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What if Romeo and Juliet Lived in Baghdad and Were Killed by a Suicide Bomb?

Iraqi theater director Monadhil Daood is producing his own adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, revisiting the classic play to show the difficulties faced by Sunni-Shiite couples in the Arab World.

'O Romeo (Iraqi Theatre Company)
'O Romeo (Iraqi Theatre Company)
Laure Stéphan

What if Romeo and Juliet spoke Arabic instead of English? What if the fate of the desperate lovers unfolded in Baghdad instead of Verona? What if the couple wasn't from rival families but from different religious groups whose militias engaged in ruthless clashes, escalating after the start of the Iraq war in 2003?

This is what Monadhil Daood, an Iraqi theater director, imagined with his own Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad, a new adaptation of Shakespeare's play. Daood turned Romeo into a Shiite and Juliette into a Sunni. In the streets, the raging rivalry does not involve the Capulets and the Montagues: now it's Al-Qaeda vs. the Mahdi Army.

Here, the lovers do not die during a tragic final twist – Romeo poisoning himself because he believes Juliet is dead, Juliet stabbing herself to death after seeing a lifeless Romeo. No room for romanticism. The young couple is killed by a suicide bomb in the church where they took shelter – a raw, realist representation of Iraqi hell. "I want to show the suffering of this generation and of previous generations, and the suffering of love", Ahmad Salah Moneka, who plays Romeo, told the Agence France Presse (AFP).

An atonement of the nightmare that Iraq has been through in the recent years, whose horrors are still being written with bomb attacks and corpses, this transposition of the Shakespearean play was shown at the Baghdad National Theater, before the European premiere on April 26, in Stratford-upon-Avon, the city of the Bard, for the World Shakespeare Festival.

A new tragedy

The adaptation also shows how religious identities have been become defining in a devastated Iraq, rendering difficult what was common up to 2003: mixed marriages between members of these two branches of Islam. In order to curb the trend of community divides, after inter-faith violence outbreaks in 2006, Iraqi authorities introduced a $2,000 bonus for mixed marriages between Shiite-Sunni couples. The aim of this was to fight the brand of sectarianism fostered by extremists in each religious group. Since 2009, the increase of mixed marriages is praised as a mark of renewal by observers on the ground.

In other parts of the region, mixed marriages are seen as a sign of the social cohesion of complex societies, an oriental intricacy in which sectarianism doesn't come into play. In Bahrain, where the monarchy has been facing popular protests since February 2011, opponents and loyalists hail the existence of Sunni-Shiite couples. (Sunni and Shia Islam are the two main religions in this little kingdom of the Persian Gulf). Political opposition, whose base is mostly Shiite, wants to show that religious analyses of the conflict are not relevant. Those who remain faithful to the Sunni royal family want to show that the country remains united despite the divides created by a deteriorating conflict.

For some of these mixed couples, the divides have worsened since the beginning of the uprising against the regime. "My husband is Shiite. I'm a Sunni and I support the opposition. It has become increasingly difficult to talk with my family. They believe that I'm putting the Sunnis in danger. These stances don't make any sense at all. Choices are political, not religious', explains Abir, a young Bahraini woman.

A simplistic Western analysis

In Syria, intellectual youth are slamming the Western press, accused of a simplistic, religious analysis of the growing tensions. These young men and women talk about the happy marriages between Alawis and Sunnis, Muslims and Christians, etc.

Becoming a symbol of national unity is a heavy cross to bear for a newly married couple. In Lebanon, interfaith couples who married before the war describe living an idyllic, harmonious life before the 15-year-long war that tore their country apart.

As their country was reshaped by a confession-based social organization after the war, and after an increase in tensions between Sunni and Shiite from 2008 on, the Romeos and the Juliets of Lebanon became real-life characters. Some of them resist by having a civil wedding ceremony abroad (since they are forbidden in Lebanon), or by having a fake religious marriage just to satisfy the modern Capulets and Montagues. They dream of a new Lebanon, a country where secularism would put an end to the religious divides.

Read more from Le Monde in French

Photo – Iraqi Theater Company

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