Iraqi war victims find solace on stage

Theater therapy in Iraq is being utilized to help treat people suffering from war-related psychological problems, but institutionalizing the approach faces its own struggle in the country.

al-monitor Advocates of theater therapy are hoping it will someday become institutionalized in Iraq to help treat victims of war and terrorism. Image by Hugo Goodridge/Al-Monitor.

Sep 19, 2017

BAGHDAD – At Jabbar Khmat’s Theater Clinic, patients suffering from psychological problems find relief by taking the stage to act. The Iraqi academic and actor launched the Theater Clinic to aid those suffering mentally from the conflicts that have plagued Iraq.

“Theater Clinic, unlike traditional theaters, aims to find therapeutic solutions for victims of war and social crises,” said Khmat, who began his career in theater therapy treating victims of the 1988 chemical attacks by Saddam Hussein's government against Halabja, in Iraqi Kurdistan. “This type of art helps patients break out of their isolation. Their participation improves their vocal and physical skills and enhances their ability to communicate.” Khmat explained, “The project also allows patients to compose scripts to be performed on stage.”

Khmat’s efforts are similar to those of Dr. Jan Ilhan Kizilhan, a German-Iraqi psychotherapist who, with funding from the German state of Baden-Wuerttemberg and the German Ministry of Science, established in March an institute at the University of Dahuk, in Iraqi Kurdistan, to train therapists. Students are being trained in psychotherapy and psychotraumatology with the ultimate goal of helping to alleviate the suffering of victims of terrorism and war. At present, there are estimated to be only 20 psychiatrists in the Kurdistan region. Previously, Kizilhan had participated in a program to provide therapy to some 1,100 victims of the Islamic State (IS), mainly Yazidis and some Christians, and help them relocate in Germany.

Telling Al-Monitor about past work, Khmat said, “The patients performed the play ‘I Exist’ in the auditorium of the Health Directorate in Halabja [in 2015], and the audience was surprised how patients could offer brilliant work and act just like ‘normal’ people, if not more so.” The goal of the psychological clinic mixing drama with psychology is to give individuals space in which to express buried feelings by acting them out.

Such an approach is not new to the Middle East. In October 2015, the Foundation for Contemporary Culture staged a performance of “Girls of Baghdad” at the Theater Forum in Baghdad, on the banks of the Tigris, as part of a drama therapy project. In January, Al Jazeera reported on a Jordanian doctor's use of music therapy to treat mentally ill patients, given the effect of music on the body's chemistry and thus the mind. In Egypt, Al Ghad Theater presented “Shaman,” a play the theater director called a form of drama therapy given its theme of dealing with psychological issues.

The goal of the psychological clinic mixing drama with psychology is to give individuals space in which to express buried feelings by acting them out.

According to Khmat, who is based in Dahuk, projects like Theater Clinic in Iraq face obstacles in carrying out their work. He described the “state’s failure to adopt qualitative projects” as a barrier to strategic therapeutic programs.

“Most government and private institutions in Iraq do not care much about creative projects,” Khmat lamented. “They look for projects that offer quick profit, commissions and deals because of the widespread corruption.” 

For Khmat, it was this marginalization that led him to take matters into his own hands. “The lack of financial support prompted me to finance the project at my own expense, and this is weighing me down because theatrical clinics should eventually turn into therapeutic institutions with proper headquarters, trainers and full-fledged theater therapy training programs,” he said.

“Another obstacle is the role of women,” Khmat remarked, noting that it is hard to employ women in his project. “Not many women want to work in the art sector. I searched a lot for the right female actors and the right women to work behind the scenes as assistants, trainers and designers.”

Khmat criticized the lack of encouragement and support that therapeutic theater receives from art schools and institutions. “[They] are accustomed to traditional approaches and ignore an advanced project that can be still be executed within Iraqi capabilities.”

This opinion is supported by the head of the Iraqi Psychological Association, Qassim Hussein Salih, who told Al-Monitor that in addition to earning a Ph.D. in psychology in 2000, he studied theater at the Academy of Fine Arts, where he has also taught. “The curriculum needs development so that actors can learn ways to analyze personalities,” Salih said. “During my teaching experience at the academy, I took students to a mental hospital in Baghdad for a closer look at how art is used to treat mental patients.”

Clinics should “cooperate with the Iraqi Psychological Association to establish a center for psychotherapy through art,” said Salih, who, from 1991 to 2006, hosted “Beware of Despair,” a radio program in which actors read plays, assuming the roles of people with mental issues. “The association can coordinate with theatrical clinics to organize events and develop a strategy for the development of an integrated treatment project on stage.” 

Khmat, despite his current difficulties, will keep working to institutionalize his initiative. “The next project will be with cancer patients at Al-Amal Hospital in Baghdad and will be dedicated to women suffering from breast cancer,” he said.

He also expressed the hope that he can expand Theater Clinic beyond Iraq to other parts of the Middle East. “The management of the Cairo International Festival of Contemporary and Experimental Theater, which is held from Sept. 20 to 30, asked me to direct a workshop on therapeutic theater,” Khmat said, calling it “a positive gesture and recognition of Theater Clinic and its therapeutic goals.”

Khmat foresees a promising future for Theater Clinic at Arab festivals and organizations and called on academic institutions and donors to support it. Development of the project to its full potential could contribute to more Iraqis receiving help with mental illness through theater and other creative outlets instead of pharmaceuticals.

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