Of a farewell kiss and shoes size 10

One can almost discern, through walls and towers destined to crumble, the tracery of normal lives – of kids hurrying to school, men trying to make both ends meet, women going about their daily chores, mansions housing the high and mighty, the usual gathering of the locals at tea stalls and lovers destined to meet and part perennially. On the small map of countries huddled together, a contest is staged between the imagined and the possible, with imagination dissolving into memory within moments.

The last despatch of “enemy” troops happened in Iraq in December 2011 but by then the gangrene had spread too far to be contained, what with triumph over the enemy being covered by the international media in a way that every truth handled gives way to more space for lies. Boundless territories were conquered and the USA was sitting pretty on it success until one day Muntadhar Al-Zaidi, a regular journalist, hurled his shoes (size No 10) at then US President George W Bush by way of a “farewell kiss from the Iraqi people for the widows, children and all those killed in Iraq”. Zaidi was imprisoned and, miles away in India, Rajesh Kumar penned his story, “The Last Salute”, which was staged under the guidance of Arvind Gaur and produced by filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt.

Recently staged at Kala Mandir, Kolkata, it was a build-up of the events of the Gulf crisis and the US atrocities that let Al-Zaidi to do what he did. Telling it like it is, the play took us back to 2003 when the USA decided it was to be the “messiah” of Iraq, its “God”’ one that could rescue them from Saddam Hussein and his imminent arsenal, with video projections of the war in the background.

On stage were a multitude of characters portraying the people of Iraq and a jeans-clad journalist for whom the land was everything. As characters came and went, speaking of Bush & Co, one was given to understand how daily chit-chat in tea stalls changed to concern for the homeland as agonising images of atrocities kept running in the background. Kumar, through his simple dialogues, offered a peep into the thoughts of the thousands of Iraqis who believed America&’s war was primarily against their history since the “land of the free” didn’t have one. The invaders changed positions of the arcades and stairways, reducing them to rubble. Imran Zahid, essaying the role of Al-Zaidi, was seen running around stage, representing the ruins of Iraq, sometimes haplessly lending his hand to the thousands injured and lying in hospital, at other times trying to come to terms with the fact that his girlfriend could never be his wife in a very patriarchal society.

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In a desperate moment, he discovers his empire that once seemed a land of beautiful wonders is a formless ruin because an outsider had so decided. As he sits amidst the wounded and the dead in hospital, the international media decides to focus on Bush&’s speech in the White House, meant for the people of Iraq, in which he proudly proclaims that America is not at war with Iraq but that its enemy is terrorism and he wants to cleanse Iraq of such terrorists. 

Moving towards his home, he comes to a street where a girl has just been killed and there&’s no one to ensure her a proper burial. With days becoming longer in sickening deathly detail in this this historic country of ancient Mesopotamian culture, the pathos of each step taken by Al-Zaidi is captured by poetry written by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Habib Jalib and Sahir Ludhianvi.

Outraged and insulted, Zaidi decides to attend the press conference that Bush is set to address in his homeland for international journalists. The President, brilliantly played by Ishwak Singh, picks up the American accent but falters here and there. Nevertheless, Ishwak&’s waving gestures and carefully articulated dialogue would have you believe he indeed was Bush of the moment. Picking up the mannerisms of the President, he delivers with the typical disdain of a white man and manages the “shoe” incident with covert embarrassment, much like Bush did. He minces and eats words like an American speaking in Hindi would.

They play opens with Mahesh Bhatt reading out his letter to Bush in which he mentions the abuse that the US intervention had hurled on Iraq and how any invasion always affected the common man the most. Theatre veteran Gaur kept the play straightforward, revealing nothing but the truth. Zahid shone through his reserved portrayal of a journalist who went on to become the face of Iraq&’s protest, whose shoes, though eventually destroyed, were in high demand as the ultimate mark of revolt.

Slightly clichéd in parts, the play may not go down in theatre history as a marker of storytelling or even theatrical attributes, but telling a tale like this required guts and the characters did enough justice to the plot and theme. Finally, it portrayed a land, mostly known through convoluted stories, as it was in its first flush, where old men would watch the young go by, the relationships contained in its past, and a present where soldiers played the trumpet of war.