Wednesday, May 07, 2003

This Salon article chronicles a pretty remarkable event that won't get a lot of press. I would have done anything to be in Baghdad for this (and to understand the language, I guess.) In the ruins of Baghdad's most famous theater--considered a national treasure--a group of dissident artists staged the first uncensored play performed in Iraq in decades. Performing on top of the ruins--surely a dramatic and poignant setting--the actors enacted this impressionistic, avant-garde production:

When the lights came up onstage, what unfolded was not a simple story. It was a furious burst of moments. A Painter painted on a canvas and a Sculptor sculpted. A Poet played a guitar and a pair of Dancers danced on a scaffold. A Filmmaker crouched in the coils of a print that had been destroyed in the looting of the theater. The Artists worked away in the background while a Dictator castigated a Soldier to help him conquer the moon. The Soldier's Wife bathed her husband with water as he ran through the motions of a war, and said he refused to leave his post but that he was sick of all the "Yes, sir. Yes, sir." Before the soldier died trying to execute the Dictator's wish, he asked over and over again: "Just tell me where I can find a human being."

The Dictator announced: "It's so easy for me to kill because it's so difficult for me to die. I will kill you all to save my life." A character stood at the lip of the stage and yelled, "My freedom is not the real freedom! My freedom is not the real freedom! My freedom is not the real freedom," and the audience exploded into applause. The Poet shouted, "Between any two of us there is a nation of loneliness full of forsaken people." The Dictator pointed to the audience and said: "You are also guilty!" The Poet performed a cover of "Nowhere Man" by the Beatles. The entire cast came to center stage, and kept shouting in a chorus, "War? War? What is War?" and this was answered by a blast of applause that burst like firecrackers. Iraqis in the theater wept. One man, an Iraqi poet, was so overcome he had to leave; he buried his head in his hands outside the smashed doors of the theater. After the Beatles cover, a Singer walked into the stage and sang the Ouboudiyya, a traditional song of Iraq, and it was mournful and exquisite in its sadness. Lennon would have loved it.

As much as I hate to quote a musical at this point, I can't avoid thinking of a line from Jonathan Larsen's "Rent": "The opposite of war isn't peace--it's creation." I have boundless admiration for these artists whose first reaction when the clamor of war settles is to create a response that is timely, cathartic, profound, and most importantly, communal. May there be much, much more where this came from. The article closes with this:

Before we left, I had a last question: Why had the Dictator tried to conquer the moon? "The moon is the symbol of death and the Dictator was trying his best to seize the symbol for himself," the painter, Durgham Abdul-Wahid, answered quietly. "But he could not succeed. He could only succeed in leaving his fingerprints on our memory."


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