Modern-day Iraqi tragedy on stage
Baghdad - A young actress enters to the stage to sing, dance and lure back her lover, who deserted her to militants ruling their city. She never stopped. Even after the group killed her, the woman’s spirit continued trying to win him back.
Interview has been a hit play in Iraq since it opened in October 2014, audaciously tackling controversies, such as the Islamic State (ISIS) and women’s freedoms in patriarchal societies.
The theatrical piece sheds light on how life has turned for the worst in the wake of the 2003 US-led invasion with mounting militant violence and sectarianism shattering a country that yearned for freedom following long years of dictatorship under Saddam Hussein.
Actress and playwright Alaa Hussein performs as a dancer, while her lover in the play, Saad Mohsen, is a sculptor.
“In the play, I was defending myself and all Iraqi women against a society that marginalises us professionally and culturally,” Hussein said in an interview.
Implicitly referring to ISIS without naming it, Hussein insisted that debating the issue of militants publicly needed “courage”.
The 90-minute play features a televised interview, in which Hussein and Mohsen speak live on camera about their love story. It then breaks into scenes of dancing, singing and dialogue. The interdisciplinary performance uses elements of choreography, drama and multimedia.
Hussein’s play is based on the Arabic-language version of the book Eyes of Inana — Anthology of Iraqi Female Contemporary Writers, which is a collection of poetry and short stories by 19 contemporary Iraqi women discussing their survival in a state of war and violence, their dreams and suffering. The book was translated into German recently and an English edition is expected soon.
Surprisingly, women, not men, wrote about the horrors of their lives, such as bombings and abductions, random arrests and torture, contract killings and checkpoints in the streets. The works delve into abrasive topics, such as the stench of military boots, the perfume of women drivers and the more emotional issues such as the loss of loved ones and the pain of those who outlive them.
But the gist of the play revolves around criticising the effects of conservative, patriarchal Arab traditions and cultural practices against women, such as violence and the lack of equality.
“My freedom is what matters,” screamed Hussein on stage, when militants detaining her asked her to choose between abandoning dancing or being taken to the gallows.
No names were used on stage, including those of the actors, the militants and the city they controlled.
The play centres on a woman artist who sings and dances. Her sculptor friend is deeply in love with her. One day, militants capture the city. Her lover deserts her, grows a beard and joins the battle against his own people. As the militants quickly impose their strict law in the city, theatres, music shops and art galleries are forcibly closed.
But the daring woman ignores the practices and continues preparing for a dance performance in her city, setting a date for it. On that day she goes covered to the theatre so that she would not be recognised. When the curtain goes up, she realises that nobody showed up, clearly out of fear of the militants.
She does not give up and puts up more posters announcing a new date for the show. When the curtain goes up the next time, she figures out that the audience members are armed militants. They take her to the “slaughtering square” to face her destiny.
After she is killed, her spirit keeps returning to her lover to persuade him to leave the armed group and return to his normal life.
“You’re not a terrorist. Look what they have done to me,” the actress yells at her lover in an emotional scene that draws loud applause from the audience.
Hussein said this was her first playwriting experience, in which she focused on how women’s rights and freedoms “are being confiscated by the powers acting in the name of Islam”.
Under Saddam’s now collapsed regime, Iraq’s theatre flourished with cultural, musical and dancing performances, but political satire was not in the cards. In the years that followed the US-led invasion, theatre came to a virtual standstill because continuous roadside bombs confined people to their homes. The blasts still occur, but people are trying to adapt.
Iraqi theatre star Muqdad Abdulridha praised the theatre in Saddam’s era, saying that actors had “challenging moments” influencing the public opinion.
“But now, we continue to think of bullets, even in our sleep.”
Hamed al-Maliki, a renowned writer, said that Iraq’s theatre was doomed.
“Who can go to the theatre these days, to open his mind and to accept the ideas that could bring about the desired change?” he asked.
To cope with the internet era, Maliki suggested “short plays of three to four minutes on the road to draw public attention.
“We can call them ‘Tweet plays’.”