Shahid Nadeem, Dr. Waleed Shamil Hussein and Amir Al-Azraki
Important Artists from Pakistan and Iraq Visit America
Shahid Nadeem, Dr. Waleed Shamil Hussein and Amir Al-Azraki
August 1, 2011
Sponsored by Theatre Without Borders in partnership with Golden Thread Productions, in collaboration with ArteEast and Hybrid Theatre Works, supported in part by the U.S. Consulate General in Lahore, Pakistan, they attended the recent TCG Conference in Los Angeles, a Staged Reading of their work followed by a panel discussion was presented in New York City at Barrow Group’s Theatre, and visited Washington, D.C. to meet with artists and organizations.
We had the privilege to talk with the Shahid Nadeem, Dr. Waleed Shamil Hussein, and Amir Al-Azraki while they were in New York City.
Shahid Nadeem is Pakistan’s leading playwright and director. As Executive Director, founder and playwright of Ajoka Theatre based in Lahore, the theater remains committed to human rights and peace. Ajoka Theatre has been part of the struggle for a secular, democratic just, humane and egalitarian Pakistan for the last 25 years. Beginning as a small group of cultural activists in 1983, during General Zia-ul-Haq’s politically and culturally repressive regime, they have continued with determination against very heavy odds, including arrest and imprisonment of Mr. Nadeem and other Ajoka artists. Ajoka regularly collaborates with cultural organizations and organizes an annual Panjpani Indo-Pak Theatre Festival. Holding theater training workshops, they also have a Children’s Theatre, producing children’s plays and collaborated with Indian children on a play about peace, “Border Border,” which was performed in both countries.
Mr. Nadeem has written more than 35 plays, including “Niki, “Maikoon Kaari Karainday Ni Mai” (a play on honor killing), “Bulha,” and “River of Sorrow,” which have been performed in Pakistan, India, United States, England, Norway, Bangladesh, Nepal, Iran, and Oman. He has written several adaptations, films, was co- director of Panjpaani Indo-Pak Theatre Festival, which pioneered interaction between theatre activists of India and Pakistan; recipient of the Feuchtwanger/Getty fellowship, and has lectured at American universities.
He told us: “In Pakistan, Ajoka theatre was in conflict with the political regime almost immediately, and from 1989, we had no access to normal auditoriums. We performed as a clandestine group, performing in one place secretly, informing our audiences. By the time several agencies found out where we were, we moved somewhere else. When we had access to the German Cultural Institute we were able to rehearse. In ’88 when democracy was restored in Pakistan, we had considerable freedom, but censorship remained. It was not as strict as under the dictatorship but certainly when it comes to the ideology of Pakistan, as defined by the establishment of opposing Islamic teachings or some concept of morality many things were banned, including dancing by women on stage. Obviously it remains a big issue today. We have significant amounts of freedom of expression in theatre today. The government controls the theatre organizations. We do not have a great deal of support. We have to pay for facilities. We have to submit our work to the censorship policies.
He talked about his play, “Burkavahanza,” which he also directed. A musical extravaganza, full of song and comedy, the play is a love story in the time of jihad, and was first performed in 2007.
“The Government banned the play at the last minute and told us we had to do another play. We rehearsed another play and at the last minute, we performed “Burkavahanza.” It created quite a fuss. The controversy went to the National Assembly, but eventually the government backed off. It has been translated into English and has toured all over India. The play explores burqa as a dramatic attire, but the title is also a metaphor. We hide a lot; we cover up individual and collective ugliness under ideological or patriotic burqas. The play is a love story in the time of jihad.”
I asked Mr. Nadeem what he’s learned by being here. “In general terms, the most valuable thing I have learned is not only about the commitment and creativity it takes to be an artist here but how important it is to be organized; this is not something normally associated with artists. An artist is expected to be confused, totally engrossed in his own art. But theater can’t happen unless you are organized. In terms of the mere scale of the theatre community, it was most striking to see the more than a thousand participants in Los Angeles attending the TCG Conference. It was exciting to be a part of such a huge congregation. We were very warmly received; it was a great experience seeing the people from all over the world.”
