You were born and raised in Karbala, a city revered by Shiite Muslims. Can you recall the first moment theater touched your life as a child?
The religious rituals of Ashura, the tenth day of Muharram, took on a special significance in Karbala and inspired my childhood. I was from an extremely poor family and my parents had very few means of entertaining their six children. Sometimes my father took us to the public bath, and at other times he and my mother depended on the city’s traditions to keep us busy. Perhaps it was the days leading up to the 10th day of Muharram that instilled the love of theater in my young soul. The yearly preparations for the re-enactment of Hussein’s murder brought the community together and transformed the city into a fantastic theater production. There were constant sounds of religious poetry, wailing men and women striking their chests, homes in mourning decked in black, candles lit across the city, men riding horses and drawing their swords on one another, and multi-colored processions of musicians playing trumpets and cymbals. Sometimes I participated in the events and at other times I simply stood in silence and marveled at the spectacle. Without a doubt, the astounding colors and the visual composition of the passion plays created early on an inherent connection in my mind between visual arts and the theater.
Those who are familiar with your work note the innate link between visual and performing arts in your work. Could you tell us more about this dominant trend in your productions?
Yes, the connection between the theater and visual arts is fundamental to my work. I approach the stage as an artist approaches an empty canvas. I take out my brush and begin to paint a composition on stage by relying on both the spirits and bodies of my actors. On the empty canvas my brush strokes combine elements of light, body, color and sound. Then I act as a sculptor; sometimes I choose to unify the bodies, only to pull them apart suddenly, and then I meld them together again. For me, the achievement of harmony on the canvas and the inspiration of the actors’ sensitivities invoke poetry infused with magical colors.
The year 2004 was a significant one for you. You received the prestigious Prince Claus Award for Theater Achievement and, more importantly, you returned to Iraq after 28 years of forced exile. Tell us about your impressions of your long-lost homeland. How did the experience influence your work?
After a lengthy exile, I returned after the downfall of the dictator. As I entered my homeland, I was shattered by how war’s ruin had replaced the beautiful landscape, just like that, without any semblance of shame. I lamented the fact that the madness of Saddam’s regime had piled the country’s rich mythological traditions alongside heaps of garbage which lined the street corners. But what shook me most was how the demon of religious authority had imposed itself on society and destroyed centuries of progress, and how fanaticism had single-handedly turned the country back into the dark ages, a feat even greater than that which the Taliban had managed. When I summon the phrases scattered throughout the diaries of the Iraqi people, I see the death of happiness and the sundering of all hope, the untamed power of money, and the constant thievery that destroys the spirit.
My return to Iraq was like a descent into a dark dungeon of hell. As a defense mechanism, during my stay in the violent atmosphere of a country that no longer existed, I recorded my impressions. Based on my own experience and disillusions, I wrote a play titled “Years Elapsed Without Me” about two musicians, Shehab and Sophie, who return to Baghdad full of hopeful dreams for their country and the desire to participate in reconstruction. But they become devastated when they learn that their new country had been scarred and transformed into a large oven that burns both beauty and bodies. Even on the personal level they cannot find a glimmer of hope. Shehab realizes that his family is not the same family he left 30 years ago. His siblings only think about money and their own interests. They no longer see Shehab as a human being; in their eyes he has become a walking bank with dollar signs pasted onto his figure. To make matters more aggravating, he has even lost his loved ones to the worst of religious fanaticism.
Since you were exiled from Iraq in 1976, you have gone on to direct numerous plays, including: “The Rape” (1992), “Variations on the Ward” (1993), “The Maids” (1994) and “Women of War” (2000), and your works have been performed and have won wide acclaim in Rome, Tunis, Beirut, London, Guttenberg, Paris, Damascus, and Valencia, Spain. Yet, during those years you still expressed a longing to return to Iraq one day to perform a theatrical production. In 2004 you made this happen. You presented your internationally acclaimed “Women of War,” which you both wrote and directed, in the name of the Gilgamesh Project for Art and Culture. What exactly is the Gilgamesh Project?
