Iraqi playwright is free to explore motif of East and West
BAGHDAD, Iraq – When Saddam Hussein was in power, Adil Kadhim would rise at 6 each morning in his cramped apartment, set a pot of water on the stove for tea, and begin writing.His work, like that of all authors, had to pass regime censors. One of his television series was an allegory about power, and made it to the screen by being set in 1950s Baghdad rather than in the later Baathist era. A TV movie sang the praises of the Iraqi army, and another script used Julius Caesar rather than Saddam to describe the life of a dictator. These innocuous and popular shows made Kadhim the best-known theatrical writer in Iraq.But the work dearest to his heart he stuffed into drawers. Much of it drew together figures from East and West, a motif viewed with suspicion by the regime. In one play, he puts on trial several notorious figures, including Adolf Hitler and Osama bin Laden, who in the name of “purifying” humanity commit heinous acts. In another, an Iraqi woman who murders her husband shares a prison cell with two heroines of Greek tragedy, Electra and Antigone, and the three discuss the men who led to their ruin.Occasionally, a foreign director visiting Iraq would see a draft and take it out of the country to produce. But Kadhim was careful not to seek attention from outsiders. In Saddam’s Iraq, too much notice was dangerous. He had spent time in prison as a young man and his brother was kidnapped by Saddam’s secret police and never seen again. For Kadhim, who has a wife and two daughters, survival trumped art.Now, with Saddam himself in prison, Kadhim, 64, no longer needs to smuggle his writing out of the country. In the last two years he has written full-length plays on previously forbidden subjects, including the Iraq-Iran war, the repression of women in rural Arab society, and the U.S.-led invasion and continued military presence.Although the plays have yet to find a stage in strife-torn Baghdad, Kadhim’s artistic mission offers hope for a more open Iraqi society. In his writing he seeks to confront the unhappy chapters of Iraq’s past. He also links Iraqis to a time when the elite class was conversant with both Arabic and Western thought – threatened by neither, curious about both. Kadhim’s belief that literature and myth speak across cultures could show the way for Iraqis once again to reach out to the world.Kadhim’s small living room is lined with books, most of them Arabic and Persian classics, but also volumes by Bertolt Brecht, Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw, all of whom had used theater to critique their societies.Kadhim makes his living writing television pieces, mostly uncontroversial narratives of Iraq’s Islamic and pre-Islamic history. But he recently began discussions with Baghdad-based Rafidain satellite channel to produce a 30-part series whose very setting would have been unthinkable under Saddam – the country’s southern marshes. Saddam drained the marshes to punish Shiite residents whom he believed were helping Iran during the Iraq-Iran 1980-1988 war. The series’ heroine is a girl who defies tribal customs to become a doctor. Her father is murdered, but she does not seek revenge. Instead she returns to her village to build a school.”I am looking at Iraq as a woman vulnerable to everybody, filled with grief,” he said. “The women, whether they be Arabs or Kurds, Shiites or Sunnis, they have all been oppressed and they have all suffered, they have lost their children, lost their husbands and their brothers and yet they are the ones who are ready to forgive.”Kadhim grew up in Basra, Iraq’s second largest city, a port where cultures have mixed for centuries.His father was a teacher who also worked as a carpenter. Even before he went to university, Kadhim was thrown into prison, falsely accused of being a communist. The experience was a harbinger of the hard days to come under Saddam, when every word would be scrutinized for disloyalty.Released after 10 months, he went on to study theater and comparative literature at the University of Baghdad and was riveted by the similarities between the archetypal stories of the East and the West.”I saw how each religion copied other religions. The Babylonians who tell of the flood in the story of Gilgamesh are also telling of Noah’s flood,” he said.Soon after he graduated, he went to work for the Ministry of Youth and began writing plays. One of his first was “The Flood,” an adaptation of Gilgamesh’s story, which is Iraq’s national epic. He also began to work on Arabic adaptations of international literature. For a number of years, his life was relatively peaceful, but as for