Monday, August 11, 2003

BAGHDAD, Iraq, Aug. 9 — Morning rehearsals were under way on a recent day at the Nasir Theater on Sadoon Street when a dwarf unexpectedly leapt onstage. Affecting a dictator's sneer, he gazed out at the empty seats and unleashed an all-too-familiar refrain: "Our blood and souls we sacrifice for you, Saddam!"

The other actors burst out laughing at the slogan, a reaction that might have landed them in prison six months ago. Then the power went out, leaving the actors to whistle and applaud in the sweltering dark.

These are giddy times for Iraqi performers. Shorn of the police state that censored and stupefied them, many are struggling to revive the cosmopolitan theater scene that once made Baghdad a magnet for performers throughout the Middle East.

But with scant electricity, an 11 p.m. curfew and rampant street crime, it is hard to lure audiences for matinees, much less at night. Some fear that hard-line Islamists, angered by what they see as Western decadence, will create their own new form of censorship. In June, an actress at the Nasir was shot to death. Apparently, no charges have been brought in this chaotic period, but her fellow actors contend that she was killed by a relative, a woman, who is a militant Shiite.

Several Baghdad movie theaters have been attacked by Islamists over the past month, and some artists say they worry that they have become targets. "Now we have freedom in all ways," said Abdul Rahman al-Murshidi, a well-known comic actor. "But the freedom has its own limits."

The play being rehearsed at the Nasir, a five-year-old comedy, "I Saw It With My Own Eyes," contains scenes that were removed in the previous era at the insistence of Saddam Hussein's security agents, including one in which security officers insult and spit on a man.

Some actors and directors say that what was worse than censorship was the way Mr. Hussein imposed his own tastes on the nation, subsidizing belly dancing and cheap cabaret theater while shutting out serious dramatic performers through neglect or intimidation.

No comments: