When you think back on your childhood, what is the first thing that strikes you?
I was born in Baghdad in 1951 near the shrine of Abdel Ghader al-Gaylani, a Sunni holy man. My mother was from Karbala and my father from Najaf. I was born Shii, yet I spent the early days of my childhood near this Sunni holy shrine. I believe this exposure as a child to different religions made me inherently above the Sunni-Shiite division we now see ripping Iraq apart. Until this day, I refuse to say I am a Shii or Sunni. I refuse to say I am from Baghdad, Najaf or Karbala. I’m just proud to be an Iraqi.
When did art and theater first touch your life?
What drew me first to the arts was Thursday’s “Raising the Flag” national program in the school system, which the Iraqi Ministry of Education and Upbringing sponsored. Our art and music teachers prepared us during the week for Thursday’s artistic performances, which each class would present to the school in the morning. From early childhood, I adored performing. I remember playing the part of a roaring lion when I was just six years old.
Indeed this Thursday “Raising the Flag” program extends way back into history and even continued through Saddam’s time and until today. During the time of the monarchy, students were mostly free in their performances, and often spoke about what the country meant to them. Then during the Republic, students often eulogized Abdel Karim Qassem. I was seven at the time he came to power in 1958. Qassem, who even resembled my father, was a real hero to me. I still remember singing this song on Thursday: “Abdel Karim Qassem – all our hearts reach out to you!” Then, unfortunately, during Saddam’s time, the day was transformed to a time of praising the Baath party, transforming students into military soldiers from the time they were just six years old.
I have to say that the whole political arena of Iraq – the manifestations, plots, and sagas – were like a living theater to me, and inculcated in me a sense of drama from early on. For example, I used to cry whenever there were manifestations against Qassem. I still remember one occasion vividly. It was in 1959. The Baath party put fire on gasoline at a station in al-Karada in protest of Abdel Karim Qassem. I climbed up on our rooftop and watched the flames from afar, worrying about the fate of my beloved leader. High on our rooftop – the colors, fears, and uncertainties – whirling around me, felt like a live theater production that I was a part of. The drama of the situation, reasons and background behind the event all came together to create a vivid story, and gave me a sense of storytelling.
What are your first childhood memories?
I remember driving my parents crazy from the beginning of my existence. Before I was born, my parents first had a boy and then a string of three girls. As in most traditional Middle Eastern families, a son was regarded more highly, and my mother was absolutely distraught about having three girls in a row, to the point that her third daughter eventually died of neglect. After her third daughter passed away, my mother did the impossible to get pregnant with a son. She went from one fortuneteller and sheikh to the next, memorizing all sorts of formulas and eating all sorts of remedies. Then when she was pregnant, she did everything in her power to make sure her baby was a boy, adhering to all sorts of traditional folklore. She even visited a Jewish shrine in Baghdad, which according to folklore would ensure you have a boy. She walked across and then back, and then again, and then in a circle, reciting all the required formulas and prayers to ensure God was pleased and would bless her with a son.
So when it turned out that I was a boy, my mother was thrilled. I was named Jawad, one of the names of God. But then I turned out to be a different kind of boy, who listened to nothing my parents told me. My eyes were always open with curiosity, and I already felt the yearnings of adolescence as a toddler. When I was just three, I already had crushes on my female cousins. At four years old, I was kicked out of the public bath for harassing the women.
I refused to participate in the traditional afternoon nap, and used the time when my whole family was sleeping to discover my surroundings. For example, I would steal grapes from my father’s garden trellis. It was not the act of stealing which concerned me, but the theatrical process of it all – the secrecy, plotting and escaping untouched.
Art is crisis. It is the curiosity of the forbidden. This is complicated in an Eastern society such as Baghdad, where everything is forbidden. And so I was referred to as my parents’ son from hell. Instead of calling me Jawad, my mother called me Judi al-Yuhudi (Judi the Jew). To the day she died, may God rest her soul, there were many misunderstandings between us.
When did you realize you wanted to become an actor?