I returned to Iraq filled with high aspirations of participating in rebuilding my nation through culture and, in particular, the theater. After the fall of the fascist regime, I planned to establish the Gilgamesh Project to support the burgeoning talent within a new Iraq. I had no sponsors, but this was my way to give back something to my country. I traveled to Iraq with the intention of performing the play “Women in War,” previously presented in Rome in 1998 and then in Kiev, Ukraine in 2002 with Russian actresses. It had always been my dream to bring this play to Iraq, and under the auspices of the Gilgamesh Project, I accomplished this with three brilliant Iraqi actresses. We worked under the most appalling conditions in a small center in Baghdad with no electricity, no decoration and with the constant sounds of bombs and airplanes ringing over our heads. Danger surrounded us and we were not naïve to the fact that at any moment we could be killed. Each day we met at the Academy of Fine Arts in Baghdad we realized that we were lucky to have the chance once again to gather together and rehearse. At one point the son of one of my actresses was kidnapped. After one week of desperate searching, we found him and paid a high ransom to free him from his captors. Thankfully, in the end, despite the instability of our situation, we did manage to present “Women of War.” Afterwards, I invited the three actresses to perform the play in Poland and Algeria. Unfortunately, due to daily murder and crime in Iraq, the Gilgamesh Project is currently on hold. But it is my intention to continue it one day in the future, when circumstances permit.
From the work you have done with “Women of War” it is clear that the role of women is central to your creative canvas. Is there any difference in the role of women in your pieces before and after your return to Iraq?
When I think back to my childhood in Iraq, I remember women as strong. Women were free. They did not wear the hijab; they showed their beauty with pride. But when I returned to Iraq the absence of women on the streets dismayed me. If they strolled the streets, whether Muslim or Christian, they were shrouded and frightened of harassment. It saddened me to see women completely veiled even at the Academy of the Arts. I was horrified by how the unbalanced return to religion has contributed to the subjugation of the position of women, both internally and externally.
In all my works I call for the freedom of women and the presence of women is strong, for they are the basis of the nation. In “Women of War,” an internal conflict dominates the lives of the women exiled in Germany. Here my female characters are torn between their dreams of returning one day to Iraq and the realities that face them. In my works composed after I returned to Iraq, the position of women is still dominant, yet now their inner conflict takes place within Iraq itself and relates directly to issues of freedom in the newly formed society. In “Years Elapsed Without Me,” for example, one of my characters is an extremely religious, veiled woman. She wants to be free, but at the same time she is tied down by the dictates of her religion, vanquished from the outside as well as from within. She is engaged in a bitter conflict with herself and the other, with herself and her place in the new Iraq.
You are currently residing in Damascus, directing rehearsals for your new production, “The Baghdadi Bath,” an autobiographical work. Could you tell us about this play?
I will present the production “The Baghdadi Bath” on December 15, 2005 in Damascus. This play is about two brothers, Hamid and Majid, who are bus drivers for a bus that circulates between Amman and Baghdad. The play takes place during the presidential elections, the time for the downfall of ideals. A millionaire has been chosen by the people to come back to Iraq and participate in the elections. He is on Hamid and Majid’s bus returning to Iraq, but as the bus crosses over the Jordanian border, he dies unexpectedly. Ironically, when he arrives in Iraq, as a corpse, we discover that he has been elected president. People don’t realize that their designated leader has met his demise. At the border, due to issues of security, the Americans wish to search the millionaire even though he is dead. Here, I deal with the reality of the constant humiliation of the Iraqi people. One brother says they should allow the Americans to search the dead man, while the other brother argues that they cannot allow the body to be dishonored so cruelly. Through the personal experiences and insecurities of these two brothers, I wish to address how Iraqis as a whole suffered in the shadows of Saddam’s brutal regime and continue to feel pain under the duress of the American occupation.
This interview appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 11, no. 52 (Summer 2005)
Copyright (c) 2005 by Al Jadid