Iraqi enthusiasts search for relics of royal past

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A man holds up preserved specimens of Ten Iraqi Dinar banknotes, during a historical relic auction at the Moudallal cafe, Arabic for “pampered,” in the Iraqi capital Baghdad on March 3, 2018. (AFP)
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A man holds up a preserved specimen of a Ten Iraqi Dinar banknote issued in 1947 and bearing the image of Iraq’s former King Faisal II, during a historical relic auction at the Moudallal cafe, Arabic for “pampered,” in the Iraqi capital Baghdad on March 3, 2018. (AFP)
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A man holds up preserved specimens of Ten Iraqi Dinar banknotes, during a historical relic auction at the Moudallal cafe, Arabic for “pampered,” in the Iraqi capital Baghdad on March 3, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 18 March 2018
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Iraqi enthusiasts search for relics of royal past

BAGHDAD: At the heart of a Baghdad flea market, nostalgia for Iraq’s royal past is on full display as collectors and investors gather to buy relics from a bygone era.
Inside the Moudallal cafe, Arabic for “pampered,” a hundred men from across the country carefully follow the auction of momentos from the nearly four decades of monarchic rule that ended with a bloody coup in 1958.
“There is a feeling of nostalgia among the customers. Take the banknotes, their manufacture and quality were much better before, that’s why the prices go up,” says 52-year-old auctioneer Ali Hikmat.
With a booming voice, the towering man who has worked in the covered market since 1992 offers his goods up for to the highest bidder.
All sorts of keepsakes are up for grabs: banknotes, coins, stamps and decorations.
Most date back to Iraq’s royal era, but there are also a few items from the early days of the republic that followed after general Abdel Karim Kassem toppled the monarchy.
Nothing is on offer from the decades of dictatorship under Saddam Hussein.
For the Iraqis hunting out their own souvenir of the past, the period of royal rule represents a golden age for their country.
The founding of the Kingdom of Iraq under Faisal I — who fought alongside T.E Lawrence during World War I — marked the emergence of the modern state after the fall of the Ottoman empire.
The country gained independence in 1932 and the monarchy lasted until Faisal II was executed during the coup.
“Of course we are nostalgic for the royal period. All the main structures in this country were built during that period, be it bridges, dams and the rest,” says 53-year-old Ahmad Kamal, who owns a real estate agency in Baghdad.
“The royal era marks the beginning of the Iraqi state,” he says. “If we compare it to today, it was much better before.”
The comparison between the past and present is a potent one — as Iraq recovers from its latest round of devastation and bloodshed following the campaign against the Daesh group.
That violence is just the latest to roil the country that has been through war with Iran, the US-led invasion and a brutal sectarian conflict since the 1980s.
Saad Mohsen, a professor of modern history at the University of Baghdad, insists that back under the constitutional monarchy Iraq was “more democratic and cleaner than today.”
“We were far from the blood and fighting that we have come to know,” he says.
For clothing merchant Hussein Hakim, searching out souvenirs from previous epochs helps him to delve into Iraq’s rich heritage.
“The past fascinates me,” he says.
“I’m interested in the history of my country through the objects I collect from the Ottoman period up until the republic, but it’s the royal era that I prefer most,” the 43-year-old adds, proudly displaying two effigies of King Ghazi and King Faisal II.
The weekly auction in this small cafe is exceptional not only because of the sheer number of items on sale, but also because everything must be sold regardless of the price, allowing a lucky few to do snap up some bargains.
But the desire for all things connected with the era of royalty does not mean Iraqis are looking to bring back the monarch.
Sharif Ali Ben Hussein, who claims to be the legitimate heir to the Iraqi throne, has never managed to get elected to parliament.
In the wake of the 2003 US invasion, he returned to Baghdad after 45 years in exile but his claim that “a clear majority” of people wanted the monarchy back failed to gain traction.
For Adel Karim Sabri, who runs the magazine “My Hobby” specializing in stamps and old bank notes, “the past is always more beautiful because it is made of memories.”
And for many of those shopping at this market of memories, scouring for relics appears to have more to do with financial gain tha historical interest.
“They buy because they have money and it’s a good investment,” the 76-year-old says.


Art Dubai, where anything goes, gets off to a colorful start

The fair’s 13th edition runs from March 20-23 and features 92 Contemporary and Modern galleries from 42 countries. (Arab News)
Updated 20 March 2019
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Art Dubai, where anything goes, gets off to a colorful start

DUBAI: Art Dubai, the largest art fair in the Middle East, got off to a colorful start on Wednesday and more than 92 galleries showcased their chosen artists in the city’s Madinat Jumeriah.

The fair’s 13th edition runs from March 20-23 and features 92 Contemporary and Modern galleries from 42 countries, as well as a bevy of galleries from the UAE.  There are also a number of events going on around the city, as part of Art Week, including Art Nights at the Dubai International Financial Center, which took place on Tuesday. 

You can read more about Art Nights, and see the wild and wonderful art on show, here

Highlights include new gallery section Bawwaba, showcasing art from the Global South; UAE NOW - the first section of its kind - spotlighting local independent artist-run platforms and subcultures, their place in the UAE’s evolving landscape and contribution to creating new ways of thinking, theory and artistic movements and the Contemporary section — two gallery halls presenting work from 59 galleries from 34 countries by some of the most notable contemporary artists working today. It will make you smile, smirk and everything  in-between.

Art Dubai 2019 welcomes more than 500 artists representing 80 nationalities across its four gallery sections: Art Dubai Contemporary, Art Dubai Modern, Bawwaba and Residents.

We take a look at six of our favorite artists and pieces here.

The diversity on show is notable, with galleries from Latin America placed next to booths from Beirut, Saudi Arabia and London.

Pablo del Val, Artistic Director of Art Dubai, said: “Art Dubai continues to develop original content to redefine what an art fair can be and contribute to the UAE and wider region’s cultural landscape. We represent an art world that is truly global and inclusive, rooted in artistic discovery and the promotion of new and alternative perspectives, community building, idea generation and cultural exchange. Geographies, galleries and artists, art typologies and thematics that are not often seen side-by-side, or even as part of the same conversation, will converge at the fair. We hope that new discoveries will be made and new synergies formed.”

It’s a melting pot of artistic expression and media, with sculptures, canvases and the odd video installation vying for space in the crowded halls.

There is a distinct focus on contemporary art, so if you’re into museum-worthy paintings, this may not be your cup of tea, but if you are willing to experiment, it’s the perfect spot to question the boundaries of art.

Battery-operated imaginary animals careened across the floor in one booth, while a fine spider’s web of black string formed an origami-like sculpture in another — anything goes at Art Dubai, as long as it’s not too risqué.

But, why tell you when we can show you? Scroll through the photo gallery to find out more about the art on show here.