Soon after the tattered curtains part in Baghdad’s Sheherezad Theater, a boisterous Baghdad comes to the fore.
The frenzied strains of an Iraqi pop song herald the appearance of a cross-dressing belly dancer, seductively clad women and a wiggling and jiggling government official, and suggest the presence of drink and drugs in the office of the Kuwaiti Ministry of Animal Resources. On stage come a secretary who works as a pimp, an effeminate deputy minister who loves his wine and women, and his boss, who goes nowhere without an escort of prostitutes.
The plot? Tucked in with dancing, stand-up routines and a few tortured ballads is the story — sort of — of the Kuwaiti ministry’s plan to buy an American bull for the outrageous price of $115 million to improve the gene pool of Kuwait’s livestock.
“Bye Bye America” has played to full houses during a wild run that began in November in Baghdad. Its target, obviously enough, is the Kuwaiti government, with some barbed attacks on America’s sway over the Gulf’s monarchies and potentates. The laughs, however, don’t just come at the expense of Kuwait. In other plays on the Baghdad stage, the bribes and bureaucracy that torment Iraqis are the butt of jokes, and some criticism is bolder — even shocking — the kind of stuff that would earn an editor of any staid Iraqi newspaper a stint in jail — or worse.
The plays have transformed Iraq’s once dormant theater scene into a thriving arena for artistic expression and creativity that is often daring and usually ribald. From just two playhouses a decade ago to 20 today, theater represents one of the few bright spots on Baghdad’s bleak cultural landscape. Lines from popular plays are frequently quoted in cafés, and tickets for some sold-out weekend shows can be scalped for five times the price of 1,000 Iraqi dinars (55 cents). Virtually all the productions are comedies, and therein lies their saving grace: they provide an officially sanctioned outlet for mounting frustrations. So official, in fact, that Saddam Hussein himself is said to be a patron, allocating 35 million dinars last year to help with their rather meager overhead.
The beauty of Iraq’s theater, though, goes beyond the exhilaration it brings to a city whose streets, like al-Rashid and Abu Nuwas, with their now shuttered nightclubs, were once synonymous with a capital as cosmopolitan and secular as any in the Arab world. It also evokes that free-wheeling time a generation ago when Palestinian students received scholarships to study in Iraq and Arab writers and artists fled the anarchy of Lebanon’s civil war to bring their intellectual force to a flowering Baghdad, making 1970s Iraq, for those on the “correct” side of politics, a time as nostalgic as the romanticized city of Abbasid glory.
Baghdad’s tragedy today, it seems, is not what it is but what it has become under the United Nations’ seemingly permanent sanctions. Although the material conditions of Iraq have improved under exemptions that allow the government to buy food with oil exports, the sycophancy of much of the country’s sanctioned intellectual life and, more acutely, the desolation of its cultural landscape drearily remain, mocking the oft-quoted adage that “Cairo writes, Beirut publishes and Baghdad reads.”
Dar al-Ma’moun, one of Iraq’s main publishing houses, once issued 20 titles a year. Now it produces only two, maybe three. Its 96 translators of English, French, Spanish, German and Russian have decreased to 10 today. The Iraqi film industry, once a pet project of the government, has all but shut down, Iraq’s cinemas closing with it.
In this grim setting, Baghdad’s theater brings subtlety, a finesse that seems reminiscent of al-Hallaj, whose ecstatic exclamation that “I am the Truth” got him executed — actually, dismembered — in tenth-century Baghdad for blasphemy. The sophistication is all the more welcome in a city that, with its victory arches, martyrs’ memorials, and paintings of Saddam in black beret, suit and tie or kaffiya, or in Norman Rockwell-like scenes with children, is anything but subtle.
One long-running play, “A Party for a Respectful Person,” skewers an Iraqi official for obstructing access to the permits Iraqis need to travel or to sell and buy a house. The official, a director-general, usually the highest position that will come in for criticism, defines his day-to-day work with a furious style of favoritism and nepotism. The play ran for a remarkable three years.
In “Mudhouse,” a play set during the Hashemite monarchy, Iraqis are taken to prison, questioned and tortured, some emerging beaten and bruised. For the audience, it takes little imagination to place the scenes squarely in modern-day Iraq.
“Playground of the Hypocrites” takes the idea a tantalizing step further. In this play, an Iraqi is detained and politely asked by his interrogator to sit down. He is then told to confess. But, he asks, where is the boiling oil, the whips and the ceiling fan he should be hanging from? When told there’s nothing of the sort, he warns his interrogator, “They’re going to fire you!”
The writers and actors know they are on a long leash and are typically reluctant to talk about their freedom for fear of endangering it. If they do, they put it in the context of current politics, namely sanctions, the one topic anyone in Iraq can discuss.
“Life used to be much easier, and now all that is cut off,” says Sabah ‘Atwan, who finished writing “Bye Bye America” in 1993. “Iraqis feel they are suffocating with the sanctions, and the theater gives them the lungs they can breathe with.”
He makes clear, though, that the government has made a conscious decision to give Baghdad’s liveliest plays a freer reign. Or, as he put it in an interview, “the Ministry of Culture and Information doesn’t place a police officer inside the theater.”
His play is not so much subtle criticism as fast and fierce comedy, an often salacious celebration of puns, innuendo, slapstick and base humor that plays on every Iraqi stereotype of Kuwait and creates a few along the way. The Kuwaiti government spends $115 million for the American bull. To ease its transition, it allots $10 million for his housing, $10 million for food and entertainment and another lump sum for his own airplane — equipped with a swimming pool. A delegation meets him at the airport, and functionaries interview a personal Indian cook and a Chinese barber.
“We will bring cows from the Philippines, Thailand and Holland. We’ll bring them from all over to entertain the bull,” says Mr. Fouad, the minister’s secretary and pimp. Inside the office, the deputy minister drinks from a flask tucked behind his gown. He complains incessantly that Fouad will not deliver him the women he provides the minister. And he signs his papers with a thumb print because he cannot read or write. In any crisis, the minister shouts, “Call America! Call Texas! Call Washington!” At other times, he breaks into a dance.
And then there’s the fun that could implicate a government at home or abroad: One minister warns that if they do wrong, the interior minister will take them into a dark room and make them sit on a bottle. In another scene, an underling lambasts the minister behind his back, then flatters him with a kiss on the cheek.
On this evening, one of Baghdad’s frequent electricity outages cuts short the nightly performance. One of the lead actors, Muhammad Imam, soon comes on to a dark stage lit by a few candles to apologize to the audience and beg them to come another night. The audience, in turn, seems to take it in stride. There are worse things in Baghdad, they insist, than a power cut.
“It’s not their fault,” says Sattar Karim, a 37-year old Iraqi who brought his family. “It was about to end anyway.” He pauses, then adds casually: “We like to enjoy ourselves, even if it is for a short time. It’s always good to laugh.”