Jude the Obscure updated, only she’s a Syrian refugee

Author:   Robin Cohen

Jude the Obscure updated, only she’s a Syrian refugee

Robin Cohen

(First appeared in the programme of a play in the Hampstead Theatre. Published with the permission of the Author )

It’s been many years since I have read the book, Jude the Obscure, Thomas Hardy’s famous novel, published in 1895, about a stonemason who loved Latin and who yearned for an education at Oxford. For those of us at Oxford who champion opening the doors of learning to all who can profit from it, Jude’s travails are a painful story to read. Institutional failures, class prejudices, religious zealotry and a good helping of stubborn personal characteristics all played their part in crushing Jude’s aspirations.

It’s a compelling story, which provides the platform for Howard Brenton’s new play, just called Jude, in which the protagonist is a young Syrian women, who has an amazing grasp of ancient Greek and who, like her fictional male predecessor, hungers to enter an Oxford college. As you might expect, Jude’s story also turns out badly. However, it would spoil your enjoyment of the play –which I wholeheartedly recommend – if I spell out the exact denouement. Suffice to say that the characters include a Syrian aunt who has taken up growing leeks, two sinister MI5 operatives, a dodgy pig farmer, a lesbian professor and a ghostly Euripides.

My inhibition in saying more about the play is partly modesty – I’m no theatre critic – but partly because I connected to the play in a rather unexpected way.The Hampstead Theatre, where the play will be staged during May 2019, has a tradition of producing rather bulky programmes for its productions, each containing what is hoped will be a thoughtful essay which relates to the play obliquely, but is not a direct critique or exposition of the production. Below is the essay I wrote for the programme, and which is reproduced in this blog with permission of the theatre. It is simply titled Reaching.



Spring came late to Syria in 2011. I mean the Arab Spring. In March of that year, 15 boys from respectable families in the southern city of Deraa painted anti-government slogans on their school’s walls. They were arrested and demonstrations in their support were violently suppressed by President Assad’s security forces. Three people were killed. It all kicked off from there.

What was initially a civil war has turned into a multi-sided conflict involving Russia, Iran, Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement, the USA, the UK, France, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kurdish forces and, until it was routed in eastern Syria in March 2019, the Islamic State. For the people of Syria the outcome of the conflict has been devastating. Of the pre-war population of 22 million, nearly 55 per cent have been internally displaced or fled the borders of Syria.

Syrians who left the country overwhelmingly found themselves in neighbouring countries, particularly Turkey and Lebanon, but also Jordan and Iraq. Anyone reading much of the European press in 2015–16, during the height of the displacement crisis, might be forgiven for assuming that most of the Syrian refugees walked to Germany or washed up on the Greek islands. This is not to minimize the extent of the migration across the Mediterranean or along the land route through the Eastern Balkans. Nor is it to disparage the political courage of Chancellor Merkel, who was aware that there was considerable opposition in Germany to extending an open door to Syrians. However, the volume and distribution of Syrians abroad in 2018 clearly shows that theadjoining countries were in the front line. Syrian refugees in Lebanon made up one-sixth of its population.

The drama of these events was played out on the screens in our living rooms. Here and there an intense look of a child surrounded by rubble penetrated the veil of the digital lens. However, what was generally broadcast was an anonymous mass of walkers, a swirl of faces, a knot of red life vests huddled in a crowded dinghy. That was until a Turkish photographer caught the moment when a policeman tenderly lifted the body of a three-year old child lying dead on a beach near Bodrum. The catastrophe that is Syria now had a name, Alan Kurdî‎. Donations to charities leapt – in one case fifteen-fold. In some extraordinary but largely unexplained way, many viewers were able to ‘reach out’ to someone from a very different cultural background. ‘Many viewers’, but not all. A journalist in The Spectator (3 September 2015) declared that, ‘the global spreading of this snapshot ... is justified as a way of raising awareness about the migrant crisis. Please. It’s more like a snuff photo for progressives, dead-child porn.’ Journalists are often thought to be hard-bitten, but this is so gross adisplay of cynicism that I struggle to read it calmly now, three-and-a-half years later.

I venture that there is a moral community, the ‘we’ in the discussion below, who identified with the plight of the refugees. Did we indulge our feelings inappropriately? What exactly happened at that moment of connection? Can we deconstruct the various ways in which difference is encountered and surmounted and what forms of politics and social engagement follow? I will call these modes of engagement ‘reaching’.

