- Contemporary Plays from Iraq transed. by A. Al-Azraki and James Al-Shamma
Images of the Middle East and Middle Eastern peoples in the western imagination include visions of never-ending wars, an unstoppable parade of dictatorships, tyranny fueled by religious dogma, and omnipresent chaos. These images, perpetuations of colonial discourse, were emboldened in the past few decades after the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration's "War on Terror," geopolitical alliances between the west and Middle Eastern dictatorships, and the presidency of Donald Trump with his open xenophobia and Islamophobia. One way to counter this hegemony is a profound representation of the life and culture of the Middle Eastern countries as reflected in local literary traditions, cultural artifacts, and dramatic works. Ideally, an informed reader encounters Al-Azraki and Al-Shamma's anthology of nine Iraqi one-act plays with this very expectation.
Unfortunately, despite all its merits and significant contributions to the field, the anthology fails to present an image of the Iraqi life outside the realm of the abovementioned formulas. It would have been more suitably titled "The Theatre of War in Iraq," as the main governing theme of every play in the collection is the devastations of the disastrous and continuous wars in Iraq. This might not reflect an Iraqi culture that is shocking to an uninformed reader—a shock that is urgently needed in our time—but at the very least, provides a humanized and tangible portrayal of the Iraqi sufferings in the past few decades. [End Page 535]
The significance of this anthology is evident in sheer numbers, as the editors remark as such in the opening of their introductory notes: "To the best of our knowledge, only four plays by Iraqis have previously been translated from Arabic into English, representing just two dramatists. … This volume will increase that number by eight plays translated from the Arabic, plus one written by an Iraqi in English" (p. xi). The numbers, however, are inaccurate—Salih J. Altoma's seminal bibliographical study, Iraq's Modern Arabic Literature: A Guide to English Translations Since 1950 (published in 2010) lists seven more plays that appeared in English translation between 1977 and 2008 (Altoma 2010: 39–40). Nevertheless, the publication of these nine plays is a welcome addition and is a significant attempt in introducing a lively and vibrant theatrical tradition to the English-speaking audience.
The volume opens with a preface by Marvin Carlson, in which he briefly overviews the significance of Iraqi theatre in the Arab world. His foreword is followed by brief biographies of the playwrights that lead the readers to the editors' introduction. In their remarks, the editors give an overview of the history of Iraqi theatre in modern times. Unfortunately, the essay suffers from one of the most damaging and commonplace historiographical problems of the theatre in the Middle East—the editors, it appears, subscribe to the notion that "theatre" was a western import into the Middle East and any indigenous tradition that came beforehand is not worthy of scholarly scrutiny. Al-Azraki and Al-Shamma, however, are clear about the scope and expectations from this volume, stating "[t]he political drama represented in these pages is, to a great extent, a theatre of trauma, reflective of the Iraqi experience under invasion and occupation" (p. xi). And as such, the volume represents the recent traumatic history of the Iraqi people in a candid way, rather than a full historical overview of the Iraqi stage.
The first two plays, Hoshang Waziri's "The Takeover" and Abdul-Kareem Al-Ameri's "A Cradle," are the only representatives of Iraqi theatre before the American occupation. Both plays, the former by a playwright from the Iraqi Kurdistan, were written during the brutal dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, and, therefore, navigated a complicated labyrinth of signs and symbols in order to bypass the regime's censorship. Erik Levi, a veteran musicologist and an authority on German music under the Third Reich, noticed a pattern...