Witnesses bearing unreliable statements

Playing on the fourth night of the 58th International Theater Festival MESS in the Youth Theater Sarajevo, was the performance “Baghdad”, by authors Enkidu Khaled and Chris Keulemans. This is a stage essay, which asks the question of how reliable of an instrument is memory in representing the past by exploring strategies of representing documentary and narrative theater. Is the past over with, or are we shaping it? Are memories true, or are sweet lies transformed into a pleasant truth by the fine workings of imagination? Keulemans and Khaled accidentally met while in Amsterdam. They soon realized they are connected through their place of birth – Baghdad. But the memories of the city where they had spent their childhood are completely different. Khaled is Kurdish (the segment of his identity that is important in defining his social status in Iraq, and simultaneously unimportant in the same measure in Amsterdam, where he is just an “immigrant from the Middle East”). He is amazed by Hollywood movies. He came to Amsterdam to study the performing arts, but before all in order to make a career in theater. Keulemans, a writer and director, a descendant of the European bourgeois intelligence. During his childhood he had attended an American school in Baghdad. Each morning, he swore to faithfulness and loyalty, along with the melody of the American anthem playing. In school he spoke English (“American”, says Keulemans), and Dutch at home. Although his parents were dedicated to humanitarian work, believing that through their professional engagement they can win over world hunger; Keulemans had spent his childhood in the company of sons and daughters of oil tycoons who were occupying the Iraqi desert. In ten years he learned about the same number of Arabian words, and Arabs (and Kurds) are servants in his house. Keulemans speaks about the differences in their memories: “My memories of Baghdad are beautiful and serene, while Khaled’s are completely different, violent and ugly. We agreed two years ago that we both return to Baghdad, and refresh our memories, and afterwards we transformed it altogether into a performance”. However, Khaled wants to expand the image which is formed by memories: “I didn’t want us to tell our own stories, but we wanted to share as many stories and experiences from people who are fighting to survive. I was in that same situation, we had lived on the streets and I wanted to leave so much, and share this experience with others”. In the performance, however, everything functions oppositely. Khaled is on about himself only, very unreliably and unconvincingly, to the point that he introduces himself with three different names. Keulemans on the other hand, very generally, handsomely, and rationally talks about the history of the Iraqi society. The performance plays on two kinds of stereotypes, which are the legacy of colonialism in today’s time of imperialism. The first one is populist-racist and it presupposes the discourse of orientalism (most simply put: erotization and primitivization of Asia). Today, in much the same way, characters are coded, identities and bodies of refugees coming from countries of the Orient in Western mainstream thinking. The other stereotype is intellectualist. When processed through the Westerners’ intellectual filter, the peoples from the Middle East appear as victims of wars and disenfranchised citizens of tyrant regimes. “They need to be emancipated”. It is important to note how Keulemans emphasizes that the democratic West is squinting at the presence and participation of its army in these wars. The sentence from the performance which most radically explains the continuous presence of the American army and the oil companies in Asia, from the end of World War II until today – is the one that says that conflicts are produced by three industries: the war industry, the oil industry, and the God industry. If we shift from the ideological to the dramatic plane, you could say that the performance is concretely determined by two types of mistrust. The first is mistrust toward language. Each language falsifies the convection and representation of unique internal feelings, and experiences into public terms, and shapes. Besides determining romanticism in Western culture, that same idea has, in a certain way, inspired a group of poststructuralist directions of thought in the XX century, which brought language to total absurdity. Khaled, however, isn’t mistrusting toward language, not only because he is afraid that words will falsify feelings, but also because he is afraid that the listener will falsify both words, and feelings. Since coming to the West, it is expected from him to talk about himself as a victim of political and social terror in Iraq. Keulemans, as a man who harbors the tradition of the European enlightenment, treats language as a mechanism for connecting ideas. For him, language is a tool by which man organizes his ideas. However, this tool lets him down in the moment when Khaled and Keulemans say completely different stories about Yusuf, a young man who recorded the war sites of Baghdad. In Keulemans story, Yusuf has become addicted to recording violence (some type of snuff fetishism), while in Khaled’s story, Yusuf is a young man who couldn’t achieve his life dream – to become a film director. The second mistrust is expressed toward theater as a system of signs. That is not reflected only in the giving up from drama and faking dramatic suspense, in parodying acting, the bizarre use of props, but in the reduction of the scene to minimal means, which are only reflecting the theatrical situation by which the play is separated from reality in which it is taking its place. This impression is increased by improvisation confusing the viewer. So, in the part of the play in which the translator is participating, it is unclear if the translation is incorrect on purpose (Holland, for example, becomes Belgium in the translation, and PKK becomes “some Kurdish party” etc.) in order to show that the story is lost in translation, or if these are unintentional oversights, given the free translation. It is hard to ultimately say if the performance “Baghdad” is a success, or a failure, before all it is hard to evaluate the authors’ intentions. Because of that you could say that it is confusing, but in this case, that is not a positive evaluation. Edin Salčinović was born in Sarajevo in 1988. He studied the Bosnian Literature and Comparative Literature at the Faculty of Philosophy in Sarajevo. One of the founders of literary magazine (sic!). He published short stories, literary critique, and reviews of poetics from novels. From 2014, he is a journalist of the daily newspaper Oslobođenje, where he is currently the editor of the Culture section.


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