Imagine: Iraq

By Redwing

Revolutionary Worker #1129, December 2, 2001, posted at

As I made my way through New York's Greenwich Village, something in the night air conjured scenes from one of my favorite films: Reds. "Come to New York," the revolutionary writer, John Reed invites Louise Bryant, in Warren Beatty's tale of love and revolution. It was a time of crisis--World War I raging in Europe, resistance brewing in the U.S., radical immigrant workers being rounded up, and revolution smoldering in Russia. The "Village was a center for controversial artists, and Reed and Bryant were radicals, artists, and in love. "Come to New York...? As what?" Bryant replies, testing Reed's interest. "It's almost Thanksgiving," Reed shrugs. "Come as a turkey." A momentary lightness in a deadly serious situation.

It was the Monday before Thanksgiving, 2001, and I had come into New York City--lured by a contemporary mix of theater and resistance. "Be careful," my friend urged as I left the house--impressed by the boldness of the artists who had undertaken this evening of theater called: "Imagine: Iraq."

Imagine... that in New York City, at this moment of sadness, war, and intense profiling of Middle Eastern people, we were invited to this first staged reading of one-act plays by eight provocative playwrights of the day.

Imagine... that the evening proposed to take us to a place where art and history meet--into the lives and dreams of characters from the bombed cities of Iraq to the Palestine intifada.

Imagine that these artists were brave enough to invite us into the creative process--most of them testing new work on us.

At the Great Hall of Cooper Union (where John Brown and Frederick Douglass spoke in Civil War times) the sounds of horns, drums and strings--blending jazz with Middle Eastern classical music--drifted out the door, courtesy of The Tarab Ensemble. Haunting. Sinuous. Brave.

Produced by the Artists Network of Refuse & Resist! in association with playwright Naomi Wallace, this theater project has been in the making for more than a year. It began with the writing of a short play by Naomi Wallace, originally commissioned by the McCarter Theater. Her piece, The Retreating World, directed by Jeremy Cohen, introduced us to a lyrical Iraqi pigeon collector--whose tale of being forced to sell his prize pigeons for food becomes a metaphor for the situation confronting the people of Iraq.

"I was write a short play on the subject of ghosts," Naomi Wallace recounts. "At the time I was reading an article in the Guardian by John Pilger, called 'Squeezed to Death.' He wrote about the cost of the Iraq embargo on ordinary citizens and how the people there were carrying this great sadness within them because they'd had to sell everything that was precious, just to survive. I began thinking about the cost of a family having to sell all its little pieces of personal history, and that brought up the specter of ghosts, of who is alive and who is dead. A nation's grief, when it's not being seen by the rest of the world, can make a people feel like ghosts."

Wallace and Connie Julian, national coordinator of the Artists Network, began to think about how this story could invite other stories, how it might be possible to create a whole evening of short plays which explore the connections between the people in Iraq, the Middle East, and the people in the West. When they asked other playwrights to contribute their own stories, nearly everyone said yes. Answering the call were Tariq Ali; Kia Corthron; Culture Clash; Reg e. Gaines; Trevor Griffiths; Robert O'Hara; Harold Pinter; and Betty Shamieh.

"I hoped the playwrights would feel the freedom to write for this evening in whatever way the issues touched them," Wallace said. "It's exciting that they came at the project from different angles, with different interests and experiences as writers."

"I see theater as a site for resistance: it's as alive and immediate as the issues the plays deal with."


The press release for Imagine: Iraq noted that "as the artists prepared to take the plays to the stage, the shocking events of September 11 and the war changed everyone's lives, creating a need and possibility for artists to connect with the people in important ways."

As the lights came down, it was hard to find an empty seat in the 960-seat theater. The people just kept coming: students, regular theater-goers (some from as far away as Connecticut and Washington, DC), downtown theater and visual artists, Black folks who had heard about the reading at a student conference in New Jersey where Reg e. Gaines had work-shopped his play the week before; Latino artists responding to news that Culture Clash (the Chicano comedy group from Los Angeles) would be performing new work; hundreds of people from the South Asian and Arab communities. Families arrived with baby carriages and small children played quietly in the back of the hall--shushing each other during the performance. Dozens of artists and writers--including actor Gabriel Byrne, artist Laurie Anderson, comedian Reno, playwright Tony Kushner, director Marion McClinton, writer Russell Banks, and poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti--listed their names to welcome us to the reading.

We all looked around and made a connection--people who had never been together before, gathered in the dark theater, looking for light.

