To reclaim Baghdad, Iraqi artists grapple with its ghosts

Zaid Saad talks to spectators in the Iraqi capital Baghdad on November 17, 2018, after a contemporary art exhibit on the banks of the Tigris River. (AFP)
Updated 24 November 2018
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To reclaim Baghdad, Iraqi artists grapple with its ghosts

  • “I want to deliver the message that we should stay here. We should build our country first, and then go to other places”
  • Iraq has been rocked by waves of instability, from the 2003 US-led invasion to years of sectarian violence and bombings, to the three-year war against Daesh that ended last year

BAGHDAD: Dressed in a multi-colored beanie and grey sneakers, Zaid Saad had just finished setting up his contemporary art exhibit on Baghdad’s sandy riverbank when police showed up.
The piece was part of a two-day walking tour of Iraq’s capital, an effort by young artists to address social dilemmas and reclaim Baghdad’s identity after more than a decade of violence.
But at virtually every turn, organizers came up against some of the very stereotypes they sought to break down, from blast walls to jumpy security guards and skeptical members of Iraq’s conservative society.
Saad’s art, for example, was set up in a highly-sensitive area: directly across the Tigris River from Baghdad’s Green Zone, the walled-off enclave housing parliament, other government offices, and numerous embassies.
Police officers arrived as he was preparing to unveil his work, leading to a flurry of phone calls and handwritten authorizations before Saad was finally able to introduce the piece to an audience of around two dozen.
“Sanduq” or “Crate” in Arabic brought together 11 cardboard boxes, each representing an Iraqi who risked the sea route to Europe. A radio nearby blared testimonies of relatives or friends who wished them well.
“I want to deliver the message that we should stay here. We should build our country first, and then go to other places,” Saad, 27, told AFP.
“They left because of the pressures and everything that happened here, which turned Iraq into an unlivable country. The main reason is the government present in the Green Zone,” he said.

Art, he insisted, could be a way to address the toughest challenges facing Iraq today: waves of emigration, the aftermath of the Daesh group, poverty and pollution.
“Iraqi society has gotten used to all forms of demonstrations and protest. It wants something new,” said Saad, a member of Iraqi art collective Tarkib.
“Art, especially contemporary art, is new here. So it’ll have an effect,” he added.
Iraq has been rocked by waves of instability, from the 2003 US-led invasion to years of sectarian violence and bombings, to the three-year war against Daesh that ended last year.
Those 15 years have scarred the capital, with many streets sealed off by police and blast walls surrounding any building deemed to be a possible target.
One segment of the “Baghdad Walk” ran parallel to a stretch of protective concrete T-walls separating a bustling open-air market from a public bank.
Hussein Matar, the stocky photographer leading this portion of the stroll, was unphased.
“Everything negative in the city is just skin-deep. We can change it,” he told AFP.
Matar had shot new versions of decades-old photographs of Baghdad’s heralded past, hanging the paired pictures on the dilapidated classical Iraqi homes of Rasheed Street.
Despite his optimism, most of Baghdad’s heritage has been permanently “disfigured,” warned Caecilia Pieri, associate researcher at the French Institute of the Near East.
And initiatives like the walk, while an improvement, were only reaching a small segment of Iraqi society.
“There are more cafes with young people, more creative initiatives, but it is in the restricted realm of educated urban bourgeoisie,” said Pieri, a specialist in Iraq’s modern urban history.
“It’s better than nothing, but not enough to irrigate the whole society.”

