Drama lighting up Iraqi lives

As war-torn Iraq struggles to rebuild, students embrace cultural resistance in a play that mirrors their lives.

iraq play
When students at the American University of Iraq realised there was a play written about the struggles they faced during the war, nothing would stop them from putting on the play themselves [GALLO/GETTY]

Washington, DC – My new year began with full of cheer. And it was coming from the story of some young students in Sulaimani in northern Iraq.

Iraq, you will say: what good news can we expect from that troubled region?

Stories are swirling of catastrophic clashes on the horizon. American and Iranian naval gunboats growl at each other and we hear of threats of closing the Straits of Hormuz. Rumours of Israel’s plans to attack Iran’s nuclear programme continue to cause speculation and debate, Turkey’s slaughtering of dozens of innocent Kurds, not far from Sulaimani, has increased tension in an already tense area.  

Cutting through this gloomy talk of war, I first heard of these students from their remarkable professor, Peter Friedrich, head of drama and film at the American University of Iraq in Sulaimani. Peter sent me an email recently, referring to my play Noor.

Noor has caused a sensation on our campus like never before in my four years here. As one of my students said, ‘We didn’t know anyone wrote plays about us’.” Peter went on to talk of the challenges he faced in staging the play with his students.

“There really is no choice anymore, we have to put Noor on stage. This will be a challenge, since we have no stage, even for a play without controversy which Noor surely has. But if you could see the students and listen to them you would know that nothing will stop them.”

In writing Noor, I had deliberately played on the word “nor”. It not only reflects a glorious attribute of God, but symbolises light, compassion and optimism. I had consciously chosen an 18-year-old girl, who I called Noor, to be the central character of the play. For me, Noor was a metaphor for the young generation in the Muslim world. She carried the weight of tradition and pointed to directions for the future. Given the enormity of the task she had to be, literally, Noor.

Reaching out

The story centres around the kidnapping of Noor and the impact on her immediate family, especially on her widowed and ill father, and three brothers. The entire plot is worked out within a 24-hour cycle and charts the responses of the people in Noor’s life. Each man responds in his own way – the mystic digging deeper into his spiritual recesses, the modernist desperately approaching his contacts in officialdom and the literalist preparing to take revenge for the dishonour brought on the family.

The play was published in 2009 with a generous blurb contributed by Daniel Futterman. An Oscar-nominated screenwriter, Futterman is also an actor who played the role of Daniel Pearl in Angelina Jolie’s film, A Mighty Heart.

“Akbar Ahmed sets the clock ticking from the first moments of his wondrous new play, Noor,” wrote Futterman. “Listen in rapture to the voices of modern Islam. I am in awe of this tremendous, important work.”

My family and I had the opportunity to welcome Peter to our home in Washington DC a few days ago. He was visiting his family for the Christmas and New Year holidays. We were most interested to learn of Peter’s own background. Originally from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Peter moved to San Francisco to study at the American Conservatory Theatre. Other graduates of the institution included stars like Denzel Washington. Peter went on to perform in independent films and television.

Like most Americans, Peter was deeply affected by the events of September 11, 2001. “There was a feeling of urgency, and a need to take a risk to make a positive difference,” he told us. He read about the university in Sulaimani and was determined to reach out to the Muslim world.

Peter had been warned about the situation in Iraq. It was not a good time to be a blond, white American attempting to teach art and drama. But Peter’s natural geniality and respect for people quickly won him friends. He now travels around freely in the Kurdistan area of Iraq. When I asked him if he felt threatened or apprehensive, he replied: “On the contrary, I feel like the president of the United States, people are so welcoming and hospitable.” He quickly adds that he has not done anything special to deserve their kindness.

As a teacher on campus, I can vouch for the fact that there can be no greater tribute to someone who has dedicated his life to his or her students than striking a chord among them. Peter has clearly struck a chord in these young Iraqi students.

Drama within a drama

The staging of the play itself has become a test of the young American’s character and that of his students. It has become a drama within a drama. When Peter talks of his students, his eyes light up and smile lingers on his face. They have united to present something different to the campus, rejecting the traditional choices of Shakespeare and other European playwrights. They even have ambitious plans to stage Noor in the Green Zone in Baghdad, perhaps even in Washington DC.

I am sure the American actors have done a wonderful job… but they [cannot]… feel the real challenge behind the story like Iraqi actors.

– Sarmad Kinany, Iraqi student playing brother of Noor

But Peter does not underestimate the task: “We have students here from all parts of Iraq, disputed and otherwise. The diversity of racial, economic and religious background is unlike that of any other university I’ve seen. It is also very hard work, and I wish I had more time. But at the very least, I want to thank you for this play you wrote. It has stunned and inspired scores of students, and started quite an adventure into highly unknown territory.”

As the playwright, I am naturally thrilled at this inspiring group of young Iraqis planning to perform my play. But this young generation of Muslims is a larger source of inspiration for me. They have shaken the tyrants in the Middle East and have moved people throughout the world with their sacrifices, courage and optimism.

It is well to remember the context within which these Iraqi students organise their lives. Iraqi society suffered the brutalisation of decades of Saddam Hussein’s tyranny. It then suffered the anarchy and chaos of the American occupation.

As the young man Sarmad Kinany, who plays the mystically inclined elder brother of Noor, said in a message given to me by Peter: “I am sure the American actors have done a wonderful job in doing this play, but they would have never been able to feel the real challenge behind the story like Iraqi actors will feel it while they are doing this play.”

The play has a message for Iraqi society and beyond, believes Mewan Nahro, who takes the role of the deputy minister. Mewan wrote: “This play cannot only have positive effects on the Iraqi society. It can affect the whole world especially in those countries where females have fewer rights than men. It shows the good path, and it shows people that with exploding yourself, you will not fix anything.”

Perhaps Banoo Omer, the young Kurdish girl who plays Noor, summed it up best: “Noor is the kind of girl that Iraq needs at the moment.”

Professor Akbar Ahmed is Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic studies, American University, Washington DC and author of Journey into America (Brookings Press 2010). He was Pakistan’s High Commissioner to the UK and Ireland.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.