Kurds, Arabs, countrymen: Shakespeare Iraq brings the Bard to Ashland like you’ve never heard him.
Kardo Kamil, a dashing young Kurd with trim black hair and a hip goatee, commands the open-air stage at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, playing Macbeth on a mild Ashland evening. Tomorrow is the Fourth of July. Tonight, Kamil serves up Macbeth’s famous Act I soliloquy from the Bard’s bloody Scottish tragedy, mulling whether to murder his kinsman and king.
“If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well / It were done quickly,” intones the young Iraqi actor, reveling in Shakespeare's music.
Lady Macbeth steps forward and, in an odd and beguiling mix of Kurdish and Elizabethan English, bullies her husband into killing King Duncan by questioning Macbeth’s manhood. She is played by Mewan Nahro, another trilingual Iraqi student whose passion for Shakespeare was nurtured by Peter Friedrich ’91.
An accomplished actor and director, Friedrich teaches at the American University of Iraq in Sulaimani, a cosmopolitan city of 1.5 million people about 165 miles northeast of Baghdad. It’s the cultural capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, which has been semiautonomous since the 1991 Gulf War and even more independent since the death of Saddam Hussein, a mass murderer of Kurds.
“I was tired of being on the sidelines of what was happening in that part of the world.” —Peter Friedrich
Friedrich watches from the wings with pride and pleasure as Shakespeare Iraq—a savvy post-sectarian troupe of Arabs and Kurds, men and women, Sunnis, Yazidis, and Shiites, believed to be the first to perform Shakespeare in Iraq in English—delivers a singular sampler that the boyish director describes as “a mashup of scenes” from Romeo and Juliet, Two Gentleman of Verona, and other classics (“the killer lines, the best stuff ”).
But the audience at Ashland has never heard those familiar words uttered quite like this: in a mélange of English, Arabic, and Kurdish spoken by a dozen Iraqis, bookended by joyous offerings of traditional Kurdish dances and old Iraqi songs.
One of the singers is Daroon Ali, an actor but not a student; he usually makes and serves coffee at the university. He’s so much a part of the group that the students insisted he come with them to the United States. While he and the others perform, the crowd claps and sings along. Then they ask the actors for their impressions of the places and people they’ve seen in the States.
“I think the real message of why we are here is not just to play on this stage. It’s to make some cultural exchange,” says Ahmed Mohammad Taha, 21, a Baghdadi Arab who moved to Sulaimani to study engineering at the American university, where only English is spoken. He fell for Shakespeare after joining Friedrich’s after-school drama club, whose language-loving engineering and international affairs students set their minds on performing the Bard in his native tongue.
Asked by an audience member for his feelings about the American invasion of his country, Taha speaks about war and perceptions, the way Americans and Iraqis view each other, and the need to see beyond TV and movie images.
“When we come here, we meet the real Americans, and we show them who the real Iraqis are,” Taha tells the crowd.
A little later, after an ecstatic ovation and backstage whoops and hugs, Taha stands in the southern Oregon twilight and elaborates. “I understand that the army and government are different than the people. And real Americans are not like the ones we’ve seen in crazy movies like American Pie. These are really wonderful, kind people here.”
Shake it up
|Peter Friedrich. Photo by Phil Humnicky
Friedrich and the troupe paid for the trip to the festival by raising $34,000 on Kickstarter, the online funding forum for “creative” projects. They were embraced by the people of Ashland, a leafy, left-leaning place where people sing Grateful Dead tunes in pizzerias and some of the best actors in the world perform everything from Shakespeare and Chekhov to provocative new plays and the Marx Brothers’ Animal Crackers.
The Iraqis, who’d been housed and fed at SCU for a few days after flying into San Francisco from Istanbul via Paris—and coached by the splendid Shakespearean and SCU theatre professor Aldo Billingslea—shared the homes and hospitality of theater folk like Claudia Alick, the Oregon festival’s associate director and producer of the free Green Show program that presented the group. Alick invited the Iraqis to brunch on her lawn the next morning, when the Independence Day parade struts by.
“This is fun,” says international studies student Sahar Jamal, a stylish young Arabic woman wearing jeans, high heels, and shades. She watches with delight the baton twirlers, town bands, Mexican mariachis, Marines, sailors, Jesus freaks, and massage therapists who appear in the Ashland version of the traditional American parade.
