"I am an Iraqi mother," begins the monologue of veteran Iraqi actress Nahida al-Rammah. "My husband was tortured to death in 1963. My son was martyred in the dungeons of the Nihaya palace. They drove my daughter and her family out of their home on one moonless night and dumped them on the border. My other son was martyred with his Kurdish wife and their children in Halabja in the chemical weapons attack, and I left Iraq," she says as strands of her dyed-brown hair protrude from a black abaya she had put on for the performance.
"But we still live with hope, and we remain strong, all of us, and I tell you and sing and sing and sing forever: Iraq is ours, Iraq is a flame that will never go out."
An emotional audience rises up and begins to clap many with tears rolling down their cheeks.
Mrs. Rammah's piece was one of dozens displayed or performed by Iraqi artists, actors, writers, and musicians at a rare cultural festival this month in the relative safety of the northern Iraqi city of Arbil. For the most part, all were intricately linked to the suffering of the tormented nation over its tumultuous history. But besides the agony, melancholy, and nostalgia for better times, there was also an overwhelming sense of defiance and a burning desire to show a different face of Iraq.
"Iraq and Baghdad are still alive. We want to prove there is more to Iraq than blood," says May Joseph Ramou, a fashion designer who came from Baghdad with her young female models to display finely embroidered silk gowns.
'TERRORISTS, WAKE UP'
In her monologue, Rammah echoes that sentiment.
"We tell the terrorists, wake up. You can't liquidate the entire nation, blot out the sun, bring down the moon, and dry out the river," says the actress Rammah to the fervent applause of the audience.
Rammah, who lost her sight last decade, was one of the most famous actresses in Iraq in the 1950s and 60s. She was later targeted by Saddam's Baath Party regime for being a Communist activist, forcing her to flee Iraq in the 1970s. She eventually settled in London. Her story has been immortalized by Britain-based Iraqi filmmaker and photographer Koutaiba al-Janabi in a documentary titled "Wasteland: Between London and Baghdad."
Mr. Janabi attended the Arbil event, along with other young filmmakers struggling to find the means to make a statement with their work.
'EVEN IN UPBEAT SONGS, A CRY OF PAIN'
In June 2006, Ziad Turki left his family in Damascus, where they had all fled earlier, to return to his native Baghdad at the height of a wave of sectarian killing to start a video blog project titled "Hometown Baghdad."
He was able to stay only until December. "The city could not embrace artists and people running around with cameras. It was about weapons and blood now. I felt that there was this passion to kill everywhere. I left. It made no sense to die and orphan my children," says Mr. Turki.
His colleague Haidar Helu, agrees that the streets of Baghdad are perilous for filmmakers. "The only way you can preserve your life is by cooperating with the militias," he says.
Turki and Mr. Helu, who now lives in both Damascus and Berlin, are trying to convince a German production firm to agree on Jordan, Syria, or Kurdistan as alternative locations to Baghdad for shooting an upcoming project.
Hamid al-Saadi, a singer and teacher of Iraqi maqam, which blends traditional musical sounds with operatic themes, has stuck it out in Baghdad after returning in 2005, but rarely performs because of the lack of security.
Dressed in the pinstriped suit and sidara (a hat worn by Iraqi gentlemen during the pre-Saddam monarchist era) befitting any serious maqam singer, Mr. Saadi smiles when asked about the sadness and pain that seems to cut through all forms of Iraqi art.
"In every song, even the upbeat ones, you hear the 'ah.' It's a cry from all the pain bottled up inside us," he says.
Saadi, who says he is one of the few who can master all 56 maqam songs, gives a maqam titled Mukhalef as an example. The verses are about the trials of a forlorn lover but they are interspersed with a muffled cry that can be traced to an ancient lament from the time the Mongol hordes sacked Baghdad more than 750 years ago, he says.
Like Saadi, most of the Iraqi artists and intellectuals that still live in the country are focused mainly on survival.
"I am like a snail or turtle, able to hide when it feels it's in danger," says Mohammed Khodyer, considered one of the country's best contemporary novelists. He has lived all his life in the southern city of Basra, which is now in the throes of a bitter struggle between rival Shiite religious parties. He says he's not writing as much these days and that his only outlet is a weekly column published in a Gulf Arab newspaper.
Nouri al-Rawi, an octogenarian regarded as the father of contemporary Iraqi art, still paints in his Baghdad studio but exhibits elsewhere.
"We are home all the time. We do not know when a mortar would fall on us or when killers would knock our door," he says.
The artist says painting about the current situation would "tear him apart." He sticks to poetic and colorful themes including his favorite: memories of growing up in the ancient Iraqi cities of Anah and Rawa, later submerged by Saddam's mega Haditha dam project.
Mr. Rawi says Iraqis are paying a dear price now for having become the primary arena for the US-led war on terror. "The American people, mainly the intellectuals and artists, must understand the depth of our tragedy and help us," he says.
'NO CULTURE' AMID RELIGIOUS EXTREMISM
Rawi's colleague Faisal al-Laibi, who has lived abroad since 1978 and returned for the first time for the Arbil festival, says apathy reigns in Iraq now after decades of repression and wars, and that this has provided a fertile ground for extremist religious parties. "There is no culture. There is regression. There are only religious rituals. In the absence of reason, fantasy rules," he says. "The evil of today is the product of the previous fascist era."