Baghdad’s Al-Rasheed theatre comes back to life
Baghdad - Losing hope in obtaining government support to refurbish Baghdad’s landmark al-Rasheed theatre, a group of Iraqi artists and volunteers took up the mission, hoping to restore the country’s cultural glamour that flourished in the past century.
The effort focused on saving the artistic heritage of the country that had more than 50 theatres and cinemas in the 1970s and ‘80s, a legacy damaged by war, sectarian strife and militant attacks over the last 13 years.
Inaugurated in 1981, al-Rasheed theatre hosted international concerts and festivals before the US-led invasion in 2003 that toppled Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and resulted in a state of lawlessness.
The theatre, in central Baghdad, was ransacked after coalition forces entered Baghdad and declared the start of the US military occupation of the country. As most of the theatre’s possessions were looted, the site suffered from negligence until recently when dozens of volunteers and artists started a campaign to renovate the theatre. They began by refurbishing the venue’s 700 seats.
“We spent our own money to buy cleaners and clear away piles of rubbish and debris,” said Muhanad al-Khateeb, a volunteer and student in the college of arts.
He said volunteers were divided into several groups. Each was given a specific task such as repairing the stage, fixing the seats or installing new or repairing old lighting equipment.
“All the money spent in the renovation came from donations by Iraqi citizens or the artists themselves,” Khateeb said. “We approached the Iraqi government several times asking for its help in this project but the effort was in vain as we received no reply.”
Iraq is plagued by a costly war against the Islamic State (ISIS) militants, sectarian and ethnic strife that threatens to rip the country into three smaller states and alleged corruption with officials accused of squandering the treasury’s oil revenues and other finances.
That left little funds to be spent on art, considered by many nowadays as a luxury and by more conservative circles in Iraq as “irreligious”. More significant expenditure, such as the salaries of civil servants, are paid in full and on-time to avoid disruption of government business.
Since the creation of the modern Iraqi state in 1932, consecutive Sunni-dominated regimes adopted secularism in the country and tried to promote cultural and artistic life. With 5-10% of the annual state budget allocated to the Culture Ministry to spend on festivals and other events, cultural life prospered in Iraq.
The turning point followed Saddam’s regime collapse. Shia religious parties and groups, which adhere to strict sharia law that bans music and singing on grounds they are “the work of the devil”, dominated Iraqi political life. Art was pushed down the government’s priority list instantly.
“In a meeting held in a Baghdad café, we decided to depend on ourselves to make the dream come true, instead of depending on government support, which will never materialise,” said Khateeb, who added that the main hard part of the renovation took three weeks.
At the theatre’s reopening in late March, musical groups performed traditional Iraqi songs, which were met with loud cheers from the audience. Iraqi actor Sami Abdul-Hamid presented parts of a play that was performed in the theatre more than 30 years ago.
The theatre is in a nine-storey building. The stage hall, on the ground floor, was renovated. The other eight levels, which were used for studios, offices and makeup rooms, remain in ruins.
Stage manager Ibrahim Hanoon said: “Al-Rasheed theatre was a source of life and it used to show the high cultural status of Baghdad and we hope that it will remain as such.”
Yet, the reopening event was not saved from the political struggle in Iraq.
Some Iraqi lawmakers tried to attend the ceremony but they were turned away by the celebrating artists. One participant told the lawmakers: “You parliamentarians are behind the destruction of Iraq.” The crowd shouted “Out! Out!” as the national anthem was played.
Saad Jabar, a civil servant from Baghdad, praised the “courage” of the artists who asked the lawmakers to leave the ceremony.
“The politicians have corrupted almost everything in the country and they want to mar what remains of Iraqi culture,” he added.
Ibrahim Dandesh, a playwright, said art and theatres will remain an integral part of Iraq’s history and civilisation, despite the current setback.
“Arts will not die in Iraq unless we cease to exist.”