A life between yes and no

Mary Ann Hunter

Opening his solo performance Nothing But Nothing, asylum-seeker Towfiq Al-Qady immediately engages his audience by repeatedly asking “Are you my friend? Can you help me?” The answer is yes, of course, but backed by a giant “NO” constructed on the otherwise bare stage of Brisbane’s Metro Arts Theatre, Towfiq replies: “Really, I want to stay with your yes. I have missed this word for a long time. But between yes and no I have spent all my life.”

With this the dramaturgical framework for the performance is established and, as a newborn audience-community, we bear witness to Al-Qady’s life story: a beleaguered search for ‘yes.’ From childhood dreams and youthful passions to a gruesome ‘choice’ of either becoming a refugee or being executed, we see Al-Qady as an artist and young lover keeping his dreams alive by rejecting everything about a war in which “beautiful things have no meaning.”

Born in Iraq, Towfiq Al-Qady is a painter, cartoonist, actor, writer and director. When he was young, his father, like many other adult men from his region, disappeared without explanation. This had an enormous impact: as Al-Qady explains in his performance, his “dreams were stolen.” When as an adult Al-Qady refused to join the Iraqi army, he was told that he could continue working as an artist only if he painted portraits of Saddam Hussein. Instead, he became a political cartoonist and participated in political theatre, mainly in Syria. Exhausting other avenues to freedom, he emigrated to Australia by boat and was recently held in Curtin Detention Centre for 9 months.

Al-Qady’s depiction of his time at sea is harrowing. Constraining himself within the oval “O” of the onstage “NO”, he plea-bargains with the boat and the sea: “Please, boat, help us…Sea, I like you but I am scared of you.” After enduring the vessel’s motor failure and a life-threatening lack of food and water, he joyfully dances at the long-awaited sight of land. Yet, perhaps as a measure of his graciousness, Al-Qady refrains from lingering on his experience as a detainee in Australia. While in the program notes he describes this period as “very hard” and “not healthy”, in the performance the experience is indicated simply by a short strand of razor wire and a barrage of bureaucratic questioning. Like the off-stage bloodshed of a Greek tragedy, we are left to imagine the pain. In a poignant portrayal of the double-edged ‘compassion’ of Australian authorities, Al-Qady rests his weary cheek against the sharp wire as he plays a waiting game: “Will you say yes? When will you say yes? I should wait? Sorry. OK.”

Currently living in Brisbane on a Temporary Protection Visa, Al-Qady continues to paint and create theatre. He is an active member of Actors for Refugees Queensland, an organisation which has raised awareness of refugees in detention with readings of Michael Gurr’s Something to Declare, devised in collaboration with Actors for Refugees Melbourne using text from detainees’ letters. Nothing But Nothing takes this awareness-raising a step further by creating a unique opportunity for cross-cultural dialogue. Strongly supported by Brisbane’s Iraqi community, Al-Qady’s performance allowed for vibrant post-show discussion with his diverse audience.

Nothing But Nothing lays bare Towfiq Al-Qady’s tortuous journey facing a series of ‘nos.’ Yet this artist’s resilience, passion, and ultimate dream of peace make this performance remarkably optimistic. Nothing But Nothing is infused with Al-Qady’s positive attitude, while refusing to shy away from the immense physical and emotional toll this journey has had: “The war destroyed everything: my life, my love, my heart…My dreams become very small, alone, empty…NO–you are a very small word, but you have a very big impact on my life.” If only this performance was mandatory viewing for Australian politicians, they might finally realise that, in Al-Qady’s words, “I do not make me a refugee. War makes me a refugee.”

Actors for Refugees Qld, Nothing But Nothing, writer/performer Towfiq Al-Qady, musical accompaniment Taj Mahmoud, directorial assistant Leah Mercer, Metro Arts Theatre, Brisbane, May 10-1

RealTime issue #67 June-July 2005 pg. 30

© Mary Ann Hunter; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 2005