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 Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad

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Dr.Hannani Maya
المشرف العام
المشرف العام

الدولة : العراق
الجنس : ذكر
عدد المساهمات : 37288
مزاجي : أحب المنتدى
تاريخ التسجيل : 21/09/2009
الابراج : الجوزاء
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مُساهمةموضوع: Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad    الخميس 05 أبريل 2012, 10:20 pm

Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad

There aren’t many reasons to be cheerful in Baghdad, but Ahmed Salah Moneka is one of them. Moneka is the male lead in a re-imagined, modern-day version of Romeo and Juliet set in Iraq, and when I first meet him he comes striding across the rehearsal room of the Iraqi National Theatre with outstretched arms and a cheerful, almost innocent smile; and this is before he has started getting into character.

There had not, so far, been any suicide bombings or other horrors in Baghdad that week. There is also plenty of energy bubbling under the dust of its war-scarred streets, but it is cagey. The adjective most often deployed against the city is “tense”, for reasons that don’t need much explaining. Moneka though, in interview, says things like this: “When I was invited to play Romeo, I thought, 'What luck!’ I felt beautiful, a man with a white heart.” When I ask him, after the rehearsal, a rather corny question about what the part means to him, he gives this response: “I love people. If I were in love, I would love from my heart till it wore me out. In fact, I am already tired because I love my part so much.”

Ahmed comes from an acting family. Shakespeare is well-read here and, when one looks beyond Baghdad’s recent history and to the traditions of an intellectual and cultural past that ended relatively recently, more revered even than in other countries with a theatrical history. His response, though, seems untutored. It is also, frankly, unexpected, even though I knew I was coming here to meet actors: no matter how forewarned, and how unprejudiced one tries to be, it is hard to think outside the stereotypes of aggression and violence with which we associate Iraq and which, normally, journalists come here to observe. But Baghdad, of course, a city with more than a thousand years of often glorious history, was not always like this.

This is the point, of course, and why the play is being put on. Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad is part of a challenge set by the Royal Shakespeare Company to theatre groups around the world to create contemporary versions of the classics to mark the London Olympics. The World Shakespeare Festival will come to Stratford-upon-Avon, London and other venues around Britain over the course of the spring and summer, and while some productions are flights of fancy, Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad is as in-your-face as an Iraqi suicide attack. The play will be performed in Arabic, but with its English surtitles, a plot whose outline is well-known and a staging that is stripped to the basics, it should be more than accessible to British audiences, as well as those who will see it in Iraq. In fact, it might even make you nervous.

There is something a little obvious, even disrespectful, in re-setting the family squabble between the Montagues and the Capulets in the mass-murdering carnage that is the struggle for power between the Sunni and the Shia. But it was not just Romeo who disarmed me on that score. For a start, there is the original play. However often it is performed, I confess my unconscious image was of its romance. Rereading it reawakened me to its machismo, in which the affair between Romeo and Juliet is in many ways the least interesting strand. In that other reworking, West Side Story, no one remembers the bits where Tony and Maria are together; they remember the fight scenes. In this version, too, audiences will be mesmerised by the swagger of the young Iraqis on stage.

Then there is the way the director, Monadhil Daood, has addressed the challenge – unflinchingly yet with some subtlety. He has changed and not changed the play, but the words Sunni and Shia are understood and not mentioned. Instead, while his characters’ names remain those of Verona, the two families (Capulet and Montague here are brothers) have argued about ownership of a boat they have inherited from the father. In this way, the question of who gets to steer the boat becomes a metaphor for the fight for Iraq; and the competing narratives of victimhood employed by Iraq’s Sunni and Shia gangs, instantly recognisable to a local audience, become the endless whining of two ageing brothers constantly replaying battles from the nursery.

In that, perhaps, there is something for all of us, but that the play’s lesson is particularly necessary for Iraq is unquestionable. Daood is unapologetic about a script that is explosive in its directness. “I know my people. They don’t like it if you don’t punch them,” he says, disarmingly. “They don’t like it if you are tasteful.” Punchy this certainly is: the character of Paris is not just the aggrieved would-be suitor for Juliet’s hand, but an al-Qaeda operative. The final scene is set in Baghdad’s Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation, destroyed when in one of their most extraordinarily brutal attacks, al-Qaeda terrorists stormed it, shot priests and members of the congregation and finally detonated suicide vests.

