BAGHDAD >> Every evening at the Muntada al-Masrah theater on Baghdad’s Rashid street, the cast and crew of the first TV drama filmed in Iraq in seven years take their places among the rooms and courtyard of this 19th-century building and shoot new scenes of their highly-anticipated series.
The arts are coming to life again in Baghdad, bringing with it a touch of hope and comfort as the country works to rebuild after 16 years of war.
And after two decades abroad, two of Iraq’s leading actors have returned to take part in “The Hotel,” the twenty-episode drama set to air during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
“The Iraqi people are parched for drama,” said Hassan Hosni, a drama star of the 1990s, who returned from Saudi Arabia to direct “The Hotel,” a show about the seedy underbelly of Baghdad and its entanglement with human trafficking.
It is the first Ramadan drama to be produced in Iraq since 2012, according to the cast and crew, and it heralds a return of an essential TV genre to the country.
Across the Muslim world and throughout the month of Ramadan, when the faithful fast from dawn until sunset and stay up late to digest their evening meals, viewers are treated to TV dramas that touch on romance, war, tyranny and other issues of the day.
For years, Iraqis have been watching dramas from other nations, such as “Bab al-Hara,” the blockbuster Syrian series set during the 1930s independence movement from France.
With “The Hotel,” Iraqis will have a home-grown series to watch for the first time in years, amid the longest stretch of stability Baghdad has experienced since the 2003 U.S. invasion.
“We were all waiting for this moment — writers, directors and actors — with total impatience,” said Hosni.
“I felt it in the streets, when we were scouting for locations,” said Hosni. Locals, shocked to see him back in their city, approached the star to ask about the series.
“The joy was clear in their eyes, expressions and words,” he said.
Once the capital of the Islamic world, Baghdad is a city that proudly displays its affection for drama and poetry, boasting monuments that show scenes from Arabian Nights and avenues named after renowned poets such as the boastful Mutanabbi of the 10th century and his bibulous predecessor, Abu Nawas.
It has held on to this pride through the contemporary era, even as the coups and wars of the 20th century, the tyranny of Saddam Hussein and the grip of U.N. sanctions drove writers, actors and producers out of the country.
Mahmoud Abu Al-Abbas, the star of “The Hotel” and a famous thespian in his own right, went into exile in 1997 after he performed a solo play that spoke about harassment by the country’s notorious security services. In Saddam Hussein’s era, it crossed a red line.
“I was interrogated for two days and then advised by the minister of culture to leave Iraq immediately,” he said.
The 2003 U.S. invasion dealt another blow to the arts. The ensuing war tore Baghdad apart, as car bombs tore through the city daily, and fighting turned Rashid Street, once a center of culture and heritage, into a valley of fear and destruction.
A sputtering revival earlier this decade came to a halt, first as money for the arts dried up, then as insecurity gripped the country again with the 2014 Islamic State group insurgency.
After Iraq declared victory over IS in December 2017, the atmosphere inside the capital began to change. The blast walls that protected against car bombs were lifted, and locals started staying out late again, patronizing cafes, malls, galleries, and theaters, where performances change from week to week.
Abu Al-Abbas stayed in the United Arab Emirates for 20 years. But he kept acting, writing and directing plays, and he wrote more than a dozen books on his craft.
In 2017, he returned to his hometown of Basra, the commercial capital of southern Iraq and the hub for its oil, where he founded a theater troupe of young, under-employed local men and taught them a play they went on to perform in other southern cities.
But it wasn’t until screenwriter Hamid al-Maliki called with the script for “The Hotel” that he agreed to return to the screen.
“Violent drama takes a period of contemplation on the part of the writer so that he can give us a ‘dose’ of work that can treat our situation,” said Abu al-Abbas.
Al-Maliki accepted that “The Hotel’s” transgressive material — including prostitution, human trafficking and the organ trade — would shock viewers, but said it was the responsibility of TV drama to start a conversation.
“It’s a current matter for Iraq,” he said. “It’s a message to the youth to beware of the trap of human trafficking, and it’s a message to the Iraqi state to care for the innocent and the poor who are the victims of the trade.”
And al-Maliki said it was vital for the arts to confront the ideologies that have fueled extremism.
“Culture alone is what will be victorious over Daesh thinking,” he said, using the Arabic term for the Islamic State group.
“Culture is life, and Daesh is death. So we must face death with life. We must face Daesh with culture,” he continued.
Hosni, the star-turned-director, left Iraq in 1996, looking to escape the pressure of the U.N. sanctions levied against Iraq after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait earlier in the decade.
But he never felt far from Iraq, as he continued to work with other diaspora Iraqis in drama in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
“It was a separation in body, but not in mind or soul,” he said.
He was finally coaxed back by al-Maliki this year.
The return of the TV drama, Hosni said, is reassuring.
“It’s a time for the Iraqi family to sit together at home, with their relatives and neighbors.”