Articles, Essays, Volume 3

The Birth of Modern Iraqi Theatre: Church Drama in Mosul in the Late Nineteenth Century

The Birth of Modern Iraqi Theatre: 
Church Drama in Mosul in the Late Nineteenth Century
By Amir Al-Azraki and James Al-Shamma
Arab StagesVolume 2, Number 1 (Fall 2015)
©2015 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center Publications

Western-style theatre was introduced to Iraq in 1880, thirty-three years later than, and independently from, its first appearance in the Arab world in Damascus in 1847, and subsequent early development in Syria and Egypt.[1] Although the first Iraqi playwrights were primarily concerned with religion, interest in politics grew as the country entered the twentieth century. Most of the playwrights working in the period from 1880 through 1920 were residents of Mosul, adept at foreign languages, and in closer contact with the West, by way of Turkey and Syria, than those living elsewhere in Iraq. Many were members of the clergy who had been educated in Europe, where they were exposed to Western theatre practices. Although many plays written through 1908 focused on religion, drama that addressed social issues emerged as early as 1892, and the production of political drama grew during the early twentieth century in opposition to first Ottoman and then British rule. The attitude of early playwrights towards the Ottomans was, however, complex. Not all drama resisted empire. Translations of Shakespeare’s tragedies that depict the negative consequences of challenging those in power were employed to support Ottoman rule; these included Hamlet, Macbeth, and Julius Caesar (al-Taleb, Al Tarjama 35). In addition to Shakespeare, early Iraqi dramatists translated and adapted Western plays and novels from French, Turkish, and English into Arabic.

The first play scripted by an Iraqi is a trilogy composed by the Dominican priest and poet Hanna Habash (1820-1882) in 1880.[2] It is not by chance that the pioneers of both Arabic and Iraqi theatre were members of the Christian minority, as the contribution of the Christian community to Arabic intellectual life was considerable. This was due to the Western ties enjoyed by some Middle Eastern churches. Since the first century A.D., Christianity has been present in Mesopotamia, the region that encompasses the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and is approximately bounded by modern-day Iraq. Two denominations emerged: the Church of the East and the Syrian Orthodox Church (Rassam 7). Beginning in the first half of the seventeenth century and concurrent with increased contact with the West, Catholic missions were established in Iraq by the Capuchins, Carmelites, and Dominicans. Missionaries provided education: the Carmelites opened the first primary school in Baghdad in 1721 and the Dominicans established primary schools in Mosul and the surrounding area shortly after their arrival in 1750. The Dominicans also brought the first printing press to Iraq in 1860. Christian thinkers were at the forefront of modernizing the Arabic language during the nineteenth century under Ottoman rule, leading the literary revival associated with al-Nahda al-Arabia (the Arab Awakening or Renaissance). One such linguist, Anastasius the Carmelite (1866-1947), held evening study circles in Mosul which were attended by Christians and Muslims alike, many of whom would become leading Iraqi intellectuals (Rassam 103-4). As Abdulrazzaq Patel chronicles in Arab Nahdah: The Making of the Intellectual and Humanist Movement (2013), pre-modern Christian intellectuals laid the groundwork for the adoption of Arabic as a vehicle for both Christian and inter-religious discourse through which, eventually, Arabic became a significant marker of identity that transcended religion in some instances (see Patel, Chapter 2).

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