Pillars of Blood is a performance focusing on memories of the Iraqi crisis as captured by Anmar Taha, the Iraqi-Swedish director who is also a main character in the play.
The performance was staged twice, on 27 and 28 September, within the 23rd edition of the Cairo International Festival of Contemporary and Experimental Theatre, a festival that ran from 20 to 30 September.
Ahram Online spoke to Taha about his journey from Iraq to Sweden and the concepts behind the play.
Ahram Online (AO): Pillars of Blood is a physical performance with very few words and almost no music. Yet the audience was able to understand the crisis of Iraq in every scene. How was that?
Anmar Taha (AT): Pillars of Blood is a very simple and very personal performance. I have many obsessions, memories, and nightmares which re-appear in my works. This does not mean that I try to make political statements; I just try to survive as I keep struggling with my obsessions. Theatre and art in general, help me free those emotions. Art is that vehicle of beauty; our world is not perfect and art fills this gap.
AO: When you say personal nightmares, do you refer to you your journey from Iraq to Sweden?
AT: Yes and no. Maybe the nightmare started in 2005 after the fall of Baghdad, when a bullet penetrated my body between the liver and the spleen. It was very dangerous and though I did not die I decided to leave. Many of my friends had already been killed. One of them was a close friend and an actor in a performance we presented in Egypt in 2002. Coming back this year to the same festival brings back many memories. A few months after being shot I moved to Sweden. I didn’t think of starting a new life per se but to continue it, only in a different way on different terms. My nightmares are not only what happened to me but also to my friends, to Baghdad, to my mother and my sister whom I often visit in Iraq. It is also about the struggle we had as art students in Baghdad, torn between how we wanted to practice art and the conservative old school education methods, the system that is dominated by the hierarchy. This has also contributed to my formation as a young man and everything is now reflected in my art.
AO: Your troupe’s name is Iraqi Bodies, and you use physical theatre in all your performances including Pillars of Blood. Why the choice of physical theatre in specific?
AT: We belong to a society where the body is our biggest taboo.
For example, during my study at the Institute of Fine Arts’ Theatre Department in Baghdad, theatre for us was limited to either its intellectual aspect or rhetoric. We never used our bodies to express certain ideas. We didn’t use any visual art aspects for that matter. We had dancing courses but that was not a part of a bigger theatrical concept, it was not a part of anything. Also when we started to practicing theatre, there were hardly any actresses, so men had to present the female roles. Our bodies are imprisoned under layers and layers of restrictions. To liberate ourselves we need to liberate our bodies. This is part of the physical theatre I choose to work in.
AO: When were you introduced to physical theatre for the first time?
AT: It was totally by chance. I was still a student when an Iraqi-Sweden based artist visited Baghdad and gave a two-week workshop that incorporated jazz and ballet. We were many participants in this workshop, but only seven of us thought about how to apply the gained skills onto theatrical practice. Of course, we knew very little but we were very inspired. Together with those friends, we started researching, reading and practicing. We staged our dance performance during the Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre, back in 2002. In 2005, after the fall of Bagdad, we decided to establish a theatre troupe, and the first performance directed by me was “The Bald-Headed.” It was selected for the Philadelphia Theatre Festival in Jordan, and it won many awards, including the jury award for directing. After that, I had the accident and it was the end of my short artistic journey in Iraq. On the other hand, as you know, life was getting worse in the country and there was no room for artists. In 2006, I left for Syria where I stayed briefly before eventually relocating to Sweden. In Sweden I found more opportunities to learn and to practice physical theatre in different ways.
AO: But the artistic road to Sweden must have been a challenge of its own, correct?
AT: It is a life-changing experience, a different society with totally different values. But it gave me the opportunity to review all the values I had practiced throughout my life. I stayed two years learning the language and joining several dancing schools. I was looking for a physical theatre opportunity not only a technical dance school. Around this time, a few members of my Iraqi troupe began leaving Iraq as well; many settled in the Netherlands and invited me to join a touring play that toured around Europe. A few years later, we established the Iraqi Bodies troupe, and we registered it in Sweden 2009. At this point five of the original troupe members were already living in Sweden. The title of the troupe reflects our concept. We made several performances and even when a few members left the troupe and gave up art altogether, I decided to keep going under the same name, casting different people. The first breakthrough came when a Swedish cultural institution agreed to produce one performance. Ever since I have been under the umbrella of a variety of cultural bodies in Sweden.
AO: Starting as an Iraqi emigrant, how is your work being received, by audiences, the media and the critics?
AT: I believe that my work is unique in a way yet I am not being judged based on where I came from but for artwork that I create. Though I insist on using Iraqi Bodies as the name of the troupe, this not enough reason to be recognized, and being an Iraqi is not a passport for success in Sweden. On the one hand, I am a theatre school graduate, not an amateur, and there are artistic values in my work. On the other hand, though my life experience is full of tragedies and my background is different to those of my Swedish colleagues, I chose not to present politics in my work. I present personal stories of my mother, my sister, and friends. I also believe in myself. I learned from my experience that theatre is an ongoing process of learning and practicing. I learn new techniques, new tools, I read books, watch movies, do my research, I make sure I keep developing continuously.
AO: There are three actresses in Pillars of Blood, in addition to you playing different roles. Why three women and only one actor?
AT: In the performance we presented at Cairo Theatre Festival, one actress is also my directing partner from Sweden, and other two are dancers from Italy and Syria. In a way, this performance is about women’s situation in my country. It is about my mother and my sister and the way they are being treated in my society. But I also presented the same performance with more actors. It is a developing project.
AO: You used English and Swedish language in a performance that talks about Iraqi context. What is the significance of language in your works?
AT: I used Arabic quotes from a song by Umm Kalthoum. However, to me, art is an alternative language and it does not have to be translated into words.
My main concern in theatre is visuals. It is not the language or even the physical aspects that matter but how the ideas and feelings are translated visually. I am inspired by a text or a poem or a painting then it develops. My use of language is that of an artistic and aesthetic purpose. I do not find that I have to use Arabic because I am originally Arab or to use Swedish or English because I live in Europe.
AO: How would you compare your experience from the festival in 2002 and 2016?
AT: I am glad the festival has returned. During 2002 we were very young, only 17 and 18 years old. Though we are different people today, there is still the same people, the same atmosphere, and the same Cairo. But what I missed is my friends whom I lost for every kind of reason. Life experience had taught me that you may lose your home, your family, your friends, but the only thing left at the end of the day are your attempts to find your internal peace. Art should be our peaceful choice.
This article was originally published on Ahram Online Arts and Culture Reposted with permission. Read the original article.
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This post was written by Nahed Nasr.
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