Maurice Decaul’s play about the Iraq war premieres as part of Poetic License festival.
Photos by Bjorn Bolinder
Poetic Theater Productions is a New York City theater company working with poets and playwrights to create a visceral, poetic theater. For this year's Poetic License festival, they take on hustlers and soldiers, telling new stories in innovative ways. Dijla Wal Furat: Between the Tigris and the Euphrates is a tale of the early days of the Iraq war, where ghosts haunt the people of a burning Baghdad, trying to prevent the bloodletting to come.
Euphrates doesn't really have a central plot, instead following a few groups of people, civilian and soldier, outside the cities of Baghdad and Nasiriyah in April 2003 as they come into contact with friends and foes. There are four Marines, a pair of Iraqi soldiers, a French war journalist and an Iraqi engineer and civilian, seeking only to make his country a safe place for his daughter. As everyone realizes by this point, this is a futile effort. Instead, they just keep on shooting.
And though there are only a few people on stage, their stories are intercut with prerecorded monologues from anyone and everyone in Iraq—civilian, soldier, jihadi and more—in a pastiche of voices that really makes their range of experiences hit home. In fact, it is the rhythm of these speeches and scenes, moving between live and recorded, that gives the play its "poetic" language, rather than the simple rhythm and rhyme of a verse drama.
Through the eight actors we see on stage, we get all sides of the conflict. Corporal Obebeduo (Temesgen Tocruray) and his unit guard a checkpoint in the city streets, trying to maintain order amongst the urban fighting. On the other side, there are Labib (Ankur Rathee) and Marid (Fahim Hamid), whose task drastically changes after Labib dies in the bombings and Marid must bring him home to his family, whether he wants to or not.
And then there are the civilians: war reporter Ines (Katie Zaffrann), assigned to follow Obe's team of Marines as she pursues her personal mission of finding out how war changes young men like the sensitive Ortega (Nabil Viñas), and engineer and father Mahmoud (Ali Andre Ali), a loyal Iraqi who stuck with his country even though his education could easily allow him to leave. Audiences will likely find themselves most sympathetic to Mahmoud's arc, the story of a peaceful man who only wants the best for his daughter, though there is so much more of his background we never get to learn in his brief appearances. And the question remains: do we relate more to Mahmoud and Ines because they are civilians, or because they are the most educated, Western intellectuals and early dissenters to the Iraq war that most resemble theater audiences of today?
On the other end of the spectrum, there is the long-serving Iraqi soldier Marid, who after Labib's death finds himself haunted, and occasionally possessed, by the djinn of his friend seeking to find his way home. From the psychological examination of a Muslim man encountering a spirit of Arabic folklore to the struggles for physical control of his body, their scenes are respectfully and beautifully done, the most engaging plot of the show.
And while the soldiers take a while to warm to, their heady group dynamic and military discipline somewhat off-putting, Euphrates constantly emphasizes the fundamental unity and humanity among everyone in the war, struggling just to survive.
During an evening of routine shelling by the Americans, there are two deaths: the Iraqi soldier Labib, and due to an error with one mortar round, civilian Mahmoud's young daughter. It is that latter casualty that changes everything, as the Marines find themselves haunted by the girl's death, and despite all their talk about unending killing, is it really a life for a life? That questions unites them all in each subsequent round of fighting, no matter how many other barriers separate them.
The languages represented on stage include not only English and Arabic, but French and Spanish as well, yet in this cacophony of voices it is still always clear what is going on. The heart of the story always comes through, whether we are watching an entrancing montage of Marines firing their weapons, Marid being possessed by a djinn or Ines telling the tale of her father's past that led her to seek out war as eagerly as he did.
Euphrates is also visually stunning, whether it's the jarringly realistic costumes and weapons or the very effective use of lighting to put the audience right in the scene along with the actors--blinded by bombs or the agonizing summer sun, or mystified by the possibly deadly figures in the distance. In this foreign land, hostile even to those who live there, any flash of light could be your last.
Maurice Decaul's play is more a slice of life than a unified story, but it is very successful at what it does. And though the location may have changed since 2003, this theme of the unending Middle Eastern war could not be more relevant today. For its sympathetic approach to an extraordinarily difficult topic, Dijla Wal Furat should be applauded.
Dijla Wal Furat: Between the Tigris and the Euphrates plays at the Wild Project through February 22.
This article was previously published on CHARGED.fm.