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.

Iraq

Colourful drawing of faceless man in all white with a headwrap sitting cross-legged playing a middle eastern instrument resembling an Ektara

The Land of Fife, the Cradle of Civilization, and My Home

By Falah Hafuth with Sowsan Hafuth

Artwork by Zeena Salam

I am Dr. Falah Hafuth, born and raised in Baghdad, Iraq. I graduated from the University of Mosul in 1983 as a physician and have been practising medicine in Canada for almost 30 years. I left Baghdad in 1984 after working as a physician for only a short period of time through the Al-Kindi Specialized Hospital and the Iraqi National Centre for Cancer Research.


The reason I left Baghdad was because I didn’t want to participate in Saddam Hussein’s unjust war between Iraq and Iran. I chose to join the opposition political front who were for a democratic state and who tried to get rid of Saddam and eliminate the reign of dictatorship. Saddam’s regime was never for the people and was governing Iraq without a real free election. The elections that took place were administered by Saddam and his puppets and he was always the winner by a 99.9% vote. How lucky, right? His regime forced people to become members of his party, the Ba’ath party. He introduced a law subjecting anyone from other parties to death sentences, torture, and prison. He was engaging the country in very risky acts like attacking neighboring countries and waging the war between Iraq and Iran for 8 years, destroying much of the infrastructure of Iraq.


Everyone was subject to a certain degree of harassment from the government, especially if they weren’t participating in the government party and activities held by Saddam. These included the student unions, youth organizations, women organizations, etc. Anyone not a part of these would be considered an enemy and went on the notion of “if you’re not with us, you’re against us.” I didn’t believe in tying my life into these organizations or these people who were so ideologist, I believe in freedom and everyone being their own entity. With these thoughts and not publicly supporting Saddam, you became under surveillance and on the watch list of the secret police or by

Saddam’s organizations. People like me were targeted.

One night in 1980, someone had written:

يسقط صدام حسين

يسقط حزب البعث

الموت للدكتاتور
(Down to saddam hussein, down to Ba’ath party, death to the dictator) on the wall of the medical school. That same night me and my friends were staying late in one of the reading rooms to study. So, when the secret police discovered the graffiti on the school wall, they immediately took every student that was in that reading room that night to the secret police headquarters in Mosul. Those days in the headquarters of the secret police were the most difficult days in my entire life They were torturing us on a daily basis in so many ways to figure out who wrote it. Immediately they released the students who were collaborating with the Ba’ath party and student union, but kept the students who hadn’t been affiliated with those organizations. We payed this price for two months. I was able to feel the joy on the face of the interrogator when he saw us in pain, calling our nightly torturing session the “night party”. The interrogator would tie our arms to tables or behind our backs and extinguish his cigarettes into our hands. They would tie us to poles in cold rooms and leave us there overnight on a very cold ceramic floor and take our jackets and belts away so we couldn’t hang ourselves when we’re alone. They would throw cold water on us 2 or 3 times a night during the winter then whip us with electrical cables. They finally released me after I had written the graffiti slogan in a book to fill about 100 pages and decided my writing wasn’t the same…after two months. The only reason I didn’t drop out of medical school was because many of my classmates would spend time writing the lectures and summarizing everything for me and the others. They then helped teach us everything we missed when we were released. Even people I never met before did this for me. During my time in jail, I made my final decision to leave this regime as soon as I could become a doctor and support the movement against Saddam. I didn’t want any innocent soul to go through the same wretched torture I endured. So, after medical school I worked for one year in Baghdadi hospitals. I then left Baghdad (the central government area) to support the rebels in the provinces of Kurdistan (Northern Iraq).

