of 2019.

War Horse at the National Theatre, another inspiration for The Walk. Photograph: Brinkhoff/Moegenburg

Kohler and Jones are speaking to me from Turkey, where they await the arrival of Little Amal, having been unable to get Covid clearance to join her in London. They can see enough over video link to be able to discuss her body language in fine detail with puppetry director Enrico Dau Yang Wey, a Taiwanese veteran of many Handspring projects, who animated Joey and friends in the Broadway run of War Horse. He has his work cut out, as none of those who will operate Little Amal are trained puppeteers: one of the early realisations was that the demands of walking a 3.5m puppet for miles at a time demanded the physical stamina of athletes and circus performers.

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The artistic director bringing the vision together is Amir Nizar Zuabi, a Palestinian playwright and director, who has spent the past 18 months dodging his way around the ever-changing border restrictions to collaborate with the communities who will stage welcome ceremonies for Little Amal along her route. How much of the project is the process of making it happen? “It’s like baking,” he says. “You spend a long time in the kitchen, but it’s not a cake until the moment you take it out of the oven.”

Events take place in venues ranging from opera houses to cathedrals, mosques, bridges, thermal pools and even a cemetery

Each event has been dreamed up and put together by the communities themselves, in venues ranging from opera houses and concert halls to cathedrals, mosques, bridges, thermal pools and even a cemetery. Little Amal will arrive in the EU by boat, docking in the Greek island of Chios to the singing of women who will lead her into a grand orchestral event. In the Italian city of Bari, she will be taught to make orecchiette pasta by a local nonna (grandmother). In the French port of Marseille she will join hundreds of dancers in life jackets in a commemoration of all the refugees who have died at sea. In London she will celebrate her 10th birthday with children from all over the city at a party in the V&A museum. She will end her journey, two days before Bonfire Night, with an extravaganza in a Manchester park.

Nine-going-on-10 is a very specific age. So what does it mean to the people who are taking part? “Nine has a huge presence in the story for me,” says Zuabi. “It’s on the cusp of that very slow transfer from being naive kids to adulthood. Your imagination isn’t completely locked; stones can still talk, and reality is malleable enough for you to look at something and completely reinterpret it through your own eyes.” Scattered through the journey are little glimpses into the daily traumas of life for an abandoned child. In Athens, Little Amal will be saved from the terror of finding herself lost in labyrinthine streets by a red thread; in Milan, she will fall over and hurt her knee; in Naples, she will get overtired and throw a tantrum.

Little Amal walking across the Shangri-La field at Glastonbury. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

“I was lucky,” says Fidaa Zaidan, one of the puppeteers, a Palestinian. “When I was nine, I remember riding my bicycle and trying to find myself as a little girl in the community. But my siblings were very much older, so I was lonely.” Zaidan grew up in a village close to the Lebanese border, which had become part of Israel in 1948. Her grandmother was Syrian, from the disputed Golan Heights. “What this means to me is that there’s a cut with my relations in Syria and Lebanon. I can’t go to either of them,” she says, chopping her hand fiercely through the air.

Zaidan’s life story is a reminder of the bigger political picture that underpins the particular tale in which Little Amal is embroiled, with nations squabbling over the division of responsibility, as people die in their thousands trying to escape war, oppression and economic collapse. There are currently 3.6 million refugees from Syria alone officially registered in Turkey, as Lan points out, which puts into perspective the 32,000 from all over the world who sought asylum in the UK in the past 12 months. More than 2,000 of those applications were from unaccompanied children “It’s just outrageous that there are so many nine-year-olds wandering around Europe,” says Daldry.

How much of the walk does he plan to do himself? “More than you might think,” he replies. Little Amal has already made a few exploratory sorties. “The responses we get when we take her out on the road have been quite euphoric. It’s going to be one of those moments in one’s life that will never happen again.”

Euphoria is all very well, but can one walking puppet really make any significant difference? Yes, insist Little Amal’s backers, because she will unite some 250 charities, community and arts organisations along one of the world’s busiest refugee routes in a charismatic and emotional gesture of hope that will flow like a river of goodwill through two continents. She will inspire ordinary people to look up from their own woes, of which there have been many over the pandemic months, and empathise with those who have lost everything. And because of the educational initiatives that will surround the walk and grow out of it. “There will be a legacy,” promises Lan. “Once Little Amal is out of her box, whatever happens, she’ll never go back into it again.”

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