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