New Internationalist

The art of survival

Issue 432

Despite fatwas and foreign troops, the show in Iraq must go on.

Making a stand: a recent performance of a play at the Baghdad Fine Arts College. Photo: New Internationalist/Hadani Ditmars.

The airport offers a taste of what is to come. A curious combination of vaguely Orwellian security (managed by a British company) and chaos (managed quite generously by Iraqis) greets me. Various fixers, drivers, boys with carts offer their wares.

An Indian engineer selling water purification systems and I share a taxi to the main airport checkpoint. There I am met by Showket, a young man who works for the Journalistic Freedom Observatory (JFO), and Ahmed, a 21-year-old English student who has been chosen as my translator.

Ahmed is about six foot four, a rather imposing figure in his freshly ironed shirt and tie, who entertains me with Beyoncé ballads as we drive along the airport road. Ahmed has had some experience working with foreign troops. But his English is a little odd. I will soon learn that all the good translators are gone, casualties of the brain drain and the ongoing violence against academics and professionals.

It takes me a while to realize that when he says ‘we will be towering the city’, he really means ‘touring’. In some ways I suppose we really are towering the city, in the black JFO SUV, the car that has become the new status symbol in Baghdad, where the traffic has become something fierce, and the city an ever-ready battleground.

At first we pass through an area where Saddam once built many palaces, now controlled by US and Iraqi forces. It was the scene of bloody battles during the invasion, its periphery an al-Qaeda stronghold. Now the thick concrete t-walls that protect its perimeter are decorated with murals of happy Iraqis working in factories and ploughing fields.

The next part of the road cuts through a strongly Sunni area that the Government only laid tenuous claim to for many years, making the drive in from the airport a life-and-death ride – one that drivers charged up to $3,000 to undertake.

Ahmed is from the new generation, and refuses to divulge whether he is Sunni or Shi’a, strictly on principle. ‘I am a human being,’ he responds nobly, and tells me of a couple he knows at college, a Shi’a girl and a Sunni boy, who ‘are in love and don’t care what their parents think’.

Perhaps the hopeful murals on the t-walls, the Beyoncé songs and the sight of the Tigris as we drive into town, lull me into a false sense of security. Within minutes I’ve been stopped by a policeman under suspicion of having filmed incorrect images. An unsmiling milita patrol had spotted my small video camera.

When I replay the benign touristic images of the Tigris for him he lets us go. But Showket and Ahmed are clearly unnerved. I only realize how lucky we were when I am detained by some less-than-friendly Iraqi police a few days later, for the crime of snapping a photo of a masgouf (grilled fish) seller in a market – one that was deemed too close to a checkpoint. Unfortunately, since Prime Minister Maliki began his ‘law and order’ campaign – apparently to crack down on out-of-control militias (while maintaining his own small army) – there are checkpoints every few hundred metres in Baghdad and journalists can only photograph barbecued fish on a stick at some personal risk.

In the bad old Baathist days, it was oddly easier to film and photograph street scenes and public life if you had the right minder. I remember a series of photos I’d taken in 1998, right after a three-day Clinton-instigated bombing campaign. A woman whose house had been bombed let me in to her ruined living room, and later made me some sweet strong chai. A man whose wife had gone into labour and delivered their son stillborn due to the stress of giving birth under bombing posed for a poignant photo with the death certificate in hand. And a crowd of mischievous schoolchildren – boys and girls – had posed with me in the street, all grins and hand waves and excitement.

The mood now is different. Pervasive, all-powerful ‘security’ concerns mean that meetings are brief, many areas are ‘no-go’, and foreign hacks are mainly forced to live in armed compounds, hermetically sealed off from Iraqis, especially since the hotel bombings in February. The t-wall has become the visual symbol of the new Iraq. It separates neighbours, walls off foreigners from the teeming masses, and makes moving around Baghdad a logistical nightmare.

Blank canvas

But in this former cradle of civilization, it has also become the latest canvas for Iraqi artists.

