LEADING WITH LOVE: Ahmed Moneka’s Journey from Baghdad to TorontoBy Taylor Long
Ahmed Moneka portrays the prayer leader in the COC’s The Abduction from the Seraglio
In Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio, a group of Europeans are abducted by pirates and sold to a Turkish harem, forcefully introduced to a world “where everything goes right to left, not left to right.” For Ahmed Moneka, who plays the prayer leader in our production, the experience of having one’s entire life turned upside down is all too familiar. The actor faced a similar crisis in 2015 when he was forced to abandon his native Iraq and start a new life in Canada.
Ahmed was born in Baghdad to an artistic family—his father is a famous comedic actor and his sister rose to fame on the Arabic TV series, The Voice Kids. After pursuing theatre studies at the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad and Theoretical Acting Studies at the University of Baghdad, Ahmed transitioned to screen acting. He performed in films that premiered at festivals around the world, including Cannes, Venice, and TIFF. Ahmed’s artistic mission has focused on human rights and freedoms in Iraq, eventually turning his lifelong passion into a life-changing predicament.
Forced out of Iraq by death threats
In 2015, Ahmed travelled to Toronto for the world premiere of his new film, The Society—in which he played a gay character. The film exposed the indignities facing homosexuals in Iraq. In response to the film, Iraqi militia threatened Ahmed’s family—they were told that if he were ever to return to Iraq, “his body will be cut into small pieces.” Out of options and fearing for his life, Ahmed sought and succeeded in attaining asylum in Canada in 2016.
“It’s heavy. When it started, it was so heavy,” explains Ahmed of being forced to start a new life in Toronto. “As an artist, being in a different city, I struggled for the first seven months. I focused on being in the zone, meditating, and leading from my heart—that really made me feel my community and start my new life.”
Eventually he found a sense of community—he started teaching music to kids in the city and formed a multi-cultural folk band called Moskitto Bar with Ukrainian singer Yura Rafaliuk and French accordionist Tangi Ropars. “In the Middle East, we use quarter tones, so the music is totally different from Ukraine—but when we opened our hearts to each other, we found a lot of familiar stuff. We were able to meet in the middle and communicate through music,” says Ahmed.
The Abduction from the Seraglio is Ahmed’s first opera—but he’s no stranger to the stage. The 27-year-old travelled to Stratford-upon-Avon, the birthplace of Shakespeare, to perform as Romeo in Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad at the World Shakespeare Festival in 2012.
As the prayer leader in this production, Ahmed is given an opportunity to channel his haunting past in a new light. “In the scene, I close my eyes and I’m going deeply from my heart. The opera really helped me connect again with my religion.” The prayer that opens the second half of the opera, a collaboration between Ahmed and tenor Mauro Peter (who sings Belmonte), is built on the Hijaz scale of the maqam, a structure of melodic modes used in traditional Arabic music. “What I did with Mauro—he got it so quickly. I learned how to sing it from an old teacher who taught me the keys of the maqam.”
It’s been two years and four months since Ahmed was separated from his family, who are currently refugees in Turkey. Relentless threats from the Iraqi militia means they are unable to return home. But because of their association with the arts, his family is considered a high-profile case, leaving Ahmed hopeful that he will be reunited with them soon, in Canada.
“My mission in Toronto is to share the knowledge that I learned in my country.”
After Abduction, Ahmed plans to invest more time performing with his band Moskitto Bar, spreading a “fusion of love” through music. Ahmed’s story is even the subject of a documentary, currently in development by filmmaker Christopher Lane, which Ahmed hopes will, “let people know how to respond in a tough situation, under a lot of pressure—how to still believe in love in those circumstances.”
“My mission in Toronto is to share the knowledge that I learned in my country,” says Ahmed. “Abduction made me come back to reflect on my religion in a positive way, and that’s an amazing thing. I used to sing my music to light up the darkness in Baghdad. Now I’m lighting up the darkness of my past, in a new city. Toronto is my home now.”
Ahmed Moneka portrays the prayer leader in the COC’s The Abduction from the Seraglio, on stage now through February 24, 2018 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts.
For more information on Ahmed, visit ahmedmoneka.com