Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 18 September 2020

Celebrated writer Adel Kazem, a giant of Iraqi television and theatre, dies aged 81

The acclaimed dramatist passed away after a long illness

Iraqi playwright and screenwriter Adel Kazem has died aged 81. YouTube
Iraqi playwright and screenwriter Adel Kazem has died aged 81. YouTube

Adel Kazem, one of Iraq’s most renowned playwrights and screenwriters, died on Sunday after a long illness. He was 81 years old.

Kazem was known for penning a series of seminal Iraqi plays and television dramas including Al Toufan (The Flood), Tammuz Yaqraa Al Naqouss (Tammuz Rings the Bell) and Al Ze’eb Wa Al Nisr (The Wolf and the Eagle).

The cultural richness of his material, coupled with his keen eye for the minutiae of local Iraqi life, resulted in Kazem being labelled the “first man of Iraqi drama”.

News of his death was announced by Iraq's Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Antiquities.

"We mourn the departure of the great writer Adel Kazem," it said. "He was a distinguished and dramatic writer with style that can express the local reality through a career spanning half a century in theatre and television."

Iraqi cultural personalities also took to social media to praise the literary pioneer.

“The Iraqi stage has lost a prolific figure with a rich and deeply rooted history in literature and art," said theatre director and Sharjah resident Dhafer Jloud. “We shall not cry over your death because you will forever be in our hearts.”

Iraqi-Omani poet Abdul Al Razzaq Al Rubaie said: “The eyes of the city will remain bleak, without their wolf, nor an eagle. To God's vast mercy."

From sketches to the written word

Kazem was born in Baghdad in 1939 into a family of 10. He spent most of the first two decades of his life in the southern port city of Basra, where his father worked on government projects and taught at the local engineering academy.

Describing himself as a quiet child in a 2016 interview with Iraqi broadcaster Al Mada TV, Kazem recalled that his creative spark was lit by his brother, the acclaimed sculptor Nida Kazem.

“He was the instigator,” he said. “When I was young I would draw a lot and that’s because of seeing my younger sibling Nida doing the same thing.”

That creative passion eventually found its way to the written word as Kazem was interested in working on a bigger canvas.

“The writer is a psychologist, a sociologist, philosopher, a seer and poet," he said in an interview on Iraqi TV show, Hadith Al Umour, recorded nearly a decade ago. "You need those qualities to become an esteemed and intelligent writer."

A work of metaphors

Encouraged by his friends and peers' reactions to his short stories, Kazem enrolled at Baghdad's Academy of Fine Arts in 1962.

It was in his second year at the academy that his talent was spotted by teacher and mentor Ibrahim Jalal. The pioneering Iraqi actor and director chose Kazem’s play Al Toufan as his next directorial stage effort.

Debuting at the academy in 1966, the production was a critical sensation. Based on the Epic of Gilgamesh, Kazem used the 1800 BC Mesopotamian poem about man's struggle for immortality to question how an Arab society can sustain itself when rife with injustice.

The play not only became a regional hit, with performances held in Bahrain and Kuwait, but also became the earliest showcase of Kazem’s literary style in which metaphor, folk tales and ancient history are used to unpack hard truths of everyday realities of Iraq and, in turn, the Arab world.

His follow-up play, 1971’s Alka, found him taking aim at some of the feudalistic elements of his homeland, with a plot focusing on a farmer's relationship with a cultivated piece of land not his own.

With his reputation sealed in the theatrical world, it was only natural for Kazem to transfer his talent to the small screen, with which he found further success and a bigger audience.

He was behind two of Iraq’s most acclaimed TV dramas

In 1980, he wrote the script for Al Naser Wa O’youn Al Madina (The Eagle and the Eyes of the City), a 30-part series starring Khalil Shawky and Hind Kamel.

Directed by Jalal and set in a Baghdad suburb at the turn of the 19th century, the plot follows two friends – Shawky and Kamel – whose bond is torn by greed and unrequited love.

The series was followed by 1983’s Al Ze’eb Wa Al Nisr, which moves the action to another fictitious Iraqi suburb (one Kazem said had hints of Basra) set in the 1950s. This time around, the drama followed the simmering battle between aristocrat Qadir Bey (Shawky) and the stranger Ismail Chalabi (Farid).

While both series are standalone projects, they are often viewed as loose companion pieces and are regarded as a high-water mark of Iraqi drama.

Kazem clearly relished the expansive nature of the TV drama format, packing each series with a large ensemble cast to tell epic stories centred on themes of forgiveness and the human toll of vengeance.

Iraqi drama needs investment

Kazem continued working through the '90s and 2000s on Iraqi stage and screen projects. His last major work was the 2012 Ramadan television drama Bint Al Maeedi, before his health began to deteriorate.

Fortunately, Kazem lived long enough to see the some of the impact and significance of his work. In 2014, his career was honoured as part of Sharjah's Arab Theatre Festival, during which some of his productions were performed in the emirate.

In his final run of major interviews over the past five years, Kazem lamented the state of the Iraqi drama industry and how it failed to capture a regional audience similar to his heyday.

“The problem is one of production quality and finances,” he told Al Mada TV. “It is not the case of a changing audience, as a quality production creates a new audience.

"A great producer is like an artist. With the money they are given, they know how to create a production that can take audiences on a journey. But it is those who are responsible for supplying that capital that are [often] cowards.”

Updated: August 4, 2020 01:07 PM

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