Reaching down

The first form of reaching is when we reach down, still locked in our positions of relative privilege, still guarding our self, still seeing the other as other. This is the stance of the Samaritan who did not walk by, as many had, but helped the mugged stranger. Most charities operate with a similar outlook, including Comic Relief, whichDavid Lammy, the black MP for Tottenham, lambasted for sending a journalist to Africa whom, he thought, had acted in a patronizing way. ‘The world does not need any more white saviours’, he said. Just two weeks later our television screens showed white, brown and black arms, literally reaching down to victims of the Mozambican flood from circling helicopters. Undoubtedly reaching down has its limitations, but few would justify leaving hungry, homeless people with their feet rotting in the mud.

Reaching across

When we reach across we seek to find what we share with others while largely sustaining our differences. ‘Across’, rather than ‘down’ because we are expressing our fellowship as much as our sympathy. It’s the ‘Fraternité of the French Revolution, or the Sisterhood of the international feminist movement. Probably the best we can do by way of a gender-neutral expression is ‘solidarity’. The international labour movement has advanced the idea for many years but has never recovered from the decision of the European working classes at the outbreak of the First World War to march to the tunes of their kings, tsars, emperors and kaisers, rather than sing the lyrics of the Internationale. Of course there are many other forms of solidarity in social life and international relations – ‘standing with’ the Muslim community of Christchurch, New Zealand, in the wake of the recent mass killings, is a good contemporary example of reaching across. Long-standing residents wearing headscarves for a few days vividly symbolized this stance.

Reaching between

We reach between when we collectively create new spaces, new identities and new social practices. We hybridize or ‘creolize’, the term I prefer because it escapes biological reference. Creolization happens incrementally and often inadvertently, but sometimes more consciously. Perhaps because the word is less familiar, it is instructive to mention the origins of the root word. Probably derived from the Latin ‘to create’, creolization has been used to refer to languages (there are 78 recognized Creole languages), food, music and people of mixed heritage. However, it has now mutated to cover social practices, or ways of being.Creolization describes a position interposed between two or more cultures, with participants selectively appropriating some elements, rejecting others, and creating new possibilities that transgress and supersede parent cultures, which themselves are increasingly recognized as fluid or historically contingent. There are many successful examples of creolization from fusion food, to jazz, to the evolution of new social formations in the Caribbean, the Indian Ocean, in port cities and in contemporary global cities. Reaching between does not necessarily require a formal adherence to cosmopolitanism (a political position). Rather, multiple layers of osmosis – in style, language, belief systems, food preferences and many other social practices – gradually evolve from below, often without the participants realizing that a new culture is being born.

Reaching inside

We reach inside when we see more clearly who we are, how we have changed, and how we must change more. It is an act of inward exploration. In Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, his odious character, Kurtz, finally meets his match when he looks deeply into the face of the Congolese he so hated, only to find his own face staring back. This is the moment when the externalization of unwanted feelings and emotions onto another person or group is no longer an adequate psychological defence. A particular existential crisis demands that we have to engage reflexively. We also should invert Kurtz’s heart, searching instead for a heart of brightness. Without being particularly conscious of our motivations, we often act without understanding that charity or solidarity can have profound implications for our inner life. By reaching out to the other in an ever more immersive way, we can magnify the understanding and empathy that we have found in ourselves.


Many people embark on difficult journeysbetween charity, solidarity, creolization,and reflexivity.For some, there may be an endpoint, a movement towards a Zen-like calm when ‘reaching’ becomes habitual and intuitive. For most of us, I imagine, ‘reaching’ will be a more difficult journey, one we need to make both on our own and with our friends and colleagues. There is no automatic hierarchy of virtue. Is solidarity a higher virtue than charity? Perhaps. But sometimes people just need to be pulled out of the mud, with as much kindness and speed as we can muster.

The directions and signposts for our journey are barely visible. We see them only through a glass darkly.We need playwrights, novelists, artists, sociologists and psychologists to help us through the maze. As we traverse the uncharted space we both send out feelers and withdraw into shells. We are pulled forward by curiosity and held back by caution. When migrants and strangers reach our mental, emotional and physical shores, they breach our certainties. And that is how it should be.


Robin Cohen is Emeritus Professor and Senior Research Fellow, Kellogg College. He writes on migration and related matters. With Olivia Sheringham, he is co-author of Encountering difference: diasporic traces, creolizing spaces,and author ofa book for a general readership, Migration: the movement of humankind from prehistory to the present (forthcoming, 2019).


© 2012-20 GRFDT, All Rights Reserved.Maintained by GRFDT.Designed by Abhinav Jain