For students at American University of Iraq Sulaimani, a visit to the Oregon Shakepeare Festival in Ashland would be like a trip to Oz, says their American teacher. Photo from Peter Friedrich - Peter Friedrich

A Trip to Oz

A troupe of 10 Shakespearean actors from Iraq hopes to raise enough money to make a trip to Ashland to perform the Bard's work at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Green Show.

"When I heard of the invitation (from OSF) to go to Ashland, I felt that I had wings, and almost was going to fly," said Umniyah Nadhir Mahmood, 20, an actress studying at American University of Iraq Sulaimani.

Like her nine classmates, she speaks English well and, according to their professor, Peter Friedrich, "the word I hear most from them is 'unbelievable' — that they would get this invitation and that people they don't know would want to give money to make it possible."

The project has raised $10,000 toward a goal of $30,000 on Kickstarter, a "crowdfunding" website for creative projects. They must reach the goal by April 7 or forego all pledges.

Their page on Kickstarter features the troupe in a video, making a hip and charming pitch for support — in perfect English — and crowing that, before an audience of 600 who "went crazy," they gave the first-ever performance of Shakespeare in Iraq.

Contributions may be made at

"When we reach the goal, we're going to put together an original 30-minute show, with some help from directors there," says Friedrich, who since 2008 has taught English, fine arts and drama in Iraq. They would perform July 3 through 8 in the Green Show, which features performers in an outdoor area of the festival.

"Going to America is a great thing of itself, and it's worth being told as a story for my future kids and grandsons," said Mahmood, in an email interview. "Performing in America, on the other hand, is the greatest opportunity that ever came cross my life."

Another student, Mina Bassam Ali Naji, emailed, "I believe this is once of the life time opportunity and it's going to be unforgettable, we are going to be the first Iraqi group going there and actually perform fromPage1B


Mahmood, who will play Lady Macbeth, said it's hard for a female to be an actress in Iraq, so her major is international studies, "a career that requires a personality that is capable of being strong even through the hardest situation and acting helps me grow this strength."

The students plan to perform a mix of Shakespeare scenes with Iraqi touches. Friedrich, who has a master's degree in acting from the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, said they "know that performing Shakespeare at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is on such a higher level and they want to show they could do it."

While some might think young Iraqis would find it hard to connect with 400-year-old Early Modern English, Friedrich, in a Skype interview, said he "got them hooked and now they love to quote Shakespeare and battle each other with Shakespearean witticisms.

"They're addicted now to poetic conversation," he said.

"He's brilliant in making his plays by giving them words that awake the play and makes it alive," said student Ahmed Mohammed Taha. "So I can feel what he is saying, and that is really amazing."

Friedrich said that to the students, Ashland is "a bit like Oz, really impossible for them to believe ... that, although Ashland people do all the normal activities, here's a city whose main industry is Shakespeare."

Friedrich said he went to Iraq for a short project, "to make a difference" and got drawn into the culture.

"You get really, really attached to most of the people you meet," he said. "It's definitely a very family environment. You quickly get past the thing of Americans being in one box and Iraqis in another."

The students are getting over the upheaval of the U.S.-Iraq war, says Friedrich.

"If you meet any 10 people here, odds are very high some will have lost immediate family and had to run for their lives. You'd hear some very tough stories."

Friedrich, who would accompany the troupe, has been to Ashland and OSF many times but says his students have been exposed to Americans only through contacts with the military, nongovernment organizations or missionary workers.

"I can't wait for them to see the nature and the people," he said.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at

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