Iraqi Theatre: A Niche in an Ecologically Political Sane Milie
Majeed Mohammed Midhin* and Suad Qahtan Hussien**
Looking back to Iraqi theatre prior to 2003, we see that it was bound to political themes that espoused the ruling political party. Though Iraq became a slightly more open society after the Baʼathist regime of Saddam Hussein was deposed, theatrical producers dared not challenge the regime while it was in power. From 1990 to 2003, Iraq witnessed grave political and economic unrest due to the invasion of Kuwait, the Gulf War, the Shiite uprising and the imposition of economic sanctions by the U.S.A. and its allies. Because of these momentous events, environmental factors were only of marginal concern in Iraq. More recently, Iraqi theatre has taken a tentative step towards ecological awareness. Today, the Iraqi soil, so to speak, is fertilized by a sense of climate justice. Theatre is beginning to document how the arts are populated with people concerned with the injustice that arises from a degraded relationship between humans and their environment. The relative democracy enjoyed by the Iraqi people offers the opportunity for playwrights to criticize different problems with Iraqi society such as water supply, protection of the natural world and related human rights. All these issues are presented through a political framework which enables discussion of the negative effects of war on the Iraqi people. The present paper attempts to shed light on the most important Iraqi playwrights, such as Abdul-Kareem Al-Ameri and Abdel-Nabi Al-Zaidi, focusing on social and environmental factors in contemporary Iraqi society. Moreover, the essay explores the most important historical periods in Iraqi theatre—that is, the Iran-Iraq war—whose consequences shaped the theatrical production of the period. Moreover, some powerful works by Iraqi playwrights during the harrowing years of the Iraqi-Iran-Iraq war will be discussed to show the great power of Iraqi theatre to provide a voice of humanity and hope, even amidst the continuous tragic circumstances of this long-suffering country.
Keywords: contemporary Iraqi theatre, economic unrest, environmental factors, ecological awareness, climate justice, Iran-Iraq war
In his definition of drama, Aristotle explained that drama imitates action; people, by imitating other situations and events, display a mimetic impulse. Yet, Bertolt Brecht has insisted that drama is not just an imitation of action but is also a tool for demonstrating social condition. As noted by contemporary theatre professionals, “It is not just an entertainment but an instrument of political and social change” (Iwuchukwu 4, 5).
To understand how policy has played a dominant role in determining Iraqi theatre, it is necessary to consider theatrical germination in Iraq, its development and its main direction of progression. In the article, “The Birth of Modern Iraqi Theatre: Church Drama in Mosul in the Late Nineteenth Century,” Amir Al-Azraki and James Al-Shamma note that theatre was introduced to Iraq in 1880 (1). Mosul, they emphasize, witnessed the countryʼs earliest theatrical efforts for several reasons.
The political, economic and cultural relations between Mosul, Istanbul, Damascus and Beruit led to the transformation of theatrical aspirations in Iraq. Furthermore, since theatre in Iraq has a religious tendency and because Mosul has many churches, theatre tentatively took its first steps there. In other words, theatre at that time was geared towards popularizing religious and moral purposes; it was an instrumental theatre (Al-Abudi 19, 20). However, Al-Azraki and Al-Shamma note that “although many plays written through 1908 focused on religion, drama that addressed social issues emerged as early as 1892, and the production of political drama grew during the early twentieth century in opposition to the first Ottoman and then British rule” (1).
During the 1920s, Iraq suffered from chaos that followed political disorder and social abuse. As was the case during other social movements, literary works gave voice to social crises of the day. The major aim of literature at the time was to express opposition to the occupation of Iraq; thus, literature functioned as the sole means through which writers could express their resistance to the occupiers. All writers had one main purpose: to call for freedom and to regain their liberty. Consequently, the rise of theatre in Iraq was dominated by social, political, and sometimes tyrannical influences, with little concern for its technical and artistic dimensions (Al-Azraki and Al-Shamma 26).
