Baghdad Wedding

Yesterday I took a break from the Great War, and went instead to the Soho Theatre, to see a play about our country’s current miserable entanglement, in Iraq.

Baghdad Wedding is by Hassan Abdulrazzak, born in Iraq, but resident in Britain since childhood. Like one of his main characters, he is a medical researcher at Imperial College, London. As a scientist he has written papers with titles like “Functional characterisation of a mutant actin (Met132Val) from a patient with nemaline myopathy.” – but he has written stories and poems, too. One reason why I went to see the play is that I have known Hassan’s writing for a long while, and I have often published him in my other online enterprise, Snakeskin Poetry Webzine.

Other plays about the Iraq war that I have seen have all been about our side. There have been plays like David Hare’s Stuff Happens, about Bush, Rumsfeld and co., or plays about the Hutton enquiry, or about British soldiers. Iraqis are not the protagonists in works, just the (usually anonymous) victims.

The clever thing about Hassan Abdulrazzak’s play is that he has avoided the obvious. We do not meet “typical Iraqis”. His characters are westernised, sophisticated, secular and complicated. One main character, Salim,  is a bisexual novelist who has lived in London. He has caused a scandal in Iraq with his book “Masturbating Angels”, which a critic describes as being about “buggery in London”. A charge against it is that “you don’t have to be Iraqi to have written this novel,” – which Salim takes as a compliment. He says  that the English only give  Booker prizes  to Indians if their books contain local colour – someone slicing a mango, or “someone running through some luscious forest, or hovering on a carpet carried by invisible waves of magic realism.” he claims the right not to write about Iraq. Part of the story of the play is his discovery that Iraq is something he will be able to write about.

As the play progresses through the war years, terrible things happen, but we are constantly made aware of chance and contingency. The neat logics  of Islamic fundamentalists  or the American military have scant relation to reality – and it is this lack of fit which leads to suffering and destruction.

The play has its share of horrors (Hassan’s medical background allows him to give some painfully exact descriptions of them) but it is not about horrors.  It is about complicated people trying to cope with situations that want to simplify them.

Watching it, I was  reminded of Azir Nafisi’s remarkable book, Reading Lolita in Tehran. it is a memoir about people who are trying to maintain a sophisticated community of readers during the times of extreme fundamentalism in Iran. In the  university, or in private reading groups, they read Jane Austen, and Nabokov, and Scott Fitzgerald. The books are challenged by religious extremists, and have to be defended (one of the best bits describes a classroom trial of The Great Gatsby).  Classics of English literature take on new meanings in this context, and reveal their power as critiques of simplified world views.  Parts of the book are also very funny. There is a terrific description of a time when strict Islamic codes were relaxed just enough to allow a performance by the Gypsy Kings – but the religious police patrolled the aisles to make sure that nobody was tapping their feet to the music. Signs of enjoyment were not allowed.

Now, whenever I hear Americans and others discussing the possibility of a war with Iran, I think of the people in that book,  and what war would mean to them. And when I watch the next grim news broadcast from Iraq, I shall think of Hassan’s characters.  In the news, Iraqis become statistics – 85 dead yesterday. Hassan gives them human faces.

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