Putting on stage the ‘Occupational Hazards’ of administering Iraq
London - The Arab saying that “sometimes things are so bad you have to laugh” sums up the situation of a young, idealistic British adventurer put in charge of southern Iraq’s Maysan province in 2003 by the Coalition Provisional Authority.
The man was then-30-year-old Rory Stewart, who once spent 20 months walking 9,700km across Iran and Afghanistan, as well as through Nepal, India and Pakistan, from 2000-02. He wrote about his 2003-04 tenure as governorate coordinator in the award-winning memoir “Occupational Hazards: My Time Governing in Iraq,” which his friend of 30 years, Stephen Brown, turned into a 110-minute play with ten characters.
Unlike previous Western plays on Iraq, which have been about being a soldier in the country, Stewart’s story goes into the nitty-gritty of the political confrontations in Iraq after the 2003 US-led invasion, exposing blood feuds and deeply held feelings. It is very comic and absurd and there is a lot of misunderstanding in it.
The play charts Stewart’s attempts to organise local elections, introduce democracy and create a local council to reconcile the followers of Karim Mahood, a tribal sheikh, and Seyyed Hassan, a radical Islamic cleric. Steward arrives in Maysan and is introduced to the province with a PowerPoint presentation, which bombards him with a torrent of information that both he and the audience find difficult to digest.
All the scenes take place in Amarah, a mostly modern city of about 300,000 people and are played against the backdrop of oppressive sliding concrete walls and frazzling fluorescent tubes that reflect the grim realities of the occupation and local politics.
The characters are stereotypes rather than individuals.
Stewart is an archetype of a young foreign governor: Innocent and well-intentioned, doing an impossible job in difficult circumstances. Karim is very much the picture-book tribal sheikh, dressed in a Bedouin robe with gold trim and neat headdress. Rana symbolises the educated, self-possessed Iraqi woman determined to serve her country. Abu Rashid is a policeman, sometimes jovial, sometimes serious as the situation demands. Seyyed Hassan, in a woollen cloak and black turban, is the shrewd, manipulative Islamic cleric who makes excellent use of his religious credentials to further his political ambitions.
Throughout his time as governorate coordinator, Stewart never forgets what his father told him: “Stop making decisions and you’re dead.” He is never indecisive and acts with confidence and determination. However, the British values of tea-and-marmalade diplomacy cannot resolve deep-seated local conflicts and hatred and do little to reconcile foes Karim and Seyyed Hassan, who are both determined to emerge as top dog from the elections.
In the end, Stewart states with a tone of resignation: “It’s democracy. Everyone is equally unhappy. It’s the defining feature of the system.”
The play can best be described as documentary drama and clearly illustrates that politics in Iraq is a form of theatre. The audience is involved. Stewart shakes hands with those seated in the front row and welcomes them as if they were prospective members of the governing council he is trying to set up.
At first, Stewart takes two steps forward and one step back in his democracy-building mission. Then the backward steps increase and arriving at a representative council is like working out a seating plan at a wedding attended by enemies. At the end of the play, the council-building is destroyed by radical Islamists, who have recently killed six British policemen. Stewart rants and raves as it becomes clear he is not able to assert his authority.
“Don’t you dare turn your back on me!” he says to Seyyed Hassan. “I am the senior man here and you will listen to me! You gave me your word as a Muslim.” The plea falls on deaf ears.
The play ends in April 2017 with Stewart standing among the 400 trees he planted in Scotland when he returned home, reflecting on his term as governorate coordinator: “I’m 44 years old. Middle-aged. What do we know? What can we do? What do we have the right to do? We arrive, thinking we are superheroes. We leave…”
“Occupational Hazards” recreates actual events on stage and forces members of the audience to answer questions for themselves, such as whether the occupation and its democracy-building attempts did Iraq any good, what moral authority the West has to engage in nation-building and whether the fiasco in Iraq means there should be no future Western intervention in the Middle East.
An Iraqi expatriate living in London was adamant he would never see the play. “A lover who tragically loses his heartthrob killed by a drunken driver could not be interested in watching a dramatisation of his loss or enjoy it,” said the man, who asked not to be named.
“Occupational Hazards” is to run through June 3 at the Hampstead Theatre in West London.