Break­ing new ground in Iraq

Lesotho Times - - International -

BAGHDAD — Ha­neen, who has spent most of her life in or­phan­ages, says she used to stay weeks locked up in her­self, aim­lessly eat­ing, watch­ing TV and sleep­ing through each day.

Last week, the 13-year-old Iraqi girl was beam­ing with joy and ex­cite­ment when the crowd at a Baghdad theatre gave her and her friends a rous­ing round of ap­plause.

“Now I’m happy. I sing, dance and joke with my friends from the or­phan­age,” she said. “I have changed. Peo­ple are ask­ing me: ‘What hap­pened? Have you gone crazy?.’”

What hap­pened was a project set up by the Ruya Foundation for Con­tem­po­rary Cul­ture in Iraq and aimed at in­tro­duc­ing drama ther­apy in a coun­try where al­most ev­ery­body has suf­fered some kind of trauma.

The play at the Theatre Fo­rum, an edgy arts cen­tre that opened in a beau­ti­ful old build­ing on the banks of the Ti­gris, was the cul­mi­na­tion of a months-long pro­gramme.

Six theatre pro­fes­sion­als were trained in Beirut by Cathar­sis, a drama ther­apy cen­tre led by di­rec­tor Zeina Dac­cache, known for her work with pris­on­ers and mi­grant work­ers in Le­banon.

Bassem Al­tayeb was one of the trainees. He took the lead in help­ing a small group of teenage girls from the Dar al-zuhur or­phan­age in Baghdad put to­gether a play that tack­les the is­sues they face.

Self-es­teem “Each one found some con­fi­dence and self-es­teem, built their char­ac­ter... The script is about the girls say­ing: ‘We too have a right to live, to be pro­tected and have dreams,’” he said.

On stage, one of the girls puts on a old white-haired man’s mask and, in a dis­turb­ing scene filled with doom, takes a young bride still clutch­ing her doll to a nup­tial room.

Lost child­hood, early mar­riage, so­cial in­equal­i­ties: the play tack­led a range of is­sues with a spon­ta­neous mix of hu­mour and gritty blunt­ness.

The young troupe also took a swipe at politi­cians and echoed the de­spair that is driv­ing the coun­try’s youth out of Iraq and onto Europe’s shores, draw­ing hearty laugh­ter but also a few em­bar­rassed chuck­les from the crowd.

“I am proud of them to­day,” said a misty-eyed Iman Has­soon, the or­phan­age’s prin­ci­pal, af­ter the show. “I some­times get men com­ing to the or­phan­age ask­ing to adopt one of the girls,” she said, adding that she al­ways re­fuses be­cause she is afraid they will end up en­slaved as maids or for pros­ti­tu­tion.

“I hope they can use the en­ergy they found with this play to pro­tect them­selves and carve a place of their own in so­ci­ety,” Has­soon said.

‘Dam­aged so­ci­ety’ For decades, Iraqis have been bat­tered in turn by dic­ta­tor­ship, eco­nomic sanc­tions, for­eign and civil con­flicts — some­times sev­eral of those at the same time.

Vi­o­lence con­tin­ues to be om­nipresent with car bomb blasts, images of mas­sacres and be­head­ings sow­ing death and fear across the coun­try, while the chaos has also al­lowed thieves, ex­tor­tion­ists and traf­fick­ers to pros­per.

The drama ther­apy project ex­plores a way of “ad­dress­ing peo­ple and their prob­lems in an ex­tremely dam­aged so­ci­ety such as Iraq, that has ex­pe­ri­enced so much trauma and vi­o­lence,” said Ta­mara Cha­l­abi, chair of the Ruya Foundation.

“Iraq is a so­ci­ety for men, not re­ally for women... Th­ese girls are par­tic­u­larly vul­ner­a­ble,” added Fu­rat al-jamil, an IraqiGer­man artist who also works with Ruya.

“The first time Ruya Foundation vis­ited the or­phan­age, the girls were very shy, they were hid­ing, all of them wore scarves. Now you see them... lib­er­ated from a lot of in­hi­bi­tions,” Jamil said.

Af­ter the play, the girls them­selves could hardly be­lieve their own trans­for­ma­tion. Ruqayyeh, an el­fish 13-year-old who played the child bride, burst into tears when the lights came back on and the au­di­ence stood up to clap.

“I had al­ways dreamt of be­ing an ac­tress, of be­ing on stage... But I used to be de­pressed and bored, no­body liked hang­ing out with me.

“Now every­thing’s changed and the girls love me.”

Iraqi teen girls are now us­ing theatre to tackle so­cial ills.

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