Iraqi theatre in the 1930s was distinguished as more audacious and more realistic; it began to echo patriotism and addressed more daring social issues, such as the emancipation of women and the oppression of the social classes. With an emphasis on such themes, many renowned plays were written at that time such as Nadeem Al-Atraqgiʼs The Doomed Family (1932), Jameel Ramziʼs The Victim of Chastity (1934), Saleem Battiʼs Destinies (1943) and Muhammad Lutfiʼs The Crime of Society (1936), amongst others. In that era, Iraqi drama concentrated on the call for new life based on logic and knowledge. During the period between the two world wars, Iraqi drama was palpably fascinated by social dilemmas, and the audience at that time was extremely satisfied since the plays were felt to be as realistic and authentic as their own lives (Al-Azraki and Al-Shamma 27).
During the 1940s and 1950s, Iraqi drama was widely upgraded; the number of playwrights increased, large numbers of theatrical troupes emerged and optimistic directions were pursued for developing the theatre. Many critics have emphasized that Iraqi theatre was born with the return of Haqi Al-Shibli (1913–85) from France, where he was studying performance techniques and staging. Clearly, Al Shibliʼs return marked a turning point in Iraqi drama with his application of European theatrical models to parallel developments in Iraq. Furthermore, he established performance development in the Institution of Fine Arts in 1934. As a result, Iraqi theatre has since become an elevated art form and has been recognized by the Iraqi State as a dynamic organization structured on cultural and educational values. This era also witnessed the appearance of a new theatrical generation that was greatly influenced by the European literary movements, particularly the European theatre schools. However, Iraqi plays were still tackling the Iraqi character and its influence in terms of social problems, compulsion, frustration from class persecution, and political and social injustices (Al-Azraki and Al-Shamma 29).
Between 1958 and 1965, the Arabic and Iraqi political arenas witnessed several significant political changes, the most critical of which were the Deviation of the Dictatorship in Iraq in 1958 and the Unity Relapse of Egypt and Syria in 1967. Those events were reflected notably in the Iraqi theatre of the time, rendering it unstable and anxious. Describing the years from 1965 up through 1970, Al-Aboudi mentions that this was a variable period dominated by cultural and ideological transitions. Many of the pioneers of dramaturgy shone during those productive years, and playwrights such as Yusif Al-Ani, Badri Hassun Faried, Safaa Mustafa, Adel Kareem, amongst others, created a theatrical revolution. In other words, they introduced the Iraqi political and social inconsistencies through the lens of European theatrical experiments and schools (Al-Aboudi 32).
Iraq is not a typical country; rather, it is a community of people who have lived through bitter experiences of violent wars, revolutions, occupations, dictatorial authorities and terrorism from the past through the present. During the tyrannical regimen of Saddam Hussien, Iraq was involved in useless, severe and devastating wars in which the greatest loser was the Iraqi Nation, starting with the Iran-Iraq War (1980–88), continuing through the first Gulf War (1991), the invasion of Iraq (2003) and, finally, to the continuous war on terror that left people unable to distinguish between the innocent and the criminal.
Because of the overriding political state, the associated literature has been divided between supporters and opposers of Saddamʼs policies. Since the theatre in Iraq has also passed through these crucial years, these same conditions have left their tremendous impact on theatrical projects, one way or another. Yet numerous modern playwrights, such as Abdul-Kareem Al-Ameri, Abdel-Nabi Al-Zaidi, Rasha Fadhil, Awatif Naeem, and Abdul Razaq Al-Rubai, amongst others, have developed a significant contemporary theatre to reflect important aspects of the Iraqi culture by communicating social, political and ideological messages on stage.
In Contemporary Plays from Iraq (2017), translated and edited by A. Al-Azraki and James Al-Shamma, Iraqi theatre between 1980–88 is divided into three types:
[Firstly] Agit-prop theatre [whose] productions glorified the war against Iran; they urged citizens to participate in defending their country against what the state called al-Furs al-majoos or “The Invasion of the Majoos;” [Secondly] commercial theatre in the face of cultural oppression, and [finally] academic theatre which is experimental in nature.”Al-Azraki and Al-Shamma xvi
Theatre has been used as a means to show the negative aspects of war. As far as the Iran-Iraq War was concerned, people come to realize that there were no victors; both countries were losers. No doubt, the painful experience of violent action has had a devastating effect on both the invader and the invaded; this result might not be initially apparent, but its traumatizing outcomes can inevitably be seen afterward.
