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Articles, Essays, Volume 6

Bubbles and Balloons: The Amman Theatre Festival (1995)

Bubbles and Balloons: The Amman Theatre Festival (1995) 
By Nehad Selaiha
Arab Stages, Volume 6, Nehad Selaiha Memorial Issue (Spring, 2017)
©2017 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center Publication

The real drama in this festival, which lasted from March 27th to April 10th, took place off stage. On the morning of my arrival, I was visited by a ghost from the past. I had met Dr. Mohsen Musawi at the Baghdad theatre festival in 1978 when he was head of the then thriving and vast Iraqi state publishing organization, and enjoyed health, wealth and power. In those days, despite his heavy responsibilities (he was also a writer, a translator, an academic scholar and university professor), he had an unbridled zest for life and boundless Joie de vivre. But the man has suffered a sea-change. He is now a frail, grey, broken man whom diabetes has deprived of the few pleasures of life the collapse of his kingdom had left him – an exile, wandering in the Arab world from one teaching job to another and from one publisher to the next to market his books. He endures his fate with stoical resignation and a soft, pensive smile, but cannot stop worrying about the fate of his brother who is still in an Iraqi cell and suffering from cancer. In meeting me, I am sure Dr. Musawi was seeking to capture a glimpse of his golden, care-free days, of many dear absent faces, of those distant evenings by the Tigris when the glasses clinked happily and the strains of a distant lute wafted on the summer breeze.

At the Royal Arts Centre the same evening, at the opening of the festival, the Iraqi drama continued to spin out. In the middle of the second row was a delegation of Iraqi theatre artists and their aspect made a shocking impact on me. Veteran playwright and actor Yusef El-Ani, whom I had known as a small, nimble man, quite nifty despite his years (three score and more), now looked totally subdued. The thick muffler round his neck made his white head look pathetically small, as if he had shrunk. Beside him, actress and playwright Awatif Na’im, in a simple, rough-textured black coat, looked sallow and emaciated. Her husband, Azia Khayyoun, a director and actor of immense talent, and once a man of great vitality and vigor, looked pale and haggard. I had heard the night before, on my arrival, about the rigors of their trip from Baghdad to Amman – a 16-hour bumpy bus ride in bitter cold (the route crosses a desert) with long waits on both sides of the frontier. But the journey, however arduous, could not reasonably explain why they looked so ailing.

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