I asked: “What led you to want to make theatre?”
“Actually I wanted to change the world,” he replied. “It was at the same time, in the late 1960’s when students were asserting themselves, and we were getting inspiration from the stories of students in France, Germany, the U.K., Berkeley, so I realized to change the world you have the change the mindset, the attitudes of people, the cultural ambiance. I gradually moved to writing short stories and plays but I have always been an activist. I became a socially, politically-conscious playwright, writing plays about the situations I saw, the social injustices in society. Even if the play is a comedy or a period piece, it has a social relevance.
“I knew Vijay Tendulkar,” I told Mr. Nadeem. (He had been India’s foremost playwright). I continued: “When Mr. Tendulkar came to New York City twice, I had arranged an evening of his work to be performed at The Players, interviewed him, had performed part of my play as Harold Clurman, which he liked very much, and I have had his essays in this Newspaper.”
Mr. Nadeem shared with us: “I shared a forum at the Lark Theatre in 2004 with Tendulkar. There was a play reading of my play, and a lively discussion with Tendulkar and myself afterwards. We have a lot of interaction with Indian people; its part of our manifesto with India, to promote peace between India and Pakistan despite the hostilities from governments. In situations, we’ve maintained contact, sometimes having to go to huge expense just to get to India. When there was no direct communication between our governments, in order to meet, we had to fly to Dubai to get to Delhi. And Delhi is very close to Lahore. It is important that we share language, culture, history and heroes.
I asked: “Did you have an artistic relationship with Iraq?”
“Now we do; we have spent so much time together on this trip. We knew about the theatre and culture in Iraq, that it was strong before the U.S. invasion. Our impression was Iraq was a secular society with very strong cultural centers in their major cities, but we didn’t have a relationship under Hussein’s dictatorship. Now we have a very positive relationship.”
I spoke with Dr. Waleed Shamil Hussein of Baghdad. Assistant Professor at the Department of Theater Arts at the College of Fine Arts at Baghdad University since 1992, he had been in the United States before when he received his Ph.D in Theatre Arts from the University of California in Los Angeles. He told us what it meant to him to return after 23 years. During 2003-2005, he had been head of the Department of Theater Arts at the College of Fine Arts at Baghdad University. Currently he supervises productions, directs plays, and teaches several courses. As an actor, he has appeared on Iraqi T.V. including the series, “Alfarashat.” Author of several papers on theatre arts in Iraq and Egypt, he is currently a member of the Iraqi Artist Union, a modern theatre laboratory group.
“How young were you when you became interested in theater,” I asked.
“I think when I was in primary school. I was very interested in doing theater, but I didn’t until I did a lead part in a small play when I entered the University. I went to the University of Fine Arts, and then I came to the U.S. to finish my Masters Degree. My project was to translate plays by Yusef Lalani, of our most important writers.
I translated three of his plays in America. When I returned in late ‘88, I directly became a member of the staff in the Department of Theatre, and began teaching acting, play analysis, classes in English, even though the students didn’t speak English.
“What did it feel like returning to California?”
“It was beautiful. It was 23 years ago, and so much has happened. When I was here before I did “Oklahoma,” and was also directing, and we did “Little Mary Sunshine” at UCLA. At that time I was also confronted by people. Now they accepted me. I was speaking English, and we had beautiful communication. I met with the actress, Heather Raffo and saw her play, “Nine Parts of Desire.” I hope we can bring it to Iraq. There was a reading of my plays at the Levantine Center. I shared with the audience and those at the TCG Conference about the current theatrical scene in Iraq, how the war has affected the productions of plays, that our theatre people invented street theatre because the theaters had been bombed and destroyed. They had to give expression about the current social political situation to those around them. In 2009 I asked the Americans there to help rebuild our theater, and today we have a beautiful theater where we put on many productions.”
I asked the artists: “Does censorship still remain in the theater today?”
Mr. Nadeem told us: “Obviously it remains a big issue today in Pakistan. We have significant amounts of freedom of expression in theatre. But the government controls the theatre organizations, and we still do not have a great deal of support. We have to pay for facilities. There were censorship policies. We had to submit the script of the play we were going to do, and when certain things were objected to, we omitted them. But we rehearsed a different script. When we perform it, the authorities realized it and sent monitors to check on the script. Then they would videotape the performance to compare the performance with the script.”
