Behind the Backdrop of Terror

How do you make theater during a war? What prospects does culture have when bombs and terrorist attacks threaten everyday life? Dorothea Marcus reports from the Iraqi Theater Week in Mülheim on the difficult working conditions of theater groups in Iraq

photo: &copy Theater an der Ruhr
Despite everyday adversities, a vibrant theater culture has since developed in Iraq

​​Baghdad at war. People are destitute and have to sell the very last items they possess – and among these is tea – the most popular Arab daily beverage. In her play "Fantasy of a Traveler," Iraqi author and playwright Awatef Naeem gradually introduces a peculiar set of characters selling tea at the country's border.

One of these is a teacher who could no longer practice his profession, because under Saddam he was prohibited from teaching his students about freedom.

Grotesque fight for survival in postwar everyday life

Now he has set himself up with a sunshade and a camping stool, shouting out praises of his wares. Then comes a former actor with a tent, thermos, and mobile telephone.

He believes in the Western notion of globalization and imperiously aims to take control of the tea market. To this aim, he even wraps bombs around his waist.

A heavily veiled woman wants to make money not only from the sale of tea, but from her handicapped son as well. A young woman wants to sell her ideas, but is only paid for her body. Everyone hopes that the truck with aid supplies will finally stop. They hope for a better life in freedom and democracy.

With a sense of unflappable comedy and almost totally without dialogue, the group stages a portrayal of terror-plagued daily life, in which the citizens of postwar Baghdad have to engage in a grotesque fight for survival. Time and again, the actors duck to avoid a car bomb.

The border gradually transforms into a provisional refugee camp where everyone tries to outwit each other – be it with crocodile tears, or with the empty boxes of American kitchen appliances. This is a very black comedy.

The nine actors play as if their lives hang in the balance. They rap and dance, frequently turn directly to the audience, asking them for suggestions or to snap photos – all the while not taking themselves too seriously. What do they have left to lose?

Arising from the ruins

When the longed-for truck carrying aid finally arrives, it unloads, of all things, a supply of Western tea bags and plastic cups – the least needed items in Baghdad. But then what is really needed?

Theater groups, perhaps. Exactly like this one, which formed itself out of the ruins. The "Baghdad Theater Workshop" and the "Rehearsal Space Workshop" were established by two directors and former theater teachers out of the ruins of the Iraqi theater system.

With a great deal of effort, the 64-year-old Aziz Khayon and the 44-year-old Haitham Abed Al-Razaq attempted to assemble some of their former colleagues and acting students. Both of the works performed at the Mülheim festival were written by Khayon's wife. Her sister and brother-in-law also act in the plays. The new theatrical life in Baghdad arose within a family unit.

How is it at all possible to do theater during a monstrous guerilla war? How is it possible to find rehearsal space? "Sometimes we get together in someone's home, sometimes we wait around at the university to find a free classroom, sometimes we meet at the Iraqi Sculpture Club," relates Aziz Khayoun.

"This is not exactly the best atmosphere in which to work. Right next-door is a gas station, where drivers fight for hours over gasoline. We can hear the gunshots. Recently a car bomb went off only 50 minutes before a performance. All of our windows were broken."

Climate of fear

Rehearsals can only be held at midday, because after 5 PM it is just too dangerous to be caught outside. Sometimes the group has to take a break for weeks on end, says Khayoun.

"The director is responsible for the lives of those working in the theater. We always divide the group in two, and two of us smuggle them through the city. You live in a state of fear the whole time. Will they get home safely? There would simply be no life in Baghdad if we didn't attempt to create life."

"The Fantasy of a Traveler" could only be performed three times in Baghdad, as there are no longer any theaters in the city. Culture is no longer promoted, either.

Only the third performance, given at a conference for creative artists, was held before a large audience, relates the actress Ikbal Naeem. The ensemble was subsequently invited to Cairo for a festival of experimental theater, where they won the first prize.

The stiff, rhetorical theater loyal to the regime under Saddam Hussein and the furiously playful improvisational theater are worlds apart, and it is exactly this situation that reflects present-day Iraq. How could any other type of theater arise under these difficult conditions?

A mirror of Iraqi daily life

"We are working on a project," explains Ikbal Naeem, "and it provides us with the energy we need to run. Like an electricity pylon, like a light that drives us on. To some extent, it helps us to lead a normal life, to see beauty amidst all of the ugliness, and to maintain an inner sense of balance. It keeps us from being ruled by chaotic and cynical thoughts. And this is what we have to show the public. The worst case would be if we let ourselves get used to the death around us and forget what it is to really live."

The actress Ikbal Naeem thinks that it was also a guest performance by the Theater an der Ruhr two years ago that gave them the courage to get on with their work, despite the present situation in Iraq.

And this becomes apparent during the "Iraqi Theater Week in Mülheim as well. If that controversial guest performance had not taken place, the current contacts would not have come about.

It may be that two small Iraqi theater ensembles with ten actors, two directors, and one playwright aren't much when it comes to the theatrical life of a country with 20 million inhabitants. Yet, despite everything, it looks like there is hope for new and unusual contemporary theater in Iraq.

Dorothea Marcus


Translation from German: John Bergeron

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