BAGHDAD — 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.
Rami's family is poor — his father died in 2003 and his younger brother was killed two weeks later by a rocket during the U.S. assault 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. 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, he has a much bleaker image: "I can't see a good future. 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."
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.
"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. . . If I want to sell cheese, they will ask me is it Sunni cheese or Shiite cheese — there is this level of thinking."
He adds, "I love my country, but if I had the chance, I'd leave."
(Arraf reports for the Christian Science Monitor. The Monitor and McClatchy operate a joint bureau in Baghdad.)