The Mug

watercolor leaf

by Amir Al-Azraki

Edited by Sharon Findlay

(Um Kalthum music. Majeed enters. He sits on the same table holding a glass of Arag in one hand and a cigarette in the other.)

Majeed:

A poet’s tears, a glass, a story…

The residue of memories distilled in his drink.

Chugs it till he chokes,

the story spews forth…

A lifetime on the stage, for decades I have performed for crowds, the multitudes, for you! (indicates the audience and takes a drink from a mug)

I have embodied the grief and loss of Hamlet, the anguish of Othello…I sang for the revolution in Marat/Sade (2) (Sings)…and danced with Mack the Knife in The Three Penny Opera.(3) (Dances and sings)

Yes, I have been poor, destitute, in Ba’e Al-Dibs al-Faqir (The Poor Date Molasses Salesman), and also played a King in Al-Fiil Ya Malek Azzaman (The Elephant, Oh King of All Times). (4)

I have breathed life into these roles for audiences around the world…

Underneath it all…below the surface of these great roles…underneath these facades, I ask…who am I? (pause)

(sarcastically) “Son of Sumer and Babylon,” lost son of the “Cradle of Civilization…” Ruins!

Grief, loss, anguish…these are not strangers to me…they are my familiars…my closest companions…

Yes, over the years I have enacted the lives, the trials, the tribulations of others, of characters, but… where do I find my own voice?

Who hears it? Who cares? Who am I?

I am! I am…? (takes a slow drink, followed by a pause)

A fraud! A compilation of obsolete, worn out memories. (drinks) Memories and grievances…

After the war, I arrived in Canada hoping for, for…something better. If not happiness, happiness may be too much to ask for, then something…something stable, a place to build a foundation, a new future for what was left of my broken and battered family… (drinks and continues on in a reflective voice)

Yes, I arrived here…well, my body did; my heart, my mind, my soul crippled by the war we were fleeing. My hopes and happiness stamped out, crushed by the oppressive regime and by the American invasion that murdered my two dear sons (beat) …a father’s heart can never, never be whole again after such a loss.

Even so, to tell the truth, a tiny shred of hope did remain…a tiny spark in the depth and darkness of my despair. Yes, hope… not for happiness but for a measure of peace, quiet, for the possibility of building some kind of future for my remaining children…was I a fool? Am I?

Yes, an old fool. What followed after I landed in this ‘free’ country attests to my foolishness, my naiveté. Let me tell you how stupid I was…(pause and continues slowly) how I sold what remained of my pride, my soul, to the vultures and opportunists who used my tragedy to line their own pockets.

My life story, my deepest pain, become fodder for so-called artists and academics. Rich material to exploit at conferences, workshops, universities…they used details of my life to peddle their art…used me! I was used, disposable…another caricature like Hamlet or Othello, an imitation of life! But I? I? where was I located in their projects, their seminars…where was I when they held my story up for the analysis and dissection of students and academics and so-called artists? Exploiters who appropriated my life and my terror and my pain and my dead boys and made it their own! Deceivers! Who take for granted their own peaceful mundane existence, who’ve never feared for their safety and who know nothing, nothing?!? Where was I? Lost! Buried alive!

(deep silence, trying to collect himself)

Without realizing, fool that I am, I was tricked into performing a caricature of myself, of imitating my own life!

For my trouble, for my contribution, they presented me with a coffee mug, see it has the university logo on it…sold my soul for a mug. (Points to logo on mug)

I fill it with Arag, at least it’s good for something. (tops up mug from bottle of Arag and drinks)

I am alone. Night after night I sit with my mug, and try to make sense of it all. Everything is gone. That tiny last spark that I carried over here, that precious shred of hope imported all the way from the ruins of Iraq, hope for a better future, is now snuffed out…it wasn’t for me. I find no solace in my work or my family…

I contemplate my mug, fill it with Arag…fill it with my tears…I repeat the same stories, count the same losses, bewail the cruel injustices of this world until I think even this mug is tired of my lamenting. Who wouldn’t be? I am tired of myself! My family and friends have heard it all before a million times but still I cannot stop telling the story…of my imprisonment…imprisonment then, in a prison…and now in ‘free’ Canada…the internal prison of isolation and hopelessness.

(takes a slow drink)

I sleep sometimes. Sometime I have vivid dreams…they’re not nightmares exactly although they are confusing…scattered impressions of a past life; the voices of the south birds’ singing, explosions in the distance…the scent of myrtle and ambergris in my mother’s scarf…the smell of gunpowder…the swirling dabka dance and the dance of torture…What a life…

Sometimes I am overcome by nightmares of violence and destruction that pursue me relentlessly through the night…I wake disoriented, weeping, cursing it all. Then I ask myself, how long can I carry on? How long? Even my family…my wife, my children are becoming strangers. “You always smell of Arag” she complains… disgusted. Our children don’t even speak Arabic any more and I refuse to learn English. why should I?

I thought I had already lost everything but there were still a few things left to go…

Of course they all think they know what is best for me: get busy, get a job, go give a seminar, do a play, learn English, do a monologue about your pain and inner conflict….! Ha! (laughs ruefully)

I am an actor, this is my craft and sullen art. I will play my part.

Cheers. (holds up mug)

“I dreamt I was a fugitive
Hiding in a forest.
The wolves in a distant country
Hounded me through black deserts and over rough hills.
My dear, our separation was torture.
I dreamt I was without a home,
Dying in an unknown city,
Dying alone, my love, without a home.”

(Majeed exits. Edith Piaf’s ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’)

Footnotes:

  1. The play is inspired by a true story of an Iraqi artist who lives in Kitchener, Waterloo.
  2. Marat/Sade was written in 1963 by German dramatist and novelist Peter Weiss
  3. The Three Penny Opera was written in 1928 by German playwright Bertolt Brecht in collaboration with Kurt Weill
  4. Both plays were written by Syrian playwright Saadallah Wannous.

Amir Al-Azraki is an Assistant Professor of Arabic language, literature, and culture (Renison University College, University of Waterloo), lecturer of Arabic language (SOLAL, U of G), Theatre of the Oppressed practitioner, and playwright who works seamlessly across cultures to highlight and facilitate discourse and interchange through his work. Among his plays are: Waiting for Gilgamesh: Scenes from Iraq, Stuck, and The Widow. Al-Azraki is the co-editor and co-translator of Contemporary Plays from Iraq.