Ahmed Salah Moneka on why everyone should Follow Your Heart
by Drew Rowsome
"When I read the script, I just said, 'Yes,'" says Ahmed Salah Moneka of Evolution Dance Theatre's Follow Your Heart, "because it talks about love without limits, without any walls. It's my ideal, my energy, my vibe. It's what I believe."
And Moneka has put himself on the line for his beliefs before. "I was a really famous actor, lots of theatre and film. I was a television presenter," he says of his career in Baghdad, Iraq where he was born. He was a member of the prestigious Iraqi National Theatre but, "Iraq has a mafia government. They say they are fighting with ISIS but they are the same. My friends and I, we built the revolution with peace and love and we spoke out, Baghdad is for everyone not just one religion. My parents are Islamic but I respect everyone, art is my religion."
One of their protest events was bombed and Moneka found himself on the government's radar. Instead of backing down or going silent, he became involved with a film, The Society, that paints a realistic portrayal of gay life in Iraq. "They killed a lot of homosexuals in 2000," says Moneka, "and we decided to make a film of this community. We workshopped the movie and everyone had a story. Then all of the crew, they were all from outside Iraq, left. All except for me, I was still in Baghdad. And I was so famous. The government was very scared of the movie because we spoke directly about what they are doing to the people."
The Society was a success and Moneka travelled with the director to screenings at Cannes and the Toronto International Film Festival. While in Toronto, "They went to my father - he is a well-known teacher, actor and artist - and said that 'If he comes back we will cut his body into small pieces.'" Moneka was forced to apply for asylum in Canada. "I'm proud because I said the truth. My father is proud, he said, 'Keep going Ahmed.' My message is love for everyone. Art is my family, my religion. I'm here, I'm safe, I'm alive and I've been accepted by the government. And there are artists here, if I don't do art I can't live, I can't survive."
Moneka is working to bring his family to Canada, particularly his sister Tara. "She is 12 and a professional singer with very popular international videos. She reflects love, peace and is so amazing, it is a gift. I want to take care of her because she is a woman and doesn't have a lot of freedom." In this way Follow Your Heart, a lavish spectacle that tells the tale of a belly dancer fighting for true love with a subplot of a queer couple struggling to survive, resonates with Moneka. "Art is really good to reflect what you believe, what is important," he says.
As well as rehearsing Follow Your Heart, Moneka is taking ESL classes and gigging with his band Moskitto Bar. He is passionate about the project that fuses, "Accordion from France, Balkan gypsy music from the Ukraine, and middle eastern drumming and dance. I sing and play middle eastern drums," and he enthuses that every performance is a party and that, "Things are good here." He was also invited to audition for a new global orchestra at the Royal Conservatory and is excited about the possibilities that offers.
"Follow Your Heart is my first project here and it reflects how Toronto is so multi-cultural. I'm a percussionist in some scenes and I do some singing," he says of his role among the 45-strong cast. He relishes the chance to continue his work, his art, "Love is the main reason for a great future. That is my message."
Follow Your Heart runs Thurs, Sept 22 to Sun, Sept 25 at the Richmond Hill Centre for the Performing Arts, 10268 Yonge St. evolutiondancetheatre.com