Home
 
Choose Your City
Change City

Iraqi playwright flees fear and violence to open theatre in Beirut

After nearly three decades of self-imposed exile, Iraq's well-known playwright and director Jawad al-Assadi returned to Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein, believing that the new Iraq was going to be better.

After nearly three decades of self-imposed exile, Iraq's well-known playwright and director Jawad al-Assadi returned to Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein, believing that the new Iraq was going to be better.

He discovered he was wrong.

Shocked by the violence and fear among his people, al-Assadi decided last year to settle in Beirut and open his own theatre.

But violence has followed him. Lebanon is gripped by its worst political crisis since the 1975-90 civil war, and about a dozen politicians, journalists and soldiers have been slain since 2005.

Al-Assadi is now wondering if it was a mistake to come here. But he harbours no regrets about leaving Iraq. Returning to his homeland right now, he said, would be like "offering yourself as a cheap and ignorant martyr."

Instead, al-Assadi is trying to showcase Iraqi culture in his Babel Theatre, located in trendy Hamra Street in downtown Beirut where artists and intellectuals gather.

The first play produced at Babel Theatre is al-Assadi's "Women Sexophone," which is adapted from "The House of Bernarda Alba" by Spanish dramatist Federico Garcia Lorca. The play depicts a tyrannical, recently widowed mother who represses her daughters.

Several of al-Assadi's plays have been influenced by the war in Iraq as well as the dictatorship of Saddam's Baath party that ended with the U.S.-led invasion of 2003.

"Women in War," which tells the story of three Iraqi women living in exile in Germany, was presented in Baghdad in May 2004. After a few days and scant audiences, al-Assadi said he realized Iraqis were too scared to go out at night.

"People were living a unique type fear and the cultural life was in chaos. There I found that there is no way to work on a revival of the Iraqi theatre because unlike a painter or sculpture who can work at home, for me, as a dramatist, I live with the society," al-Assadi said in an interview in his elegant office at the Babel Theatre.

"People should come to watch my work and if people don't leave their homes after four in the afternoon, then how am I going to work?" he asked.

Al-Assadi traces his love of drama to his roots in the Shiite holy city of Karbala, where he was born July 1, 1952. Karbala is the focus of the annual Shiite religious ceremony of Ashoura, the 10-day ritual that marks the death in battle there of the Prophet Muhammad's grandson, Imam Hussein.

Karbala residents re-enact Hussein's death every year and millions of Shiites from around the world come to the city to mark the occasion.

Al-Assadi was also driven into a career in drama in part by poor high school grades. They limited him to studying fine arts at Baghdad University rather than more rigorous courses.

"I sat a fine arts exam and was accepted. This move changed all my life," he said.

After graduation, al-Assadi went to Bulgaria in 1976 and earned a PhD from the National Drama Center in Sofia.

The suffering of the Iraqi people is for him personal. Fearing oppression by Saddam's Baath regime, al-Assadi did not return to Iraq until 2004. His brother, Abdullah, was executed by a government firing squad in 1981.

A second brother, Hussein, was shot dead at a checkpoint west of Baghdad in 2007 as he was driving a bus from Baghdad to Jordan.

"The deaths of my brothers were major shocks in my life. Sometimes these emotions come up in my work. Other times I isolate myself," he said.

Before Hussein's death, al-Assadi produced one of his most renowned plays about the situation in Iraq - "Baghdadi Bath." It is set in a Turkish bath in Baghdad, where two bus drivers come to relax and talk about life in Iraq before and after the U.S. invasion.

Baghdadi Bath was translated into English and some readings have been presented in the United States, according to Robert Myers, a professor of English at the American University of Beirut who helped translate the play.

"Although some people in Europe know about Jawad's work, in the U.S. he is known only through these readings and to people with specialized knowledge of contemporary Arab theatre," Myers said.

"The play became a way to talk about the war and U.S. involvement to a small extent," he added.

Myers said "Baghdadi Bath," resonating with humour, forces the audience "to see the occupation from an Iraqi perspective and how it affects working people there."

Al-Assadi said he was unable to travel to the United States to attend the readings because he wasn't able to get an American visa.

Since opening Babel Theatre in Beirut, al-Assadi hosted Iraqi musician Naseer Shamma, known as a master of the oud, a pear-shaped string instrument, and painter Jabr Alwan. He plans to bring more Iraqi artists in the coming months.

But al-Assadi worries about the political situation in Lebanon - and his future.

"If you ask me whether the strong political situation Beirut is passing through affected my opening of this theatre, I will say yes. It had a very bad and negative effect," al-Assadi said.

He has spent about $200,000 of his own money to renovate the theatre and could face a serious financial crunch in the coming months. Rent, salaries and taxes run at least $120,000 a year, he said.

Lebanese actors hope he will stay.

"I would like to tell Jawad al-Assadi that hopefully your bet on Beirut will be right and our bet on you is also right," said Lebanese actor Rifaat Tarabay, who plays in Women Sexophone.

"Beirut is still, until this day . . . the capital of culture in the Arab world," she said.

 
Consider AlsoFurther Articles