Taking The Golden Dragon to Kurdistan

A director's diary.

At Heathrow there's a moment when we check a large black case carrying a skeleton through as checked baggage. We're the Actors Touring Company on our way to Iraqi Kurdistan to perform The Golden Dragon at the inaugural Sulimaniyah International Theatre Festival. The play is about the experience of immigrants in the first world and, without giving anything away, it doesn't end happily. So, there's a little frisson as we check our skeleton in because he'll shortly be treading the boards in Kurdistan at the culmination of a long speech about returning home.

During the stopover at Istanbul we start meeting our first Kurds, the kebab shop owner from Swansea, the barber from Ashford, all going back, happily in a much healthier condition than our skeleton. And we sense there's a pride in this burgeoning state that has been accidentally birthed between the huge, competing forces of Iran, Turkey, Syria and, until recently, Iraq. Snatched from Saddam, it was another No-Fly Zone that allowed the Kurds to assert their historic right to a homeland and it feels absolutely right to be here now to celebrate and support them.

In Sulimaniyah we encounter the typical chaos that western eyes will always find in the Middle East: a summary change of schedule means that the opening night ceremony becomes an opening afternoon; we are offered a choice of three venues in completely different parts of town; and the personnel keeps changing as translators morph into production managers. But with remarkably buoyant spirits, the company embrace the huge platters of grilled meats, hot tea, slow traffic and pungent cigarettes that constitutes a life in the Orient.

The Festival has decided to honour Harold Pinter who was a great supporter of the Kurds, most notably with his play, Mountain Language, written about them. There's a wonderful moment in the opening ceremony as our producer, Nick Williams, accepts a medal struck in yellow and white gold on Pinter's behalf. But when we examine the medal later, the name has been misspelt, it's for Horold instead. We are to transport it safely to Lady Antonia in Notting Hill.

As for the serious business of theatre, we battle through many technical issues to deliver a very creditable performance to a packed and hushed audience. The festival director, Dana Marouf, has clearly done a great job in presenting the play, judging from the comments. The plot centres on the plight of an immigrant with toothache whose lack of money and papers leads to some improvised, fatal DIY dentistry. An elegant Kurd opines that we seem to have the ability to transform a small thing into a big thing whereas in Kurdistan important things get reduced to insignificance. The next day when I do a workshop with about 50 people, I'm able to probe a bit more deeply and am very struck by a middle-aged man who had lived in Germany for 11 years, working as a conductor on Deutsche Bahn: for him the play expressed perfectly the pain of separation and the intense longing to return home. Ibrahim now lives with his children at Tuz Khormato, near Baghdad and he'd travelled all the way up to see our play. He felt very strongly that now we needed to come back and document stories from the period of the "Anfal", Saddam Hussein's terrible reign of persecution over the Kurds.

The workshop, like almost everything else, had been arranged on the hoof. The previous evening over, predictably, kebab, I was asked whether I'd oblige and when the issue of who might attend came up, I was assured that some young actors from the Halabja Institute of Fine Arts would certainly come over. And they did. Eager young performers, keen to learn as much as possible. Halabja of course had been the infamous site of Chemical Ali's gassing of 5000 Kurds in 20 awful minutes in 1988. But, as I discovered in the workshop, for these young people that was the past and now a sizeable minority of them were keen to get out of Kurdistan altogether, similar in proportion to those who felt that the coalition action of 2003 was a good thing. Not so many agreed with me that the fact that not a single participant in the workshop was female merited much attention.

Being in the Middle East always brings out very mixed emotions in me: it's where my Mother is from - in fact, as we travel through Kurdistan, she's on the same latitude in Tehran. But the chaos, the corruption, the stifling sense that nothing can happen here angers me. However that is always allied with the infectious good spirits, generosity and fantastic spontaneity that trump living in the west every time. I see how the company respond warmly to our hosts and when we wake on Saturday morning to see the hills around Sulimaniyah sprinkled with snow, we head up in our minibus to encounter a wonderfully liberated new world. Striding up an apparently closed road, we come across three Kurdish ladies, heaving the fresh, sweet powder snow into large, clean, plastic bags. As we approach, the oldest of the three, ruddy faced, sheathed in a glittering piece of cheap blue satin and shod only in flip-flops, starts hurling snowballs at me. She's a remarkably good shot and we set to in earnest. It's like Carnival, I can feel her letting off steam as lump after lump of frozen water thuds into me.

Later, they explain they'll keep the snow in the freezer until summer and then eat it sprinkled with blueberries as a cooling snack. Their taxi driver, unusually for a man, hasn't got out to help them load the snow into the boot. Saddam shot both his legs off, he says and proudly shows us how his car has been modified to drive without. He's in great good humour too, and as we trudge through the valley, we come across more Kurds doing line dancing, building snowmen, stoking fires of burning tires while throwing their four wheel drives up and down snow covered hillocks in a mad Middle Eastern rodeo. The whole valley looks like an exuberant, animated Brueghel. After feasting on liberally salted hot sweet turnips, we depart in the most fantastically high spirits you could imagine.

Ramin Gray is Artistic Director of the Actors Touring Company. Their production of Roland Schimmelpfennig's "The Golden Dragon" inaugurated the first International Festival of Theatre in Sulimaniyah, Kurdistan, Northern Iraq

Getty
Show Hide image

Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times