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Worthy of Pursuit: Spectator notes from Book Wings Iraq 2014

A special guest post by GWENDOLYN GILLSON, a PhD student in the University of Iowa Department of Religious Studies, who was in the audience during the March 11, 2014 Book Wings theatre exchange with the University of Baghdad.

Book Wings

Iraq was a really fascinating experience. The performances were captivating and intellectually stimulating, although I admit that I was not up for some of the intellectual challenges. The plays themselves were politically charged and sometimes the tensions in the plays were palpable in the audience sitting in the Iowa City theater, as though the performances on stage and the images on screen were reaching out and affecting the audience in ways only live theater can do.

One of the highlights of the performances for me was the idea of linguistic boundaries. These performances emphasized and at the same time minimized the spaces between our respective cultures and languages. Surtitles helped with following along with the basics of communication, but I know that my inability to understand Arabic hindered my appreciation for the symbolic intricacies of those plays. At the same time, the visual format of the plays worked on a more emotional and less intellectual level so that even when I did not understand what specifically was happening on stage, I was able to connect emotional through the visual medium. When it was revealed that “Shelter Drills” was to be a completely embodied performance without speech, I was surprised but also intrigued because it challenged me to think about the ways that powerful meaning can be conveyed without words.

[Click to Enlarge] The Iowa stage (with the Baghdad team on screen) during the talk-back following the performance.
[Click to Enlarge] The Iowa stage (with the Baghdad team on screen) during the talk-back following the performance.

Through various means, both sides were able to cross linguistic boundaries in order to encourage dialogue while at the same time being brought in direct contact with the importance of language in coherent communication. Questions in the Q/A period, whether coming from the audience present or via the Twitter feed never translated quite right from English into Arabic so that the answers given were fascinating, but not really answering the original questions posed. In a relationship as fraught as the one between the United States and Iraq, the fact that questions can be easily misinterpreted in such a welcoming environment points to the need for better communication in order to encourage international dialogue and cooperation. Performances like Book Wings are perfect places to stimulate strong cross-cultural communication and point to mutual appreciation of artistic expression.

[Click to Enlarge] TRAIN OF DEATH by Iraqi playwright Hassab Allah Yahya.
[Click to Enlarge] TRAIN OF DEATH by Iraqi playwright Hassab Allah Yahya.

Also of interest was the comparison of the staging of the plays. The University of Iowa stage was minimalistic with very avant-garde performances, while the Baghdad University stage was much more elaborate, with more traditional but still highly emotional performances. The juxtaposition of these two interpretations of the plays also helped highlight differences of artistic interpretation that only served to strengthen the dual commitment to artistic expression. Despite the different ways of performing the plays, they all were able to stir up deep emotional connections with the audience that transcended any particular instances in the plays.

Looking toward the future, Book Wings is an artistic experience extremely worthy of pursuit. It helps people who may not understand each other work through differences and gives a new way of thinking about language and cultural relationships. Art is an excellent way to cross boundaries and Book Wings challenges people to look across boundaries that many people do not even want to consider. For the future, I hope that there will be a more equal linguistic exchange, such that the American side will have an Arabic-language translator on location. Only through understanding and respect will the world be able to move towards peaceful solutions. Performances such as Book Wings are excellent exchanges of culture, language, and art.

Iowa City, 3/21/14 


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