Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Iraqi Drama in Crisis

Artistic freedom has come with a high price for theatre groups and actors across the country.
By Adnan Karem

In Baghdad’s al-Shaab theatre, a small troupe of actors rehearses its lines on a bare stage.

The story unfolding is a tragic one: a schoolteacher returning from 18 years in prison confronts his sweetheart, who has married someone else during his imprisonment. Having lost his love, his job, and everything else worth living for, the teacher wanders to a bridge over the Tigris. The curtain closes as he sits beneath a statue, debating whether or not to throw himself in.

Like play’s protagonist, Iraq’s performing arts community has awakened to a brave new world of freedom but one with few economic prospects. The actors of this troupe, called the “Cultural Union for the Future”, are typical.

The theatre’s management allows them free use of its facilities, but it will not pay them anything. Audiences are scarce due to the shaky economy and the uncertain security situation which keeps Baghdadis home after dark.

“I have a play,” director Hamza Hashem told IWPR, “but maybe no one will come.”

Under the former regime of Saddam Hussein, the state was the great patron of the arts, sponsoring cultural troupes and providing them venues on television and in government-owned theatres.

However, certain topics could not be criticised - such as Saddam, other top regime figures, the ruling Ba’ath party, Iraqi foreign policy and Islam.

But other subjects such as petty corruption, economic hardship and Iraqi social foibles were fair game.

Audiences flocked to see the comic drama called “One Home and Five Doors”, which ran for three years in the late Nineties and told the story of five families living in a ramshackle building under UN sanctions.

Still, in Saddam’s era of patronage, artists complained that they had to use personal connections in the culture and information ministries to get their plays produced.

Officials typically responded to protests from frustrated directors by blaming UN sanctions imposed on Iraq after the 1990-91 Gulf War.

Sarmad Alaaeddin, director of the National Theatre Troupe, told IWPR, “Sanctions was the cheap gown donned by officials if they wanted to block a production for personal reasons.

“Many artists lost interest in working [in theatre], and went into other businesses.”

Few Iraqi artists will regret the end of such interference, but they nonetheless complain that no one has taken the place of the ministry as an employer or patron.

“Thousands of artists who represent Iraq’s wealth in art have become jobless,” said Sadik Ali Shaheen, former state television head of production.

Writers grumble that the Iraqi Media Network – the closest equivalent to the old culture ministry – has no budget to buy local productions.

The former ministry also used to put Iraqis in touch with the lucrative pan-Arab market. The state’s ex-manager of movies, Abbas Kamal, is one of the lucky few who used this system build up a network of contacts abroad.

As a result, Abbas is now producing a 500,000 US dollar serial on the life of the classical Iraqi poet Abu Ala al-Maari for three Arab stations. “Personal connections are everything in this new era,” he said.

Less fortunate artists now struggle to make ends meet, such as Ayad al-Taee of the national troupe, who collects a mere 50 dollars a month salary.

However, Iraq’s actors and writers are not discouraged. In spite of a lack of suitable venues, theatre groups rushed to apply to produce plays for a US-funded drama festival in December.

Of the 23 groups that applied, only nine were selected to perform a variety of plays on Iraq’s current plight – ranging from the comic to the desperate.

While the matinees were often crowded, the evening shows drew only a handful of spectators, as potential audiences rushed fearfully home from work before dark.

Despite the hardships they are experiencing in the post-war era, few Iraqi artists say that they would return to the past.

“I am an optimist, even though there were more productions before the war,” said the National Theatre Troupe’s Alaaeddin. “There are no more restrictions and regulations - the situation is now one of freedom.”

Adnan Karem is an IWPR trainee journalist.