Cultural production in Iraq: Between destruction and revival
Any attempt at speaking about art and other aspects of culture in Iraq is a rather challenging task. Artists and their work cannot be separated from the painful events that stretch throughout Iraq’s contemporary history: its 40 years of dictatorship, subsequent wars, sanctions and sectarian conflicts that engulfed the country in a blood bath.
By Houzan Mahmoud
The militarisation of Iraqi society by former dictator Saddam Hussein took its toll on all aspects of human life, not least cultural production. My generation, who grew up in that era, still suffers from the agonising memories of that bloody era. The First Gulf War and the invasion of Kuwait in 1990 by the Ba’ath regime saw huge numbers of men forcibly conscripted into the Iraqi army. In addition to this, cultural life was also militarised. Thousands of large photos, posters, and statues of Saddam Hussein appeared in public spaces. On the walls, in the halls of administrative offices in the camps, and in the training fields, Saddam’s images were visible, along with his quotes on military training: “The sweat of training reduces the blood of war.” Artists were enlisted to write in ornate calligraphy: “Every loyal Iraqi is a loyal Baathist,” or “In our souls and in our blood, we sacrifice ourselves to you, leader Saddam Hussein.” These and many more slogans and quotes were seen on the streets, in public places, and in the media along with Saddam’s images.
There were thousands of statues, photos, murals and images of Saddam Hussein, all portraying him as an immortal god. Thus, Iraq did not have only one Saddam, but millions visible everywhere, copied and multiplied through the work of art in its various mediums: visual, written, and audio. Consequently, the army was perceived as ‘legendary’ with its million men, where in reality, it did not last a week in the First Gulf War.
Renowned Iraqi novelist and playwright Hasan Falih said: “In Saddam’s era, everything was militarised to the dictator’s advantage, including poetry, music, photography, novels, films and media. Although Iraq still has many problems, it cannot be compared to before”.
The former regime exploited every aspect of human creativity, even language itself, to the dictator’s own benefit and to promote his ‘eternal’ existence, often forcing artists and cultural institutions through censorship to comply.
Despite these measures to militarise all aspects of human life and creativity, there were artists, writers, filmmakers and intellectuals who did not comply, choosing instead to keep a low profile and work in the abstract and symbolic. With the threat of imprisonment or execution never too far, they had to be very careful not to hint at anything resembling criticism of the regime.
Many artists abandoned their fields and took up different jobs to earn a living. One example of such an artist is Kamaran Hussni, who was a pioneer filmmaker in the 1950s and whose movies centred on the lives of ordinary, working class, or impoverished Iraqis. When the Ba’athists came to power, in 1970’s Kamaran gave up his film career and opened a local restaurant called ‘Ali-shish’ in Baghdad. After a while, he left Iraq forever and went to America.
This censorship of creativity and critical thinking culminated in the ultimate one-party rule of the Ba’ath Party. Baghdadi psychiatrist, poet and winner of Spotlight Iraq’s support, Anwar Jabbar Mowat, who now writes philosophical poems and essays, told me in an interview: “It is only through philosophy that people can become visionaries, and its absence in the various realms of daily life–in health, education, economic and political projects–has resulted in today’s chaos”.
Another dark chapter in the lives of many Iraqis is the emergence of ISIS and its invasion of parts of Kurdistan and Iraq, which inflicted even deeper wounds in populations outside of what the terrorist group deemed real “Muslims”. In addition to the human tragedies and catastrophes they left in their wake, they also saw to the destruction of art, music and centuries-old archaeological sites. The videos and images of long-bearded ISIS terrorists destroying statues and ancient heritage sites were shocking, and they showed the world how all forms of art and culture in the region were under perennial threat.
During my interviews with various Iraqi and Kurdish artists conducted for Spotlight Iraq-Goethe Institute, I had the chance to discuss their efforts, aimed at changing the mindset of society in the aftermath of these conflicts. They explained how people deal with trauma, devastation, and new problems during conflicts and in their aftermath, ranging from issues related to gender injustice and the violation of women’s rights to ethnic tensions and religious fundamentalism.
It was interesting to note that Kurdish anthropologist Hemin Khasraw from Erbil employed comics as a form of art to work with survivors of ISIS in both Mosul and Shingal and to promote trauma resilience and critical thinking as part of a series of projects funded by Spotlight Iraq. Various artists and poets, as a reaction to sectarian and religious divisions, reacted in creative and unexpected ways.
Jameel Al-Jameel from Qaraqosh, in Nineveh, published a collection of poetry in Arabic and various other languages, representing the rich ethnic diversity of the region’s groups–Assyrians, Christians, Kurds, Kakayes, Arabs, and Shabaks–and showcasing the beauty in coexistence between them. This resonated with the work of another Spotlight Iraq supported artist, Noor Al Huda Faraj.
Noor is from the southern city of Basra, which still suffers from tribal, fundamentalist and traditionalist attitudes towards women. In her theatre show, the Used Dolls Store, she explores diversity, the fear of the unknown, and how people develop phobias or aversions to things they often do not even make an effort to learn about in the first place.
These artists, from Kurdistan in the north to Basra in the south, are all reacting to the region’s many upheavals and conflicts in creative and inspiring ways. What is evident is that there is a revival of the arts and a new generation of artists who long to turn the page on a dark chapter in their country's history.