"Born in Iraq" gives a different perspective on conflictby Ambar Espinoza, Minnesota Public Radio
An Iraqi and Paraguayan's unique collaboration is producing a play in the Twin Cities about the Iraqi experience before and after the war. The story is based on true experiences by one of the playwrights, who grew up under Saddam Hussein's dictatorship.
Minneapolis, Minn. — In a darkened theater in Minneapolis, actors are running through a scene where a young Iraqi boy meets an American soldier.
It's just days before the opening night and the actors are working on their lines.
Yacoub Aljaffery watches from the seats. This is his story. Born in Nasiriyah, Iraq. Aljaffery has vivid memories of growing up under Saddam Hussein.
His family suffered horribly. Saddam's soldiers brutally murdered his father.
Aljaffery, who was just 10, saw it happen.
He and his family escaped to Saudi Arabia and then moved to the United States in 1996. He's been in school since then, but he's never forgotten Iraq. He's visited his homeland five times since the war started in 2003.
"I always wanted to write something about my life story," he says. "I always wrote short stories about how I lived. I published a couple of them at North Hennepin (College.)"
He's always wanted to capture his childhood memories in a play, but didn't know how.
That's when Nestor Amarilla steps into the picture. Amarilla was Aljaffery's Spanish tutor at Minneapolis Community and Technical College. Amarilla was born in Paraguay but he and Aljaffery bonded over similarities in their upbringings.
"We really come from a very similar background, and although are from so far away, Iraq and Paraguay, we were brought up in a very similar situation," he says. "My father was also persecuted by the dictator for years."
Nestor Amarilla has background in theater. The two friends decided to work together to make Aljaffery's theatrical dream come true. The result is their play, "Born in Iraq."
The two also formed a theater company called Earth Speak. It's presenting the play at the Mixed Blood Theater in Minneapolis. The play is about a 12-year-old boy's life before and after the American troops went in. Aljaffery says he wants to give unheard Iraqis a voice.
"All we know about Iraq is bombs, killings, violence," he says. "We don't even know those terrorists; they're all foreigners, who are messing up our country. We just wanted to give that right picture about our culture, our religion, too! How peaceful it is!" Aljaffery and Amarilla say it was challenge writing a play together, although easier than they first thought. They wrote each scene separately and then combined their work.
The play shows interactions between ordinary Iraqis living in extraordinary circumstances. They try to live normal lives with the threat of violence hanging over their heads. "Born in Iraq" also offers a little history. Characters explain things all the way back to Mesopotamia, known as the cradle of civilization.
The collaboration continued with cast members. Native English-speakers in the play, like Robert Larsen, made sure the scripts' concepts and ideas made sense in English.
"Most of our input was in making it more easy off the tongue," he says. "To make it easier for the audience to get the vernacular and colloquialism." When asked what they hope will come out of their play, cast members want to stimulate discussion. They hope half of the audience will be Iraqi and half American.
Meanwhile, Aljaffery has bigger plans. He's writing a play in Arabic and he's hoping he'll be able to take it to Iraq.
He says another thing many Americans don't know about Iraq is that it has the best theater in the Middle East. During Saddam Hussein's dictatorship, theaters were only allowed to do comedies and plays about social life. Now, he says political theater is common.
And one day he'd like to see his work performed at the National Theater of Iraq.
- All Things Considered, 07/05/2006, 5:23 p.m.