Schlesinger and Patkanian

Finding Home: Migration, Exile, and Belonging Essay Salon


Text by Lisa Schlesinger and film by Irina Patkanian

In November 2014, Irina Patkanian and Lisa Schlesinger began The Iphigenia Project, a multi-year trans-media collaboration. Seven Songs for Iphigenia, a site-specific film/theatre adaptation of Euripides Iphigenia at Aulis, was performed at the ruins of Lato on Crete, Greece on June 25, 2015. A short adaptation from this piece was included in the Climate Change Theatre Action, produced by NoPassport, The Arctic Cycle, and Theatre Without Borders for the ARTCOP21. The next iteration, Iphigenia: Fragments from an Excavation will be presented at the Iowa City Book Festival in 2016. The Iphigenia Project will culminate in a live performance directed by Marion Schoevaert in 2017.

Following the Lato performance, Irina and her cameraman, Gus Ford, travelled to Lesvos Island to record the unfolding refugee crisis as part of the documentary component of The Iphigenia Project. 70 boats, on average, arrived every day with 4,200 people. After disembarking, children were wrapped up into silver and gold thermal blankets like precious gifts to us all.

Approximately half a million people crossed the sea to Europe in 2015.  35% of them are children.  Approximately 3,700 people died in the Mediterranean in 2015, and 2,800 people in 2016. These approximations are of the people we know about.



Iphigenia at Lesvos

The myth goes like this:
A father and a daughter. The things he promises her.
The first promise: life. One Sperm. A moment of ecstasy. An egg fertilized.
Did he love her mother or was love beside the point?
The myth was born and so is she.
Iphigenia, first-born refugee.
While the war goes on. And on.
Once here, she loves the light most of all.
The light I love, she calls it.
Father, don’t make me go.

Just before dawn, you wake, you hear the call and response of a thousand birds.
The light flashes off the too still sea.
And why doesn’t it move at all?
How will the ships even go?
Don’t worry, child, the boat will have a motor.
Under the birdcalls, there is a sound, far away, at first,
but coming closer: it’s a woman’s voice. She is singing.
Is it an Arabic song? Or Greek?
Or is it a mermaid, come up from the deep to sound disaster
under the still water.
In the first years of the civil war, it was mostly young men leaving.
Soldier-aged men. She met five of them kicking a ball on the beach.
What else to do while they are waiting? One singled her out.
- Kanoume parea, he asks. Arabic accent. Greek meaning.
-Thank you, no.
-Parakalo. Where I have to go? Pouthena!
-I’m flattered but thank you, no.
-We’ll have fun.
-Anyway, I’m old enough to be your mother, she laughs. My son could be your brother!
-I’ve been with a woman older than you. Good times. We had fun.
-Where are you from?
-Syria. Came on a tiny varka. Five of us smashed in. We thought we would drown.
-That is awful.
Down the beach, under an umbrella, a young Afghani man massages a northern European woman’s back. She turns back to the young man. Deep black eyes, just like in the rebetika songs. A fistful of dark hair at his breastbone. She can almost taste his mouth.
-How long have you been here? She says with her American accent. Your Greek is very good.
-Please, he says. We will have fun. He puts his sturdy hand on her arm. Please.
She is not sure if she even knows what he means but she closes the book, whisks the towel from the sand, briskly walks away.

Forecast today in Bodrum:
Sunny and clear, 23 Celsius,
A beautiful day to travel!
Wear your sunglasses!

In the dark they board the boat.
A dinghy made for 12
Stuffed with 60 people.

Six miles across
seven hours of purgatory.

The myth goes like this:
The first mermaid was Syrian,
A woman who sang so beautifully that when she
decided to become a fish,
the gods only allowed half
of her transformation.
She doesn’t know where she belongs.
That is why she sings.

Go ahead: Vilify the smugglers, selling their defective life vests.
The politicians are lunching at the Hotel Bretagne.

In the bottom of the boat,
the women with their children in their laps
feel the sea water
Seep in.
The water is mixed with fuel. It soaks their skirts
and stings. It stings. O.
Those in the middle feel it first
now it is a little pool,
then the water rises above their waists
and as the water rises they fear they will drown
In this boat that was to save them.

