Yusuf al-Ani: An Iraqi artist in service of the people
London - Yusuf al-Ani, celebrated actor and doyen of Iraqi theatre, died in Jordan at the age of 89 after months of ill health. He belonged to the cream of Iraq’s first generation of theatre pioneers, widely regarded as the founding father of the people’s theatre. What captivated audiences was Ani’s ability to flirt with controversy while capturing, on stage, the grief endured by the common masses across decades of wrenching change.
Ani was born in a once serene Falluja in 1927 on a rooftop terrace, surrounded by gardens of date palms and brought up in a working-class quarter of Baghdad. His passion for acting developed early, showcasing impersonations on the school playground, as he recounts in the essay The Theatre Experience. As a fresh-faced 17-year-old, Ani made his debut as a playwright with Al- Muqamiroun (The Gamblers) — a modest start to a series of dazzling plays that gained him lasting acclaim.
Despite earning a law degree from the University of Baghdad, Ani’s passions would take him in another direction, as he also studied at the Baghdad Institute of Fine Arts. He became involved in Iraq’s burgeoning theatre scene, performing plays and touring with well-established troupes. His starring role in Sa’id Effendi (1957) propelled him into the limelight with a performance that reaffirmed the struggle of Iraq’s working classes.
His earlier plays, The End of the Thread (1951), The Cost of Medicine (1952) and Six Dirhams (1954) — in a similar vein to Sa’id Effendi — stood out for weaving together the personal and the political.
The style he cultivated was marked by critical realism, blended with satire and melodrama. It dared to criticise corrupt political practices, societal vices, class disparity and social and educational inequalities. The use of colloquial Iraqi Arabic in these plays not only challenged earlier theatrical norms but also spoke to the masses. It transformed theatre into a public art form, committed to what Ani referred to as “simple folk”. Like his subjects, he kept his scripts simple, producing one-act plays grounded in real-life situations.
The underdog was always placed at the centre, who, in the words of Salaam Yousif, always “triumphs in an unjust situation”. Ani’s repertoire unveiled to audiences a playwright politically committed not to the state but to the people, exercising cultural resistance in the face of obstinate challenges.
Lack of political tolerance for the kind of dissent that Ani thrust into the public sphere forced him to adopt safety measures. His play Shakir, I am Your Mother (1955) could only be performed after the 1958 revolution, owing to its highly charged political content. When it eventually ran, it proved so popular that it went on for three consecutive weeks and was restaged in Denmark.
The political environment in which Ani’s ideas took shape had an enormous bearing on his personal life as well as his profession. A year before the overthrow of the Hashemite monarchy, Ani went into temporary exile after the regime revoked the licence of his theatre troupe. During this stint, he performed at the Stanislavsky Theatre in Moscow and wrote a handful of plays as he travelled between cities in Europe.
Twelve months later, he returned home, hungrier than ever to flaunt his new work. His earlier protagonist had evolved into the revolutionary intelligentsia, as his one-act plays also expanded into multi-act plays. It was also during this period that Ani published his first book, Sha’abuna (Our People), and two-volume collections of his scripts.
As his career progressed, so did his themes. Welcome to Life (1960) makes no secret of its disapproval of forced marriage and marriage between cousins. It fleshes out themes as relevant to Iraq then as they are today — political blackmail, vengeance, patriarchy and unequal rights between men and women.
As theatre became institutionalised, Ani found himself occupying important positions, most notably as the general director of the Cinema and Theatre Foundation. He wrote in popular journals on theatre and national consciousness. But as a new Ba’athist government rose to power, censorship grew and the content of Ani’s plays became less political. Despite that, he remained in his native Iraq producing plays, combining storytelling and cultural tradition, refusing to succumb to the rules of the ruling elite.
His greatest success came in 1968 with Al-Muftah (The Key), the first of his works to be translated into English. It was written against the backdrop of the six-day Arab-Israeli war and criticised Arab leaders for their deployment of the Palestinian cause as a diversionary tactic to further political ends.
Ani dedicated his life to the common masses. He regarded theatre as a vehicle for self-expression and education, in spite of the efforts of state leaders to co-opt the field to enhance their self-image. The legacy he has left behind is impossible to repress. He was a true ambassador and educator of his people and will be greatly missed.