Baghdad’s artistic exodus
“Seeing the Iraq Museum stripped bare,” says Iraqi painter Hana Mal Allah, one of the few artists to continue working in Baghdad during the occupation, “was like having my heart ripped out.”
Television viewers in the West may recall the horrific images of looting in April 2003, the early days of the invasion of Iraq, dismissed casually by Donald Rumsfeld with his infamous “Stuff happens” remark. But for Iraqis such as Mal Allah, whose beautiful, scorched canvases seem literally imprinted by the ongoing war, the destruction and looting of the Iraq Museum was not just a national catastrophe; it was a grim foreshadowing of the cultural destruction to follow.
“I am going to light a fire in paradise and to pour water on to Hell,” the eighth-century Iraqi woman poet, singer, and Sufi saint Rabia wrote, “so that both veils may vanish altogether.” As the fires of conflict engulf Iraq, I am reminded of this verse by Rabia. But the words of poets are cheap now, as traditional music is drowned out by the clamour of automatic weapons, bombs, and the divisive rhetoric of those who believe God is on their side. Rabia’s words capture the essence of what it is to be an Iraqi artist today, caught between a battle for survival and the struggle to overcome the image of Iraq — the cradle of civilization — as an empty landscape of terror.
While life under Saddam and sanctions was harsh, artists, writers, and performers found ways to survive. Despite hardships created by the embargo and the excesses of a police state, the theatre scene thrived in the 1990s, pushing the envelope politically with layered language and double meanings in ways the state-run press could not. Dozens of private art galleries opened, and the stoic Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra played on, albeit with frayed violin strings and cracked oboe reeds.
Now, thanks to the fatal combination of Islamist militias, criminal anarchy, and violent occupation, the culture that sustained Iraqis through hard times has broken down, perhaps irrevocably. The theatres and galleries that once helped make Baghdad a cultural and intellectual capital of the Arab world have closed. The book market on Mutanabi Street — once the centre of Iraq’s literary scene and animated discussions on everyone from Mahfouz to Whitman — has been bombed, and a de facto ban on live music has that even al maqam al Iraqi (traditional Iraqi sung love poetry) is no longer heard, not even at weddings. The national orchestra, which attempted a few furtive post-invasion concerts under armed guard, has been silenced, and many of Iraq’s artists have joined the roughly 2 million other Iraqis who have fled death threats and chaos for a life in exile.
Artists in Iraq have always been a litmus test by which to measure the state of things. Even as oil companies and black marketeers prospered during the embargo years and artists were reduced to a stark choice between food and canvas, medicine and violin strings, they managed to hang on. Culture was a form of resistance — to bombings, Saddam, and sanctions, and to the harsh circumstances of life for the 95 percent of Iraqi society that was not part of the Baathist elite or the president’s inner circle. Physical infrastructure can always be rebuilt, but how do you rebuild a culture and society traumatized by decades of war, sanctions, oppression, and occupation?
Indeed, what hope remains for a resurgence of Iraqi culture from the ashes of war and despair when its creative and intellectual resources have vanished? Sadly, the siege mentality that inspired Baghdadi artists in the 1990s has been replaced by fear and chaos that inspire only profit making in the booming “security” market. When I think of the state of culture in Iraq today, I think of a once-promising young cellist friend who used to dream of an international performing career. Now he is working as a mercenary.
And, most poignantly, with the voices of poets and players silenced, there is no one left to document the very death of culture in Iraq. Those who have not been killed or exiled are doomed to have their fates articulated by sound bites of televised horror. The caricatured reduction of 27 million people to mini-Saddams that once typified mainstream media portrayals of Iraqis before the invasion has been replaced by a terrible new cartoon: Iraqis as mad suicide bombers, magically transformed from secular to sectarian within a few years of occupation. The victims of the new terror are labelled as its perpetrators.
Even before the 2003 invasion, there were disturbing signs. Due to the twin terrors of sanctions and Saddam, fundamentalism, poverty, and violent crime were on the rise, and Iraq’s public education system — once the best in the Arab world — was in a shambles. A whole generation of angry, unemployed youths who could not afford to get married was seduced by Hollywood action movies and the promise of Islam. Women, who had only a decade earlier constituted half of the civil service and 40 percent of doctors, saw their role in public life eroding, a foreshadowing of their post-invasion reality that saw the constitution rewritten along sectarian lines and Iraq’s secular and relatively liberal civil code substantially replaced by sharia law.
In the fall of 2003, I met up with many of my artist friends to see how they were faring. I found playwright Omram Tamimi drinking chai at the National Theatre — newly manned by grim-faced armed guards — and despairing of the new self-censorship that has followed the invasion. When I asked him why no one was writing new plays about the invasion or the occupation, he replied, “Before, we had one Saddam, and we knew who to be afraid of. Now we have dozens, and we’re afraid of whom we might offend.” Six months later, the National Theatre was closed and Tamimi was living in exile in Cairo, working as a stagehand on an Egyptian soap opera.