Iraqi actor Ahmed Moneka on stage in “Bengal Tiger at Baghdad Zoo”
Iraqi actor Ahmed Moneka first came to Toronto in September 2015 for a brief visit. A short he co-created and starred in, “The Society,” had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, after which it would screen at other major festivals, including Cannes.
He’s been here ever since.
The content of “The Society” was risky: it is about two homosexuals who keep their relationship a secret in contemporary Baghdad, highlighting the persecution of homosexuals there.
“Nobody was talking about these things, not even in the gay community, because they were so scared,” Moneka said. While at TIFF, Iraqi militia made threats against his life. “They had heard that I was here in Canada for the screening of a film against the militia,” he said. “They told my dad they wanted to cut my body into pieces at the airport.”
With one suitcase and no English, Moneka applied for asylum in Canada. Seven years later, he is down to earth in Toronto, with a burgeoning artistic career and a growing family. This fall, Moneka marks a professional milestone by playing a major role in a Toronto theater – a role to which he brings his life experience.
In “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” at Crow’s Theatre, Moneka plays an Iraqi man who works as a translator for American troops during the Iraq War.
“I was there,” said Moneka, who was a child in 2003 when a US-led coalition invaded his country. “I listened to the bombs, I saw the disaster after this war. I have witnessed the destruction of the American vision. Not just Saddam (Hussein), destroying us all, destroying the infrastructure of the city. He thinks the piece “really honors the people of Iraq, and that’s why, as an Iraqi, I was so keen to do it.”
Director Rouvan Silogix said Moneka’s connection to the material enhances her performance and the production as a whole. “Ahmed knows what it’s like to be in a town like this, when you have this disturbing presence and there’s no justice,” Silogix said. “No matter what you do, power will supplant any form of internal justice.”
Rajiv Joseph’s lauded screenplay – he was a 2010 Pulitzer Prize finalist – has many surreal elements, including the titular tiger, who is played by a human (in this production, by Kristen Thomson). Moneka said Joseph captures what his country looks like.
“The reality there is not like the reality here. It is an abstract reality,” he said. “I don’t know if you can say it’s spiritual or psychedelic, but it’s really mixed.”
Although he received help from organizations such as the Iraqi Canadian Society, Moneka struggled during his first few months in Canada: “You can’t see anything. You just live in your memories and your traumas,” he said. “As an artist, I was really trying to figure out how to manage my life here.”
Things started to look up when he moved from out of town to Toronto and started working as a musician “because it didn’t require me to speak English on stage,” he said. said. He started a multicultural band, Moskitto Bar, and also makes his own music through a project called Moneka Arabic Jazz.
He found his way into Toronto theater with the support of Iranian-Canadian director Soheil Parsa, a key contact for immigrant artists, and by joining the Toronto Arts Council’s Newcomer and Refugee Artist Mentorship Program. . There he was paired with D. Jeremy Smith, artistic director of the Driftwood Theater Group.
“Ahmed and I both knew within 10 to 15 minutes that we were really excited for each other and that this could be a really interesting couple,” Smith said. Moneka became an artistic associate of Driftwood, worked as a crew member on one of their shows, and in the summer of 2019 played Puck in their production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
“Ahmed goes through life with this tremendous positivity and tremendous warmth and grace,” Smith said. “It amazes me…especially to know what he went through to be here.”
Silogix first met Moneka when he submitted a film script about his life story to Crow’s Theatre, where Silogix was then Associate Artistic Director. He is now artistic director of the Modern Times Stage Company, which is co-producing this show with the Crow’s Theatre.
“I met him, and he’s so charismatic,” Silogix said. “It’s hard to try to ignore it.” In the “Bengal Tiger” audition process, Silogix found that Moneka had “really strong dramatic chops”.
Moneka is now married and has a daughter. Recently, her parents and two sisters moved to Toronto. His older sister, Israa Abdul JaLeel, works as a voice coach on “Bengal Tiger”, helping the actors with the peculiar Iraqi pronunciation of Arabic passages that appear in the script otherwise in English. “She managed to convey the Iraqi spirit to each of them,” Moneka said. “I’m so proud of her.”
Their father, Salah Moneka, was a well-known actor in Iraq, and some of Ahmed’s projects include establishing an Arabic language theater company in Toronto, so that actors, including his father, have the opportunity to occur.
He has also pledged to continue his work as a musician, which celebrates his family’s African heritage: their ancestors came to Iraq from Mombasa, Kenya in the 7th century. “Black Iraqis, we have a connection with our ancestors” through the chanting of traditional spirituals, Moneka said. “This process also heals everyone in the room.”
Although Moneka’s story is overall a happy one of welcome and transformation, he has had some recent experiences that haven’t been positive. He became a Canadian citizen in February. Twice since, upon returning from a trip abroad, he has been flagged by Canada Border Services for further questioning.
“I was coming back from Colombia where I had been invited to meet the ambassador at the embassy. And out of 12 artists going home, I’m the only one being sent to immigration,” he said. “I asked them, is that my name? Was I born in Iraq? Or am I black? The system is racist or the system is stupid, you choose.
“When I travel outside of Canada, I’m received as a Canadian, but when I come home, they don’t receive me as a Canadian,” he said.
Despite these challenges, having so many family members around helps Moneka thrive. “We come from a very rich family in terms of spirituality and connection,” he said. “When you connect to your root, you become a tree.”
“Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” plays at the Crow’s Theater from October 11 to November 11. 6. https://www.crowstheatre.com and 647-341-7390 ext. 1010
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