The journey began with Bananas, written by Reg e. Gaines and directed by Savion Glover. Actors Ron Cephas Jones and Otis Youngsmith introduced us to two homeless Black men, Fingers and Snores, working out a 'thang' on a New York park bench. Memories of an Iraqi woman--and a surreal exploration of how the U.S. power structure screws up everything under the sun--tumbled out in a struggle over a newspaper and a green banana.

"As a kid in Jersey City, I'd hustle money to buy wine for homeless men who'd get drunk and tell us stories; I learned so much from them. I was inspired to write it by listening to Vladimir and Estragon and by reading the Pinter play that's on the program. I felt that sparse, extremely abstract language was a good way to communicate....The human ear yearns for rhythm."

Richard Montoya of the satirical performance trio, Culture Clash, stepped on the stage with I'm in Heaven, written by Richard Talavera and Culture Clash. Montoya took off his shoes and knelt down and we were suddenly transported to another place as Muhammad--a Muslim cab driver, who has been shot by a xenophobic American--mused on the demographics of heaven.

Later, in Anthems, written by Richard Montoya and Culture Clash and performed and directed by Montoya, we met an angst-filled Chicano actor in Washington, DC after September 11. Assigned to write an anthem by Ben Bull, a grief counselor in an airport bar, this actor took us on a wild ride, visiting friends in DC and weaving a tale of ghosts from Crazy Horse to Billie Holiday doing "Strange Fruit" at the Apollo, in search of an anthem.

"The generosity of this group of playwrights and activists emboldened me," Montoya wrote about his participation in the project: "hopefully we will embolden other artists and activists to speak out at a time when the tide of patriotism washes over the country.... it's a strange and dangerous time. i feel strange, i don't so much fear another terrorist attack as i fear some of the looks i get at airport bars and gift shops. i'm an American, i have to tell myself, sometimes, i am an artist. i tried to submit two pieces that reflect that inner conflict, that feeling that i am an infiltrader, a chronicler, standing in the midst of waving flags."

Most of the actors were 'on book'--reading from scripts. There were no sets and only a few props. But in our mind's eye we were flown from New York to Iraq, from Washington, DC to Palestine, from prisons to mountain pastures, from park benches to the streets of Iraq.

Kia Corthron's Somnia, directed by Michael John Garcés, took us to a hospital ward in Basra, Iraq where a woman turned strange dreams into fantasies for her children and her younger brother who are suffering under the U.S. sanctions. Kia Corthron expressed the urgency she felt in relating to the project. "When Naomi Wallace offered the opportunity to start a dialogue about these issues, I jumped at the chance. It's certainly intimidating for writers to write about places they haven't been to: it's a leap.... A lot of us think of Iraqis as so different, so completely 'other,' that I felt it might be interesting to write about what happens between mother and children from a universal point of view.

"After 9/11 I felt it was more urgent not to put aside or to delay this project."

Born in Lahore (which was then British India), Tariq Ali was educated in Pakistan and later at Oxford. In Tigris and Euphrates, written by Ali and directed by Jeremy Cohen, we met two Iraqi women who are lovers--a woman whose husband had just died from uranium poisoning and her doctor. "Naomi said, 'Don't make it too didactic, do something sensuous,' " Ali recalled. "I think that people are more interested now in what's going on in that part of the world. They had no idea what U.S. policies were leading to, no idea of the blowback effects from these policies, and September 11 has changed all that."

In Tamam, written, performed, and directed by Palestinian-American playwright Betty Shamieh, we met a Palestinian woman whose brother became a suicide bomber. "Aspects of the narrator's story are based upon the life of a woman I met in Gaza while travelling on a Radcliffe Fellowship," said Shamieh. "I wanted to give the audience a snapshot of a world that many Americans rarely see. I hope to make the audience realize that each person who is killed in Afghanistan or Iraq or anywhere human beings are being turned into 'collateral damage' is as precious to someone as the family, friends, and neighbors that we lost on September 11 are to us. At a time when intellectuals and political commentators of the stature of Susan Sontag and Bill Maher are being vociferously attacked for merely suggesting a dissenting viewpoint, I know many usually courageous and bold artists who are being cowed into silence. As an Arab-American, I don't have that luxury. I think it is incredibly important that artists continue to question the actions of our government at a time when politicians and the media won't."

