CULTURE IN POST-SADDAM IRAQ
By Dr. Nimrod Raphaeli
If asked about their culture, many Iraqis will recall their country's role as "the cradle of civilizations" and claim descent from Sumerians, Babylonians, and Assyrians. Today, many television commercials and billboards in Baghdad make reference to Iraq's ancient heritage. But modern Iraqi culture is also marked by tribalism and violence. On October 29, 1936, Iraqi general Bakr Sidqi led the first military coup in the Middle East. He was assassinated less than a year later. While military coups became frequent in Middle Eastern states, Iraq set another first when, on July 14, 1958, it became the scene of the first Middle Eastern coup to culminate in the execution of the Head of State. Another coup led to the execution of General ‘Abd al-Karim Qasim, the 1958 coup leader. Several other leaders subsequently died under suspicious circumstances. After a short-lived 1963 attempt to seize power, the Baath Party tried again and consolidated control after a 1968 coup. In 1979, Vice President Saddam Hussein deposed the President, General Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr, who subsequently died from apparent poisoning. Very few Iraqi leaders die of natural causes.
The distinguished Iraqi historian and sociologist ‘Ali al-Wardi argues that Bedouin culture formed the bedrock of Iraqi society. Characterizing Bedouin culture, he writes, are three elements: tribalism, raiding, and chivalry. Each of these elements is defined by the concept of taghalub (predominance). The Bedouin individual seeks to persuade by the force of his tribe, his personal strength, and his sense of superiority. Because of a lack of rules to adjudicate conflict, Bedouins use force to avenge transgressions. This, Wardi argues, explains why there is near permanent war in Bedouin society. "War in the desert is the reality; peace is a fleeting phenomenon," he writes. 
Writing in Al-Jandul, a monthly Iraqi literary magazine, Hamid al-Hashimi, a professor of sociology at the Europe University in Schiedam, the Netherlands, seconds such theories.  Ahmad al-Asadi, a poet born in 1979, also examined the same question. He suggests that Iraqi society is experiencing "an intellectual crisis in terms of structures and the relationship between the individual, the society and the government" and argues that a tribal mentality dominates. "It is true that we have shifted from a nomadic to an urban lifestyle and from the village to the city, but we [continue] to carry in our minds the rustic and nomadic values," he writes. 
Saddam adopted a model of power which glorified terror. On television, he hugged a father who killed his own son for disloyalty to the President. He politicized culture; the regime suppressed any expression of human creativity not in conformity with the dogmatic and often capricious nature of the regime. Those who violated such prescriptions could pay with their lives. Baathist loyalists oversaw all cultural endeavors. A half-year after the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime, Sayyar al-Jamil reflected in Az-Zaman, a major Iraqi daily, about how decades of strict control had affected Iraqi culture. He wrote that the centralization of cultural life had "produced chauvinistic enclosure and official, parrot-like dogmatic culture cast in molds prepared in advance in accordance with preordained specifications." As a result, authentic Iraqi intellectuals, novelists, poets, and artists found themselves marginalized for almost four decades. Instead, state-crafted culture bombarded the Iraqi masses with "meager portions of defunct culture, fabricated propaganda, fiery hero-worshiping poems, fancy carnivals, and political gatherings in the service of the dictates of the President and the political party."  This, in a nutshell, justifies the thesis of Kanan Makiya's The Monument: Art and Vulgarity in Saddam Hussein's Iraq. First published in 1991, Makiya's book depicts Saddam's efforts to link himself with such heroic figures of Islam as fourth Caliph ‘Ali bin Abi Talib, his son Hussein, whose murder in the seventh century precipitated the schism between Sunni and the Shi‘a, and Sa‘d bin Abi Waqqas, an early Arab warrior who brought Islam to Iran. 
U.N. sanctions during Saddam's rule also had an impact on Iraqi cultural life, albeit in mundane ways. The sanctions, in practice, if not intent, contributed to a shortage of printing material. Before the U.N. sanctions, Iraq imported 100,000 tons of paper per year, but, under sanctions, this declined 90 percent.  Political isolation and the Iraqi government's own regulations narrowed the ability of Iraqi writers, journalists, and artists to attend meetings outside their country. Those who did leave often did not return. This led to a bifurcation of culture: There was the thaqafat al-kharij (culture of exile) and the thaqafat ad-dakhil (domestic culture). While a sense of Iraqness permeated both cultures, over time, the culture of exile became richer and more critical.
