Refugees Magazine Issue 107 (Refugee voices from exile) - The show must go on

Refugees Magazine, 1 March 1997

For an Iraqi artist the show must go on

Nizar Al-Ghareeb is a 35-year-old Iraqi mime artist living in Pakistan. He is due to be resettled to Australia.

I was born in a small village in southern Iraq. My father was a farmer, my family poor. When I was 11 years old, we moved to a town.

Shortly afterwards, a group of demonstrators started beating up one of my brothers outside our house. When my mother came out to defend him, they beat her with sticks, hitting her repeatedly on the head. She died in hospital a few hours later. Three days later, my one-year-old brother died because he wasn't being looked after properly. Then another of my brothers, aged 18, went crazy.

My father spent the next three years trying to get justice for what had happened to my mother, without success. These events affected me so much that I started looking for some way to express myself. I think this is what pushed me to explore the arts.

I began acting at secondary school, when I was 14. When I was 18, I joined an institute in Baghdad, where I studied the history of theatre, lighting, make-up and stage direction. I also worked for a commercial theatre group.

Artists need to express things about their own lives and the lives of the people around them.

By this time, I was helping one of the opposition movements distribute their newspapers. In 1986, when I was 25, I left Baghdad and went to live in northern Iraq, where I soon became deeply disillusioned with the opposition movements, including the one I had joined. They were just playing games, fighting each other. I didn't want to be involved with killing soldiers, taking up arms. That wasn't the way.

But by talking like this, I put myself in a dangerous position. So, in February 1987, I decided to go to Iran. I walked for 16 days through the mountains in north-eastern Iraq, where the Iran-Iraq war was still going on.

I was allowed to enter Iran as a refugee, but two days later I was arrested and sent to jail, where I was interrogated. After a difficult few weeks, they accepted that I was an artist and a peaceful human being, and treated me better. Later I was moved to a closed camp south of Teheran, where I spent 15 months. When I finally received permission to step outside the camp, the Iran-Iraq war had ended. I was frightened I would be forced to return to Iraq, as others had been, so I immediately headed for Pakistan in the company of a poet I had met in the camp and who had become a friend.

We walked across the border, through the desert, into Baluchistan. In the provincial capital, Quetta, I went to the UNHCR office, where I was accepted as a refugee. I was given a residence permit, and 1,200 rupees a month in financial assistance, which is very little. Out of that I had to pay for everything rent, food, clothes, cigarettes. I managed to earn a bit more by teaching Arabic and Farsi to the children of some of Quetta's foreign residents.

But as an artist, I was drying up inside. In Iran, I had been unable to act or put on shows. And in Baluchistan, nobody was interested in the theatre. The local tribal people criticized us a lot, called us cowards for leaving our country. It was particularly hard for the Iraqi women in Quetta. They had to stay imprisoned in the house. I also had difficulties with some of the aid workers who are supposed to help refugees, but did not understand anything about our psychology.

Finally, after seven years in Quetta, I was able to move to Islamabad, where my life became freer, more civilized. I felt I could breathe again. I found art galleries, theatres, cinemas and, most importantly, people who were interested in the arts. I started working again for the first time in ten years. I had very little money, so I rehearsed in my room. I began doing mime. One of my teachers in Baghdad had learned mime in Italy, and I once saw a Marcel Marceau film in 1984 at the French Cultural Centre in Baghdad. These had inspired me to think about body language.

My first performance was in the house of an Iranian woman. She invited friends to see the show people who understood the arts. Then I was invited to do mime workshops at the French Cultural Centre in Islamabad, as well as to put on a show there. I also began working as a director at the Pakistan National Council of Art.

But I still had serious problems, mainly with some of my fellow Iraqi refugees. While most of us were just trying to get on with our lives in Pakistan, doing the best we could in difficult circumstances, one group had set their hearts on resettlement, had decided it was their right. They began demonstrating against UNHCR. I felt they were going about things the wrong way. They accused me of treachery, of being a UNHCR spy, threatened me. They mocked me for being an artist. When you are isolated anyway, it becomes doubly difficult if your own small society turns on you and rejects you.

Then, in February 1997 the Australian government accepted me for resettlement. I have had to keep this secret from the other Iraqis because they will see it as proof that their accusations were true. They don't understand why some people are accepted for resettlement and others are not.

I realize that life won't be easy in Australia. But I'm not looking to get rich, to be a hero I just want the space to express myself. I don't know anyone in Australia, but I'm not worried about the difficulties. Compared to my life in Iraq, Iran and Pakistan, it will be much easier for me as an artist. Even if there's no stage for me to act upon, there's a park, a room, a street. There's a tradition of mime there, unlike here in Pakistan, where people just think you're mad.

All the things I will need for my show will be in one bag costume, make-up, tape-recorder. I will focus on suffering because of my own experiences. The silence of mime forces people to think. I want to push people to think how to express their feelings without language, and to think about the future, and their children's future. Maybe I will find Australian artists who can help me. If I don't, I will work alone.

Interview by Rupert Colville