Mr. Al-Azraki said: “I had submitted a different version of one of my plays to the censor. When I did the play, afterwards the manager came to me: “A lot of the scenes you did were not in the play you gave us.” I was silent. The scenes had criticized the government. “You cheated me. I can get into trouble. I will not allow any of your plays to be produced again.”
“What is it like today in Iraq?” I asked.
Dr. Hussein offered: “Now there is a different kind of freedom of expression, but there is still a form of censorship. Then it was by the government, now it can by religious leaders, or factions so it can be worse than during the time of Saadam time. The major threat we’re facing comes from the extremist groups. You can’t have a dialogue with them. They just attack, without any warming, sending anonymous threats, shooting at actors, forcing some of them to leave an area. The threat is very real, it is a very serious threat to the freedom of expression. In the past you knew who your enemy was, now we don’t know.
Theatre in Iraq today is more diverse than simply agit-prop theatre, nationalist theatre. On the other side, there are theatrically experimental productions, satires addressing the audience, so that now we have different Iraqi theater which is a leading inspiring experiment, a leading example in the Arab world.”
Amir Al-Azraki is a poet, performer and playwright, and currently working on his dissertation “The Representation of Political Violence in Contemporary Plays About Iraq” as a Ph.D candidate in Theatre Studies at York University in Toronto. His plays include “Lysistrata in Iraq” and “Waiting for Gilgamesh: Scenes from Iraq.” During the first years of the Iraq War in 2003-2006, Mr. Al-Azraki worked as a translator for The New York Times and The Dallas Morning News, Al Mirbad TV and Radio for BBC World Service Trust. For the past five years, Mr. Al-Azraki has taught modern and Western Drama at York University, continuing to develop a collaboration between the University of Basra, the Central School of Speech and Drama, and the University of London.
I asked Mr. Al-Azraki: “How it turned out he would study in Canada?”
“I’m a teacher of drama in Basra at the university, teaching drama,” and with the theatre department of theatre in Arabic. The Iraqi government chooses for every Ph.D candidate a certain country. For me it was Canada. Toronto is an international theater city with international productions so I’m able to take students to see many shows. One of the most fantastic plays I’ve seen is “Oh, What a Lovely War!” Theatrically and dramatically speaking, it is powerful and relevant to me, especially after the 2003 war, and how it addresses about the First World War.”
“Did you begin writing plays or poetry?”
“I began writing poems, and I couldn’t show my writing; there were a lot of taboos. After the fall of Saadam, I wrote as a professional but it was still very dangerous, very risky. In Canada, I was able to show my poems to a professor, and was able to work with renowned Robert Fathergill, the playwright. He gave me feedback, and actually worked with him very closely to write my plays. He has written a number of plays and I was influenced by his advice. Another of my influences was Beckett. I studied Becket when I was an undergraduate; I love Becket. The characters are in a situation that is absurd. It is very much the same conditions we have because of the wars; it’s the absurdity. I also was influenced by Brecht, Shakespeare, classical drama like Oedipus Antigone.
“What was the situation in Iraq like for you, and what are most of the plays about today?”
“We maintain ourselves, living in violent conditions, under dangerous circumstances. The themes of plays are mainly about violence. Most of the playwrights write dramatic tragedies, about the suffering of the Iraqi people during the invasion and after the invasion. These are traumatic situations, but instead of exploring them as much, they reflect it. After the 2003, we became more isolated than during the Saadam period. But since then, Iraqi playwrights have become much more aware of the world’s styles. They have learned from experimenting. I encourage my students to collaborate and see how they can deal with their situations through the theatre.
I like writing comedies, satires –they can be very political and touch on important issues. I attack for the purpose of political engagement, but with laughter, while making the audience think. When I go back, I will teach at the University of Basra, and also at the Theatre Department in Arabic. The students in Iraq are eager to make theater, to share their passions, their knowledge with as many people as possible.”
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