Historically, Iraqis have considered poetry to be superior to playwriting or other literature. This balance reflects a legacy of a tribal tradition that favored spontaneity and public recitation. Often, praise of the ruler was the best way to gain financial rewards. The Saddam regime paid court poets to praise Saddam as a leader who epitomized glory, heroism, generosity, magnanimity, and even prophetic perception of the future.
Saddam's military acumen became a central theme for the home culture. The Iraqi press called the Iran-Iraq war Al-Qadisiya, or Qadisiyat Saddam, a reference to the battle in which the Arabs defeated the Persian Empire to Islamize Iran. The Iraqi press used the term umm al-ma‘arik (mother of all battles) to designate the heroic stand of Saddam's army against the multinational coalition which expelled Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1991. It referred to the 2003 war as umm al-hawasum (the mother of decisiveness). All battles became epic, and even defeat became victory.
Poetry dropped the great leader, but has remained preoccupied with violence and loss. The literary journal Al-Yanbu' (Fountainhead) included on its front page an anonymous poem entitled "Ayna Aktib Ismiki" ("Where Shall I Write Your Name?"). It reads:
In "Al-Ilah Tamuz" ("The God July"), ‘Uthman Faris laments dead "bodies over bodies" and writes that Baghdad is burning, garbage in the streets, corpses are strewn over dunghills, everything is covered black; Baghdad one of the most beautiful of cities is eaten by wolves and snakes; July! Extricate me from my coffin and my shroud; Baghdad is stained with blood and tears, and I shall be traveling and continuing to travel in the forests of snakes. 
The focus on poetry as the primary medium of cultural expression is not without drawback. In an editorial in the same issue of Al-Yanbu', Sunur Anwar invokes the words of Wardi, who writes that the emphasis upon poetry prevents many Iraqis from interpreting events rationally.  As Wardi explains, "from its early days, Arabic poetry does not reflect the truth in portraying events." When using poetic devices, there is no embarrassment or shame if untruthful. 
Escalating violence has led to introspection among intellectuals. Salah Hasan al-Silawi, who describes himself as a poet and media specialist, wrote in the government daily As-Sabah that violence characterizes the Iraqi personality and that "no one Iraqi differs from another Iraqi except in the amount of violence that characterizes his behavior." 
An entire issue of the illustrated weekly Ash-Shabaka al-Iraqiya (The Iraqi Network) focuses on death and violence. It included a tongue-in-cheek treatment of the epidemic of child-kidnapping. It described the sniffers (fallas) who pass along word of acquaintances with money and the intermediaries who volunteer to mediate "out of the love of Allah." In one case, the intermediary demanded and received in return for his "services" a computer to help him with studies in a religious school.  The same issue also carried an article about the 1,000-year-old cemetery in Najaf, and another about the phenomenon of exhumation to prove to mothers who dreamed their dead sons were alive that their sons "had a full measure of death (shaba'u mawtan)." 
Amidst the freest period in Iraq's cultural history, there is growing disenchantment and frustration with the failure of the Iraqi government and multinational Coalition to bring security. Democratic aspirations are increasingly depicted as lofty ideals written in blood. Jabbar Yassin likens Iraq to "a wounded hedgehog on the way to the forest of palms." He describes life as a mixture of
As he comes to the end of the road, the author is searching in vain for "the women of the quarter to ululate in these bloody weddings." 
Violence has also become a predominant theme in recent Iraqi theater. Rasul al-Saghir, an Iraqi residing in the Netherlands, published "An Eye on the Iraqi Theater — The Writing of Beautiful Pages in a Difficult Time" in the online literary magazine Alefyaa.com.  His essay analyzes the history and difficulties of establishing theater in Iraq. For forty years, Saghir writes, theater served only a small group of high-ranking people. The Saddam regime used it only to mobilize and direct the masses to ensure loyalty to the leader. In the post-Saddam era, though, theater is beginning to deal with people's struggle for a better life and more open and democratic society.