I ask if we can stop off at the Akad gallery in Abu Nawas, which is on the way to my armed compound. Showket and Ahmed, who came of age in the cultural vacuum of war and sanctions, have never been here. Happily, Hayder Hashim, who’s been the owner for years, is there to greet us.

Not surprisingly, given the way the surrounding roads have been shut down by the t-walls, barriers and checkpoints, the gallery is empty. Hayder tells me his is one of only three galleries left open in a city that once boasted dozens. But he is happy to show me around. On display is a series of inoffensive, folkloric scenes of Iraqi village life – popular with the mainly foreign clientele that had once been the gallery’s mainstay.

Hayder then takes me upstairs to a storage area, and shows me the work of Ahmed Nasaf – a powerful series of mytho-poetic riffs on the t-wall. Limbs and other body parts fly over t-walls stained with blood that fades into a red, white and blue, stars-and-stripes US flag. I feel heartened that Baghdad is still a place where you can find a fairly immediate cultural response to whatever awful political reality is at play. Another artist at the gallery – a native of Basra – wryly notes: ‘Iraqis will be ok. I know this because, after the invasion, in my home town, a mob of people rushed to pull down all the statues of Iraqi army officers [an infamous series commissioned by Saddam featuring officers pointing across the water to Iran] but they left the statue of Badr Shakir al Sayyab [one of the best known contemporary poets in Iraq] intact.’

After this pit-stop, we reach the armed compound I’ve reluctantly agreed to stay in; it’s a safe house for journos run by a rather raffish bunch of former SAS types. My favourite Iraqi hotels have recently been blown to smithereens and it would be unsafe for both me and my Iraqi friends if I accepted their kind offers of hospitality. I find myself sharing quarters with a group that ranges from Fox News to Finnish Public Broadcasting, all forced into common protective custody by circumstances beyond our control, all complicit in the crime of spinning stories. Before, there was the police state that we found ways to circumvent. Now there is a whole new fear factor: kidnappers, gangs, militias, Iraqi police and various other bogeymen; plus the worry that you might get trapped in a traffic jam and be a sitting duck for an IED (improvised explosive device).

Still, there are dozens of sparrows that sing through the barbed wire that surrounds the compound. There are roses in the garden that bloom blood red, intoxicatingly fragrant as if to provoke the mud and dust and t-walls and men with guns by their sheer beauty. And there are brave Iraqi wild cats that break into the compound at night to demand supper.

There is freedom here now. Freedom of expression and freedom to kill

I cannot afford the men with guns, the armoured vehicles, body armour and fixers who speak English with newly acquired US accents; the preserve of my almost exclusively male colleagues. In this land where laminated badges and acronyms like CNN convey credibility, no-one has heard of New Internationalist. This means I can slip under the radar and ‘pass’ – most of the time.

But it also means I am subject to some of the same harassment by Iraqi police enjoyed by Iraqi journalists. As I am reminded by the head of the JFO, hundreds of Iraqi journalists have been arrested, beaten, imprisoned and killed since I was last here.

Your money or your life: the Ministry of Finance was bombed in 2007 and again in 2009. Photo: New Internationalist/Hadani Ditmars.

Death threats

‘There is freedom here now,’ smiles Haydar Daffar, a bad-boy Iraqi filmmaker, whose documentary Dreams of Sparrows recounts the chaos and tragedy of post-invasion Iraq. ‘Freedom of expression and freedom to kill.’ In his late thirties, Haydar is the kind of guy who likes to make provocative political statements, punctuated by recently acquired English cuss words, drags of his Camel cigarettes and melancholic glances. He is currently working on a script about a journalist who finds himself trapped in a morgue, but supports himself by making commercials for the likes of Iraqi mobile phone companies.

As we drive through Baghdad’s toxic traffic – it can now take two hours to cross town – he tells me his story. ‘I was threatened by a Sunni militia,’ explains the nominally Shi’a yet agnostic filmmaker, ‘via my wife, who is Sunni and works in a Government office.’ Shortly afterwards, he received a death threat from a Shi’a militia, apparently offended by reference in his film to Baghdad’s enthusiastic, if somewhat underground, drinking culture, and he had to flee. But that was back in the bad old days of sectarian militia terror, which – depending on whom you ask – lasted anywhere from 2004 until very recently, although most agree that 2006 and 2007 were the worst years and that Maliki’s security initiative/military crackdown has made things safer. Haydar has been back now for the better part of two years.

