Stage fright: Arab Spring plays out in London's theater district
Two plays by Anglo-Iraqi writers explore the ironies and dangers of the last year and a half in the Middle East.
In a theater in a warehouse district in Hackney Wick, on the edge of London's Olympic Village, in the East End, a strange ritual unfolds.
As a young, hip crowd watches, two female figures behind a translucent plastic sheet appear to be dressing a woman on her wedding day, singing an Arabic love song. After a few minutes, however, the three figures emerge to reveal that the "bride" is actually a prisoner who has been tied up and is being led to her imminent hanging.
This moment in "Return," by Anglo-Iraqi playwright and actress Dina Mousawi, heralds not only the beginning of a powerful piece of theater, but also serves as a metaphor for the East/West conundrum. When Kipling said that never the twain shall meet, he hadn't seen "Return," which is an honest and often riveting account of a young Anglo-Iraqi woman's attempt at piercing the veil of misunderstanding that exists between her two countries.
"Return" is also emblematic of London's growing importance as a center for Arab diaspora theater - a fertile ground for exploring the Arab world's relationship with the West, often through the filter of the second-generation experience.
The play that Mousawi wrote (in collaboration with the cast and director) and stars in recounts her journey back to Baghdad, where she was born and raised by an English mother and Iraqi father, and lived until the family fled in the 80s when Iranian missiles rained down on the Iraqi capital during the lengthy war between the two countries.
Traveling in late 2010 to Iraq, as well as to Syria and Jordan (both of which have significant Iraqi refugee populations), Mousawi chose to focus on the experience of women as part of an effort to capture the reality of life in post-invasion Iraq.
"When it comes to war, power and politics," says the slight, dark-haired Mousawi, who looks younger than her 33 years, "it's more often than not the men's stories and the Western experience of involvement in Iraq that is depicted in the media. I wanted to discover what impact war and occupation has had on Iraqi women's lives."
And so she did: The play that she ended up writing integrates more than 40 interviews she conducted, with everyone from refugees in Jordan - who recounted horror stories of Islamist militias issuing and carrying through on death threats against female students at the University of Baghdad - to the indefatigable Hana Adwar, head of the Iraqi NGO Al-Amal, who successfully fought for the establishment of a quota setting aside 25 percent of the seats in parliament for women.
Mousawi was also in Iraq at the beginning of the so-called Arab Spring, early last year, and while the ongoing protests in Iraq against its tyrannical and corrupt post-invasion regime have gone largely undocumented by Western media, "Return" honors the memory a young woman human rights activist, "disappeared" one day by armed men.
Despite the poignancy of these stories, it is the details of Mousawi's own journey, and the narratives of her English mother and grandmother, that prove the most memorable. The personal is the political in this piece of theater, where her own memories as well as actual conversations with her family - about life in Saddam Hussein-era Baghdad, or her Bradford-born grandmother's recollections of her first impressions of her Iraqi son-in-law - form the dramatic narrative.
The play, skillfully shaped from Mousawi's transcripts by the talented young Anglo-Asian director Poonam Brah, uses text and video to great effect, projecting onto a screen some of Mousawi's own Facebook messages to her mother from the time of her travels, as well as using the young, multiracial and all-female cast as walking billboards for texts about Iraq's hardscrabble, post-war conditions - viscerally portraying the physicality of the experience.
Despite the serious subject matter, Mousawi (who also stars in a current UK production, "Rest Upon the Wind," about the life of Khalil Gibran ) employs generous amounts of humor: In one scene, a reenactment of a discussion with her right-wing American airplane seatmate, about the "benefits" of post-invasion "liberation," the word "dickhead" is projected onto a screen as playful subtext, followed by another reading, "This actually happened."
The character of her maternal grandmother - with her salty Northern English humor (a joke about porridge and nipples is unforgettable ) - plays off nicely against the jokes told by Iraqi women, creating a sense of survivalist solidarity that transcends geography and culture.
The personal and the political are interwoven in a different way in Hassan Abdulrazzak's "The Prophet," that just ended a successful run at the Gate Theater in Notting Hill.
