Iraqi artist Ahmed Moneka has been described as “a cultural force to be reckoned with” as he is working towards his Canadian citizenship.
His background on how he arrived in Canada fascinated me and I wanted to learn more about him. And I hadn’t even spoken to him as of yet.
Ahmed arrived in Canada on September 10, 2015, and left Iraq for 10 days. He was invited to the Toronto International Film Festival to screen the movie in which he both co-wrote and appeared. The movie was about homosexual rights in Iraq, and there was a wave of events regarding the issue in 2011 in Baghdad. When the film was screened in 2015, Ahmed received threats from the militia in Baghdad and was forced to stay in Canada in order to save his life.
Moneka has collaborated with many professional companies including the Canadian Opera Company, Tarragon Theatre, Aga Khan Museum, Tafelmusik, Driftwood Theatre Group, Toronto Jazz Festival, Koerner Hall, Modern Times Stage, Jabari Dance Theatre, Toronto Laboratory Theatre, Theatre Centre, and TRIA Theatre. He is one of the founders of the band Moskitto Bar and is the creator and leader of Moneka Arabic Jazz – a 2019 Stingray Rising Stars Winner at the Toronto Jazz Festival.
And he has also learned English in his association with these fine institutions.
Ahmed next appears in Crow’s Theatre production of ‘Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo’ which hopefully opens January 26. There are some fine artists in the production with him and I am sincerely hoping to get to see the production live.
Ahmed and I conducted our conversation via Zoom. Thank you so much, Ahmed, for taking the time and sharing your voice:
From glancing at your personal web page, I can see your love of the arts of music and theatre has indeed flourished as you have collaborated with many fine Canadian performing arts institutions. Please describe one element or one moment in your life where you instinctively just knew that your path forward would be as an artist.
To be honest, I studied theatre in Baghdad for nine years and had an amazing career there. The plan when I came to Toronto was to stay for a short period of time with TIFF. I then had the opportunity to stay so I had to figure out my life. The adjustment with the English language was a huge portion of my life throughout six years.
I wanted to see ‘Blood Weddings’ by Lorca directed by Soheil Parsa through Modern Times Stage. This production was amazing. I’m very familiar with Lorca’s work. I went to speak with Soheil with my broken, limited English. I told Soheil how much I loved the production, the transitions. It was amazing.
Soheil asked me if I know theatre, and I said that I did know theatre. I told him I’m a newcomer here and that I would love to be in a rehearsal hall. Soheil said to come over as there was a workshop for ‘Waiting for Godot’. I didn’t have any money for the workshop. Soheil asked me where I was from. When I told him I was from Iraq, he said he was from Iran and to come to the workshop of Godot for a free welcome.
This was my first workshop in Canada with Modern Times Stage.
After the two-day workshop of ‘Godot’, Soheil hired me after that. It was this moment where I believed that I could have a career here in Canada as a theatre artist. I shifted the gear with music as well as it was a huge part of my healing experiences and circumstances, and it was my hope to continue music in sharing my culture with the Toronto community.
Do you have a particular preference either of music or theatre to share your narrative voice or do you find as an artist there is a gelling of the two?
To be honest, Canada taught me how to be a musician. I learned music from my family. We sang and danced for our rituals, but here in Canada for the first three years, music was a big hope for me. Music was the only language I knew how to share with people.
But I’m a theatre artist. I love acting. I love theatre. I love artists. I love that complicated process of theatre. Now I feel like I’m being able to express myself and act in English, and now I consider both music and theatre very close to my heart.
I’m hooked. Both music and theatre are powerful ways of delivering stories as a narrative.
Would you name one teacher and one mentor for whom you are thankful as an artist, and how these individuals influenced your life as a performing artist.
One teacher who has influenced me is d.b. young. I was part of the Soulpepper Academy and d.b. young was with us every Monday of the seven months we were studying. She’s awesome in the way she opened us up and built us up with confidence, especially within me and my ability to push myself towards a theatre career by being honest and real about it. That helped me a lot as an immigrant to be able to trust myself again, be confident again in what I believe and what I love by being a part of the Canadian theatre scene and being part of my new home here in Toronto.
