The art of mime may seem a little passé on European streets these days, with silver-coloured cowboys and golden clowns a regular feature at tourist traps everywhere, but in Iraq, performing mime on the street is altogether different.
One of the first times he performed what he describes as “silent theatre” in a Baghdad park early in 2015, the response was so gratifying that local theatre director and playwright Hussein Darwish decided to make it a regular outing. Earlier this year he started adding to his mime troupe and taking the act to provincial streets.
“After that we organized a performance in Tahrir Square as well as in several provinces,” Darwish says. “People really appreciated it.”
Most of the shows are meant to be either educational or a commentary on the political or security situation in Iraq. “At first people were shocked,” Darwish says. “Or else they’d make fun of us. Some people criticized us because they think its futile to be doing things like this.”
“This mime is different to the kind that you see in Europe,” Darwish insists. “The audience can interact and it aims to be more than entertainment.”
“We wanted it to be a conscious, humanitarian and artistic thing,” says Ali Abadi, one of the actors who worked in the mime group that Darwish set up in the southern city of Basra for an arts festival. “It can serve as a way to creatively criticize the current situation here in Iraq.”
“Our message is that viewers should love one another, preserve their country and renounce sectarianism,” Abadi continues.
The mime artists don’t support any particular political party, the young actor says, and they feel like they are working outside of established Iraqi theatre, “where all they do is make people laugh; it is an act of extortion”.
The mime shows are not about politics, argues Taqi as-Sayed, a member of the Baghdad mime troupe. It’s really just about delivering positive messages and it’s also important to perform on the streets, where locals, who don’t have the money to go to the theatre, can see the work.
“We are paid for some of our performances – for example, at festivals,” as-Sayed says. “But it’s not very much. And the performances on the street and at universities are all free.”
The mime troupe also has its own YouTube channel and they believe that the commentary on Iraqi social media has brought them a much bigger audience.
Zeina Hassan is one of the students watching the mime artists at the university. She’s impressed. “This art is a kind of a protest and the young artists are great,” Hassan told NIQASH. “There are so many changes in the country and it’s a very complicated situation. The mime troupe have approached these issues in a new and different way, and that is really impressive.”