Iraqi actors hoped the fall of Saddam Hussein would herald a new era of artistic freedom. But they have seen their dreams destroyed by violence.
With Baghdad racked by bomb attacks, a wave of kidnappings and widespread crime, few Iraqis bother going to the theater.
“We have lost security and safety. The audience is mentally exhausted,” said actor Khalil Ibrahim. “How could they bear to watch a play for two or three hours?”
In the looting and chaos that followed the overthrow of Saddam in April last year, the National theater in Baghdad was ransacked. Actors would gather outside what was left of the building to pick up their meager salaries.
“We sat on the street waiting for our salaries. The National theater building was looted and burned,” said Qasim al-Sayid, 38. “It was a tragedy.”
Seventeen months later, things have only got worse. Actors and actresses gather each Sunday and Wednesday at the theater to show they are still present in Baghdad, a condition of the money they receive from the state.
With the interim government struggling to quell a deadly insurgency and to rebuild the economy, there is little time and money to be spared for culture.
“The government was obliged to put other priorities on its list,” said Alla Hussein, 25, an actress and a student of theater at Baghdad’s College of Fine Arts. “Art came last on that list. Actors and actresses were the first to stop working, and they will be the last to resume their activities.”
Culture Minister Mofeed al-Jazaeri knows very well that his ministry is not seen as a priority, and is asking for foreign aid to help fund the revival of cultural activity.
“Electricity is more important than a book. Clean water is more important than a play. Security is more important than the cinema,” he said. “It seems that culture is not considered on the priority list. That is why we are seeking the help of international organizations to compensate for what we lack.”
Climate of fear
Baghdad’s streets are dangerous at night. Few Iraqis like to stay out too late after dark -- there is the risk of kidnapping or robbery, of being caught in the crossfire during battles between guerrillas and U.S.-led forces.
“People are afraid,” Sayid said. “The security situation is bad.”
Many Iraqis fear that theaters could be targeted by insurgents trying to sow chaos in the country.
“A hand grenade is cheap,” Ibrahim said. “Anyone can come and throw a bomb inside the theater.”
During Saddam’s rule, there was no room for controversial plays but comedy was highly popular. theaters and cinemas were busy, especially over the Muslim weekend.
Before the invasion that toppled Saddam, several popular Egyptian comedians performed to packed theaters.
Egyptian actor Adel Imam had a full house for the four nights he performed a play, “The Bodyguard,” at the National theater. Some tickets changed hands for hundreds of dollars on the black market.
Some success stories
Since Saddam fell, theaters have managed to mount a few successful productions. One Baghdad theater managed to get nearly 800 people a night to come to see a production it staged during the holiday marking the end of Ramadan last year.
But as soon as the holiday was over, Sayid said, the number in the audience dropped to 18.
His theater company plans another play at the end of Ramadan this year, hoping that the holiday will draw people to come. But with security in Baghdad far worse than it was a year ago, that could be unlikely.
Haider Menaathar, 39, an actor and director, said there were few places actors could turn to for help.
“They have ideas and ambitions but they are unemployed,” he said. “There is no work, no production, no institutions that nurture art... We need a return of normal life so people can come to the theater.”
Hussein said it was essential that she and her colleagues did not give up, despite the difficulties, and that they strove to restore thriving cultural life to the country where the earliest civilizations and cultures were born.
“We need to unite, to work together to bring peace and security,” she said. “We built civilizations, we made history and achieved glory. We must restore security and stability and make something beautiful out of the impossible.”