Economic curtain closing on Iraqi theater

Young Iraqi actor and director Alaa Qahtan has received numerous Iraqi and Arab awards for his more than 20 theatrical works. But to Qahtan, the future looks bleak and confusing, as the Culture Ministry's cinema and theater department does not have the budget to produce new works. 

Director Tahrir Asadi shares Qahtan’s concern. Although he is currently preparing for a theatrical project he wrote and directed himself, he knows no one will produce it and it will not be performed on stage anytime soon. Iraq is suffering a severe economic crisis, with oil prices dropping below $40 a barrel recently and costs mounting in the war on the Islamic State, which now controls about a third of Iraq. 

Austerity policies pursued by the Iraqi government since the end of 2014 have disrupted many investment and service projects, but cultural projects have been affected the most. For example, the Iraqi government said in August it would begin closing its cultural centers in several European countries. 

The security situation and limited economic prospects have led some young Iraqis in the theatrical field to emigrate illegally. Qahtan showed Al-Monitor pictures of colleagues who fled by sea to Europe, passing through Turkey. He said, 

“These young men had nothing left to do here. Despair and fear for their lives due to the security situation, as well as neglect by the Ministry of Culture’s cinema and theater department and the government, pushed them to take a risk and migrate by sea.” 

Qahtan believes the theater is a valuable platform to address the Iraqi reality through creativity. He seeks to make theater a means of salvation from violence and sectarianism. During his October visit to Tunisia, at the Carthage Theatre Days Festival, he performed “Secret Meeting,” a theatrical work that condemns religious extremism and authorities’ attempts to abolish freedoms in society. 

“Art and theater in all societies around the world help distance society from extremism,” Qahtan said. “No one in Iraq cares for such issues.” Qahtan said the cinema and theater department refused to produce his theatrical work “WC” last year. The play portrays the first moments following the first air raid over Baghdad during the US invasion in 2003, when citizens fled their homes. 

Qahtan was never able to gather the necessary funding to perform the show. The department does not bestow large grants for theater productions. For instance, Asadi’s work “The Cafe” only cost the department around $3,000. The play addresses the situation of youths in Iraq, looking at love, violence and sectarianism from different perspectives. 

It was performed in Baghdad in December 2014. Despite Qahtan and Asadi’s hopelessness regarding theatrical productions in 2016, Taha Rashid, a spokesman for the cinema and theater department, told Al-Monitor, “Theatrical production will continue.” Rashid responded to their statements, saying, “Both are inaccurate. We have the minimum budget needed to produce theatrical projects.” 

He noted, “The cinema and theater department is adopting a new austerity policy to use its own staff, including decor and lighting specialists, and to reduce the wages paid during production.” Although he seemed excited while explaining the new policy, Rashid said, “Since early 2015 and until this day, neither the government nor the Ministry of Culture has provided any financial allocations [to the department]. The cinema and theater department was the first to be affected by austerity.” 

Ministry of Culture spokesman Omran al-Obeidi told Al-Monitor, “The austerity plans have affected the Ministry of Culture, which had already been suffering from a lack of funds that should have been provided by the state’s general budget. The ministry's plan is basically to continue providing wages and holding major festivals” such as the Al-Marbad poetry festival held in Basra every year. 

“Production will evidently weaken, despite all our attempts to avoid this,” he said. Obeidi did not have precise figures on the budget allocated by the Ministry of Culture to its affiliated institutions. The cinema and theater department finances itself through ticket sales from its two main theaters, the Iraqi National Theater and the Theater Forum in Baghdad. 

To help finance meaningful projects, it rents out stages to popular comedy groups that rely on bathos to address social issues. These commercial works, which use stunts and colorful language to entertain, “are highly offensive to theater," Asadi told Al-Monitor. "Such projects belittle social and political issues and use comedy [only] to make people laugh, while the theater should play a role in educating society undergoing a difficult phase,” he said. 

What options do Asadi and Qahtan have to produce their plays? Are there any private companies that might contribute to producing plays when the government fails to do so? “Today, in times of austerity, all our choices are narrowed. We live in a country with many major issues,” Qahtan said. “In Iraq, private companies do not sponsor artistic works, so theater directors just sit around waiting for a savior to provide support.” 

He concluded, “Our choices for nongovernmental productions are very limited.” Even those choices do not seem promising, as Qahtan is knocking on the doors of investment and industrial companies for production support. So far, he has received only empty promises. It seems that the cultural and artistic scenes in Iraq will hibernate a long while. 

Artists and other theater workers will suffer from unemployment, pushing people to migrate or leave the artistic and cultural sectors in search of other professions. Iraq will lose important theater circles that constitute an integral part of its urban social fabric. 

Omar al-Jaffal is an Iraqi writer and poet. He is an editor of Bayt and Nathr, two magazines that are published in Iraq. He is also the chief editor of Al-Aalam al-Jadid, an electronic newspaper.

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