Finally, All the World Can Be His Stage
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 television movie sang the praises of the Iraqi army, and another script used Julius Caesar rather than Hussein to describe the life of a dictator. These innocuous and popular shows made Kadhim one of the best-known theatrical writers 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 put 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 murdered 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 Hussein’s Iraq, too much notice was dangerous. He had spent time in prison as a young man, and his brother was kidnapped by Hussein’s secret police and never seen again. For Kadhim, who has a wife and two daughters, survival trumped art.
Now, with Hussein 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 that take on previously forbidden subjects, including the Iraq-Iran war and the repression of women in rural Arab society, as well as current events, such as 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 was conversant with both Arab 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.
It was that worldliness that most struck me on my first meeting with Kadhim.
His small living room was 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. We started talking about his work as a propagandist, but ranged more widely. Night fell, it was dangerous for me to stay, and I gathered my things, promising to return.
As I stood at the door, he asked if next time I could bring him a copy of the collected plays of an American author, one of whose works he had read in an Arabic translation. He recalled its title as “The End of the Merchant.” I was mystified; then he added, “You know, the playwright who was married to Marilyn Monroe.” On my next visit, I brought Kadhim the collected works of Arthur Miller -- including “The End of the Merchant,” better known as “Death of a Salesman.”
Writing for TV
Kadhim still makes his living writing television pieces, mostly uncontroversial narratives of Iraq’s Islamic and pre-Islamic history. But he recently began discussions with the Baghdad-based Rafidain satellite channel to produce a 30-part series whose setting would have been unthinkable under Hussein.
The series would take place in the country’s southern marshes, after Hussein drained them to punish Shiite residents who he believed were helping Iran during the Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s. Its heroine is a girl who defies tribal custom 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,” he said.
These charged topics are a far cry from what Kadhim was forced to do under Hussein.
In one case, he was compelled to transform one of his antiwar short stories into a glorification of the Iraqi army.
“In the original story, I told of a little boy of 3 or 4 years old. His whole village, in a mountain valley, was killed in the Iraq-Iran war but he survived and ... was raised by wolves.
“Both sides of the valley were planted with land mines, because both the Iraqis and the Iranians were trying to protect their territory. But this little boy knew the location of the land mines, so he destroyed them by throwing stones at them so that they wouldn’t kill the wolves....
“All day long the Iraqi and Iranian helicopters were growling up and down the valley. And both ... saw the child as their enemy because he was detonating the land mines they had set up to protect themselves.
“I wanted to concentrate on this symbolism -- that even the wolves rejected the state of war. And the valley was the property of the wolves, it was their nation.”
Hussein’s regime had something else in mind. The government wanted a movie about a boy who becomes an orphan when the Iranian army raids his border village. He survives in the company of wild animals until an Iraqi army unit finds him and adopts him as a mascot.
Kadhim looked away as he spoke. “They made me adapt my story to
The story’s original version was never published. It remains as relevant as ever, Kadhim believes, because it reaches across the East-West divide.
Versions of the story date to the 12th century in North Africa and Persia, he said, and “you in the West have this story too: In Roman mythology, the twins, Romulus and [Remus] are raised by wolves and then they found the city of Rome.”
Seeing the Similarities
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 Hussein, 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 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.
Loss of a Brother
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 eventually returned. Because all ablebodied 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 its operatives 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,” he said softly.
With his brother counted as 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.”
Hussein’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 increasingly 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 world 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: an American invasion that echoes so many others in this ancient land.
‘Tragedy of War’
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.
“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.
Times staff writer Zainab Hussein contributed to this report.