Camel Station--written by Trevor Griffiths (who co-wrote Reds) and directed by Jeremy Pikser (a consultant on Reds and screenwriter for Bulworth)--took us to the mountain pastures of the northern no-fly zone of Iraq. There, under the threat of U.S. jets, a young shepherd practiced for admission to the Hakawati storytelling school with a biting allegory about Saddam Hussein. "The play is drawn from two things that happened in the last 10 years of my life," Griffith explained. "The first is a joke that I heard in an Arab village in the West Bank, just outside East Jerusalem. I was living there, doing workshops with a group of young Palestinians who wanted to act and work in the theater in their own language.... A young guy coming from Gaza to Amman, looking for a job, had nowhere to stay, so we put him up for the night and stayed up talking and telling jokes. At about two in the morning he began this joke about a camel garage, and it lasted for about 20 minutes and I nearly died from laughing--and this was in translation! So it made a very deep mark, and so did the guy. His name was Atef. I never saw him again, but I certainly owe him for giving me a joyful time in extremely bleak circumstances.

"The other is a documentary I saw about a year ago about the policing of the northern no-fly zone in Iraq by British and American warplanes. It was made by a remarkable Australian documentarist called John Pilger, who was actually traveling in a truck and talking to northern Iraqi pastoralists. It had a lot of images of dead sheep and dead shepherds, including boys and girls and old folks, completely unarmed, who had simply been strafed. It was very difficult to reconcile this with any view of the West as rational and decent. So when Naomi said, 'We're going to do an Imagine: Iraq evening of theater, probably in New York. Would you like to contribute?' I said, 'By God, yes.' That anyone in New York is interested in the situation in Iraq is wondrous in itself."

As the reading unfolded, I was reminded of the scenes in Reds where Eugene O'Neill and other playwrights experimented with new plays in the early days of the Provincetown Playhouse. And it struck me how cool it was to be invited into the artistic process in this way--audience and playwrights together trying on new plays, working them out to take them to a new level.

It is not an easy thing to produce work that relates to the urgent events of the time and has great artistic power. But such works are needed--and wanted--by the people, and this art needs to be tested and developed in the interaction between the artists and audience. So it was pretty daring that these artists invited us in at this moment--to challenge our imaginations and learn from our responses so the work can go to new levels and new audiences.

Between the stories of the people came confrontations with agents of big power terror. Two pieces--American Football and New World Order--written by the internationally renowned Harold Pinter and directed by Connie Grappo, brought the murderous mentality of American dominance to the stage--with a wicked wit. Written at the time of the Gulf War and making its New York debut at this reading, New World Order brought us face-to-face with two maudlin and self-righteous CIA torturers. "What is he, some kind of peasant--or a lecturer in theology," one torturer asks another, standing over a blindfolded prisoner. "He's a lecturer in fucking peasant theology," answers the second torturer.

Pinter has been very outspoken in his opposition to U.S. and British intervention in Iraq and the Balkans. "Most of what we're told is false," Pinter said last spring, before a two-week festival of his plays in New York. "And the truth is, on the whole, hidden and has to be excavated and presented and confronted, all along the line."

Dirt by Robert O'Hara, directed by Damon Kiely, brought us a tense confrontation between an angry geologist who has collected little bags of toxic soil from countries bombed by the U.S. and a political speechwriter, who is being forced to eat this dirt at gunpoint. "My play is not specifically about Iraq, but about America's relationship to the planet and the other people on it. It deals with the language you use when you're in conflict, and Iraq is a part of it.... We live inside this myth that America is the best place to live, that we are the most powerful and most god-loving humans on the planet. It doesn't put us in a good light. I'd like Americans to think about themselves and their country differently."


"I sold my last bird a few days ago," the Iraqi pigeon collector tells us, as the reading draws to a close.

"Tomorrow I will sell the cage. The day after that I will have nothing more to sell. But I keep track of the buyers, and who the buyers sell to. I go to their homes and I ask for the bones. Usually the family is kind, or frightened of me, and they give me the bones after the meal. I boil the bones and keep them in a bucket."


He shakes the bucket, and we hear the rattling of bones.

"It is a kind of music."

"These are the bones of those who have died, from the avenue of palms, from the land of dates. I have come here to give them to you for safekeeping. Catch them. If you can."

Suddenly he throws the contents of the bucket at the audience. Instead of bones, into the air and across the audience spill hundreds of white feathers.

As we step into the night air, refreshed and disturbed, there is a great sense that we are living through historic and dangerous days. War is the vibe; resistance is urgently needed; the future is unwritten. And, as I walk back through the Village night, haunted by the characters we have met, I hope that the artists who have shared this bold experiment with us will finish the important work they have begun.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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