Trauma, as a psychological condition, refers to a response to an experience that renders an individual unable to properly process it and may result in symptoms such as flashbacks, nightmares, feelings of alienation, diminished empathy or avoidance of reminders of the initial trauma. It is a wound of the soul, and as such, it knows no categories of victim or perpetrator, good or evil. Raymond C. Rosen et. al. point out that “Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a common and potentially disabling psychiatric disorder that affects a large number of active-duty military personnel and Veterans” (Rosen et al. 5–16).
The best example of such a traumatizating force is the war on Iraq in 2003. This event is eloquently represented in theatre by a plethora of contemporary Iraqi playwrights, such as Abdul-Kareem Al-Ameri, Rasha Fadhil, Abdel-Nabi Al-Zaidi, Awatif Naeem and Abdul Razaq Al-Rubai, to name but a few. However, the concept of violence put forward identifies the substance of war and is comprised of three conceptual constellations: direct/physical violence, structural/economic violence and cultural/symbolic violence.
The surging interest in trauma theory by playwrights is viewed as a way to invest the issues of racism and the religious conflict to comment on different psychological disturbances of people who are under these strains. As in the case of the Iraqi people, the religious conflict between Sunni and Shia was used as a pretext to invade Iraq. Thus, lies and deception, disseminated by the invaders and seeming to be true, led to further disaster and unspeakable suffering. Moreover, the existence of major social conflict as an ongoing condition adds to a wide range of serious problems experienced by Iraqi people in many different walks of life. Any discussion of the spectacle of mass terror and the threat of nuclear weapons is welcome by the international community as a deterrent action against even the possibility of this danger, even though such possibilities may be remote. As far as Iraqi playwrights are concerned, trauma and violence are represented by depicting the Iraqi people before the war and foregrounding the horrific events thereafter in 2003.
Abdul-Kareem Al-Ameri’s A Cradle (2001) depicts the instability that threatened the Iraqi people, the volcano in which we lived during the dangerous period before 2003, while Rasha Fadhil’s Ishtar in Baghdad (2003) is concerned with the gruesome events that took place at Abu Ghraib and the crimes committed by American soldiers that have left a black mark on the history of Iraq. Yet, the Abu Ghraib photographs are more about dominance established through the staging of trauma than the extraction of truth; as the testimonies of accused soldiers have revealed, these were acts of both spectacle and surveillance which led, in turn, to a sense of trauma not only for the victims but also for the perpetrators.
Abdel-Nabi Al-Zaidi’s Summer Rain (2011) addresses the bloody conflict witnessed by Iraqi people daily through brutal killings that were justified by a religious ideology of violence. The consequences of trauma are highlighted by investigating the relationship between those who affect and those being affected by war. Expressing a similar concern, Abdul Razaq Al-Rubai’s A Strange Bird on our Roof (not yet produced) is preoccupied with the relationship between a victim and a persecutor. In sum, these plays present the ongoing suffering of the Iraqi people due to war and the social media which encourage it.
As an Iraqi student working on a PhD in the U.K., and having experienced the outcomes of war on the Iraqi people from the first Gulf War in 1991 to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, I recognize the significant effect of social media on people in the Western world. The term “War on Terror” leaves people unable to discriminate between the innocent and the criminal; the confusion is magnified by alleged news that Iraq represents the ultimate evil. In contrast, the photographs of Abu Ghraib, which quickly multiplied across internet sites and newspapers throughout the world, have had a negative effect on the perpetrators. As visual evidence documenting the abuse of prisoners emerged, the links between the violence of representation and the violence of war became even more apparent. As has been noted, “War and terrorism make powerful interventions into our social worlds via theatrical acts that seize the imagination of the public” (Hughes 149,164).
