An avant-garde phoenix rises out of Baghdad's ashes

In a ruined theater, in front of a weeping audience, a group of dissident artists stages the capital's first uncensored play in decades.

Published May 7, 2003 9:57PM (EDT)

In the Shabandar cafe on Al Muntanaby Street, Amir Nayaf Al-Sayegh translates, gives English lessons, talks your ear off. When I first met him, Amir told me to watch my wallet because Baghdadis were original and clever at everything they did, including stealing. He said if I didn't watch out, the thieves would rob the eyebrushes from my eyes and I wouldn't know until it was too late. Amir speaks English with a weird fluency, like many Christians in the Arab world, and loves the West and America so much that it will drive you crazy. I had to tell him to stop, that he was killing me with his patriotism, and tried to get him to tell his own stories.

"If I give you something to print in your newspaper, I will expect a reward," he went on. I told him to forget about it. Amir kept on talking. He couldn't stop.

Amir's office is not really a cafe, it's a chaikhana, which is a species of teahouse. It's an old structure on the first floor of a corner building. On both streets near the Shabandar, booksellers put their titles out in the white sun. The windows of the cafe are open and the walls are a grimy blue to a certain point, where they become a grimy white. A young man in a torn T-shirt ran the tea from the stove in the back to the small tables where the patrons sit. Each wooden table is the size of a handkerchief and is rickety. The people in the chaikhana don't sit in chairs, they share benches, because the system is rigged for maximum conversation. When there are 150 people in the chaikhana, the sound is a loud mumble over the clink of thin glasses that have a layer of sugar at the bottom. At the center of this noise is Amir. He looks like Yul Brynner, but slightly stunted, as if the pressure of living under the regime had compacted him into a shorter man than he was supposed to be.

A friend once saw him digging around in the piles of trash looking for writing paper because he needed it for his translation job in the Shabandar. If you sit with him long enough, Iraqis will approach him with bundles of paper, lists and application forms, and out of this Amir renders the names and sentences into careful English. On Sunday afternoon we were sitting in the chaikhana and Amir was telling the story of how he recently applied for a translation job through the Titan Corp., a U.S. military contractor, and how a former Baath Party official also was competing for the job, and how the American in charge of the translator operation looks like the actor Gregory Peck.

It was just as Amir shouted Gregory Peck's name above the din in the chaikhana that I noticed a poster on the wall directly over his head: "Najeen Group Presents They Passed By Here Directed by Basim Al-Hajar. In the destroyed Al-Rasheed Theater, Sunday 4th May, 2003, 3:00 pm."

The actors' names were printed on the poster. It would be the first play performed in Baghdad since the fall of the city, and the first uncensored play in Iraq in decades. In the interval, the population of Iraq had weathered wars and sanctions and were preyed upon by a carnivorous security apparatus. The words that come to mind about the time of the regime and its downfall are primordial: Grief and Atonement. Hope and Desperation. Fury, Horror, Vengeance. In the chaikhana I thought about what the poster meant and it struck me as stunning, like a wounded kid knocking a baseball out of a ballpark. What could the artists say? It almost didn't matter, because the mere existence of the production meant that any story about it could not be about death. It was just a crappy poster that happened to advertise a human miracle.

The Al Rasheed is Baghdad's most famous playhouse, and all the Iraqis I spoke to described it as a national treasure. Amir promised to lead me to the theater because I didn't know the way from Al Muntanaby Street to the Al Rasheed. The play was to be set in its ruins. The curtain was scheduled to rise in just an hour.

Outside in the sun, the heat was madness. Los Angeles and San Diego have the ocean to cool the air. Baghdad has nothing but deserts around it. I said it was hot and Amir told me that it was still winter. We walked through the ruined Kharkh district, passing bombed and looted government buildings, some still smoking. Ordinary families were living in the shells of office blocks and we could see the laundry and rugs they had hung over the balconies to air. The looters had burned some of the important buildings, but others were hit by U.S. missiles, which made them look like they had been opened by can openers. The destruction was much worse in this part of the city than in the neighborhoods on the east side of the river. Bricks from collapsed buildings filled the sidewalks. We walked in the street. On one of the ruined boulevards, a poor kid ran out of a building toward us holding two fluorescent light bulbs and said: "If the Americans don't bring us food, then we will have something to say to them."

The place smelled like burning insulation. I thought that people were looting the building materials; no longer satisfied with the electrical components, they were stealing the bricks. The windows of the government buildings were scorched and black with smoke. Amir walked through the heat and the wreckage and knew exactly where he was going. The translator carefully led me straight to the Al Rasheed Theater on the banks of the Tigris.

The theater doors were shattered and hanging from their frames. The lobby floor was covered with glass that crunched underfoot. Other people walked up the steps, a few journalists and ordinary Iraqis, but most people had arrived early and were already seated. Once inside we were given a program on a white sheet of paper, which wasn't really a program at all but an artistic statement by the Najeen group, the play's producers. There was no electricity and the theater was mostly dark, but someone had rigged up a light so the audience could find their way to their seats. On the stage, the group had built a set out of destroyed doors and windows but these were just hung from wires. A bundle of Iraqi army helmets was suspended from the ceiling, like a bunch of grapes. The actors, all in their early 30s, were in their positions when we sat down. Amir sat next to me to give a running translation. A father and his 8-year-old daughter who sat next to us watched in rapt attention as the play began.

