On the eve of war, a black comedy in Iraq

A sense of panic grows in Baghdad's streets, but hardship-weary Iraqis still manage to laugh.

City workers clean gutters and paint curbsides, gardeners prune for spring, and hawkers sell caged birds to passing motorists.

But beneath the semblance of normal life, a sense of panic is growing at the prospect of a war that seems only days away.

With the nation now on war footing, Iraqi television is advertising bomb shelters; gas stations are overwhelmed; and people are buying generators, food, and water.

At one hospital, eight women in a single day chose to give birth by Caesarian section, rather than risk giving birth as bombs are falling.

"Tomorrow [Tuesday] is the last day," says Mohamed Nabil, owner of the Sniper's Eye lubricant shop. "That's because of the situation, the American threats."

Fears that a war may be launched against Iraq at any time led to the departure of German and most remaining European diplomats in a convoy from Baghdad yesterday.

Computers and equipment were being carted out of some Iraqi government ministries.

Entire families were crammed with blankets and pillows into rickety old cars, in an effort to move to safer areas. Those who are staying were taping up windows to protect against flying glass.

Nihilistic satire

These days before war would hardly seem the time for comedy.

But further down Saadoun Street from the lube shop, the production at the Victory Theater has Iraqis literally falling off their seats laughing - sometimes uproariously, sometimes ruefully.

The black comedy "No Need to Tell Me, I've Seen it for Myself" is an escape for a nation on edge. Part nihilistic satire, part political statement, and part theater of the absurd, the play lampoons the everyday travails of ordinary Iraqis, who have suffered through years of hardship and shortage - the result of two wars, Saddam Hussein's authoritarian rule, and Western sanctions.

A character pours his heart out over a love interest, only to hear: "No, if you don't have a food ration, no one will marry you."

At another point, when a cranky landlady comes screeching for her rent, one player turns to the audience with a cringe, and jokes about one of the weapons of mass destruction that UN inspectors have been searching for: "Oh no, here comes anthrax!"

Long lines at the theater

"People escape their problems here," says Nazar Awni, owner of the theater, where between 600 and 1,200 Iraqis a night pay 80 cents to see the production, which was written three years ago but has particular resonance now.

Some spectators have seen the play as many as 200 times.

Veteran Khalil Ibrahim, whose leg was damaged by a mine in 1987 during the Iran-Iraq war, and who was part of the Kuwait occupation force before the Gulf War began, says he has seen the show five times in two years.

The play's biggest dose of derision is aimed at America, portrayed as a rampaging superpower and put on trial in the play.

"Due to oppression and abuse of power, we decided to put those people on earth on trial," says one futuristic spacewoman to a kidnapped earthling - aiming a dig at Iraq's own leadership as well as America's.

The spacewoman continues: "There is one nuclear power on Earth. You must unite to defeat it."

In a dramatic moment, the stage goes black, and a nuclear holocaust is depicted on a video screen.

"Did you see that bombing?" asks one of the earthlings to another, when the lights return. "Prices will be up tomorrow," he adds with a wink, drawing laughs from an audience that knows how swiftly the Iraqi dinar has slipped in value in recent days.

"We have families - we don't need war!" one character shouts, as the lights go black again, and the audience erupts with approval.

Backstage, the comedians say their work couldn't be more important than now, when Iraqis are bracing for war, and consumed by fear. Laughter is the best antidote, they say, and it is their job to deliver.

"People may be hurt and live in sorrow if they see a play like this, even if it is a comedy," says actor Khalid Ahmed Mustapha. "So laughter is key."

Sitting in his tiny dressing room, Mr. Mustapha adds: "I am an Iraqi citizen before I am an actor. I should challenge and defy [any US-led war], not by using a gun, but by my art. In these bad circumstances, I should prepare and continue my words until just moments before the war begins."

In 1991, Mustapha's troupe was onstage until the night before bombing began in the Gulf War. "It's very hard to hear the people groaning, and see houses damaged," he says.

"My only daughter is 1 year old, and I am preparing ear plugs for her," he adds. She will be terrified."

Still, the actors feel that their show must go on as long as it can.

"I feel very comfortable making people laugh, because they need it so much," says actress Rana Shakir.

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