If Glasgow and Liverpool can do it, so too can… er Baghdad. Ten years after the fall of Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi capital is styling itself as a “capital of culture” for 2013. It’s a gallant move to remind the world that just as there is more to Glasgow than razor fights, and more to Liverpool than shell suits, there is more to Baghdad than carbombs and kidnappings.
Or so a group of assorted thespians are telling me in a cramped, smoky office of Baghdad’s National Theatre, the first stop-off on my recent tour of the city to report on how life has changed since the war.
On the face of it, I don’t find the actors’ argument very convincing. The theatre, like most other public buildings in Baghdad, is surrounded by 10ft high concrete blast walls. And rather than a few ticket collectors manning the door, there are half a dozen soldiers, all on hand because of threats in the past from religious militias, whose general approach to the performing arts can be summed up as “No Sex Please, not even a mention of it“.
In their eyes, even tonight’s play, a family-friendly comedy that looks an Iraqi version of Run for Your Wife, counts as unacceptably radical theatre, for the simple reason that it involves men treading the boards alongside women.
“Everyone in this office, without exceptions, has received death threats over the years, but because we are all artists with a message to get out, we have kept going,” says the theatre’s deputy director, Ismael al-Juboori, whose burly physique and swept-back silver hair makes him look like a Hollywood movie producer.
Now, he insists, after a long period in the shadows, Iraq’s artistic and cultural scene is about to blossom once more. The Capital of Culture project will see 24 films produced or made around Baghdad, including nine long-story movies, nine short films and six documentaries.
Subjects will include sectarianism, the US occupation, and various farce-type comedies – the humour of which, I have to admit, is somewhat lost on me in translation. The films are, however, likely to be more entertaining than anything produced during what Iraq’s artistic community now call the “Olive Period” – so-called because everything had to be a homage to Saddam’s Ba’ath Party, who wore olive-green military uniforms at all times.
Cultural highlights from the “Olive Period” are fairly thin on the ground. Mr Juboori mentions proudly that back in 1982, he worked with Oliver Reed on the Baghdad set of Clash of Loyalties, a Saddam-financed film in which a dastardly British colonel is killed during the 1920 Iraqi rebellion against the British mandate. Apparently, all the Brits had to wear moustaches to identify themselves as baddies.
But the really big production was The Long Days, a 1980 presidential biopic based on Saddam’s book of the same name. It was directed, apparently, by Terrence Young, who also did Dr No, From Russia with Love, and Thunderball. Although if you fancy seeing how he handled portraying a real-life international crook on screen, beware. It’s six hours long.
Nonetheless, Baghdad’s little “intelligentsia” – they still call themselves that – has somehow survived over the years, hanging out at places like the national theatre and the second-hand bookshops around Mutanabi Street, where a huge carbomb exploded a few years ago.
Meeting them is rather like going back to the 1960s. The men wear corduroy jackets and smoke pipes, long hair is still considered cutting edge, and unlike their contemporaries in Britain, they still refer unashamedly to concepts like the “high arts”.
Nonetheless, I wish Baghdad all the best in its Capital of Culture year, even if it doesn’t quite attract the crowds of the Edinburgh International Festival. And whatever happens, it’s bound to lead to better entertainment than that on offer down in Basra a few years ago, when Britain had effectively ceded control of the streets to Iran-backed Shia militias.
Back then, the national theatre showed a racily-titled religious number called The Night of the Death of the Representative of Humanitarian Justice (The Killing of Imam Ali). It was the only thing anyone could put on without risking a bullet in their heads. Somehow, though, it never made it to the West End.
Colin Freeman, who was based in Baghdad as a freelance journalist between 2003 and 2005, returned to the Iraqi capital last month to report on how life has changed. This blog is one of a series. His book about living in Iraq is The Curse of the Al Dulaimi Hotel and other half-truths from Baghdad.