Take, for example, Mithal Ghaza'i's Al-Yawm ba‘d as-Sabi‘ (The Day After The Seventh). Produced under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture's Department for Cinema and Theater and performed by some of Iraq's leading actors, such as Sami ‘Abd al-Hamid, Layla Muhammad and Faysal Jawad, the play depicts an Iraqi man who participated in Saddam's wars and emerged unscathed, only to discover that he has cancer and has seven days to live. His struggle to accept his fate becomes a metaphor for Iraq's own situation. Ghaza'i promotes the idea that the country should rebuild itself on sound foundations before seeking to expel occupiers. 
In the National Theater, the National Acting Group staged Qadim al-Sumari's Madha Law (What if?). The play examines war — not just as a killing field, but as the antithesis of poetry. The poet is the hero not because of his creative output, but because poetry represents the elevation of the spirit and resounding hope. Sumari explained that his work sought to illustrate the "conflict between the tendency for destruction represented by wars and the aspiration for life and construction represented by the poet." 
The assassination in Iraq of Al-Arabiya satellite television reporter Atwar Bahjat on February 24, 2006, is the subject of ‘Ayn al-Haqiqa (Eye of the Truth). A student at the Institute for Fine Arts for Girls in Baghdad played the lead role, and the dialogue throughout is written in verse rather than prose. 
The Youth Education Department in the Ministry of Culture is also active in staging plays for a juvenile audience. Its first festival was held in Baghdad on April 2, 2006. But, the violence that permeates culture is not just depicted on stage: Assassins gunned down two lead actors in youth performances, Fu'ad Radi and Haydar Jawad. 
Such violence is changing Iraqi cultural life in other ways. Because of debilitating heat during the day, Iraqis' social lives have always centered around night. Iraqis would socialize, shop, and patronize restaurants and cabarets well past midnight and into the early hours of morning. Iraqis from all economic classes would gather along the Tigris River to enjoy masguf, a fresh broiled fish dish, which is one of Iraq's great delicacies. Because of curfews and security fears, now all social activity, from weddings to funerals, and shopping to cultural events, takes place during the day. 
Divergent themes are also found in the publishing boom that accompanied Saddam's fall. Several journals focus on women and family. As-Sadiqa (The Virtuous Woman), published in Najaf, provides a strong Shi‘i treatment to feminism, something that Saddam's state did not tolerate. In one recent edition, Fatima Rahim Nasir reminds women that the veil protects chastity and honor. Those who say that God ordained it as punishment, she writes, have "sick minds." In another article, Kufa University Law School scholar Ghufran Dikan Abbas suggests women can prevent having deformed children if they follow "the culture of marriage (thaqafat al-zawaj)" dictated by the Prophet and by later imams. The author advises the groom that, before marriage is consummated, he should ask God to bless the union and protect it from the Devil's intervention. He repeats the advice given by the Prophet to his son-in-law, Imam ‘Ali bin Abi Talib, instructing that no man should look at his wife's vagina or else risk a blind son. Sex during the afternoon is dangerous for it risks conceiving a cross-eyed child. In contrast, a son conceived on a Friday night is likely to be an orator, and a son conceived on Friday evening may become famous. 
Not all publishing reflects religious revival. The Iraqi Independent Women's Assembly published An-Nun, which derives its title from the first letter of the Arabic word for women. Edited by Maysalun al-Damluji, the journal focuses on the improvement of women's lives in Iraq. It interviews not only mothers who have lost their children under Saddam, but also those who have lost family members to the current violence and terrorism.  Munathamat Bint ar-Rafidayn (The Organization of the Daughters of Mesopotamia) also publishes a journal to enable women to express themselves "without pressures or restrictions." It encourages female participation in the social, cultural, and political domains in order to hasten democratic transformation and expansion of free civil society. 
The mainstream press has also begun to address woman's place in society. Writing in Az-Zaman, writer and poet Muhammad Jawad al-Ghabban condemns "the severe restrictions and the harsh traditions" that have, for centuries, enabled the domination of women from birth to death. 
