In time for Ramadan, Iraqi TV drama returns after 7 years
Every evening at the Muntada al-Masrah theatre on Baghdad's Rashid Street, the cast and crew of the first TV drama filmed in Iraq in seven years take their places among the rooms and courtyard of the 19th-century building and shoot new scenes of their highly anticipated series.
The arts are coming to life again in Baghdad, bringing with them a touch of hope and comfort as the country works to rebuild after 16 years of war.
And, after two decades abroad, two of Iraq's leading actors have returned to take part in "The Hotel," the 20-episode drama produced for Ramadan's TV season.
"The Iraqi people are parched for drama," said Hassan Hosni, a drama star of the 1990s, who returned from Saudi Arabia to direct "The Hotel," a show about the seedy underbelly of Baghdad and its entanglement with human trafficking.
It is the first Ramadan drama to be produced in Iraq since 2012, the cast and crew said, and it heralds a return of an essential TV genre to the country.
Across the Muslim world and throughout Ramadan, when the faithful fast from dawn until sunset and stay up late to digest their evening meals, viewers are treated to TV dramas that touch on romance, war, tyranny and other issues of the day.
For years, Iraqis have been watching dramas from other countries, such as "Bab al-Hara," the blockbuster Syrian series set during the 1930s independence movement from France.
With "The Hotel," Iraqis will have a home-grown series to watch for the first time in years, amid the longest stretch of stability Baghdad has experienced since the 2003 US-led invasion.
"We were all waiting for this moment -- writers, directors and actors -- with total impatience," said Hosni. "I felt it in the streets, when we were scouting for locations."
Locals, shocked to see him back in their city, approached the star to ask about the series.
"The joy was clear in their eyes, expressions and words," he said.
Once the capital of the Islamic world, Baghdad is a city that proudly displays its affection for drama and poetry, boasting monuments that show scenes from "Arabian Nights" and avenues named after renowned poets such as the boastful Mutanabbi of the 10th century and his bibulous predecessor, Abu Nawas.
It has held on to this pride through the contemporary era, even as the coups and wars of the 20th century, the tyranny of Saddam Hussein and the grip of UN sanctions drove writers, actors and producers out of the country.
Mahmoud Abu al-Abbas, the star of "The Hotel" and a famous thespian, went into exile in 1997 after he performed a solo play that spoke about harassment by the country's notorious security services. In Saddam's era, it crossed a red line.
"I was interrogated for two days and then advised by the minister of culture to leave Iraq immediately," he said.
The 2003 US-led invasion dealt another blow to the arts. The ensuing war tore Baghdad apart, as car bombs hit the city daily and fighting turned Rashid Street, once a centre of culture and heritage, into a valley of fear and destruction.
A sputtering revival earlier this decade halted, first as money for the arts dried up and then as insecurity gripped the country with the 2014 Islamic State (ISIS) insurgency.
After Iraq declared victory over ISIS in December 2017, the atmosphere inside Baghdad began to change. Blast walls that protected against car bombs were lifted and locals started staying out late again, patronising cafes, malls, galleries and theatres, where performances change from week to week.
Abu al-Abbas stayed in the United Arab Emirates for 20 years but he kept acting, writing and directing plays. He wrote more than a dozen books on his craft.
In 2017, he returned to his hometown of Basra, the commercial capital of southern Iraq and the hub for its oil, where he founded a theatre troupe of young, underemployed local men and taught them a play they performed in other southern cities.
However, it wasn't until screenwriter Hamid al-Maliki called with the script for "The Hotel" that he agreed to return to the screen.
"Violent drama takes a period of contemplation on the part of the writer so that he can give us a 'dose' of work that can treat our situation," said Abu al-Abbas.
Maliki accepted that "The Hotel's" transgressive material, including prostitution, human trafficking and the organ trade, would shock viewers but said it was the responsibility of TV drama to start a conversation.
"It's a current matter for Iraq," he said. "It's a message to the youth to beware of the trap of human trafficking, and it's a message to the Iraqi state to care for the innocent and the poor who are the victims of the trade."
Maliki said it was vital for the arts to confront the ideologies that have fuelled extremism.
"Culture alone is what will be victorious over Daesh thinking," he said, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. "Culture is life and Daesh is death so we must face death with life. We must face Daesh with culture."
Hosni left Iraq in 1996, looking to escape the pressure of the UN sanctions levied against Iraq after Saddam invaded Kuwait earlier in the decade.
He said he never felt far from Iraq because he was working with other diaspora Iraqis in drama in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
"It was a separation in body, but not in mind or soul," he said.
He was coaxed back by Maliki this year.
The return of the TV drama, Hosni said, is reassuring.
"It's a time for the Iraqi family to sit together at home, with their relatives and neighbours,” he said.