He drives me to an old Ottoman villa on the banks of the Tigris, recently converted to a theatre. Here a group of young actors and dancers rehearse for a new play about Mudaffer al-Nawab, the communist writer imprisoned after the 1963 Baathist coup, who now makes strident statements against both US occupation and the Iraqi Government from his home in Syria. The play fuses theatre, film and dance, juxtaposing images of recent bombings with ones of Nawab reciting poetry about ‘resisting the global forces of darkness’.

When I dance I feel like I’m flying and I forget about the difficulties of life here

Iraq, like Cuba, always had strong state funding for the arts and, brutalist monuments commissioned by Saddam notwithstanding, the music and ballet school, where young people from all walks of life could train for free, is a happily enduring legacy of that old state support. Given the horror stories of artists threatened by militias, of music and dancing being banned even at weddings, this rehearsal is an encouraging sign that the indomitable Iraqi spirit I’d come to know and love is returning.

Today their choreography is a mix of Twyla Tharp, breakdancing and Iraqi chobi (folk dance). Their enthusiasm and the general air of liberation compel me to put down my notebook and, with their encouragement, jump right into their dance. Later they tell me their stories.

A 21-year-old from a poor Shi’a neighbourhood reveals that he was threatened by the Mahdi militia (an Iraqi paramilitary force created by the Iraqi Shi’a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in June 2003) a few years ago for ‘having long hair’ and ‘being an actor’ but that now ‘the situation has improved’.

One of his colleagues, an 18-year-old named Ali, who does a mean moonwalk, tells me that his father was killed by Saddam for belonging to the Dawa Party (a hardline Shi’a party whose members, persecuted by the old regime, include Prime Minister Maliki). Ali says his two brothers are quite religious and disapprove of his theatre work, but his mother is ‘very proud’ of him and comes to all his performances. Ali would never give this up. ‘When I dance,’ he tells me, ‘I feel like I’m flying and I forget about the difficulties of life here.’

Starring in the play as al-Nawab’s mother, Bushra Ismail is a veteran of the Iraqi theatre scene. ‘Under Saddam we suffered from censorship,’ she recounts, ‘but now it’s the religious parties we have to be careful about offending. There is a whole new set of “red lines” we can’t cross.’

Still, everyone is excited about their opening night at the National Theatre, which began evening performances again (after a long period of security-minded daytime ones) at the end of 2008.

Theatre manager Nabeel Taher tells me that, although there is insufficient arts funding from the Government, he feels hopeful about the future of Iraqi culture. ‘We feel much freer than before,’ he says, despite the fact that the theatre was bombed twice in 2008, once on the opening night of anti-militia play Hey – give me back my house that criticized rampant property confiscation. He cites a recent political satire by Iraqi playwright and director Hayder Monather that lampooned then head of parliament Mahmoud al Mashhadani. ‘He sent the actors flowers and a congratulatory card,’ he explains, noting this would have been unimaginable a decade ago.

Another precedent was set, he recounts, when a celebration of International Theatre Day in March 2008 took place at the same time as a huge anti-occupation demonstration led by Muqtada al-Sadr – right across the street from the National Theatre. ‘Some militiamen crossed over and threatened to hang us from a pole unless we stopped our celebration. But I tried to reason with them, saying: “Look– we are just artists, not politicians, and we are all Iraqis, after all.”’ The end result was a National Theatre-sponsored play in Sadr City about the life of Imam Hussein (the martyred grandson of the Prophet Muhammad and a key figure in Shi’a Islam) with a mix of professionals and local amateurs – including a few militia members.

One of them, explains Taher, became so enamoured of the theatre that he actually left his militia to become a professional actor. ‘But you can’t interview him,’ he cautions, ‘because he doesn’t like to dwell on his past.’

Hadani Ditmars

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