I was sitting at lunch the other day when one of my future students (I start my class next week) came and sat down next to me.
“Where are you from?” he asked.
“U.S.,” I said.
“Do you know where I am from?” he continued, smiling slightly.
“Yes,” I said. “You’re the Iraqi student.”
The theatre department gets most of its students from Hyderabad and the local area, but an Iraqi student enrolled as well this year. He speaks English and Arabic, but no Telugu or Hindi. He has a wife and children living in Iraq, and won’t see them for the entire year.
I asked him why he had come to Hyderabad to study theatre.
“There is no theatre in Iraq,” he said. “Just one or two plays occasionally in a university.”
He explained that he had written a play about a group of Iraqi soldiers, and that he wanted to have it staged, so he was seeking a place that would let him do theatre.
I asked him “is there no kind of underground theatre movement in Iraq?” remembering that in times of crisis a nation often produced some of its most interesting and provocative art and theatre.
No, he explained. It was too dangerous. Any time a person left his or her home to go anywhere there was great risk of death from bomb or bullet, so people only left when absolutely necessary. They went to work and went straight back as quickly as they could. No one wanted to risk traveling to theatre rehearsals.
That was something I had not considered. I wanted to tell him look, I think the U.S. needs to withdraw from Iraq, and I staged an anti-war agitprop play a month after the first invasion, and I’ve done the whole “march for peace” thing… but we all know how ineffectual and outwardly shallow the majority of U.S. war protests have been, Cindy Sheehan notwithstanding. So I refrained from sharing my white liberal guilt.
Instead, I asked him if he would like to bring his wife and family to Hyderabad.
“No,” he said. “It is lovely here but I belong in my own country. I will take this theatre course and do some research that can be published and stage my play but then I will return to Iraq.”
He paused. “We will probably all be killed. I do not know sometimes if my family and I will live for another year. But I cannot give up my country. I want to die an Iraqi.”
I wonder how many Americans would say that.