In the soft light filtering in from the shattered windows of the Baghdad Fine Arts Institute, Rami Hussein raises his hands to direct his fellow students in a thoroughly modern and anguished adaptation of the world's oldest story – an adaptation of the Mesopotamian epic Gilgamesh.
If suffering helps the creative process, the students have had more than their share. A suicide car bomb at the appeals court next door in December broke all the glass and sent furniture flying, wounding more than 80 students and teachers.
Rami and the four members of the theater troupe who weren't wounded returned the next day, climbing over piles of rubble to rehearse, but not telling their parents where they were.
He and his friends are among the best and the brightest – and among the most disillusioned.
"The government lies to us," he says. "They give us promises they don't intend to keep." The biggest lie, he says, is security, including checkpoints where Iraqi security forces don't do their jobs, and allow anyone to go through. On most days, he says, there's no point in voting because all the politicians are corrupt. Other times, he leaves open the possibility of voting if he were to find someone sincere and honest enough. With a campaign that was delayed until less than a month before the March 7 elections, there's been little opportunity for any but the best-known of the 6,500 candidates to reach out to voters.
Rami's family is poor – his father died in 2003 and his younger brother was killed two weeks later by a rocket during the US attack on Baghdad. The family doesn't believe he can make a living performing, and he reassures them by saying he's not serious about it and plans to pay a bribe to his teachers rather than put on a class play to graduate. Privately, though, he says he can't live without the theater.
On a good day, Rami, 23, overflows with confidence that his passion and talent will allow him to make a difference: "Of course I will be a star."
On a bad day, as in shortly after the bombing, he has a much bleaker image: "I can't see a good future. I work outside – I come here to rehearse but my family tells me I should give this up. I don't get any support. I'm tired, believe me I'm tired."
Other students say they don't get a lot of support from their elders, either. When invitations arrive for events outside Iraq, they say the teachers take them rather than giving them to the students. As for artistic freedom at an institute that has become more religiously conservative: "All they ever want to do is Shakespeare," he says.
On some days, Rami says he doesn't believe in getting married and having children. "It was a big mistake for my father to bring me into this world," he says. "I don't want to make a mistake for the new generation."
He says that his 5-year-old-niece, now a refugee in Norway, talks about explosions and how sometimes people go out and never come back home.
"I love my country, but if I had the chance, I'd leave," he says.
All eight members of his troupe work to be able to go to school. When he's not in class, Rami works in his family's corner store from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. He rarely gets enough sleep.
The group doesn't have money for sets or costumes but it is trying to find a way to bring the Gilgamesh adaptation to Iraqis who otherwise wouldn't be able to see it.
Belying the pessimism he professes, the overwhelming message of the Gilgamesh adaptation Rami is writing and directing is one of hope and of tolerance. Mostly, he and his friends say, there is no point voting because all the politicians are corrupt.
"Let's be honest," he says. "I live in Ghazaliya," a neighborhood that saw the worst of sectarian fighting in Baghdad. "Our neighbors are Sunnis, we are Shiites. We borrow sugar from them, they borrow salt from us. The problem is not between Sunni or Shiite. The problem is there are stupid people who can be moved by others."
"You can see some of the Shiite religious parties exploiting many things, and if you go to the other side you'll see the same thing," he says. "If I want to sell cheese, they will ask me is it Sunni cheese or Shiite cheese – there is this level of thinking."