Iphigenia to her father:
Father. Don’t make me leave the light I love.

The myth goes like this:
When the Greek sailor hears the mermaid sing, he follows her voice,
and so it goes that sometimes he drowns, following.

It’s not just mermaids, in the dark you can hear all the songs:
Sunglasses 5 euro, sings the one legged Iraqi man on the streets of Mytilini
Hush my darling, hums the mother, remembering she once saw a bear walk down the plank of the ship.
Coffee 1 euro, calls the fisherman from the island where there are no longer any fish.
A lament on the shore that is a child’s grave.

Stop. Singing.
Stop. Crying.
Where are we.
When will this stop.

Dear Friend,
I’m sorry to write in fragments.
If you want the news, please open the
International Herald Tribune. It’s all there on page three.
The boats, the numbers, the facts.
Or is that the lie?
I don’t know anymore.
That is why I sometimes turn away.
I can’t say it any other way
without the ozone
the sun breaks the truth into debris.

Just before dawn you wake,
the motor died, the boat stalls,
a baby cries.
Listen, child, listen to the singing,
The water has risen to the mothers’ breasts
and the little ones hold onto their necks
you can hear singing if you listen close
Some men lean over to paddle.
Some men lean towards land.
Now they see something,
people waving,
there, on the shore.

When the old man gets off the boat, the young man offers his hand.
His father has just died back in his country.
He holds the older man’s hand for a long time.
They say nothing.
He holds it. He holds it.

When she comes ashore
wrap her like candy in silver and gold.
Please tell her, I saw the deer run off this morning before dawn.
Tell her, Iphigenia, I recognize you: you have my daughter’s face.

Daughter, mine, not mine,
                            in the myth the daughter has already been promised to the world

May you travel safe.
May your body be unharmed
                           one in three will be
May you land with ease.
May you have joy and peace of mind.
May you one day return to your home.
May you one day forgive us.

Lisa Schlesinger is a playwright, writer and theatre activist. A recipient of the NEA/TCG Playwrights Residency Award, the BBC International Playwriting Award, and a finalist for a United States Artists Fellowship, her work is produced in the U.S. and internationally and published in American Theatre Magazine, Performing Arts Journal, Theatre Communications Group, Broadway Play Publishing, NoPassport and the New York Times. She teaches at the Iowa Playwrights’ Workshop at the University of Iowa.






Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, Irina Patkanian is an award-winning filmmaker based in New York City. Irina’s documentaries and narrative shorts have played and won awards in film festivals and art venues worldwide. She is a recipient of grants and fellowships from American Association of University Women, New York State Council of the Arts, Tow, Blaustein, Troy and Jerome Foundations. Irina is a William J. Fulbright Fellow and a professor of film production at TV and Radio department of Brooklyn College/CUNY.



Ruth Margraff is a playwright and writing program chair at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Margraff's plays, poetry and opera works include Anger/Fly; Three Graces; Temptation of the Fresh Voluptuous; Cafe Antarsia Ensemble; Seven; Stadium Devildare; The Cry Pitch Carrolls; The Elektra Fugues; Night Vision; Deadly She-Wolf Assassin At Armageddon, Voice of the Dragon 1,2,3; Judges 19: Black Lung Exhaling; All Those Violent Sweaters; Red Frogs; Night Parachute Battalion; The State of Gristle; Centaur Battle of San Jacinto; Wallpaper Psalm. Her work has been performed at various festivals and venues throughout USA; UK; Canada; Russia; Romania; Serbia; Hungary; Ireland; Italy; Greece; Turkey; Slovenia; Czech Republic; Croatia; France; Austria, Sweden; Japan; Egypt; India, Azerbaijan. She is recipient of numerous awards from institutions including Rockefeller Foundation; McKnight Foundation; Jerome Foundation; National Endowment for the Arts; Theater Communications Group; Fulbright; New York State Council on the Arts; Illinois Arts Council; Arts International; Trust for Mutual Understanding of New York, CultureConnect. 

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