When the lights came up onstage, what unfolded was not a simple story. It was a furious burst of moments. A Painter painted on a canvas and a Sculptor sculpted. A Poet played a guitar and a pair of Dancers danced on a scaffold. A Filmmaker crouched in the coils of a print that had been destroyed in the looting of the theater. The Artists worked away in the background while a Dictator castigated a Soldier to help him conquer the moon. The Soldier's Wife bathed her husband with water as he ran through the motions of a war, and said he refused to leave his post but that he was sick of all the "Yes, sir. Yes, sir." Before the soldier died trying to execute the Dictator's wish, he asked over and over again: "Just tell me where I can find a human being."

The Dictator announced: "It's so easy for me to kill because it's so difficult for me to die. I will kill you all to save my life." A character stood at the lip of the stage and yelled, "My freedom is not the real freedom! My freedom is not the real freedom! My freedom is not the real freedom," and the audience exploded into applause. The Poet shouted, "Between any two of us there is a nation of loneliness full of forsaken people." The Dictator pointed to the audience and said: "You are also guilty!" The Poet performed a cover of "Nowhere Man" by the Beatles. The entire cast came to center stage, and kept shouting in a chorus, "War? War? What is War?" and this was answered by a blast of applause that burst like firecrackers. Iraqis in the theater wept. One man, an Iraqi poet, was so overcome he had to leave; he buried his head in his hands outside the smashed doors of the theater. After the Beatles cover, a Singer walked into the stage and sang the Ouboudiyya, a traditional song of Iraq, and it was mournful and exquisite in its sadness. Lennon would have loved it.

The play closed with the death of the Soldier, and the Dictator carrying the body off on a miniature rail system. The Dictator told the dead Soldier he could have won the war. The audience gave them a standing ovation and then rushed the stage.

I went backstage and found the Painter standing by his canvas, and he asked me for a light. His name is Durgham Abdul-Wahid and after he explained that he was a big fan of Nirvana, he took us on a tour of the shattered theater. The prop shop had burned and the ceiling was missing. The upper floors had been badly damaged by the fire and the actors were worried about part of the building collapsing. The ashes covered the floor in heaps and Durgham knelt in one of the piles and said: "You know the people who did the looting were different from those who did the burning of the buildings." I said I didn't know that. "Yes, it was organized by the Baath Party before the war. Their organization was called the Burned Ground Department." Durgham gestured at the ruins of the prop shop and said with a measure of bitterness: "It's much more beautiful now, don't you think?" White light came through the dust, and the smoke made strange patterns on the floor. Because the city is not secure and the building is open to the street, members of Najeen have been sleeping in the theater, defending it from looters.

They are worried about losing photographic archives, but much of the cultural material of the city has already been destroyed. Not just the ancient artifacts at the Baghdad Museum have been lost, but film prints and manuscripts, important work from the modern period, were also thrown onto the ash heap. During the play, the Filmmaker character shouted the name of director Said Effendi, mourning the loss of his films.

Before we left, the Painter told us that if we wanted to come to the Hewar gallery the next day, we could find the members of the Najeen group at their usual spot in Waziria. It was a kind of refuge.

When I found them at the gallery, they were all packed into a small room set away from a garden, sitting shoulder to shoulder in the stifling heat. It was much cooler outside but they wanted to be in a place where they had done much of their creative work and some of their hiding. I thought for a moment they had not lost their underground habits, that they felt more comfortable sitting out of sight of the street. Most of members of the Najeen group have known each other for 12 years and they can be rough with each other in the way that old friends are. Eight were there when I arrived, seven men and the woman who played the Soldier's Wife, Shaharazad Shaker. Most attended the Institute for Fine Arts in Baghdad and at least four had been summarily dismissed for political reasons. They talked openly of being threatened and imprisoned by the security apparatus and wanted people to know what happened to them.

"I want to tell you about the Najeen group," said the outspoken director of the play, Basim Al-Hajar. "The members of Najeen have all left military service and have been banned from academies and most subjected to prison. 'Najeen' means war survivor. Shaharazad was repressed by the authorities a great deal," he continued, trying to draw the dancer into the discussion. "They tried to put her in the Office of General Security and they were going to kill her because she danced for an NGO delegation. Because she did this, they thought she was against the regime." I asked her what she would do if she ever came into contact with the people who threatened her. She answered the question in a forceful way and leaned forward to deliver it.

"Our standards and our measures are much better than theirs. We are humanists and our humanity is boundless. Maybe in the future we can forgive them, but now we don't know," she said, but she was upset and the others listened to her without interrupting. The Najeen group has this as a trademark, a form of direct address. It's a simple appeal more than a logical platform or dogma. The play itself projected the same, simple fierceness.

We wanted to know why they decided to stage a production so quickly following the collapse of the regime. "The Al Rasheed Theater was a place where we always wanted to perform and we had been prevented from entering it. Being there was like a dream for us. As soon as the cage door opened, the bird flew out," said Basim. Before the regime fell, the members of Najeen worked in small theaters where the plays wouldn't be seen by the authorities. They censored themselves, avoided politics and criticism in an effort to slide by.

Over tea I learned that the new play had no single writer and it took them 10 days to produce. Different members of the group made their own revisions to the play and Basim Al-Hajar worked the revisions into the final draft. Najeen is an art scene in miniature. The group has at least one poet, playwright, painter, and several dancers. The members come from everywhere. How many members did the Najeen group really have? "Let me give you a poetic answer," said Basim. "We consider that all those who survived the Vietnam War and all the other wars are members of the Najeen group."

Before we left, I had a last question: Why had the Dictator tried to conquer the moon? "The moon is the symbol of death and the Dictator was trying his best to seize the symbol for himself," the painter, Durgham Abdul-Wahid, answered quietly. "But he could not succeed. He could only succeed in leaving his fingerprints on our memory."

[For a directory of Phillip Robertson's past stories from Iraq, click here.]

By Phillip Robertson

Phillip Robertson is reporting from Iraq for Salon.

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