I started writing Ghosts in Baghdad a long time ago: eight years ago, to be exact. Of course, I have not spent every moment of those eight years hunched at a desk, pounding away at a keyboard producing draft after draft. Rather, the process of writing this play has been more of a slow burn, marked by long pauses when I turned to work on other projects, including an MFA in Creative Writing at UBC, and my recent venture with Kathryn Kirkpatrick on I am the Bastard Daughter of Engelbert Humperdinck.
Eight years ago, I read an article by Roger Cohen in the New York Times titled “The Ghost in the Baghdad Museum.” The article began with this paragraph:
For the director of a shuttered museum in a country at war, the imaginary can be a welcome refuge. Condemned to contemplate his own and his country’s fate in great halls emptied of visitors, Donny George paces past showcases of ancient vessels and jars and clay tablets, and he dreams.
I was instantly captivated, and clipped the article from the paper once I had finished reading. I knew I wanted to write a play about it. It was just too good a theatrical situation to pass up: the melancholy of an isolated man, the sadness of a place unable to fulfill its purpose because of war, and a simmering anger at the lack of planning and consideration on the part of the Americans who, although not necessarily responsible for the looting, did nothing to prevent it, or stop it once it had begun. Here was a part of the real world eerily similar to Waiting for Godot, a world in which discourse and discovery are halted, and the people who are trapped desire change but are at the mercy of outside, and often malignant, forces.
Although I was very aware of the war, I knew next to nothing about the situation of the Museum and the looting until I read Cohen’s piece.
I am one of the lucky ones who can say that I’ve never lived through a war. I have also never been to the Middle East, so before I actually sat down to write the play, I spent a lot of time researching. Although the American invasion of Iraq was very fresh news in 2006 (the year in which the article was published), there was not very much information out there about the looting of the Museum. There was only one book I could find specifically about the Museum (Thieves of Baghdad by Col. Michael Bogdanos), and although it proved to be compelling and informative, it nonetheless read with a strong pro-American bias that one might expect in a book penned by an American Marine. Newspapers and magazines were my next best source of information.
This play is ultimately a work of fiction, but from the outset I wanted it to be informed by the real world as much as possible. A play is about people, not plain facts: I try to be a good storyteller, not historian–although history, I have found, is a great asset to story. As part of my research, then, I read diaries and personal memoirs by or about Iraqis. I researched the general history of Iraq as well as more contemporary history. I read about the ancient history of Iraq and the dawning of agriculture and the development of cities. I could have researched for years, but finally forced myself to stop (sort of, anyway) because I wanted to leave room for my own imagination to build my own story.
The research drew me to two themes again and again. First, I began to realize that the art and culture housed in the Museum (or in any museum) is important because at least in part, it becomes part of a culture’s identity. Art and cultural objects often come to symbolize a culture or country: look at the Statue of David and the city of Florence, or the murals of Diego Rivera and Mexico. I think part of the reason art can be so revered is because the objects–statues, paintings, books, buildings–sometimes show us the best of ourselves, or the most important things we hold dear. This is no thing of small importance, especially when we think of the irrevocable loss we all suffer when these things are destroyed, such as the when the Taliban destroyed the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan in 2001. During World War 2, the Nazis placed dynamite throughout the Royal Castle in Warsaw, and threatened to destroy the building should the Polish people resist the occupation. The Castle was destroyed following the Warsaw Uprising, but after the war, it was rebuilt. In the documentary The Rape of Europa, a tour guide in the Castle asks a group of students why anyone took the trouble to rebuild it. One student answers: “Because the Castle is Poland.”
The second theme that emerged to me was that of survival: the demands placed upon us by the necessities of survival are very different during times of war. In a country like Iraq, having gone through thirty years of dictatorship and now suffering from shock waves of war, survival was and is a constant challenge. Recently, I was introduced to an Iraqi couple who left the country a few years after the American invasion. Their thoughts on the play and the stories they told me of their own experiences helped inform my own understanding of how these struggles play out in the real world of Baghdad, their home town. Choices are not always easy to make when one’s life or the lives of one’s children are threatened. The looting of the Museum, although a travesty, nonetheless takes on a different light if you consider the desperation of the people in Baghdad during that time–and even now, when resources remain scarce and stability is nowhere in sight.
Now, it’s been eight years since I read Roger Cohen’s article. We’re preparing to open the play next week. I have worked hard to weave these themes and others into a play about four people all struggling to survive in contemporary Baghdad. I hope I’ve written a good story.
We’re performing in a tiny theatre here in Vancouver that is a reclaimed space: it once was a butcher shop, then a gallery, now a half gallery/half theatre. There isn’t good lighting, the heat barely works, and we’re going to have to essentially construct everything when we move in. But it’s the perfect spot for the show, I think, especially considering the state of the Iraq Museum at the time I began writing, and the hard work involved in any reconstruction.
Tickets for Ghosts in Baghdad are now on sale. The play runs from March 27-April 6 at Little Mountain Theatre in Vancouver.