Iraq’s new Theater Festival signals an end to Baghdad’s cultural isolation, despite security and censorship hurdles that remain from the past few decades.

The first Baghdad International Theater Festival, held October 22-30 at the city’s recently renovated National Theater, where Iraqi performances were shown alongside plays from Europe and the Middle East and North Africa, signals an end to Baghdad’s cultural isolation, despite remaining security and censorship hurdles of the past few decades. 

Although one may be tempted to forget it when watching award-winning theater, the threat of attack on a symbolic cultural institution is still real. In November 2008, a car bomb struck outside the National Theater, killing five. A month before that, bombers had shaken the building just hours ahead of an opening performance, which went ahead undeterred with a packed audience. Throughout the eight-day festival, there was a heavy security presence around the theater and surrounding streets in the downtown Karrada neighborhood, and festivalgoers from the general public were searched before entering the 800-seat playhouse. Despite the potential for attacks, crowds were resolute to see the curtain go up. As 23-year old Murtada said, “many of us are not afraid of the bombs anymore.” He continued, “I mean maybe we are a little bit, but there’s something inside of us that tells us to go to the festival because art is stronger than anything else.” (As recently as November 17, Murtada narrowly missed a bombing outside a restaurant near the National Theater that injured at least seven.)

Qasim Zaidan, General Manger of Muntada Al Masrah theater (which works with the National Theater) and the festival’s secretary, said the event is about “welcoming the world to Baghdad and opening its stage to something beautiful”—in stark contrast to the city’s more common image of seemingly endless carnage and mourning. In fact, the theater festival was one of the few international events in Iraq aimed at breaking the city’s cultural isolation, and it brought guests from across the Middle East and North Africa, as well as a smaller number from Europe and the Iraqi diaspora. Undeterred by the potential for violence, the general public thronged outside the theater each day, waiting to get in. Performances were packed with overflow crowds that stood alongside the building walls. Zaidan worked on the festival’s international program with Hella Mewis, an independent cultural producer from Germany who’s also developed her own theater project for Iraq. STAMBA, as it’s called, premiered its four theater plays by directors from Egypt, Germany, France, and Iraq directly after the Baghdad festival. The performances, which dealt with the issue of clichés, were held at a separate theater and are intended to go on tour.

Mewis, who also represents Germany’s Goethe-Institut in Baghdad, says the plays are more provocative than ever, thanks to an opening cultural space and Iraqis’ hunger for cultural events. “There are more performances now that are socially critical and deal with family issues. This wasn’t possible even three years ago. Slowly, people are talking about these topics.” During the 1970s and 80s, with many Iraqi artists finishing their education abroad, collaboration was at its height between the Iraqi theater and companies in Russia, West Germany and Britain. U.N. sanctions following the Persian Gulf War and events after 2003 ended such exchanges, however, plunging Iraq into a kind of cultural isolation. The use of art as propaganda and the silencing of critical pieces under Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party also closed doors to independent theater productions. Actor-director Fadhil Abbas Al Yahia, who regularly performs at the National Theater, recalls a performance staged in 1992 that was critical of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and militarism; as a result, “The director was intimidated for the performance. . . . There was a critical mixture in art at that time, but you couldn’t criticize Saddam with a loud voice. If you did, they would find you.” 

Following the 2003 invasion, Iraqi theater faced a new hurdle. Amid the security vacuum, Al Yahia and his fellow artists went to defend the theater from looters, staying there for a time and smuggling out its archive to safety in a nearby church. “American military forces were everywhere,” Al Yahia remembers. “We artists were begging the soldiers to help us protect the history of the National Theater because we couldn’t do it ourselves. We were black with dust as we carried out thousands of folders from the theater.” While trying to safeguard the archive, the artists themselves were confused for looters by US soldiers, who briefly arrested them. “We were in handcuffs and had to explain to this colonel that we were trying to save our theater,” he recalls. “So much has been destroyed here. As artists, we must be sensitive to our responsibility to help Iraq and each other.” Reopened for evening shows back in October 2009 for the first time since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, the National Theater now regularly stages comedy and theater plays alongside performances by the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra.

Today, although Iraq is ranked as in a “difficult situation” in terms of press freedom by Reporters Without Borders, theater provides an avenue to discuss topics outside of the media through characters and symbols. Iranian Farin Zahedi, who sat on the festival’s international jury, says, “The city’s upside down, but their theater is really great. They know how to reflect on the situation they’re in and express themselves.”

For Zahedi, two Iraqi plays especially stood out. Scolding, a play that deals indirectly with events in the country since 2003, is noteworthy for its composition. “You could see the feeling of invasion with the flies swarming around,” says Zahedi. “The protest that they [Iraqis] never had the opportunity to have was right there on the stage. There was even the leash from Abu Ghraib. This is a way to use theater to powerfully express your circumstances and that’s something we should respect.”

The festival awards for best director and best female actor went to another Iraqi play, Camp—a postmodern production that reflects on the emotional rollercoaster that Iraqis experience daily, from fear and love to secrecy and isolation. “It was like playing a piece of composed music in terms of rhythm and teamwork,” explains Zahedi. “The characters are not finished characters, rather they show their emotion through different situations where doors open and close, and that the audience can really feel.”

In Iraq, where many young people say they don’t follow politics, which they feel is irrelevant to their daily lives and concerns, the stage is not only entertainment, but also a space to reflect and find their voice. More than the plays themselves, it is their growing audience that reflects Iraq’s opening artistic space. “Without the audience there is no theater,” says Jessica Qawa from Uganda, another member of the jury. “In countries that are suffering from a lack of education or trauma, theater makes it possible to communicate and build something.” 

“I’m very optimistic about the future of theater in Iraq,” says Zaidan, already at work planning future festivals and international activities with young troupes he supervises. “I want to use my post to really develop something new.”

Angela Boskovitch is a Cairo-based writer, researcher, and cultural producer.

Correction: An earlier version of this article identified Qasim Zaidan as the director of the National Theater.