I was 14 when I knew I wanted to become an actor, but the process was complicated and I did not realize what was happening all at once. I just felt from early childhood that I was searching for something; that something strange was happening in my body. From around age seven I was sleepwalking. My parents often had to search the whole house and neighborhood for me. We used to sleep on the rooftop and I often disappeared. My mother used to look all over the house for me, and when she couldn’t find me she would wake up my father. They often found me walking on the wall of our second rooftop, and they feared I would fall. My father would approach me slowly from behind me and catch me.
I was trying to find myself at the time. I pursued all the arts, even sports like gymnastics, soccer and swimming. Though I loved swimming, especially crossing the Tigris River, I was a failure in most everything I did and knew I had still not found what I was searching for.
Then at 13 I had an important role in a play in the school theater, under the guidance of a well-known director, Qassem Sobhi. When the theater ended I kneeled down and kissed the ground of the theater, which was sacred to me, and I would continue this tradition of kissing the ground of the theater until this day. At 15 I knew for sure that I wanted to act, and everything came together for me. It was around then that I stopped sleepwalking.
Though I was acting in the theater a lot, my peers who were older than me, such as the famous actor Qassem al-Malak, advised me to finish my education first and then to act, but I didn’t listen. When al-Malak’s theatrical group rejected me until I had completed my education, I searched for another one. And so at 15, in 1966, I joined the theater group working in the Soviet Cultural Center in Baghdad. I began acting in earnest and stopped going to my classes at school, and then I was expelled. During this time, I read extensively on Russian theater and literature, and listened to music. I was content with my acting and studying on my own, but a problem arose when in 1969, a new government proclamation stated that if a student had not finished middle school he must be drafted in the army. So from 1970-71, at age 19, I was forced to join the military. Those two difficult years in the army were a turning point in my life. I had learned much while acting, had gained direction, and was now ready to go back to school once my military service ended. So In 1972, just two months after I left the army, I entered middle school again. As my elders had advised me many years before, I ceased all theater activities until I completed my education. I was so focused that by 1973 I was able to enroll in the Institute of Fine Arts, and I completed my studies in 1978.
What was it like acting during the time of Saddam Hussein?
I was not a communist, so I did not really bother Saddam Hussein. He was not fond of me, since I refused to accept gifts from him, but still he left me alone. In 1979 I joined the national theater and acted and directed, though I preferred acting. Then in February 1982, like many others, I was forced to serve in the lengthy Iran-Iraq war. I was not keen on joining the army, but the choice before me was simple: either to serve or be executed. When I entered the army, I joined the army theater along with others, like singer Kazem al-Saher. And so I still acted in theater during this time. I was in the army, but would prepare my lines while fighting, and then go to Baghdad to perform.
As an actor or director, you were much freer than writers, poets or musicians; they had to eulogize Saddam. We actors were also forced to praise Saddam, but we would disguise our theater pieces in symbols so that the discourse against the government was not recognized. It was easier for us in the theater to hide our intentions, than writers or musicians, for example.
So I acted while in the army, except in the last two years where I was sent to the mountains to fight. During that time, in the line of fire, I wasn’t able to go to Baghdad and act, but with bombs and explosions around me, I memorized the lines for the piece called “If,” a 31-actor show I would perform in Baghdad in 1988. Just 15 pages, this simple story speaks out against the government, which no one understood. It is a story of a poor man expelled from his job when he lost his leg. He becomes an alcoholic and his addiction eventually causes his son’s death as well as that of his wife. The whole story is in the form of flashbacks. Alone now, he sits next to his horse, thinking of the past, saying “if I had done this, oh, if I had done that . . .” In the background are actors showing a panorama of Iraqi society – you can see the dirty streets, class differences, lost places, poor people. But no one in the audience really focused on our hard message in the background. They were more interested in the fate of the man. I won several awards for my performance, and became a star in Iraq to the point that I could not even walk in the streets without being surrounded by people.
Did you ever have any confrontations with the regime?
Yes, on several occasions. For example, in 1990 my wife left me and took my son, Haydar, with her. In Doha, Qatar where I had gone to perform “If,” I saw my son for the last time. Shortly after I returned to Iraq, Kuwait was invaded. I knew I would never see my son again when in January 1991, at beginning of war, I heard that my ex-wife was talking against Saddam on live radio broadcast. The mukhabarat approached me to make me a spy and try to help them capture her. But I told them I was an actor, and could not do their dirty work.