The church’s ruins lie within view of both the National Theatre and Daood’s flat, making a sort of triangular reminder of how Baghdad once encompassed both culture and tolerance, and of Daood’s place in that tradition. He studied theatre in Baghdad in the 1970s, but his blunt choice of first play as director, still in his early twenties, drove him into exile. It was an anti-war polemic, staged just after Saddam Hussein had decided to invade neighbouring Iran, and it lasted three performances. Daood himself made for the hills – he was smuggled through Kurdistan into Iran, spending the next 20 years in Tehran, Damascus, St Petersburg and finally Stockholm.

Like many exiles, he has seemingly become detached from the world and able to focus on his artistic imagination, even as events back home paradoxically feed that imagination. He is certainly convinced that there is an audience for his production in Iraq, that this isn’t just some westernised, grim jeu d’esprit. There are attempts to revive both the National Theatre and other, smaller houses, but success is patchy by all accounts. There is though a poet in every Iraqi family, he says, and he goes on to prove his point. “Sometimes they talk about theatre as a masque,” he says. “To me it is not a masque. The verb should be born on stage,” and in the context of Iraq this statement is potent.

The violence with which the Arab world is associated derives not from its revolutions but its fear of change, and the preference of its men of culture and integrity for conversation over action. In Romeo and Juliet, the thugs are ready to draw knives, while the “beautiful people” just talk and play, until Romeo acts on his love for Juliet. Daood likewise says his play is a call to put the immutability of convention behind it: people want the Romeos, not the Thibaults, to be the popular heroes again. “People dream of being heroes. I think my Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad will be a mirror. The audience will see themselves on the stage.” Hopefully he is right.

There is a vivacity about Baghdad’s street life now, at least during daylight hours, and a desire to turn the energy that I mentioned at the start to positive effect. It is noticeable, though, that his Romeo and Juliet stand outside Iraq’s sectarian divide. Moneka is black, from one of a number of Gulf communities of African heritage, and of mixed Sunni and Shia background, while Sarwa Rasool, who plays Juliet, is Kurdish. Rasool is even more of an outsider, in fact, coming from an Iranian family, and having had to hide her true identity while growing up during the Iran-Iraq war.

Even so, the decision to expose herself – almost literally, in Iraqi terms, as she performs a role involving defiance of her family over a matter of sexual honour, but does so without wearing the hijab, or head-scarf – cannot have been easy. That she wanted to be a soldier when she was growing up only somehow emphasises the point. There is a sense in which this particular act of theatre is a war as much as an attack on war. It lacks the banality of real war, though. There is a moment where Juliet has to break down in fear, panic and mourning, and when Rasool does it you are immediately drawn to televised images of Iraqi mothers sinking to their knees and wailing.

Except that this time it seems more real for being acted, whereas we are so inured to the news that the reality just flickers in the background, each example undistinguished from any other. The political message – hammered home to me both by Daood and his actors – is aimed at their Iraqi, not British audience. For a Britain that has largely moved on from the Iraq it helped to create, perhaps all one can hope is that the play will be a corrective, super-imposing a theatrical hyper-reality on top of tired news values.

I cannot, like travel writers, say that watching it will make its audience want to see more of the country, or even want to understand it better. But Iraq has idealists and dreamers as much as anywhere, and representing them on stage may yet prove contagious; in any case, sometimes Moneka’s clarion call for beauty amid the torments is worth hearing for its own sake.

Source. 'Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad’ opens at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon (0844 800 1110) from Apr 26

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Killing is the talk of US Iraqis'

This day's English lessons for Iraqi immigrants at Cuyamaca College involved learning how to talk about bad news.From their text, "Day by Day: English for Employment Communication," the 25 students repeated dialogue wrapped around common occurrences: "I lost my wallet" and "My husband got fired from his job."

But the students had a horrific piece of real news on their minds: the March 24 death of an Iraqi immigrant who had been bludgeoned with a tire iron in her home three days earlier. A note near her bloodied body called her a terrorist and told her to "go back to your country."

"They can't stop talking about it," said the instructor, Hayfa Dalali, an immigrant from Baghdad. "They just keep saying: 'She was a mother of five, from a nice family, in a safe neighborhood.'"Predictably, the unsolved killing of 32-year-old Shaima Alawadi has led to heightened concern among some women about their safety.