As a mentor, my friend, Zac, but also in theatre specifically Jeremy Smith (from Driftwood Theatre). I was connected with Jeremy through an amazing opportunity through the Toronto Arts Council mentorship program for newcomers and refugees. It was a bridge between a newcomer artist and an established artist in Canada. It was a good potential because there was money paid for this entire process.
Jeremy was my guide. He introduced me to a lot of people, and we had many meetings where I met many people, going and seeing different shows and meeting individuals there. I also became an Artist in Residence through Driftwood, and they were working on ‘Othello’ that year. As an Iraqi/Arabic, I did some research on the jealousy and what Shakespeare would have meant by the jealousy in the play. My involvement was paid for.
When I finished my residency, Jeremy asked me to accompany the group on tour in Southern Ontario. It was beautiful for me as it gave me an opportunity to see southern Ontario and to connect with Ontarians everywhere. I also got to connect with Jeremy and his family. I was very lucky as I felt safe with Jeremy as I was learning English while I was involved with something that I loved – the theatre. Jeremy and I are also in collaboration on future endeavours.
The global pandemic has certainly changed our view of the world we once knew. How have you been able to move forward as an artist during these tumultuous times?
To be honest, it has been very tough, very tough. But as an Iraqi artist, I believe that art has a purpose and a mission more than action.
I have faced many obstacles back home in Baghdad and that made me flexible and adjustable to any circumstances that faced me.
I’ve played a lot of music; we’ve played in the park and open venues to create something in order to keep surviving. Toronto is a very expensive city, and I’m a father now. I have a daughter with my wife and my family just came over last year. I receive so much from my family in my push and desire to grow as an artist, as a father, as a son, as a brother, as a husband.
At the same time, it’s been very tough financially in that would I have to quit making art and do something else.
I don’t want to quit art. I want to keep going. I’ve been writing some theatre pieces, working on an album and also I’ve been thinking about creating a television show about my life here in Toronto and Canada combined with the music scene to shine Toronto. Toronto is a beautiful city with everyone here harmonized here in love and peace.
I’ve been taking advantage of sending emails and having interviews, so I want to thank you, Joseph, for this opportunity to connect with others. Theatrically, I’m connected more now than I was before the pandemic hit. I’ve applied for a lot of auditions. I’m getting work.
I just finished Soulpepper Academy. After I finish Bengal Tiger at Crow’s, I’m performing next in Orphan Song at Tarragon Theatre. I’m pushing and trying to figure things out, but it’s disappointing to see how the government treats theatre artists. There’s not enough financial support. There’s not enough acknowledgement and recognition towards arts and culture because that is dynamic to the hope of the city.
We need to consider art as something important in terms of what’s happening now.
Although I haven’t seen ‘Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo’, the plot intrigues me and I am quite curious about it. There are two parts to this question:
Please share what it is about ‘Bengal Tiger’ that attracted you to the piece as an artist.
‘Bengal Tiger’ is about Iraq and takes places in Baghdad in 2000. I was in Baghdad in 2000. I witnessed the war. I heard the bombs; I saw the destruction and how the war destroyed the city. This was my second war as I also witnessed the Gulf War.
War is disgusting. I hate war. I hate guns. I hate money that goes to war. ‘
‘Bengal Tiger’ talks about the war, talks about the disease of war from different perspective which is wonderfully written between the dictatorship of Saddam and the pressure towards the Iraqis and the Americans when they came when the city was destroyed and took the city out and allowed the chaos to happen.
I play Musa, an Iraqi translator, who used to work as a gardener creating a topiary. The ghost of Uday Hussein who once employed Musa murdered Musa’s sister, Hadia.
Through the journey there is a gold gun that Tom, a soldier, took when he killed Uday. Uday tells Musa he must use the gold gun as “leverage” against the Americans. While working as Uday’s gardener, Musa created a beautiful topiary garden that has since been destroyed by the war. The topiary garden, also the site of Hadia’s murder, becomes a gathering place for ghosts.
There’s trauma, there’s ghost haunting, there’s the killing of the tiger. There is a crazy, psychedelic spiritual world.
The play talks about Iraqi society are victims between Saddam’s dictatorship and the American invasion of Iraq.
There are so many character arcs in the play that drew me to the play.
