The theatre building, which Najaf’s population used to call “the local administration hall,” was burnt and destroyed during the first uprising against Saddam’s regime following the Kuwait war in 1991. Since then, neither Saddam’s regime nor the successive governments that have ruled Iraq since 2003 have seen fit to rebuild the theatre.
Ihsan al-Tallal, a writer and dramatist from Najaf, famous for a number of plays performed in Baghdad and outside Iraq said: “We used to have a prosperous theatre in our city in the 1970s and there were actors and more potential than existed in Baghdad.”
“With the Iraqi-Iranian war in 1980 and the deterioration of arts and culture under Saddam’s authoritarian regime, the basis of theatre collapsed,” he said. “The painful blow to theatrical artists was not only the destruction and burning of the only theatre in Najaf in 1991 but also the neglect and the absence of any initiative during the last two decades to repair the damage.”
Annual reports issued by Najaf’s reconstruction commission are devoid of any culture and arts related reconstruction projects even though the government continues to stress its support of these sectors. Hopes were raised in 2008 when Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced that his government intended to build centres for culture and arts with theatre halls in all Iraqi provinces.
Ali al-Matbaei, a playwright, theatre director and head of the artists’ union in Najaf, has called on provincial governments to consult with artists over the proposed new centres. “We were invited to discuss the initial design of the culture and arts centres in our city and we discovered that the specifications of the theatre hall do not comply with those that we know; we made our remarks but we do not know if they were take into consideration or not."
According to Munther al-Hatimi, head of Najaf provincial council’s science and culture committee, the local government does not have enough resources to deal with cultural matters. “The province’s officials were obliged to accept such a deficiency because they needed to handle other difficult and decisive issues directly related to people’s life such as security, basic services and reconstruction,” he said.
However, al-Hatimi is optimistic that as Najaf prepares to become the Islamic Capital of Culture the city will witness a cultural makeover. "The province will witness the emergence of Najaf cultural city – there are now preparations for the city’s design, which will contain all fields of art, including a prestigious theatre,” he explained.
Pending the establishment of new facilities in the city the province’s theatrical artists will continue their wait for a stage, postponing the production of shows that they have long dreamed of performing.
Abdul-Muneim al-Qorashi, a poet and playwright, said that problems faced by theatrical artists in Najaf are different from those of Baghdad or other provinces. One of the major problems in Najaf, he explained, is that for more than 30 years people abandoned the theatre despite the city’s unique religious and cultural identity.
‘Rose, Anguish and Hope’, an Iraqi play performed in Najaf in 2007 with the support of the organization for the defence of human and women’s rights was the first play to be performed in Najaf since the fall of the Saddam regime. To the surprise of many, local residents flocked to see the play in a crumbling hall, prompting the play to extend its tour to other provinces.
Ihsan al-Tallal, the author of the play, revealed that the hall has subsequently been given to the women’s organization which stopped plays being shown there.
“We would have opted to present our work in the streets were it not for the security circumstances, the weak cultural and artistic level of Iraqis and the psychological tension suffered by people,” said al-Tallal.
But some artists worry that the attention on facilities is misplaced. “Although it is important to establish a good infrastructure for theatre in Najaf, it is more important that Iraqi politicians change their way of thinking regarding the arts,” said Ali al-Matbaei, who has won many national prizes for his works. “It is a pity that the city’s officials do not understand the power of art in rebuilding human beings in this country.”