Unlike other Iraqi playwrights, however, Abdul-Kareem Al-Ameri heralded the role of theatre in documenting and attacking the evil in society. Though he worked under an authoritarian regime, he constantly endeavored to communicate his message. Al-Ameri’s A Cradle (premiered in 2001 at Al-Rashid Theatre) was written by means of symbols because of the nature of the ruling political party at that time. It is perhaps the only play that presented the years during and after Saddam Hussein’s regime.
A Cradle dramatizes the turbulence that threatened the Iraqi people during the tumultuous period before 2003. Key events during this era paved the way for extreme hardship and pain that Iraqi people lived through afterwards. What is significant about this play is that it is not limited to a specific time: though Hussein’s regime was overthrown in 2003 with the assistance of the U.S.A. and its allies, the situation in Iraq has not changed significantly since then.
Despite this bitter fact, Al-Ameri chose A Cradle as the title for his play. Hope still sweeps through Iraqi life despite adverse circumstances. The new life represented by the cradle is embodied by the new generation who will come and save Iraq from misery. Although the characters in A Cradle are fictional, they are well known figures from everyday life: the downtrodden woman who dreams of having a child; the carpenter who devotes his life to building cradles instead of coffins; the soldier who returns from war impotent and is abandoned by his wife; the madman who has lost his daughter because of war; and the teacher who, because of poverty, is forced to sell cigarettes in the street. Although all of these characters suffer intolerable circumstances, they never lose faith in a better future.
A Cradle begins as Marwan, the son, is experiencing disappointment, and the future looks more pessimistic in his mind. Like an invocation of the spirit in Greek drama, Marwan addresses the wood, a symbol for both life and death. It represents life in the form of a cradle that carries new babies; at the same time, it represents death in the form of coffins that are made of wood. Thus, life and death become indispensable in Marwan’s mind:
Oh, what a life! We enter with a heart-shattering wail and exit with the cry of one stabbed through the heart. What a life! It has never granted peace, not since Adam’s fall from everlasting Heaven. (He seizes the cradle.) Tell me! What does tomorrow hide? We cling to life while death awaits. Each day leads to the next. We chase the days, which are coffins, not knowing that the dust of the passing years is as thick as the dust of war.Al-Ameri 23
Marwan’s feelings of bitterness are shared by all Iraqi people who have lived under the shadow of war. In such a context, time is meaningless since there is no hope at the end of the tunnel. Marwan returns from the war to find his beloved, thinking that he was dead, married to another man. Even though the carpenter tries to mitigate Marwan’s feelings of loss by saying, “My son, I thought you left the war behind you. Why do you bring it up?” Marwan feels the traumatic traces that cannot be healed, “Had it left no trace, I would not mention it” (27).
Marwan’s loss of his beloved, Yasa, has left an unforgettable pain that cannot be easily alleviated. So, in the play, he waits for another war “to settle what has been left unsettled between us . . . revenge on ourselves, revenge on the dust that has buried us up to the neck.” The carpenter ascribes all these circumstances to the fate over which we have no control. It is a pretext that is sharply contradicted by Marwan: “Is it fate that keeps one running away all his life, afraid of a shadow or a cry of despair? Is it fate that makes us open accounts in the bank of death? Ah! The entrance to hell has not yet been sealed!” (28).
Death becomes a new agent of war that consumes all beautiful things. Sometimes death was a wish since life was not worth living during the war. This is clearly shown by the madman who lost his mind because of the death of his daughter, Noor: “Oh death, this is my body! Let it die! No need for it anymore! No need for this wretched body! Take it! Take what you want and put out the fire in my chest! Take my soul but let my daughter come back home. (Silence.) Was I destined to carry the burden of the world?!” (29)
Another character who experiences the violence of war is Saeed, who “enters in a wheelchair.” The atrocities of war are visibly manifested on Saeed’s physical body, as he has not only lost his legs but has also been deserted by his wife. Saeed bewails:
What could she do with a man who came back from the war without legs? What could she do with me? (Silence.) In the beginning, she was kind and loving, taking me outside and sharing her thoughts with me. Days were passing slowly . . . very slowly until the heartbeat slowed down and she started to move away from me. Love was like salt dissolved as if in water by my disability, then I started spending my nights alone. I knew that failure had covered us with its black cloak. She has gone.30
Different kinds of traumatic experiences are depicted in the play, and Al-Ameri suggests that the effect of war touches everyone in society; no one can be saved in a country devoured by war. This message is especially clear when Marwan, the son, talks about his motherʼs death: “They killed her . . . the uranium melted in her body like fire. . . . We send our dead to where the huris and rivers of wine are . . . we send them to a point of no return. No one told us about Heaven but we, know for sure what Hell looks like” (30).
