Sponsored by the Japan Foundation and Tiny Alice Theatre Tokyo, the Iraqi theatre company Al-Murwass Group Folklore and Modern Arts, left a war-torn Baghdad in October 2004 to tour their play Message Carried by Ship From Iraq. Over a three-week period they performed in front of numerous audiences across Japan. The following is a personal reflection on the piece from the perspective of a Tokyo audience member in 2005, and a student in London in 2006.
In January 2005, just like in October 2006, the world was still ticking to the beat of the White House; the Iraqi people were said to have taken their “[…] first step towards joining the free world and being a democracy […]” through governmental elections just a few days before; “the armies of darkness” still carry out quasi-daily attacks on ‘coalition forces’ stationed in Iraq (including members of the Japanese ‘Self-Defence Force’); an “axis of evil”, albeit down by one member, simmers on the world’s back burner waiting for the US and UN’s next move; and “In Japan, [like most ‘1st world’ nations] television is king– people turn to it more than any other medium for news and entertainment”.
The first time I saw the Al-Murwass promotional flyer (Japanese version) was about a month before the 19-strong company actually set foot on Japanese soil. I believe they were still rehearsing in Baghdad at that time and when not rehearsing, they were dealing with the daily logistical problems that a war inflicts on the general population: problems of transport, food, money, security and an environment of fear and anxiety. Of the flyer I don’t remember much, unfortunately my reading ability in Japanese was not sufficient to understand all of the written information at that time, but I do remember four illustrative photos. The first was the image of a man playing a traditional ney flute in front of the Iraqi national flag. The second and third showed the company dancing in what appeared to be traditional clothing, and the last photo displayed a goatskin drum. I found out later on that the drum was the emblem of the company and the meaning behind the name ‘Al-Murwass’.
Also around that time, I was following the continual flow of media imagery and rhetoric through television and online press, from sources such as BBC World, CNN, BBC News online, The Japan Times, Le Monde and other agencies. The picture being painted at the time was similar to the one now: a sense of unrelenting extremism and violence in everyday Iraqi life held up against a backdrop of a widespread ‘war on terror’, a war that began shortly after September 11th 2001 with the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in ‘search’ of Osama Bin Laden, and one that continues now in 2006.
This combination of mediatized war imagery (suicide bombs, US military interventions, hostage taking, anti-terrorism laws, untried prison sentences, Islamic fundamentalism etc.) and ‘Western’ political discourse placed the images on the Al-Murwass flyer in a negative context and triggered a preemptory Al-Murwass performance; not a performance in any physical capacity but one that took place on an ‘invisible stage’: the stage of the mind. Then, in February 2005, I got to see the actual show at the Tiny Alice theatre with a real cast, real musicians, costumes, voices, singing and dancing bodies and not once was the war mentioned.
In the following paragraphs I will explore how and why I constructed this ‘invisible stage’ and what relevance this has to perceptions of Iraq today.
Thinking about the media in all it’s different forms and applications (television, the Internet, printed material – newspapers, magazines, the performance flyer and many others), I tried to understand where my ‘invisible stage’ fits in. This led me to question my position as ‘receiver’ of information and how to determine its reliability. What if I, as the consumer of these media presentations, am forming an adverse judgment or opinion without knowledge or examination of the facts because I am not ‘able’, or more precisely, not ‘willing’ to experience the situations first hand? In the documentary War Photographer, about the work of photo journalist James Nachtwey, there is a passage of personal commentary that sheds some light on this question of personal prejudice:
“In the field what you experience is extremely immediate, what you see is not an image on a page in a magazine 10,000 miles away with an advertisement for Rolex watches on the next page. What you see is unmitigated pain, injustice and misery. It’s occurred to me that if everyone could be there just once to see for themselves what white phosphorous does to the face of a child or what unspeakable pain is caused by the impact of a bullet or how a jagged piece of shrapnel can rip someone’s leg off. If everyone could be there to see for themselves the fear and the grief just one time then they would understand that nothing is worth letting things get to the point where that happens to even one person let alone thousands.” (Nachtwey/Frei, 2001)
These words come from the source of image-based media itself, and Nachtwey is disclosing part of the dilemma in his work here. The photograph and the moving image can only go so far in their portrayal of ‘reality’. The distancing that viewers experience between the image and the action it portrays is the space where prejudice begins to breed and proliferate. Not even after being personally subject to numerous acts of prejudice, not even after battling against prejudice directed towards others, and not even after being brought up surrounded by a pantheon of prejudice-fighting heroes, Ghandi, Biko, Mandela, King or Levi, am I immune to its existence. Because as the footprint of global Western media widens and incites more people to consume it, the impetus to examine the reality of others is increasingly taken away from us. The distancing between image and reality has almost become an innate factor, part of our modern social DNA, and the more the image tries to go deeper into its portrayal of reality the more we seek shelter from it and turn to media’s entertainment branch: a no man’s land without moral ground where prejudice roams free.
I therefore hold myself to blame for the creation of this ‘invisible stage’. I consumed the images. I did not make the effort to look beyond the overall picture of prejudice they formed. But to recognise and accept personal blame for this ‘invisible stage’ does not push the issue any further in my mind; to understand the influence of media with more depth one needs to look at its mechanics (form and constitution).
