Postcard from Damascus: The Actor’s Life in Exile

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Just days before the American invasion of Iraq, Nahdi Mahdi, one of Iraq’s most famous comedians, was starring in a play called The Wanderers at the National Theatre in Baghdad to a packed house of almost 2,000 people. Like many then living in the misinformation bubble created by Saddam’s regime, war was the farthest thing from his mind. “It was such a surprise,” he said. “We never thought it would happen.” Now war is constantly on Mahdi’s mind, and he himself is sort of wandering, one of the million Iraqi refugees now living in Syria. But unlike many of his refugee compatriots, Mahdi at least has a job. Every evening he performs one of the star roles in Homesick, a play written, directed and performed by Iraqi refugees at a dingy theatre in downtown Damascus for an audience composed almost entirely of other Iraqi refugees.

Homesick is a featherweight farce about a an illiterate fool who stumbles into a bankrupt satellite television company in Baghdad — the Hot Hot Channel — and is mistaken for the new station manager. Its sensibility leans heavily toward slapstick of a kind that finds humor in the sight of a dwarf with an Egyptian accent being tossed offstage, and unlike in real life Iraq, there are no car bombings or beheadings and none of the characters are kidnapped.

The director of Homesick, an Iraqi Kurd named Suran Ali Sharif, had in the past staged a more topical, political play in Syria. But as anything recognizable as normal life in Iraq fell apart, and as the ranks of the refugee population in Syria swelled, Sharif decided that serious theater was out of the question. “It’s impossible to present these troubles on stage,” he said. Iraqis in Syria “are under such psychological pressure, all we can do is try to make people laugh.” Still, there is at least one reflection of the new abnormal of Iraq in Homesick: Mahdi’s character is a bodyguard.

One evening last week a few moments before curtain call, Mahdi and the other actors lounged backstage while an actress with platinum blonde hair and a heavy application of kohl-eyeliner berated a stagehand in the timeless manner of prima donnas the world over. But any sense of show business as usual ended when one of the theater managers came by to collect passports and identity documents. The Syrian government is in the process of tightening its generous residency laws for Iraqi refugees, and the fear of deportation looms larger over the production than a newspaper critic with a grudge.

The cast has other burdens and traumas in common with its audience. “The killers in Iraq make no exception for artists, writers and actors,” said one man. “All of us have lost a relative.” Indeed, radical fundamentalists in Iraq long ago started targeting actors as members of an immoral profession. Mahdi, who is 43, left his family in Iraq in March of 2006, and he dares not return. A satellite news channel once erroneously reported his demise, a warning, he said, that he is marked for assassination.

But of course, the show must go on. “The tragedy fills you with all this suffering and you still have to go on stage,” said Mahdi, as he excused himself to go to his dressing room and change into the black dish-dash and checkered headscarf that is his bodyguard costume. “The audience doesn’t care about your pain. They have their own.”

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