J stands in one spotlight, speaking on a mobile phone to her sister Mary in another spotlight. Mary is in Baghdad, J in Fallujah, under US siege. Mary is a BBC politics correspondent. J is Jo, me in 2003-04 – an activist and clown running a small circus in Iraq and writing a blog about the people I met.
J tells Mary about the hellish scenes in Fallujah, the cluster bomb injuries, the use of white phosphorus, the indiscriminate killing of civilians. Mary tells J that the Americans totally deny the use of cluster bombs and phosphorus, that she can’t use reports from one uncorroborated source, that they, the journalists, have been excluded from Fallujah but will be allowed in tomorrow if the ceasefire holds. J tells Mary there is no ceasefire.
This is the stage adaptation of Don’t Shoot the Clowns, telling stories about the circus in Iraq and the people we met, asking whose stories become news and whose don’t. Ibrahim Odai, a lawyer executed by US soldiers who had mistakenly raided his home, Maryam, a two month-old baby who died of the cold, Marwa, an 11 year-old girl who was forced to quit school because of the serious danger of kidnapping on the way to and from.
It is not a play of unremitting grimness – the clowns make sure of that. There is playfulness as well as rage, reflecting my own experience of Iraq with joyful moments full of children’s laughter – children laughing from their bellies for the first time since the war.
But theatre and music and playfulness are largely lost to the Iraqis now. By the middle of 2008, at least 60 painters, 65 actors and 115 singers had been murdered. Most of the survivors had fled. By 2007 it was unsafe to sell music in shops any more. Not only the culture of the present but also the past was being ravaged, with 18 archaeologists and researchers adding to the toll. Even the flower shops had closed down.
It’s hard to imagine life stripped of all light relief. No singing, no dancing, no theatre, no films, no gigs, not even a bunch of flowers.
The remarkable and courageous Haider Munathir, whom we met while performing with a group of Iraqi actors, is still there, writing and performing. He put on plays throughout Saddam’s time and risked trouble from the Ministry of Culture, who checked all his scripts.
He told us after the invasion, “Iraq needs its writers now, to help people to rebuild the Iraq that we want.” He believed that writing and theatre were crucial to that process. In 2008 he wrote, directed and performed in Jib al Malik, Jibu
(Bring the King, Bring Him) at the National Theatre in Baghdad.
Things are said to be a little better in Iraq now. Civilian deaths from violence are down to 15 a day across the country, with the highest concentrations being in the “disputed provinces” of Tameem (Kirkuk) and Ninewa (Mosul). Fewer people are dying in sectarian violence because fewer people live in mixed areas. Fewer artists and professionals are being assassinated because so few are left in the country.
But for most ordinary Iraqis it remains a true story of unremitting grimness, the light relief all gone and a constant struggle to survive, physically and economically. People I met urged me to tell the rest of the world what was happening to them. This play is for them.
The play will run in various locations across the UK until 17 November. Visit the Fuel Theatre
web site for location and ticket information or read a review of the play published by The Stage