Makeshift theatre emerges from bombed Iraqi street

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BAGHDAD, Nov 9 (Reuters) On a street showing the scars of a suicide bombing, Baghdad theatre lovers emerged from the shadow of violence to gather around a makeshift stage yesterday and revive the ancient city's long cultural heritage.

Taking advantage of a recent drop in violence, about 250 people watched the one-off performance of a play based on the works of Ghaib Tuma'h Farman, one of Iraq's best-known novelists who left in the 1940s to study in Egypt.

Written by director Haider Muna'thar, the play ''A Window on a Shadow of the Deceased'' opens with a dream sequence from which Farman, played by famous Iraqi actor Sami Abd-al-Hamid, wakes up back in Iraq.

''What we did today was not only a play for entertainment but it is also a letter sent by Iraqi artists who want to say that culture is still available in Iraq and in the soul of Iraqis,'' Muna'thar told Reuters.

Information about the play was spread by word of mouth through Baghdad's arts community, the performers unwilling to broadcast it through more conventional means for fear of attracting would-be bombers.

The 50-minute play was performed on a rudimentary stage made up of a carpet laid on the bare floor of a U-shaped yard between buildings on Baghdad's al-Mutanabi Street, one of the city's oldest thoroughfares near Ottoman-era government buildings.

Seated on white plastic chairs under a large cloth for a roof, the appreciative audience included Iraqi President Jalal Talabani's wife.

Muna'thar said the play was an attempt to revive al-Mutanabi Street as well as Farman's works.

Outside, the din of jackhammers went on unabated as work continued to rebuild the old street of libraries and bookshops after a suicide truck bomb killed 30 people in March.

Columns outside the entrance were still pocked with jagged pieces of shrapnel from the explosion.

STREET THEATRE Theatre was well-funded under Saddam Hussein but was also tightly controlled. Plays have continued to be produced since the 2003 US-led invasion but have tended to be performed before near-empty houses because of deteriorating security.

''We want to say that if people are afraid to come to the theatre, we will come to you. We will turn the streets into theatres,'' Muna'thar said.

The play echoes the dislocation felt by millions of Iraqis forced from their homes by violence. Hamid's character says that any country other than Iraq is nothing but a memory, but on his return he is unable to find any familiar places or faces.

Three generations of Iraqi actors performed in the play, led by 80-year-old Hamid, regarded as a pioneer of modern Iraqi theatre.

Also in the cast was famed television and movie actress Shatha Salim, who plays a baker who works in Farman's house.

''Of course I was afraid ... But when I saw the audience and how they had gathered to see this play, my fear was gone,'' Salim told Reuters.

REUTERS AM ND0942

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