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

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Under Ottoman rule prior to the establishment of the tanzimat (reforms) of the nineteenth century, Christians were regarded as second-class citizens even though, under Islamic law, they were granted certain privileges, along with the Jews as “people of the book,” as long as they paid the required taxes. What would become Iraq consisted of three Ottoman provinces centered on the major cities of Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra. In the provinces of Baghdad and Mosul, many Christians and Jews moved to the cities to partake of general education and pursue professions such as medicine, education, and law. Christians congregated in the north, especially in and near Mosul. Organizations such as the East India Company mostly hired Christians and Jews as traders and many of these became wealthy. Due to this employment and attendance at missionary schools, they were more likely than Muslims to encounter Western culture. The tanzimat, initiated in 1839, established Christians as first-class citizens entitled to participate in local ruling councils. Sultan Abdul Hamid reversed the tanzimat and reinstated pan-Islamic rule in 1878 in response to nationalistic movements in Turkey. Some of these involved Christian communities, in response to which the Sultan formed an alliance with the Kurds and systematically repressed Armenians and East Syrians. Armenian massacres occurred in 1894, 1895, and 1896. Following the Young Turk Revolt in 1908, further massacres occurred and many Armenians and East and West Syrian Christians fled to Iraq (Rassam 123-5).

The relationship between the Christian community in Mosul and the Ottomans was therefore complex. The Christians were granted full citizenship as a result of the tanzimat; however, those were reversed in 1878. Most Muslims and some Christians saw the Ottoman Empire as the best defense against European opportunism (Masters 176). The safest route for a Christian playwright would therefore be to limit oneself to relaying Christian parables. The first Iraqi plays appear to be simple morality plays without overt or covert political agendas.

Habash, Iraq’s first playwright, was a pastor in Zakho, a city located on Iraq’s northern border with Turkey, then later a priest at the Dominican Father’s Church in Mosul. Whether or not he was aware of the works of Marun al-Naqqash who introduced Western-style theatre to the Arab world in Beirut in 1847, Habash’s efforts seemingly owe nothing to his influence. Whereas al-Naqqash composed operettas inspired by contemporaneous French and Italian models, and most significantly Molière, Habash composed a trilogy of one-acts, in 1880, which appear to be inspired by medieval morality plays. Didactic and moralistic in nature, each of these one-acts is based on a story from the Bible, in this case the Old Testament. In each of them, Habash includes a hymnal chorus and begins with a moralistic speech delivered by one of the main characters. However, whereas medieval morality plays typically mixed serious and comedic elements, Habash’s material lacks humorous content.

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