Iraqi actor hopes for theatre’s revival

I am Iraqi, this is the only identity I am proud of. I am not interested in any other identity, and I have never and will not attach myself to a party, sect or ethnic group.

Al-Shakarchi performs on stage in Baghdad last April
Al-Shakarchi performs on stage in Baghdad last April

These are the words that the notable Iraqi dramatist and actor Jawad al-Shakarchi uses to introduce himself to his audience.


Jawad al-Shakarchi has participated in more than 60 Arab and international theatre festivals, and received dozens of awards, including that of Best Actor in Cairo‘s Theatre Festival 1989, a medal of honour from the Carthage Theatre Festival in Tunisia 1995 and many more.

He started his theatre career at 16; when he joined the troupe of Iraqi-Soviet Friendship Society in 1966.


Al-Shakarchi witnessed the Iraqi artistic renaissance in the late 1960s and worked with pioneers such as Yousif al-Ani, who took the Iraqi theatre from brash imitations of international classics to performing original Iraqi plays.


The 1970s saw a boom in art in general and theatre in particular. Money was invested and the flourishing economic situation produced massive interest in theatre.


In the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war, theatre helped ease the tension and sorrow among people, especially when there seemed no end in sight to the war. Comedies dominated.


After the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq became isolated after the invasion of Kuwait and the launch of the UN weapons inspections.

“I am not a Saddam fan, but at the same time I am totally against changing the government of my country through a foreign invasion”

Jawad al-Shakarchi

Iraqi theatre entered a new era. Intellectual, philosophic and interpretive theatre prevailed, which tried to go from behind the censor’s back and convey the message to the audience. interviewed Jawad al-Shakarchi on a recent visit to Doha, Qatar. Let us begin from the 1990s. How did you work during the embargo?


Jawad: It was hard, but we believed in the artist’s role in educating people and conveying what other cultures are saying and what our thinkers are writing.

We used to play with words. Scripts that went to the censors did not include anything provocative but when we performed on the stage, we used techniques to get our message across.

There was great enthusiasm. Don’t get me wrong: we did not engage in political incitement or encourage violence or anything that would have jeopardised the stability and security of our country.


But the government was in a state of panic and the censorship was meaningless sometimes, so we were determined to present what we thought was necessary for people to know. How did people receive that suggestive technique?


Jawad: Theatre in Iraq has always been patriotic, progressive and attached to people’s interests and aspirations. It had a great role in combating colonialism.


The Iraq war has brought theatreproductions to a standstill

The Iraq war has brought theatre
productions to a standstill

Iraqi people realised that and have always trusted their theatre’s pure patriotism.


In the 1990s the audience response to us was incredible, and we achieved success in conveying our message.


I believe that theatre in Iraq has been able to address many issues that political parties failed to deal with. How do you evaluate theatre in Iraq since the war?


Jawad: Certainly the occupation has put a burden on every aspect of life in Iraq. We can say that art in general and theatre specifically are in a state of confusion.

“Stories of what happened to our country in the last two years will keep the Iraqi artists busy for decades to come.”

Jawad al-Shakarchi

It is well-known that Iraq is still suffering from the absence of basic services and security.


That definitely has paralysed theatre. How can we work without lights? How can we expect people to come to theatre when they do not have petrol for their cars?


How can we expect people to risk their lives coming to theatre?


A lot of obstacles actually are preventing us from resuming our work. Do you see hope?

Jawad: Before I answer this question I need to tell you that my answer does not cancel the fact that the occupation is hateful, regardless of its shape and objectives. The occupation is an occupation, it is ugly.


However, to be honest, we as Iraqi artists have felt a kind of relief during the past two years, in terms of payments and freedom of speech.


But we are still waiting for the real support to restart theatre in the country. Art is still the least of the Iraqi government’s worries. Currently, they have a lot of things to deal with other than art. When you say freedom of speech, do you mean there is no censorship now or it is more relaxed?


Jawad: Currently there is no censorship whatsoever. Can you criticise the government?


“I am Iraqi, this is the only identity I am proud of. I am not interested in any other identity, and I have never and will not attach myself to a party, sect, or ethnicity.”

Jawad al-Shakarchi

Jawad: Certainly Can you criticise the US military presence in the country?

Jawad: Yes. How do you feel about the way Saddam Hussein was removed from office?


Jawad: I am not a Saddam fan, but at the same time I am totally against changing the government of my country through a foreign invasion.


There were other acceptable ways other than invasion. I mean the change should have been internal; through a military coup or a revolution or whatever way of internal change.


As an Iraqi artist, I am like my countrymen still trying to analyse and understand what happened in 2003, and why and how that rapid collapse of the Iraqi state had happened! We look forward to the day occupation troops go home. Do not you think a civil war could erupt if the US-led forces leave Iraq?

Jawad: I am really astonished at this perception! Why should the Iraqi people consider just two options? Either the occupation or civil war! How is that acceptable? Iraq has always been a country composed of different religions, sects, and ethnicities but it never witnessed a civil war. Why it should happen now? There is a great possibility that Iraq is going to be ruled by religious parties. How do you see the artistic movement in Iraq under such regimes?


Jawad: I do not think religious parties will jeopardise art in Iraq. We have the Iranian example: Iran has been ruled by a religious regime and yet art is thriving there.


We have seen Iranian cinema competing on global scale and achieving remarkable successes. How do you see the role of the Iraqi artist in the coming years?


Jawad: Stories of what happened to our country in the last two years will keep the Iraqi artists busy for decades to come.
The mission of Iraqi artists is to support their people’s rise. We are living in a time of great disappointment. We hoped for a better life but we have got nothing but bitterness, suffering and pain.


The artists, I believe, are facing a significant mission, as they have to be an active component of their society, working together with their fellow Iraqis to restore security and peace of mind in order to be able to carry on. What is your latest work?


Jawad: Last April I appeared on the stage in Baghdad for the first time since the end of the [Iraq] war. I participated in the poetic play Iraq ya Iraq. It was very meaningful for me.


I put in it all my experience to show the pain that my country has been suffering for the past three decades.


“Currently there is no censorship whatsoever”

Jawad al-Shakarchi

The play has revived the poems of a number of great Iraqi poets such as Badr Shakir al-Sayyab. The play was named after his eternal poem Iraq ya Iraq. Was it popular?


Jawad: As I said before theatre has been greatly damaged by the war. All kinds of art has survived the war somehow. You can see galleries are working normally in Baghdad, painters and sculptors are holding shows even more than before the war probably.


But the situation is different with theatre. We could not deliver evening shows as usual; we had to do noon shows, and added to the security situation and the daily hardships that weigh down Iraqis’ life, it is difficult for many people to leave their work and go to the theatre.

In addition to that, traffic in Baghdad is chaotic now due to the lack of infrastructure, order, and military patrols and checkpoints. A trip that needed 15 minutes in the past requires two hours today. 


But from the small number of audience and reviewers who attended the shows, I can say that the play was successful. We are looking forward to a better working environment for Iraqi artists. 

Source : Al Jazeera

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