But in this working-class suburb east of San Diego, the nation's second-most-populous community of Iraqi immigrants, the fear does not seem to spring from a belief that the killing was a hate crime committed by a predator stalking Iraqis.

While hardly crime-free, El Cajon has no history of hate crimes or of overt hostility toward immigrants from Iraq or other Middle Eastern countries, according to crime statistics. There is no graffiti or gang activity linked to anti-immigrant animosity, police and Iraqi community leaders say.

Students in the class at Cuyamaca College appear to be taking their lead from the El Cajon police, who have said that the specter of a hate crime is only one possible motive and that detectives are exploring evidence besides the threatening note that the victim's 17-year-old daughter, Fatima, said she discovered by her mother.

The killing is "an isolated incident," police have said repeatedly.

Officials of the San Diego branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Los Angeles-based Muslim Public Affairs Council have urged residents not to jump to conclusions and to wait for the police to find the killer. So did Imam Sharif Battikhi at a memorial service for Alawadi at the mosque in nearby Lakeside.

Sahar Hussein, 50, an Iraqi immigrant by way of Egypt, said she knew Alawadi from the mosque in El Cajon, where she was always smiling and helpful."She was such a nice lady, always friendly to others," Hussein said during a break in the language class. "I'm scared now and being careful until we know the reason. We trust the police."

With a population of 100,000, El Cajon is a spread-out city divided by Interstate 8. Wide avenues are chockablock with strip malls. Iraqi markets and restaurants are clustered downtown, near courts, government offices and the police headquarters.

"We will let the police handle this thing," said Othman Kalasho, 58, who came to the U.S. in 1978 and owns Ali Baba Family Restaurant on East Main Street. "One criminal should not be applied to everybody. Just think how much this country has helped refugees from Iraq."Speculation within the Iraqi community about the motive has been continuous and wide-ranging.

"Who knows?" Nash Isho, 38, said as he played dominoes at the Baghdad Cafe amid large-screen televisions showing Iraqi music videos and an Arab soap opera. "Most people are friendly here to us, but maybe it's a personal thing, maybe a family thing. Who knows?"On his way to the Babylon Market, 29-year-old Ray Tobiya admitted being perplexed: "It could be so many things. Maybe things nobody wants to talk about."

Cuyamaca College, one of two campuses of the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District, is a major gathering spot for Iraqi immigrants. Located on the city's outskirts, the campus has tall trees, a large grassy commons and light-colored buildings, not altogether different from college campuses in the modern Arab world.

As the influx of Iraqi immigrants increased in the last decade, the college district has taken a leadership role. It held a summit on meeting the needs of the new immigrants, and last school year more than 5,300 students enrolled in English language classes at the district's two campuses. More than 80% were Iraqi immigrants.

A demographer at San Diego State estimates that nearly 30,000 people of Iraqi origin live in San Diego County. Some statistics suggest that El Cajon is surpassing the Detroit suburbs as the top destination for Iraqi immigrants; Shaima Alawadi, her husband, and their five children had lived in Dearborn, Mich., before moving.

In the wake of Alawadi killing and the unrelated drive-by shooting of a teenager, Cuyamaca College President Mark Zacovic last week sent an email to students, faculty and staff saying: "We are disturbed by the nature of these criminal acts and abhor the pall that these, and every act of violence, cast over our East County community.… We value free thinking and freedom of speech, and we deplore actions that make any member of our community feel less than fully welcomed."

In Dalali's class, students want to learn English to help get jobs. Some worked for the U.S. military in Iraqi. Unemployment for Iraqi immigrants exceeds the overall jobless figures for the region, officials said.

Although the killing has saddened Mumina Al Naqishbandi, 47, a Kurdish Iraqi who moved to El Cajon a year ago with her husband and five children, it has not shaken her belief that El Cajon is safe."People say hello to me; it's normal," she said. "This is a safe community, not like places in Iraq. I am so sorry for the lady and her family."

Al Naqishbandi's 18-year-old son, Mohammed, is studying English so he can pass the test to enlist in the U.S. Army."He said, 'This is my country now, I should help defend it, so my family will be safe,'" she said.
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Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad
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