By Peggy Taylor
I didn’t quite know what to expect when a friend told me that a giant, 12-foot-high puppet named Little Amal was coming to the Upper West Side looking for her mother. Representing a ten-year old Syrian refugee, she has been searching for her mother since last July when she left the Turkey/Syria border, and traveled 8,000 miles, making stops in Spain, Italy, Greece, Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, France, Italy, Poland, and Ukraine. She even stretched out her bamboo cane hands at the Vatican for a handshake with the Pope. On September 14th, she made it to New York, and last Saturday to the Upper West Side.
Considered by many to be one of the most ambitious public artworks ever attempted, Little Amal (“hope” in Arabic) is the focus of the theatrical project “The Walk,” and the brain child of Palestinian theater director Amir Nizar Zuabi, who wants to raise awareness about the plight of refugee children and asylum seekers in general.
Zuabi was inspired by the play, The Jungle, an immersive, theatrical event which explores the plight of refugees at a migrant camp in Calais, France, and tells the story of a 17-year-old Sudanese teenager who traveled thousands of miles across desert and ocean to reach the camp. After a highly successful showing in 2018, it returns to St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn in February 2023.
According to Zuabi, “Little Amal is an excuse for communities to come together and be kind to a foreigner, and by so doing understand something about themselves and what there is to celebrate in their communities.” Little Amal has been welcomed with activities ranging from intimate community events to major street parties and city performances. For Stephen Daldry, one of “The Walk’s”producers, Little Amal symbolizes “not only the plight of millions of displaced children, but also their potential.”
Little Amal has not been universally welcomed. In Greece, which has a substantial immigrant influx from Libya, she was pelted with fruits, eggs, and stones. In Calais, France, home to the encampment depicted in “The Jungle,” she was refused a permit to walk along its beaches, but was eventually allowed to walk along one in a town close by. For detractors, ten-year-old Little Amal is not your typical Syrian refugee, whom, they say, is more likely to be a strapping thirty-year-old man. But, according to Lori Naughton, CEO of the charity, Choose Love, who accompanies Little Amal on many of her travels: “Only one percent of the places she’s visited have not embraced her. This is all about welcome, about opening up our hearts, our communities and our cities. I never realized how magical it would be.”
How would Little Amal be received in New York and in particular on the Upper West Side, which is facing an unexpected influx of migrants bussed here by Greg Abbott, governor of Texas?
When she arrived at John F. Kennedy airport on September 14th, she was serenaded by the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and its children’s chorus. After that, she was treated like a rock star in Queens, then in Brooklyn, notably at St. Ann’s Warehouse, where “The Jungle” was produced, and later on at Grand Central Terminal, the New York Public Library, and Times Square.
On the Upper West Side, she began her walk at Columbus Circle’s USS Maine Monument, where members of the nonprofit Rise and Resist unfurled a black and white banner reading: “Seeking Asylum is Not a Crime.” She was joined by a jazz band playing “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and by noted fashion and set designer, Machine Dazzle, dressed as the queen of a colony of bees. For him, “A bee colony is one of the most perfect examples of beings coming together for a cause. I wanted to do something colorful and playful,” he said.
As soon as the procession started from the Maine Monument, Upper West Siders showered Amal with cheers, waves, handshakes, and kisses as they followed her up Central Park West to Lincoln Center. I, too, joined the merry band of well wishers and felt as though I were one of the children following the Pied Piper of Hamelin.
Lincoln Center rolled out the red carpet for Little Amal, beginning with a spirited welcome from their jazz band from “Jazz at Lincoln Center,” which serenaded her from the balcony of the Metropolitan Opera House. After that, a chamber music ensemble accompanied her on her walk around the Paul Milstein Pool and Terrace, where she was treated to dance performances by the School of American Ballet and by the Kayla Farrish Dance Company.
Everywhere, fans young and old reached out to touch her, sing to her, dance with her. I didn’t realize how powerful and joyous it all would be and I quickly understood the point of the project—the creators’ hope that the welcome extended to Little Amal, the puppet, would transfer to flesh-and blood-immigrants arriving in our towns and on our shores.
Little Amal ended her Upper West Side tour at a private event at the American Museum of Natural History. She will conclude her Big Apple visit in early October with a visit to the Statue of Liberty.
Coincidentally, Little Amal’s visit to the Upper West Side coincided with Citizenship and Constitution Day, when newly naturalized immigrants took their oaths of citizenship at a ceremony at Lincoln Center.
Little Amal Walks NYC is a co-production between Walk Productions, St. Ann’s Warehouse and
The Handspring Puppet Company, a puppetry performance and design company based in Cape Town, South Africa, and noted for its work in the celebrated play, “War Horse.”