In 1991, I acted in a play called “A Love Story of Our Time,” a story of two disenchanted intellectuals, a man and a woman, who yearned to leave Iraq. The show was well received and won four prizes, despite the fact that critics accused the piece of being anti-Saddam in character. But I was not afraid, and continued working. Then in 1992 “Wolves of the Night,” a 30-show serial that I had acted in, was televised over a period of three months. It was a story of four criminals hunted down by the police, and it made a splash in Iraqi society. Everyone empathized with the four criminals and hoped they would survive and escape from the evil police. There were stories in the news of women offering sacrifices to God if the characters did not die. But in the end, all four characters met their death at the hands of the police and the masses mourned them like real people and cursed the police.
From the time the series was broadcast, I could not go out, since everyone recognized me as the character Abu Jahil. Once I went out, there was a large crowd surrounding me and when I entered my car, they lifted me in the air. Saddam had some slogans like “Nothing is Impossible.” But the masses started creating new slogans like: “Nothing is impossible. Long live Abu Jahil. God is Great.” The popularity of the characters on the show caused problems with the regime, since Saddam did not appreciate stars in society. He needed to be the only one who was eulogized.
After the show ended, the Culture Ministry approached me and said that Saddam thanked me for my performance in the series. However, the regime wondered how I could show that criminals were good and the police bad. The members of the Culture Ministry told me that Saddam would forgive me if I performed in a new series and showed the opposite message, that police were good and criminals bad. Saddam’s personal request was for me to play the part of the main policeman. I refused, and nine months later, in 1993, I left Iraq out of deep frustration, planning never to return.
I traveled to Tunis where I had to start my career from scratch again, since no one knew me here as they did in Iraq. In 1997, after four years in Tunis, I returned to Baghdad. Saddam appointed me director of the National Theater. Actually, the director of cinema was my friend and he helped me get the position. I worked for one year and 10 months, but when I saw all the corruption, I resigned. Saddam never bothered me, though, since I merely carried out a few personal projects that did not harm the government.
You have been living in Damascus for several years now. What is the life in exile like for you?
I left Iraq in 2003 for Damascus. Those of us who stayed in Iraq throughout Saddam’s brutal dictatorship grew up there. Wherever we may find ourselves now, we still long for our country, unlike those who left early on. The memories I have in Iraq are deep and vivid. But in Damascus I found a new community. I always feel Iraq is close by. And Damascus is in many ways like Baghdad in the 70’s. Plus, I found a whole community of exiled Iraqi intellectuals here, so I never feel I’m living in exile. Last year I was planning to leave Syria and emigrate to England. I even traveled there a few times to prepare for moving my family there. But the thought of living far away from Iraq, separating myself from my homeland forever, cutting myself off from the East, made me recant my decision.
The majority of the pieces you have acted in were extremely sad. However, in Ramadan 2008 in Syria, you acted in a new piece, a one-man series shown over a period of 30 days called “Abu Haghi.” Some have even criticized you for acting in this comic series. Can you tell us about this experience?
I’ve never done comedy before, so when I was approached with this script I was hesitant. But eight days after I accepted, we began filming, which lasted for 10 days.
I decided to accept the part when I saw the director would allow me to interpret Abu Haghi freely. Abu Haghi is a stupid man, naïve and uneducated, who tries to do everything. It is a caricature of a political man – he becomes a vizier and president, yet does not even have his elementary school education. Some people have said Abu Haghi is Saddam. But I believe this is not Saddam. It is no one real, and it can be everyone. He’s from the imagination, not representing anyone. This kind of political figure can exist at every time and place in Iraq since 1963 when Abdel Karim Qassem was killed.
I’ve been criticized for acting in this comedy, but for me the experience was a positive one, especially since children loved this piece. When I walk in the area around the Sayyida Zeinab Mosque they approach me, screaming out “Abu Haghi! Abu Haghi!” If children can be touched in some way, then I feel the series was a success. There is a big chance we will do a second series, since it was very popular.