Indeed, the scrums of shoppers along Rasheed were more interested in the tables of watches, shimmering carp, and fake Adidas than the public art exhibit.
“Are you Iraqi?” one asked the walkers, as puzzled passersby looked on.
As the sun set on Baghdad’s Tahrir (Liberation) Square, artist Luay Al-Hadari erected his contribution: a pink statue of a woman with snapped chains dangling from each wrist.
Draped in a plastic sheet modelled after a traditional robe, the figure represented women IS had abducted and sexually exploited during its reign over parts of Iraq.
“I cut the chain, her hands are up in the air — there’s hope in the piece,” said Hadari, who told AFP he chose Tahrir Square because the artwork was about liberation.
Hours earlier, he had to make last-minute adjustments to the statue’s makeshift robe to cover more of her body.
“Most people won’t understand the concept and will consider it nudity,” Hadari said in a nod to Iraq’s conservatism.
Ali Amer, a 34-year-old engineer attending the walk, said the onus was on Iraqi society itself.
“Our city’s filthy? We’re the ones who dirtied it. It isn’t safe? We’re creating the problems,” he told AFP.
“Today was an attempt to solve these problems, that’s why I wanted to take part.”
Abu Adhraa Al-Rubaye, a burly man selling phone accessories near one of the art installations, was less sure.
“We grew up on violence. There’s no hope it’ll change through art,” he said.
“War, after war, after war — history is stronger than art.”


Omanis praise compatriot for 'historic' Man Booker literature prize

Updated 22 May 2019
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Omanis praise compatriot for 'historic' Man Booker literature prize

MUSCAT: Omanis on Wednesday hailed writer Jokha Alharthi’s “historical achievement” and praised her for bringing “honor” to their Gulf nation after she became the first Arab author to win the Man Booker International prize.
“It is a huge historic achievement for the author, for Oman and for Arabic culture in general,” said Saif Al-Rahbi, an Omani poet, essayist and writer.
“It shows that Omani literature is moving along,” he told AFP.
Alharthi, 40, received the prestigious prize during a ceremony Tuesday in London for her novel “Celestial Bodies” which depicts life in her small Gulf nation.
The 50,000-pound (57,000 euro, $64,000) Man Booker International prize celebrates translated fiction from around the world and is divided equally between the author and the translator.
The judges said Celestial Bodies was “a richly imagined, engaging and poetic insight into a society in transition and into lives previously obscured.”
It tells the story of three sisters who witness the slow pace of development in Omani society during the 20th century.
“I am thrilled that a window has been opened to the rich Arabic culture,” Alharthi told AFP after the ceremony at the Roundhouse in London.
“Oman inspired me but I think international readers can relate to the human values in the book — freedom and love,” she said.
The jury praised an “elegantly structured and taut” novel which “tells of Oman’s coming-of-age through the prism of one family’s losses and loves.”
The director general of Oman’s culture ministry, Said bin Sultan Al-Bussaidi, agreed.
The novel, he said, shows that Alharthi’s work “reflects maturity and has reached an international level.”
“It is an honor for each and every Omani man and woman... (and the prize) will help spread Omani literature across the world,” he added.
Alharthi is the author of two previous collections of short fiction, a children’s book and three novels in Arabic.
She studied classical Arabic poetry at Edinburgh University and teaches at Sultan Qaboos University in Muscat.
In an interview with the BBC at the weekend, Alharthi said she had wanted for a “very long time to write a book about life in Oman (but) couldn’t when she was actually in Oman.”
“But when I went to Edinburgh, the first year was difficult for me, homesickness, cold, so I felt that I need to go back to warmth and feel something from home,” she said.
“Actually writing saved me.”
Her prize-winning novel — which the Guardian newspaper said offers “glimpses into a culture relatively little known in the west” — came out in 2010.
Alharthi said on Tuesday that the novel touches on the history of the slave trade in Oman, an absolute monarchy where Sultan Qaboos, who has ruled since 1970, has been pushing for reform.
For one expert of Arabic and Middle Eastern literature, it could be a game changer for novels emerging from the region.
“It has the potential to orient publishing away from the Arabic novel as answering the question ‘what can we learn about them?’ and toward the Arabic novel as a work of art,” said Marcia Lynx Qualey, editor of ArabLit Quarterly.
“The surge in translation of Arabic-language novels is already in progress, but I think this re-orients publishers somewhat,” she told AFP.
Qualey said there “is definitely a growing interest in works by Gulf authors.”
“In Kuwait, Oman, Saudi, and elsewhere there are authors writing on issues of class, domestic violence, slavery, racism, patriarchy, power, and other issues that are of global interest,” she added.
Celestial Bodies was translated by US academic Marilyn Booth, who teaches Arabic literature at Oxford University.
Jury chair Bettany Hughes said the novel showed “delicate artistry and disturbing aspects of our shared history.”