Like Mousawi, Abdulrazzak is also in his 30s, and his Iraqi-born parents also emigrated to the United Kingdom when he was a child. But this is his second play - his first, "Baghdad Wedding," was a West End wonder when it opened to critical acclaim in 2007. Like "Return," "Baghdad Wedding" also challenged stereotypes about the Arab world. Its hard-drinking protagonist - a bisexual doctor - found himself kidnapped by insurgents and then held indefinitely by American troops - under suspicion by "both sides" while actually representing, in a sense, Iraq's disappearing secular society.
In "The Prophet," Abdulrazzak turns his gaze to the "Egyptian Spring," and pits the story of a young novelist and his wife against the backdrop of events unfolding in Tahrir Square in early 2011. While the timing of the play gives it political relevance, the current Islamist victory and military muscle-flexing also infuses the lead characters' secular idealism with a sobering sense of hindsight.
Like Mousawi, Abdulrazzak actually traveled to the region, in his case to Egypt (together with director Christopher Haydon ), and interviewed activists and ordinary citizens. Although some video footage is employed, his technique is less documentarian than Mousawi's - it feels rather literary, at times more novel than play - mirroring perhaps the protagonist's profession.
In a memorable monologue, the novelist's wife, Layla (played convincingly by Anglo-Indian actress Sasha Behar ), weaves together some of the collected stories and makes a passionate plea for national unity in Egypt, one that transcends class and religion. As she recounts being taken in and fed, along with a group of fellow middle-class protestors, by inhabitants of a Cairo slum, she muses on the lives of the working class women she meets - and for one shining moment, their worlds happily collide.
Abdulrazzak's script is witty and fast-paced. Layla, an engineer at the communications company Vodafone - a nod to technology's key role in the Egyptian Spring - is told by her boss, Hani, "This is a Western company. Things like freedom, democracy and equality, they come with our company like Nokia accessories." A few seconds later, he instructs Layla to cut off the network on orders by the government.
The character of Suzanne, a villainous half-Egyptian, half-English literary agent, seduces the novelist Hisham with promises of a contract, saying, with arch, ironic understatement, "Our London branch is looking for talent from the Middle East. This is a departure. Usually when we seek foreign writers, we skip over the Arabs and look for them in South America, Japan or Eastern Europe. But things are changing. There is recognition that it is not good to continue ignoring this area. That the things we ignore have a habit of popping up later, when we least expect them to, armed with sharp teeth ready to bite us."
Indeed, "The Prophet" as a whole explores the often troubled relationship between the West and the Middle East. Layla says to Hisham of Suzanne: "She's a hybrid. I don't trust hybrids .... Half English, half Egyptian ... doesn't even speak proper Arabic and to top it all she has the same name as Mubarak's wife ... Suzanne. Yuck."
And in a witty exchange, she accuses her husband of having a "complex," believing that, "everything Western is so wonderful. Everything Egyptian is sh--."
To which Hisham replies, "Is there anyone that doesn't think that?"
Egyptian complexes aside, there is great promise in this new type of "hybrid" - Anglo-Arab theater being born in London. Middle Eastern experience, Western wit, Arab humor and tumultuous current events conspire to create a new theater that is relevant, significant, even urgent.
The male lead of Abdulrazzak's play, Nitzan Sharron, is an Israeli. (He also starred in "Baghdad Wedding." )
"I remember when we first did the casting [for "Baghdad Wedding]," recalled a thoughtful Abdulrazzak. "The director thought he was perfect for the part, but I had reservations about casting an Israeli."
But the director told him, "Look, he comes from a left-wing, liberal family. Would you want someone not to hire you because they thought you were a Baathist?"
Luckily for their ongoing artistic collaborations, Abdulrazzak soon saw the logic in this argument. And London's theater scene is all the richer for it.
Hadani Ditmars is the author of "Dancing in the No Fly Zone: a Woman's Journey Through Iraq," (Haus Publishing). Her website is hadaniditmars.com.