I feel it is part of my journey through the play to share this story of the Iraqi people, their voice and to show that Iraqis are not terrorists, not involved in any terrorism even in 9/11. The Iraqi people were tired of Saddam and opened the door to the Americans; there was hope of the dream to Iraq being connected to allies and open to the western world. Unfortunately, none of this happened.
What message do you hope audiences will come away upon seeing ‘Bengal Tiger’?
I hope they will believe that Iraqi people are not bad people. The Iraqi people are good people. That is why I said yes to this script and being involved with it.
And also I’m so glad to say that I am the first Iraqi involved with this production of ‘Bengal Tiger’. Robin Williams played the tiger in the Broadway production.
To be honest, this Toronto cast is incredibly talented…there is zero production rehearsing in Toronto right now and we continue to rehearse with safety protocols in place. But in taking these safety protocols to heart, we are also taking the risk to hope to do this show in public. We are refusing to film it or do it online. We are rehearsing the show with the hope of performing it live beginning January 27. We will be ready to go by then. Everyone is on top of their work.
Audiences will be blown away because it’s really amazing this production is a masterpiece – there’s conflict, there’s trauma, there’s love, there’s comedy. There are all the elements of theatre. Yes, there are moments where you will feel uncomfortable and will make you question certain things. There will be moments where you are on the edge of your seat sitting forward and absorbing as much as you can of the action and the characters.
I’m helping members of the cast with the accent and so is my sister. I’m so eager and excited to have this show open to the public and to share this story with everyone, and let audiences then decide how they will respond to what is presented before them.
Someone once told me the life of an actor and artist is not all sunshine and autographs, but a life of ups and downs personally and professionally. In light of the sometimes-precarious world and life of the actor/artist:
What intrigues Ahmed Moneka?
Exactly. You said it. We are like a lottery and that intrigues me. We audition. We show up fully on our game.
This is the case with the artist. We must be prepared all the time and decide how we want to be involved and with which projects do we want to be involved. We have to believe in ourselves, and listen, listen, listen to any potential opportunity that could come
I will create my own opportunity if none is created for me.
What frustrates Ahmed Moneka?
Sometimes it’s the system that frustrates me. There’s rules of work here that I sometimes think are lame.
For example, three weeks of rehearsal is not enough time to shine. I know there’s tech, there’s preview, but the rehearsal is the most fun thing at least for me. In rehearsal you try, you try, you try until you find it.
We need to create a star system here in Canada. We need to believe in our own artists here in Canada much like there is the belief in the artists of Hollywood and New York City. Toronto is so unique and there are so amazing artists. I want to listen to them and hear them.
Try to answer these in a single sentence. If you need more than one sentence, that’s not a problem. I credit the late James Lipton and “Inside the Actors’ Studio’ for this idea:
If you could say one thing to one of your mentors and teachers who encouraged you to get to this point as an artist, what would it be?
“Thank you so much for trusting.”
If you could say something to any of the naysayers in your career who didn’t think you would make it as an artist, what would that be?
“Look at me now.”
What’s your favourite swear word?
Fuck! It’s amazing.
What is a word you love to hear yourself say?
“Love” and I have a sentence I always say: “Love is the main reason for a creative future.”
What is a word you don’t like to hear yourself say?
Hate unto others.
With whom would you like to have dinner and discuss the current state of the live Canadian performing arts scene?
What would you tell your younger personal self with the knowledge and wisdom that some life experience has now given you?
Oh, my, this is going to bring me to tears. I would say thank you for choosing hope and life and peace.
With the professional life experience you’ve gained, what would you now tell the upcoming Ahmed Moneka from years ago who was just in the throes of beginning a career as a performing artist?
Thank you so much for resisting and for telling your father, “No, I want to do theatre instead of cinema.”
What is one thing you still wish to accomplish both personally and professionally?
Personally, I want to be a wonderful husband and good father and good son, brother and friend. I want to be a good human in listening to everyone around me.
Professionally, I would really like to enter the television and film industry.
Name one moment in your professional career that you wish you could re-visit again for a short while.
Being in the same room with Wajdi Mouawad. I worked with him in the Canadian Opera Company. It’s crazy how he’s convincing. He’s like a little boy but he is so talented and so humble. I want to learn more from him.
To learn more about Ahmed Moneka, please visit his page: www.ahmedmoneka.com.
To learn more about Crow’s Theatre, visit www.crowstheatre.com.