The face of today’s digital media has yet to fully materialize, becasue like the technology it relies on, the speed of change is incredibly fast. So the way we interact with media is an ongoing process of adaptation. Media is also becoming very close to us in our homes, in our streets, in our hands, it is multiform and like a new computer-virus, it is passed on and disseminated with global consequences. But what lies beneath the surface of modern media? What is the mechanism that exerts such influence over our minds?
In his essay entitled “Muslims and Others: Anecdotes, Fragments and Uncertainties of Evidence”, Rustom Bharucha raises the point that in the post ‘September 11’ world one may well “pass as a ‘Muslim’ or ‘terrorist’” if one happens to fit the identity “manufactured by governmental regimes and surveillance systems[…]” and that “once marked, ‘The Muslim’ assumes a hyper-real significance, regardless of whether or not it is linked to a mistaken or real identity […].”(Bharucha, 2004) On a day-to-day level, such a manufactured identity is made possible through the gross dissemination of images. It is the extent of image flooding and the voracity of our media consumption, that enables a figure like Osama Bin Laden, for example, to become the universal archetypal image of ‘terror’, when the most dangerous threat is not necessarily the immediate, belligerent one we are made to fear, but the long-term segregation his image brings by nurturing prejudice and strengthening the cliché association of Islam with radicalism.
This mindless repetition of imagery, mixed with slogans and speech is one indirect way of influencing an audience. A more direct means also exists, one in which media directors, editors and producers manipulate images, text and speech in accordance with objectives from company executives who share key relations and political agendas with government officials. This is the realm of what Noam Chomsky has called ‘manufacturing consent’. In this sense the case of the Japanese media, to which I was partial as a resident in Japan from 2001-2005, is no different. One only needs to take a quick foray into the recent history of Japan’s major television companies (notably NHK, the state-owned channel) to find records of image and information manipulation. “So common is the staging of fake news reports that it has its own name, yarase, meaning literally “made to do it”. Alex Kerr goes on to say that “The common thread in the yarase for foreign documentaries is to show how poor, miserable, seedy, or violent life is elsewhere, with the implied message that life in Japan is really very nice.” (Kerr, 2001:114)
This media juxtaposition of Japan as safe and sacrosanct against a dangerous outside ‘other’, like Osama Bin Laden or the war-torn Iraq, has been reiterated in my presence on several notable occasions. One instance in particular takes me back to a day in a Yokohama Junior High School, at the time of the US-led ‘search’ for Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan in 2001. On that day a Japanese instructor of English stood next to me and delivered a speech to her class that implored the students to be grateful for the state of peace in their country and not to have to live in one of the more “troubled parts of the world” that they hear about in the news. That Japan enjoys a peaceful society is not an issue of great concern here, but that such a dividing and bias-inducing juxtaposition is reiterated at this important social level, in a school classroom, is testament enough to the stronghold and influence media has on daily life. So if I hold myself responsible for the constructions of an ‘invisible stage’, I also hold those in charge of producing that media and upholding these mechanisms of influence whether they be aware or unaware of the financial/political pressures applied from above.
So a year and a half after seeing the real Al-Murwass performance has my position changed? In terms of my initial prejudice towards the cast, well obviously yes, that ‘invisible stage’ no longer exists. This is thanks to the power of theatre and its ability to break cultural/racial clichés and prejudice. But I don’t think it’s the role of the theatre to rid the world of prejudice, the theatre is first and foremost a place of ‘fiction’, of make-believe and pretend, in which we like to see life from obscure and bizarre angles, it should leave didacticsm and moralizing to parents, teachers and professors alike. To quote Howard Barker: “…the play is not a debate, it is literally ‘play’, and like children’s play it is ‘world-inventing’, requiring no legitimation from the exterior.” (Barker) The influence of media in daily life has increased significantly over the last decade and will continue to do so over the next one too, and we, as its consumers, have become so intimately and unwittingly involved in it that we are less and less interested in looking at its ethics and shortcomings. Therefore I fear that this will not be the last ‘invisible stage’ that I experience.
 http://www.cnn.com/2005/WORLD/meast/01/29/iraq.main/ Cal Perry, CNN News Online, Sunday Jan 30th 2005.
 Iraqi national elections January 30th 2005.
 Source: “http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2004/12/20041206-2.html President and Iraqi Interim President Al-Yawer Discuss Iraq Future”.
 http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2002/01/20020129-11.html George Bush State of the Union Address Jan 29th 2002.
 http://japanmediareview.com/japan/media/1047776795.php Jane Ellen Stevens. “Yomiuri Shimbun’s Reluctant Race Against the Internet”.
Barker, Howard, Arguments for a Theatre (Manchester, Manchester University Press: 1989)
Bharucha, Rustom, “Muslims And Others: Anecdotes, Fragments, And Uncertainties Of Evidence”. Inter-Asia Cultural Studies: Movements. Vol 5 Number 3 December 2004.
Chomsky, Noam, Media Control (NY, Seven Stories Press: 2002)
Kerr, Alex, Dogs & Demons: The Fall of Modern Japan (London, Penguin: 2001)
War Photographer. Dir Christian Frei. 2001 James Nachtwey. Christian Frei Filmproductions.