Because of war, social values have drastically changed. Poverty and deprivation forced people to work in miserable jobs for supplies of food. So, we see all characters in the play rebelling against the corruption in their society. Even those who are intelligent are forced to abandon their pursuit of knowledge because of their extreme need. The teacher indignantly proclaims, “What a tax I am paying for my age! My feet are tired from wandering the streets. I used to oppose those who smoke, now I sell cigarettes to everyone (Silence)” (30). This speech is especially meaningful, since the acts of smoking and selling cigarettes are used in the play to refer to environmental issues.
The teacher further explains that he feels miserable because of the contradictions in his society which value materialism over spirituality. He bitterly observes, “One of my students was lazy and I used to rebuke him, hoping he would change, but instead he dropped out. Yesterday I saw him driving a luxurious car. He stopped and said, “Do you remember me? I am the lazy one!” He threw a coin in my face as if I were a dog. I became a dog. What use is an old dog?” (31)
The painful experience of the madman further increases the disturbing tension of the play. War has no mercy; it is blind. There is no discrimination between sinful and innocent. The madman cries out:
Close the doors! Do not look at the ceiling! Death comes from above. Watch out! Close all your windows and doors! Noor! Oh, Noor! They told me that children come during the Eid. To whom shall I give the Eid gift! Who will take it from me? Oh, people of the earth! Who will take the Eid gift from me?! (Silence.) The missile has stolen her last childhood dream. The roof collapsed and the house turned into dust. . . .32
Although Al-Ameri continuously reiterates a pessimistic view of war, hope is nevertheless expressed. The word “Eid” in the above extract denotes the cycle of life, and refers to a festival which takes place every year. Moreover, A Cradle ends with a very beautiful image of Christ as a symbol of hope. When the carpenter talks with the mother saying, “Have you seen the infant’s tears? Have you ever seen a light die? (Silence.) Oh Maryam, your son died!,” the mother responds, “No, he did not, for his cradle is shining like the wings of an angel” (33).
To conclude, Al-Ameri’s A Cradle is perhaps the only play produced in Iraq both during and after Saddam Husseinʼs tenure, albeit in different locations. The first production took place in 2001 at al-Rashid Theatre in Baghdad, and the second production in Basra, after the regime was overthrown in 2003, with the help of the U.S.A. and its allies. Crucial to the performance of the play, time and place are unspecified as the main events unfold. In other words, the play is not focused on a particular time, since daily life in Iraq has not changed. Perhaps, this is the main reason for its appeal to audiences both before and after the tenure of Saddam Hussein, even though no drastic alterations were made to the script, directing style or scenography. As dominant political concerns have structured modern Iraqi theatre, however, Iraqi playwrights and performances have not addressed important social issues such as environmental damage in general and a wide range of particular ecological concerns. Critically, Iraqi theatre has paid no particular attention to any ecological issue as of yet.
The term political ecology is an interdisciplinary concept with a multiplicity of definitions. Some of these stress political economy, while others point to more formal political institutions; some stress environmental change, while others highlight narratives or stories about that change. Even so, there seems to be a set of common elements that comprise a prototypical meaning. A composite definition suggests that “political ecology represents an explicit alternative to ‘apolitical’ ecology, that it works from a common set of assumptions, and that it employs a reasonably consistent mode of explanation” (Robbins 14).