Friedrich admits that he didn’t imagine he’d be enjoying this cross-cultural scene four years ago, when he moved to Iraq to teach English composition and public speaking. An English major who’d acted and boxed at SCU, he apprenticed in the prestigious MFA program at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater and went on to perform in the national touring cast of Wendy Wasserstein’s The Sisters Rosensweig and on prime stages in Los Angeles and San Diego. He was between gigs—and on the eligibility list for the Los Angeles Fire Department—when he heard about the Sulaimani job.
“I was tired of being on the sidelines of what was happening in that part of the world,” says Friedrich, an upbeat guy with longish blond hair and a lot of energy.
It’s the night before the Ashland performance, and we're sitting in a bowling alley in the gritty town of Medford, where Friedrich and his students are celebrating his 43rd birthday by bowling a few games and dining on fried chicken and burgers.
He tells me about his experience in Iraq. What he found in Sulaimani was a thriving metropolis that, he says, “feels safer than a lot of American cities. Most Americans only know about Iraq from what we see on TV—and that’s not Shakespearean actors.” With his troupe of performers, he says, “This is a nice way to blow down a bunch of doors.”
Before joining Friedrich’s drama club, the only Shakespeare these students knew was the synopsis of The Merchant of Venice they had to learn for a school exam. But under Friedrich’s guidance they found themselves smitten by the Bard. They gave their first public performance of his work at a 600-seat theater in Sulaimani.
Like with most contemporary English-speaking audiences, “It's difficult for Iraqis to understand Shakespearean English. But they hear the beauty of the language,” observes Friedrich, who urged the actors to also “tell the story with their bodies. You put that beautiful language with some strong physical vocabulary and you’ve got something!” He decided the mashup would work better in Ashland as a multilingual show, with the actors shifting mid-scene from English to Arabic to Kurdish.
“These guys get bragging rights to say, ‘Not only can I speak English, I can speak English written in the 16th century, and in a way that will make you laugh and move you.’ That really wins them respect back where we live.”
I go, and it is done.
Friedrich arranged the Ashland trip after he’d spoken about Shakespeare Iraq on Los Angeles’ Truthdig Radio and, through a listener who was intrigued, festival artistic director Bill Rausch got wind of the group. Billingslea and others at SCU helped enormously, says Friedrich, who fondly recalls playing Horatio in Hamlet directed by the venerable SCU theatre professor Fred Tollini, S.J.
Friedrich says he is continually amazed at “the way people at Santa Clara have taken care of me since I got out of school ... I was shocked by the amount of commitment they put into this.”
The fire and devotion of these young Iraqis is also striking, Friedrich says. All of them have had family members or friends killed in atrocious ways. They’ve experienced a world that’s “stranger and sadder than fiction. They’ve taught me perspective ... They don’t talk about the past, because they have to move forward.”
That’s what Shunas Hussein is doing. He’s a Sulaimani Kurd who was in his mother’s womb when his father, a Kurdish leader, was killed in an attack by Saddam Hussein’s air force in 1988. He’s studying international relations, one of many subjects Shakespeare knew something about.
“The actions in his plays are still relevant for this time,” says Hussein, who first and foremost responds to “the beauty of the language.” So does Kamil, who plays the role of Macbeth.
When you start to understand the meaning of those musical phrases and the players’ motives, Kamil says, “You say, ‘Wow, oh my God. Who is this guy? He’s a super genius.’”
Kamil is studying engineering but dreams of a life on the stage and screen. “I’m going to be an engineer for my family. In our country, you have to be either an engineer or a doctor to have a good career and a good life. But if you let me, I’ll be an actor.” He sings Friedrich’s praises for giving him a forum and setting standards. “He’s a fabulous guy. Sometimes he gets angry because he wants everything to be perfect. We respect that.”
Sahar Jamal concurs. “Peter is very demanding. He wants you to give the best,” she says. It’s her responsibility to narrate the Ashland show, which she does in perfect English, like an old pro. She tells me that she had no interest in showbiz, or in Shakespeare particularly, when she joined the drama club, although she admits, after the rousing reception here, that she rather likes working in front of the crowd.
“Peter gave me courage, the courage to go onstage and speak in public,” Jamal says. “We’re a group of students from Iraq—Kurds, Arabs, Sunnis, Shiites, we don’t care—who came together and stood up onstage. That means a lot.”
STORY UPDATED March 3, 2013 at 13:38: What's in a name? Well, we like to have the correct one: Sahar Jamal is the name of the young woman originally identified as Nawaf Ashur. Also, a reference to "isolated killings" has been removed. Peter Friedrich notes that there's been exactly one American killed in Sulaimani in the past 20 years, and that it was not related to sectarian violence.