- Staging Baghdadi Bath on the Western Stage:Toward a Theatre of Trauma
Jawad Al Assadi's 2005 Baghdadi Bath depicts two Iraqi brothers as they struggle to survive in Iraq, both before and during the 2003 US-led invasion and ensuing occupation. The brothers wash and quarrel in the Turkish-style bathhouse that serves as the setting for much of the play. The two are, as it were, mired in filth, corrupted by their engagement as bus drivers with both Saddam's thugs and American soldiers. They narrate atrocities in turn. The younger, Hamiid, is complicit in transporting political prisoners to their deaths by firing squad under Saddam's regime and then relaying their corpses to a mass gravesite. Midway through the play, he describes the execution of prisoners by Iraqi soldiers in sordid detail:
They made the prisoners get out [of the bus], stand in random order, and then suddenly they started shooting. The prisoners fell without saying a word. The air was engulfed in a horrible silence. I was overwhelmed with fear . . . with filth . . . They didn't even bother to bury these men where they'd murdered them. They wanted to desecrate them even further, so they carried them with blood dripping from their bodies into the bus. They ordered me to drive somewhere else . . . . I wanted to puke. The bus reeked of blood. They ceremoniously and joyfully carried the corpses out of the bus and threw them in a ditch . . . . The officer in charge came to me and ordered me to clean the bus and wipe away all traces of blood . . . . They turned me into a mop they used to clean up their crimes. I got sick. I puked blood.1
Immediately following this, Hamiid is confined in a military hospital for a month and refused payment for his services. In the final episode of the play, Majiid suffers at the hands of American soldiers after the two attempt to transport a political candidate from Amman, Jordan to Baghdad. Just after they cross the border back into Iraq, an exploding cigar kills the candidate. Trapped in a battle zone, Majiid buries the remains, but is then forced to unearth them at the command of American soldiers: [End Page 105]
The only thing I could think of was to bury the corpse right there. I dug with my hands and fingernails. I dug and dug and dug. The rabid dogs came closer to the bus. I carried the pieces of the corpse out of the bus and threw them in the hole and covered them . . . covered them with dust. It was so vile and horrible . . . . For three days and three nights the tanks passed in front of me and circled around me . . . . Soldiers passed in front of me without speaking . . . . They wouldn't let me move . . . . I didn't know what to do, Hamoud. I told them the truth. They told me to dig him up. I dug and dug with my hands . . . with my fingernails. I held up his feet . . . his head . . . his hands. They started to laugh. They aimed their guns at me . . . Then they pushed me into the grave and covered me with dust. And then . . . they disappeared.2
These are the concluding lines of the play, after which Hamiid carries Majiid to the shower and bathes him.
In this essay, I sketch a theoretical framework through which a play like Baghdadi Bath, which depicts trauma, may affect its audience—particularly how a play by an Arabic playwright about a crisis in the Middle East could affect a Western, and specifically American audience. Baghdadi Bath was staged first in the Middle East, in Arabic for Arabic-speaking audiences. It premiered at the Damascus Theatre Festival in 2005 under the direction of Al Assadi, then played at the Cairo International Festival of Experimental Theatre, and the Marignan Theatre in Beirut, both in 2006. It was first staged in the West, in an English translation by Robert Myers and Nada Saab, at Dartmouth College in 2006. The same translation was presented at Vassar College in 2007,3 and featured in the supertitles of the Arabic-language production at La MaMa E.T.C...