Iraq environmental problems have been increasing, ranging from air, water and soil pollution, irradiation, deforestation, desertification, climate change impact, soil salinity ecosystem and the risks of draining the marshes (Price 2). During the 1990s, Saddam Hussien ordered the Mesopotamian Marshes in the south of Iraq to be drained because the locale was considered appropriate for his Shiite opposition. Mesopotamia is the land between the Tigris and the Euphrates; it is recognized as the most fertile region in Iraq and comprises about 25% of Iraq’s total land area (11).
This unprecedented and daring decision had an extreme effect on the entire area; it posed a serious environmental risk and caused a series of problems that lasted for decades. Regionally, the decision to drain the marsh impacted the entire ecological balance. One of the most serious problems was the massive migration of people who depended on the marshes for their livelihoods and were forced to leave behind their simple and peaceful lives as well as their memories. They were forcefully plucked from their lands, agriculture and livestock. Miles of green expanses turned into rough wasteland. Furthermore, in terms of biodiversity in the marshes, the survival of many species has been threatened while others have disappeared altogether. The same crisis has also impacted the water storage systems and seriously threatens water storage possibilities in the south of Iraq. In addition, the increase in temperature as one of the effects of climate change has severely damaged the entire area. Such a vast impact of draining the marshes in the entire region, in addition to the above-mentioned ecological problems, has been neglected and marginalized, but hopefully it will be staged in future Iraqi theatre productions.
The presence of theatrical performances and playhouses specifically designed for theatrical productions is a sign of health in any nation. Today, theatre plays a vital role in framing people’s minds; it is no longer a spatial arena with a uniquely didactic purpose. However, theatre has also become an indispensable medium through which playwrights can communicate political, social and ideological messages; in other words, theatrical production is vital part of human society which ensures the documentation of significant events.
Iraqi playwrights have been obsessed with political theatre; since its tender age, Iraqi theatrical experience has illuminated the dominant role of political realities in the entire area. Iraq is a country that has suffered from an immeasurable political crisis. However, during the twentieth century, a noteworthy modern theatre has developed in Iraq, and indeed it represents one of the most productive and fruitful theatres in the Arab world. Iraqi theatre has endured extreme challenges in the course of its history under brutal authoritarian rule, a series of devastating wars, occupation and ongoing civil strife. While these brutal blows have exerted a tremendous effect on contemporary theatrical production, Iraqi theatre has flourished once again due to a dedicated community of artists and the public who keep it active and alive, despite adverse conditions.
Recently, the theatre has begun to reflect every aspect of Iraqi society and culture. This has led to the documentation of the trauma of war in contemporary Iraqi history, which has greatly impacted the collective consciousness of the Iraqi community. The environmental crisis is now clearly connected to the political crisis. The problem that this article has attempted to clarify is that ecological issues in Iraq are no less hazardous than current political crises; yet, up to now, the presence of serious environmental damage has been marginalized and neglected, with only meagre attempts to project such problems on stage.
 Huris are beautiful companions in Heaven.
 There are two Eids, or religious festivals, in the Muslim calendar. The Eid al-Fitr is the celebratory feast that occurs at the end of Ramadan, the holy month of fasting. The Eid al-Adha commemorates the willingness of Ibrahim (Abraham) to sacrifice his son Ismael (Ishmael) in submission to God.
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*Majeed Mohammed Midhin is an Assistant Professor in Literature and Contemporary British Drama at the University of Anbar, IRAQ. In 2017, he obtained a PhD in Literature from the University of Essex under the supervision of Dr. Clare Finburgh and Dr. Elizabeth J. Kuti. He also has an MA in English Literature from the University of Baghdad’s College of Languages. His primary field of interest is modern and contemporary British drama as it affects the immediate needs of people in society. He has published widely on British theatre and Shakespearean drama, and he has participated in many colloquiums, conferences and seminars in and beyond the U.K. Majeed also works as a theatre translator: this year he will be translating, among other works, Stuff Happens by David Hare from English into Arabic.
**Suad Qahtan Hussein is an English teacher in a primary school since 2008. She works as a lecturer at Al Iraqia University, English Department. She got an MA in English literature from the University of Baghdad in 2020. Her field of interest is children’s theatre.
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