Theater Review: Are the Iraqis “Waiting for Gilgamesh”?
Playwright Amir Al-Azraki is in the camp that believes that the Iraqis themselves bear much of the responsibility for the chaos in their country.
Waiting for Gilgamesh: Scenes from Iraq by Amir Al-Azraki. Directed by Marc S. Miller. Presented by Fort Point Theatre Channel and the Joiner Institute for the Study of War and Social Consequences, and the Odysseus Project and cosponsored by the Center for Arabic Culture, at Arsenal Center for the Arts in Watertown, MA, June 26-28.
by Ian Thal
Fort Point Theatre Channel’s production of Waiting for Gilgamesh: Scenes from Iraq opens with a chorus, accompanied by an instrumental trio led by composer and sound designer Jacques Pardo, singing “Glimpse our recent past. Observe, but do not judge too fast.” American audiences, likely to have very strong opinions about the last 12 years in Iraq, would do well to heed these sentiment. Yes, the chorus notes, judgement may be unavoidable, but one should not prejudge, or hold too fast to past judgements, especially now, with Iraq back in the news.
A Sunni insurgency led by Salafist jihadists (aided by tribal militias and former soldiers of Iraq’s former Ba’athist regime) have recently made significant military gains against the Shia dominated government of Nouri al-Maliki. On the very same weekend that Waiting for Gilgamesh received its world premiere production, this group, referred to in the Western press as either the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), declared that it should be referred to simply as “the Islamic State.” In short, a new Caliphate had been proclaimed, led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, now known as Caliph Ibrahim.
In western political discourse, left-wingers tend to blame the current state of affairs on the enduring debilitating legacy of imperialism. Liberals, on the other hand, often blame the Bush administration’s and Blair government’s duplicity regarding weapons of mass destruction as well as overseeing a poorly managed occupation. Meanwhile, the right blames the Obama administration’s orderly withdrawal of American forces. Perhaps some in Iraq accept these arguments as well. Playwright Amir Al-Azraki, born in Basra, currently based in Toronto, is in the camp that believes that the Iraqis themselves bear much of the responsibility for the chaos in their country.
The play is presented in an episodic style on a stage painted with geometric patterns. Stage right: a wall representing Iraq’s present and recent past disintegrates into an abstract pattern of hexagons. Stage left: Mesopotamia’s mythological past is symbolized by the Cedar Forest and the severed head of the giant Humbaba, both part of The Epic of Gilgamesh, perhaps mankind’s earliest literary treasure. Images and video footage of the current turmoil are projected on both the wall and Humbaba’s face, along with quotations from various scriptures, poets, playwrights, and heads of state. The visuals range from scenes of naturalistic drama to satirical musical numbers. The effect is sometimes overwhelming; so much is happening that it scrambles the senses and the brain. Still, the onslaught makes a powerful point — a complex situation necessitates a complex presentation.
The drama’s early scenes present life before the invasion. A poor man (Sally Nutt) is interrogated in a secret police headquarters; he has been apprehended while delivering a box of candy to an uncle. The police torture him and then threaten to arrange the gang rape of both his wife and son, already in custody, if he does not reveal from whom he received the sweets. Why the threats over a box of candy? It was made in Iran. Tariq, a judge (Kari Soustiel) loyal to Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime, discovers that his daughter, Ola (Kria Sakakeeny), has a budding friendship, and perhaps romantic interest, in a Shia student at the local university. Tariq bars her from associating with him, calling him a “communist” as well as a “religious freak.” His daughter does not understand the hatred. In these scenes Al-Azraki suggests that Saddam Hussein’s regime provided Iraq with stability but at a barbaric cost: order depended on rape rooms, ethnic cleansing, and religious persecution. In this sense, Hussein follows in the footsteps of Gilgamesh, Fifth King of Uruk, from whom his own subjects had prayed for deliverance.
After Hussein is deposed, various factions fight over Iraq. The Mahdi Army, one of a number of Shi’ite militias in southern Iraq (and allied with Iran), sweeps through, settling scores after decades of repression and becoming, in some places, the de facto government. Elsewhere, we see the rise of Salafist Jihadis, Sunni fundamentalists who are ideologically in sync with Al-Qaeda. They are the precursors of the Caliphate. One member of these insurgents proudly displays a bomb-belt under his clothes, ready to make himself a martyr. They are ready to kill Shia and Christians, comforting themselves with belief that any innocents killed in their attacks will ascend to heaven.
A number of narrative threads weave through the production. Ola’s beloved, Ali (Preston Graveline), turns out to be a judge appointed by the Mahdi Army. He ends up passing judgement over her father Tariq, who regularly handed out sentences of torture and death to Shia defendents.
Another series of episodes play out in a prison administered by the Americans. A Ba’athist (Soustiel), a Sunni Jihadi (Bari Robinson), and a Shia fighter (Graveline) are forced to live together in a prison cell. The Ba’athist proclaims himself to be a Muslim, but the Sunni Arab-nationalist ideology of Ba’athism marks him as a Socialist atheist in the eyes of his fellow prisoners — an unforgivable affront. Ironically, the Shia and the Sunni regard the other as an apostate that will have to be vanquished once a true Islamic state is established.
