Baghdadi Bath was written by the exiled Iraqi playwright and director Jawad Al Assadi (also spelled Asadi) in 2005, and originally performed as part of the Damascus Theatre Festival that same year. Other productions, also in Arabic, include the Cairo International Festival of Experimental Theatre (2006), Marignan Theatre in Beirut (2006) and the Midsummer Festival in Cork, Ireland (2007). In all three of these productions, Majiid was performed by the renowned Syrian actor Fayez Kazak, who, in addition to dozens of stage roles in productions in the Arab world, appeared in the film Kingdom of Heaven, and Hamiid was performed by Nidal Sejar, who is a prominent Syrian television actor. Readings of the English version presented in the U.S. took place at Dartmouth in 2006—staged before an audience at the Hopkins Center—and at Vassar in 2007, both developed in conjunction with Linda Chapman and Jim Nicola of the New York Theatre Workshop.
I first met Jawad in the spring of 2004 in Beirut at the home of the Lebanese visual artist, Helen Karam, who teaches painting at the American University of Beirut, where I had recently begun work as an associate professor of theatre and creative writing. We viewed tapes of some of his work from the 1990s, including an adaptation he wrote and directed of Chekhov's short story "Ward Six," with extreme physical gestures and contortions reminiscent of Grotowski's Akropolis, slicing staccato violins and haunting facial expressions that recalled Artaud's performance in Dreyer's Passion of Joan of Arc; a version of Ibsen's Doll House, directed for Kuwaiti television in 2000, featuring the Lebanese performance artist Rabih Mrouè in the role of Torvald; and a version of Genet's The Maids, produced at Theatre Beyruth, with Lebanon's most celebrated actress, Renèe Dick, aged approximately sixty, in the role of the Madame, her eyes circled with kohl, ominously wielding a walking stick and her head shaved to a point. (In 2006, Jawad, Helen, and I developed and presented a theatre piece with students at AUB about Renèe, who lives hand to mouth in her stone home in the seaside city of Byblos, from the point-of-view of the cats who inhabit her house.)
The frenetic, hysterical—and at times delirious—demeanor of Jawad's actors, coupled with the painterly precision of his mise-en-scène forced an instant reappraisal of what constituted "Arabic theatre." We spent the afternoon drinking arak and talking [End Page 108] about Fassbinder's films, especially The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, Almodovar's recently released Talk to Her, the works of Robert Wilson, and the theatre of Garcia Lorca. (Not coincidentally, one of the characters in Women in War, a play he wrote about three Iraqi women trapped in the purgatory of a refugee center in Europe, is an actress who was performing The House of Bernarda Alba before she was forced to flee Baghdad; the inaugural production of Theatre Babel, which he just founded in Beirut, is a musical adaptation of Lorca's play Saxophone.)
Having been a fierce opponent of Saddam Hussein, whose soldiers had murdered one of his brothers for a minor infraction in the early 1970s, he was, in 2004, I was surprised to discover, pleased that the recent U.S. invasion had created the possibility of returning to Baghdad so that he might found a theatre there after thirty years in exile. His work, he informed me, was not "political"—unlike my own—by which I later surmised he meant that it was not bad agit-prop, but the angst of his characters, his visual style and his choice of themes—demagoguery, murder, etc.—and settings—an asylum, a refugee center, etc.—seemed unmistakably linked to his repulsion with and longing for Iraq. In early 2005 he returned to Baghdad for several weeks, and in spite of harrowing conditions, in which he rehearsed for eight hours a day and remained locked inside his house the other sixteen, he managed to mount a production of Women in War. When he returned to Beirut after this experience...