Me and a friend were smuggled in the back of a car across checkpoints to the North of Iraq (Kurdistan), where the government had no control over the rural villages. Once we arrived at the villages and gained the trust of the rebels who resided there, they let us join them. We spent two and a half years with them. I was helping this opposition as a physician by treating the wounded, delivering babies, and doing whatever I could to help these sanctioned areas of Iraq. People in Kurdistan weren’t allowed to sell their products to the rest of the country and were isolated, unless they worked directly with Saddam’s government. So, I went on the back of my horse with my medicine bag and a couple of books, travelling as a mobile medical unit between villages in remote areas with the rebels. The government never knew we were a part of the rebels because we changed our identities (our names, our looks, etc.). If they ever found out who we were by a photo or anything, they would go after our families.
My journey ended with the rebels at the end of 1986 when Saddam started throwing chemical bombs into the remote villages of Kurdistan where the rebels used to take shelter. Everyone was dying, birds were dying, animals were dying. I remember thinking to myself that I never appreciated the beauty of the different types of colourful birds there were until I walked through one of the villages that got hit by a chemical bomb a few days earlier and all these birds were laying dead on the ground. At that time I realized that we can not fight a regime that is poisoning the air. I had then left Iraq with the rebels. We had nowhere to escape to other than going to the Iranian cities on the Iraq-Iran border.  

At Saddam Hussein’s time, there was a state, but under dictatorship. No freedom. Although, after the American invasions in 1991 and in 2003, the entire infrastructure of Iraq was completely demolished. All the governments that came after the last invasion in 2003 have been even more corrupt than Saddam. Iraq needs a real, transparent, free election without the involvement of America meddling in its affairs. In Iraq now, elections are a very poor tool for measuring democracy. A democratic country should have equal opportunity for everyone where equal services are provided to everybody. In Iraq, basic services are almost non existent; there’s no clean water, only a few hours of hydro a day, and the unemployment rate is high among young people. Although the oil production companies are doing OK, there is a shortage of oil to Iraqi people. It is very clear that America is not interested in helping people as much as they are interested in controlling the oil of our lands. They didn’t take care of the infrastructure that was destroyed by their very own American war machine.

It is clear the reason for invading Iraq was not to introduce democracy, neither was it because Saddam was a vicious dictator. It was for controlling the oil. Before the invasion, there were hundreds of ways to get Saddam out of power and save hundreds of thousand of innocent victims, but America chose to invade Iraq and take the lives of innocent peoples in such horrific ways. America’s behaviour after the invasion shows they have no interest in democracy and improving the life of the people in the Middle East. As long as the Middle East has the powerhouse of the world, being the largest oil reserve, the warmongers of the Western world will never let this area settle. Until either oil no longer becomes a hot commodity, or the peace and justice prevails in the world. Although, I don’t see either of these two things happening in my lifetime. This is the reality.

Real hope for freedom is dependent on many factors. The main one is that peace and justice will prevail around the world and the people of each country will contribute to it. If we have a government that looks after its own people by genuinely respecting our human rights and cooperating with each other on an equal basis, the international community will not let others take advantage and abuse the resources of our nation.

Young people everywhere have the most power in their hands for a better future. If they stick with the peace for their own country and other countries equally, we could defeat the peace disturbers and live in unity. We would pull the rug out from under the feet of those who are opportunists that want to take the resources of others. Standing in solidarity together to fix the entirety that is our world, not just your own world.

Iraq will always be a part of me; it is the only place where I do not feel like a stranger. I still think about it because that was my childhood, my life, my education. My family still lives there. And it can never be forgotten. I will take those memories to the grave with me. To be away from Iraq for so long has solidified my love of true Iraqi history and has increased my interest to study it more. I keep falling in love with Iraq again and again. I express my love of Iraq and the open wounds I have from being forced to leave through various forms of art like poetry and music that can easily remind me of my old life. Iraq to me will forever be the land of life, the cradle of civilization, and my home.

Falah was born in 1955 in Baghdad, Iraq. He graduated from Mosul Medical School in 1982 and moved to Canada in 1988. He was also the first president of the Iraqi Canadian Society in 1991 and he was the founder and current president of the Kitchener Waterloo Arab Canadian Theatre. He is currently practising medicine as an ER physician and in an urgent care clinic.

Zeena is currently living in her home town Najaf, Iraq. She is studying accounting at the University of Kofa along with pursuing an art career on the side. She enjoys painting and drawing pieces that relate to Arabian culture, nature, and landscapes.