Despite the horrors of Abu-Ghraib, their American jailor (Nutt, again) is not a sadist, only an Evangelical Christian who naïvely believes that God ordained George Bush to bring peace to the land. Perhaps America can be faulted for invading a country that it did not understand and then bungle, badly, the occupation. But in his play, Al-Azraki insists that it is the Iraqis themselves that are responsible for the horrendous state their nation is in. The playwright’s concern is deeply moral: he wonders whether the different sects and factions will ever be able to live together in a nation that tolerates differences. What will nurture such necessary compassion? His approach is didactic if softly sardonic: what if the American military disarmed and then locked the warring factions inside the same prison cell? Could that do the trick?
All the Fort Point Theatre Channel cast members play multiple roles, so the emphasis is on representing ideologies or groups rather than creating nuanced characterizations. The emphasis is on displaying warring political statements rather than evoking lived experience. Of course, Al-Azraki did not write a character-based drama for western audiences, but tailored this play for Iraqi viewers, for whom live performance might include song, poetry recitals, and other fare. So it is not Samuel Beckett (despite the title) that Al-Azraki is emulating here, but Bertolt Brecht. Still, Brecht’s most celebrated characters are not mere embodiments (and critiques) of ideologies and institutions, but people with individual needs that are shaped by oppressive economic realities and social beliefs. Still, there is a considerable value to didactic plays when they seek to educate through entertainment rather simply indoctrinate.
Having served as both a translator for western news outlets as well as teaching English drama at the University of Basra during the war and occupation, Al-Azraki is acutely aware of of the power of language and theater. He noted in the post-show talkback at the Arsenal Center for the Arts that “when I read Beckett [while attending the University of Baghdad] I found doubt […] it’s important to question before you believe,” reflecting that “I lived twenty-seven years in Iraq believing in bullshit.” Al-Azraki went onto explain that he deliberately chose a Brechtian theatrical approach given the Iraqi audience he hopes to have someday for his play. Still, if the script were to be performed in Iraq he would feel the need to delete the names of specific militias from the script – to do otherwise “would leave me in big trouble.”
Fort Point Theatre Channel’s wide-ranging aesthetic combines digital technology, via sound design (Pardo, again), and video projections (Mario Avila and Hana Pegrimkova), with unapologetically hand-made sets (designed by Anne Loyer), masks, and puppets (also by Avila and Pegrimkova).The approach well suits the play’s Brechtian ambitions.
The compositions of multi-instrumentalist Pardo, best known to Boston audiences as the leader of the Maghrebi-Funk band Atlas Soul, evoked both the classical music traditions of the Arabic world as well as, on occasion, the tropes of psychedelic rock. (There’s a history of musical influences going both ways.) His trio, featuring Stephen Lamb and Faraz Firoozabadi, was always exciting, whether the musicians were accompanying the actors or playing transitions between scenes.
Ultimately, Al-Azraki has to be asked about the title of his play. What does it mean that the Iraqis are waiting for Gilgamesh? Perhaps the better question would be which Gilgamesh are they waiting for? The tyrant Gilgamesh whose insatiable appetite for encouraging rape, murder, and humiliation provides security? Or is it the heroic warrior who vanquished monsters and sought to find a cure for mortality that he would share with humanity? Is he an allegory for the prophesied Mahdi of Islamic eschatology? A metonym for a return to greatness for a region that was the cradle of world civilization? Or do they wait for the tyrannical Gilgamesh to finally die, unsure if they will live free or be terrorized by one of his lesser successors?
It could be that Al-Azraki is more interested in exploring the paradoxes of waiting. In one sketch, two fishing buddies, one a cynic, the other a mystic, discuss the issue. The mystic warns that impatience with waiting makes one brutal, pointing to the violent religious militias who are attempting to bring about the eschaton because they can wait no more. But he goes on to condemn passive waiting because it turns the people into sheep that are easily dominated by tyrants. The cynic responds that he has given up on waiting entirely. The mystic rejoins that there is a virtuous and wise form of waiting that avoids the two extremes. Then he says it is time to go — the fish are not biting today.
Ian Thal is a performer and theatre educator specializing in mime, commedia dell’arte, and puppetry, and has been known to act on Boston area stages from time to time, sometimes with Teatro delle Maschere, and on occasion served on productions as a puppetry choreographer or dramaturg. He has performed his one-man show, Arlecchino Am Ravenous, in numerous venues in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and is currently working on his second full length play; his first, though as-of-yet unproduced, was picketed by a Hamas supporter during a staged reading. Formally the community editor at The Jewish Advocate, he blogs irregularly at the unimaginatively entitled From The Journals of Ian Thal, and writes the “Nothing But Trouble” column for The Clyde Fitch Report.