many Iraqis, the years of the Iraq-Iran war left an indelible scar.When the first bombs dropped in Iran in 1980, his younger brother, Maher, was studying theater in Paris. The war meant Kadhim’s family could no longer support him abroad and Maher returned. Because all able-bodied men had to do military service and he was afraid of being punished for returning late, Kadhim’s brother hid at relatives’ houses and in the homes of friends, trying to avoid the Mukhabarat – Iraq’s secret police.One night in 1983 they caught up with him, taking him away.”We searched for years for him. We went to the security general directorate asking about him, they did not tell us anything,” Kadhim said.”Five years after he was captured they brought us a death certificate saying that he was judged and executed. I was in great grief, but we could not show it because Hussein’s spies considered it a betrayal. Because my brother was executed, they did not allow us to hold a (funeral) ceremony for him.”After the regime fell, Kadhim obtained the official files that recorded how his brother had died: “They had put explosives in his pocket and blew him up. He was 24 years old.”With his brother labeled a traitor, Kadhim’s own work came under increased scrutiny. One play he wrote about 17th-century Baghdad drew attention because he had the Ottoman rulers fleeing the city ahead of the bubonic plague. “So the censors said: `What do you mean the Ottoman rulers ran away?”‘ The censors allowed the play to remain in performance, but Kadhim was not so lucky with another work, “The Baghdadi Coal Circle.”Saddam’s vice president, Taha Yassin Ramadan, thought it was critical of the regime and ordered it to be closed down. “It talked about a king that lived in a castle and had a luxury life and did not care about what was happening to the people around him,” Kadhim said with a wry smile.”There was no writing that was not censored in Hussein’s time, even the work of those poets, writers and artists that praised him. If they made a little mistake, their fate was death,” he said.”As a writer I had the feeling I was always walking on a circus rope, if I fell I would die, but if I were to continue I would be unbalanced. My mind pulled me first one way and then the other.”Often in his small first-floor apartment, he turned to his books. In Western literature, he read those authors who wrote about the voiceless, the silenced and the martyred, and about the devastation of war. A favorite was Brecht, whose “The Life of Galileo” describes the Catholic Church’s persecution of the famous astronomer for his belief that the Earth orbited the sun.Another well-thumbed volume is Orson Welles’ screenplay of “The Trial” – Franz Kafka’s tale of a man accused of an unnamed crime, whose plea that he is guiltless goes unheard. Another is Shaw’s comedy, “Heartbreak House,” about a family on the eve of World War I.Now, Kadhim has turned to inventing his own heroic figures. The play he has just finished writing, one that he started years ago and stuffed into a drawer, takes a classic story and reshapes it to illuminate Iraq’s latest trauma: the American invasion that echoes so many others in this ancient land.The play adapts the legend of Don Juan, bringing him together with three other characters from East and West, past and present: Abu Nuwas, a Muslim poet of the 8th and 9th century, known for his romantic writing; a present day Iraqi soldier, who is an uneducated everyman; and the ancient Greek mythological figure Pygmalion, who fell in love with a statue he carved of a beautiful woman and wished it would come to life.In Kadhim’s play, the four men fall in love with the same woman. Each man sees her as the center of his life. In the second act the beautiful woman is pregnant and about to deliver a child.”She begins to scream in everyone’s face … all the men try to help her deliver the infant. But to what does she give birth? She gives birth to soldiers’ helmets: first a German soldier’s helmet with a swastika, the second helmet is British with a British flag from the time that they ruled Iraq and then the old helmet of the Roman empire, and then another helmet with an American flag and then one with the Iraqi flag,” Kadhim said.”She is giving birth to helmets which are symbols of war, as if this beautiful woman was not there for love, but to create war.”In all my recent stories, both the attacker and the people attacked are living the tragedy of war and are trapped. The American soldier is here for months, he dreams of going back to his family. And also the Iraqi people wish the Americans would leave them – so in a way they are dreaming the same dream,” Kadhim said.