Sulaimania, Iraqi Kurdistan. October, 2010. As with most progressive art-movement events in Kurdistan, the story begins with Beth and San. If you’ve got a hankering for concert quality tar (Persian lute) and def (Kurdish frame drum) music, hang out with Beth and San. If the dust and pollution is slowly eating away at your soul and you need a picnic and dip in the beautiful Lake Dukan, tag along with Beth and San. Likewise if you want to meet a troupe of progressive multinational performance artists doing something revolutionary in Suli, once again, go see Beth and San.
Yesterday, after finishing grading a stack of presentations and preparing a few lesson plans, I hopped in a cab with some friends, scooted across town to Suli’s Public Garden/ Park, near the entrance of the bazaar. Sulaimania has a rich literary and artistic history, evident by the dozens of busts of poets and authors that line the main pathway of the park. Armed not with beautiful verse and prose, however, todays gathering was brimming with artists of a different kind.
In the center of one of the park’s soccer-field-sized, rose-lined common greens was a giant group of monstrous, shroud-covered figures. They were wearing enourmous, bright-colored psychodelic masks with huge protruding noses, lashing tongues and fire-red paper mache hair. A few meters to their side was another group, just as ominous, but clearly humanoid, wearing much smaller, muted-colored masks.
An eruption of monstrous roars was met with animal chirps and peeps. Over the next 45 minutes or so, these two groups interacted with each other in a number of ways. A solitary monster crept over to the humans’ camp. The humans giggled and poked it, and the gentle giant retreated with its tail tucked between its legs. A curious human charged the monsters and was similarly surrounded, inspected, and made to feel a fool. It was Where the Wild Things Are meets West Side Story, on acid, in Iraq.
By the end of the performance the two groups seemed to have grown accustomed to each other and they danced around the perimeter of the green. Humanoids skipped unmolested between herds of monsters as the whole lot bellowed glottal guffaws at its climax.
The crowd of onlookers’ melodious cheer fit right in with the animalistic scene preceding it. Masks were torn off, monster cloaks were hurled away and the performers met their family, friends and curious onlookers with bear hugs and kisses. I took this photo just after the performance as a young (monster) boy was thrown into the air by his father, and right before the two shared a big smoocheroo.
As it turns out, a handful of San’s buddies received a grant from the British Council for performance arts workshops for local Iraqis and this was the culminating event. This was the first street theater in Suli’s history and I’m so glad I was able to be there.