BAGHDAD — When Saddam Hussein was in power, Adil Kadhim would rise at 6 each morning in his cramped apartment, set a pot of water on the stove for tea, and begin writing.
His work, like that of all authors, had to pass regime censors. One of his television series was an allegory about power, and made it to the screen by being set in 1950s Baghdad rather than in the later Baathist era. A television movie sang the praises of the Iraqi army, and another script used Julius Caesar rather than Hussein to describe the life of a dictator. These innocuous and popular shows made Kadhim one of the best-known theatrical writers in Iraq.
But the work dearest to his heart he stuffed into drawers. Much of it drew together figures from East and West, a motif viewed with suspicion by the regime. In one play he put on trial several notorious figures, including Adolf Hitler and Osama bin Laden, who in the name of purifying humanity commit heinous acts. In another, an Iraqi woman who murdered her husband shares a prison cell with two heroines of Greek tragedy, Electra and Antigone, and the three discuss the men who led to their ruin.
Occasionally a foreign director visiting Iraq would see a draft and take it out of the country to produce. But Kadhim was careful not to seek attention from outsiders. In Hussein's Iraq, too much notice was dangerous. He had spent time in prison as a young man, and his brother was kidnapped by Hussein's secret police and never seen again. For Kadhim, who has a wife and two daughters, survival trumped art.
Now, with Hussein himself in prison, Kadhim, 64, no longer needs to smuggle his writing out of the country. In the last two years, he has written full-length plays that take on previously forbidden subjects, including the Iraq-Iran war and the repression of women in rural Arab society, as well as current events, such as the U.S.-led invasion and continued military presence.
Although the plays have yet to find a stage in strife-torn Baghdad, Kadhim's artistic mission offers hope for a more open Iraqi society. In his writing he seeks to confront the unhappy chapters of Iraq's past. He also links Iraqis to a time when the elite was conversant with both Arab and Western thought -- threatened by neither, curious about both. Kadhim's belief that literature and myth speak across cultures could show the way for Iraqis once again to reach out to the world.
It was that worldliness that most struck me on my first meeting with Kadhim.
His small living room was lined with books, most of them Arabic and Persian classics, but also volumes by Bertolt Brecht, Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw, all of whom had used theater to critique their societies. We started talking about his work as a propagandist, but ranged more widely. Night fell, it was dangerous for me to stay, and I gathered my things, promising to return.
As I stood at the door, he asked if next time I could bring him a copy of the collected plays of an American author, one of whose works he had read in an Arabic translation. He recalled its title as "The End of the Merchant." I was mystified; then he added, "You know, the playwright who was married to Marilyn Monroe." On my next visit, I brought Kadhim the collected works of Arthur Miller -- including "The End of the Merchant," better known as "Death of a Salesman."
Writing for TV
Kadhim still makes his living writing television pieces, mostly uncontroversial narratives of Iraq's Islamic and pre-Islamic history. But he recently began discussions with the Baghdad-based Rafidain satellite channel to produce a 30-part series whose setting would have been unthinkable under Hussein.
The series would take place in the country's southern marshes, after Hussein drained them to punish Shiite residents who he believed were helping Iran during the Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s. Its heroine is a girl who defies tribal custom to become a doctor. Her father is murdered, but she does not seek revenge. Instead, she returns to her village to build a school.
"I am looking at Iraq as a woman vulnerable to everybody, filled with grief," he said. "The women, whether they be Arabs or Kurds, Shiites or Sunnis, they have all been oppressed and they have all suffered -- they have lost their children, lost their husbands and their brothers -- and yet they are the ones who are ready to forgive," he said.
These charged topics are a far cry from what Kadhim was forced to do under Hussein.
In one case, he was compelled to transform one of his antiwar short stories into a glorification of the Iraqi army.
"In the original story, I told of a little boy of 3 or 4 years old. His whole village, in a mountain valley, was killed in the Iraq-Iran war but he survived and ... was raised by wolves.