“Iraqi Nights, like the Arabian Nights, is one of these tales travelled in memory, history, time and space to share and trade with you as a basket of thoughts, unfinished thoughts in contemporary performance.” Niz Jabour.
“The personal is political” is a feminist catch-cry, which came home to me with full force on Thursday night, when I sat in the Old Court Theatre in Townsville, and watched the Full Throttle Theatre company perform Iraqi Nights, created and directed by Niz Jabour. Niz is an Iraqi man who has been in exile from his homeland for 30 years. He is an artist, actor and director, and is in the final year of a Doctor of Creative Arts degree at Curtin University. This performance, sub-titled Cross-Cultural Narratives in Performance, is created from his research into the memories of Iraqi artists in exile: their experience of war, of occupation, of the destruction of their country, their culture, their families. He has returned twice to Iraq to interview some of these artists, and has compiled film footage and transcripts. From this raw material he has fashioned a performance, which, if I have to describe it in one word, is shattering.
Shattering because it cuts across the political debates about just and unjust wars, occupation, economic sanctions, invasion, genocide, democracy, terrorism, Al-Q’aida, weapons of mass destruction, the axis of evil, and all those other catch-cries we have heard so much of in these last few years. It also cuts across the complacency and comfort and conservatism of our Australian (aka American, British, European, Western, Asian, you name any country which is not torn by war, occupied, terrorised) way of life.
The word political is never uttered in this performance, nor any of its synonyms. Once, the narrator mentioned the racial groups — Shia, Sunni, Kurds — and that was all. Only the personal matters here. Iraqi Nights is personal, powerful, painful, poetic, but not political. And yet, paradoxically, it is political, because, by passing by the politics of how Iraq came to be this shattered nation, with little hope for rebuilding a peaceful, stable and prosperous state, it cuts through all the divisive politics. It speaks directly to your heart, and changes you.
Argument does not matter. What we are confronted with in Iraqi Nights is the pain, the loss and the grief of the people who have suffered and continue to suffer. As Niz says in his program notes,
“Sometimes, we travel in our memory searching for meaningful stories to tell or to remind ouselves and others about something. Sometimes we replace ourselves by others to make sure that what we tell is not going to hurt anyone or us, and sometimes, truth can’t stand still.”
The truth is in the voices of the artists and their memories. Their words are spoken by the small cast, 9 adults, accompanied by 3 children. The performance opens to a bare stage, with a number of tall rectangular frames on wheels, pushed together, and behind them, sits a man, hunched forward, chin on hand, gazing at the floor. There is a pedestal mirror in front of him. As the lights come up, he steps out and begins to narrate. The female chorus emerges, and one by one, they speak, breaking into a chanted lament sometimes. The women wear dark colours and head scarves.
The leading narrator, performed by Niz, wears loose white jacket and trousers.
There is one other man, an old man, who does not speak. The children move with the adults, but do not speak. The leader of the female chorus, (Maddona Davies, dramaturge and theatre manager) occasionally bursts into a solo lament, with a voice that can split rocks and make the earth tremble.
There is a screen behind, with artistic representations of the shattered landscape and people, created by Iraqi artists. There is also a projection onto the floor, of the artists who were interviewed. This is not very obvious to the audience, but it is done this way to protect the identities of the artists and to ground the cast, to connect them to the people whose words they are narrating, whose hearts are breaking.
The frames on wheels and the mirror are the only props. The frames are doorways into rooms — the many rooms of memory. The last frame, the last room, is the mirror, which confronts us with ourselves, our brothers and sisters who are framed by these memories. We look into the mirror and see others who are also ourselves, how our lives would be if we had to suffer what they are suffering.
I was privileged and honoured to be at this performance as a guest of Niz and the theatre company. I am editing Niz’s thesis, the written part of his doctorate. I hope that Iraqi Nights will have a long life; that it will tour regional Australia and other cities, other countries, and that the film Niz and his assistants are creating of the performance will be shown to an even wider audience. This is a performance everyone should see. It will move your hearts and change the way you think about citizenship, exile, nationhood, refugees, war.