Yet, not all the recent journals promote introspection and accountability. The Ministry of Culture's Ash-Shabaka al-Iraqiya journal carries a piece entitled, "Fattish ‘an al-Yahud" ("Look for the Jews"), which suggests Jews were behind the Danish cartoon controversy, the Taliban destruction of the Bamian Buddha statues, and the bombing of the Al-Askari shrine in Samarra in February, 2006. The article's author, Nasir al-Zubayri, urges patience, wisdom, and faith to avoid further bloodshed and concludes with the statement, "May Allah bless the one who said ‘look for the Jews.'"  Such anti-Semitism, ironically, might have long been common in Syrian, Egyptian, and Saudi publications, but Iraqi journals, even under Saddam, took greater pains to differentiate between hatred of Zionism and hatred of Jews.
The Iraqi poet ‘Adnan al-Sa'igh addressed the broader notion of intolerance at the Al-Marbad festival in Basra. For centuries Arabs considered Al-Marbad, with its roots as a camel and livestock market, as a place for Muslims and non-Muslims alike to gather, talk, and do business. At the festival, Sa'igh recited his poem "Shizofrania" (Schizophrenia"), which addressed the problem of religious militias whose tolerance for liberal and secular culture goes no further than the muzzle of their gun:
After reciting his poem, he was chased from the meeting and threatened with death. 
Amidst rising religiosity in Iraq, there are renewed calls for a return to Iraqi traditions of secularism and tolerance. The May, 2006, issue of the liberal electronic magazine Afkar (Thoughts) carries an article by ‘Abd al-Khaliq Husayn, a retired Iraqi surgeon and a prolific liberal writer who now lives in England. In a recent article, he writes:
‘Abd al-Khaliq compares those Arab governments that seek to undermine the nascent Iraqi democracy to the case of a seagoing ship with 100 sailors aboard, 99 of whom belong to one tribe and the hundredth belonging to a hostile tribe. The 99 sailors pray to God for the sinking of the ship so that the sailor from the hostile tribe will perish.
Still, there are efforts to revive cinema. In an event, characterized as "an escape from a dark reality to the ‘Belle Epoch Cinema,'" a small group of cinema lovers and government officials celebrated what they termed "the First Festival of Iraqi Movies," featuring clips from old Iraqi-made films. Of the ninety-nine films produced in Iraq, chaos and post-Operation Iraqi Freedom looting destroyed twelve. Several others were damaged. Among the surviving films, however, was Iraq's first, Fitna wa-Husn (Charm and Beauty). Juxtaposition of Iraq today with this film shows how society has changed with time: The film's three producers were a Muslim, a Christian, and a Jew. 
The comparison of the golden past with the present underscores other unfortunate themes in Iraqi society. Birhan Shawi, an Iraqi writer, worries that, while "the political idols" have fallen with Saddam, the "cultural idols remain like ghosts threatening our souls and our brains, and leaving their shadow on our creativity and our thinking." He bemoans that Iraqi television stations are largely tied to or financed by political parties or foreign countries. He describes channel surfing these stations as providing a "historical exhibition of Iraqi mummies." 
Cartooning is another art in which Iraqis have excelled. In January, 2006, the Association of Cartoonists organized the first comprehensive exhibition in post-Saddam Iraq. Twenty-five participants exhibited 100 cartoons. They drew upon "human thoughts distilled from the daily reality" of Iraq, including current events and circumstances, violence, and government corruption.
Iraq has long honored and supported its artists, but today it is difficult for any to make a living unless they have an opportunity to exhibit outside their country. The Pomegranate Gallery in New York City held one such exhibition for nine Iraqi artists in June, 2006. Their statements accompanied their works.
Artist Haydar ‘Ali reflects upon the looting of the Iraqi cultural artifacts. His painting "Dafatir" ("Notebooks"), he explains, represents
"Dafatir" also had practical significance. Because there was a shortage of paint and canvas under Saddam, many artists could only sketch in notebooks. One Iraqi artist explained that every notebook page was "a loud cry which combines the pain, the anger, the plea, the obscene cruelty, the noble meditation, and the objection to destruction that the human condition has seen its end." 
Despite the security threats, there have been some exhibitions in Iraq. The Ministry of Culture sponsored a Baghdad exhibit of calligraphy and Islamic ornamental works, May 2-10, 2006. Calligraphy is one of the most significant forms of Islamic art,  and it is reflected not only in the printing of the Qur'an but also in mosques, monuments, buildings, carpets, and various works of arts. In the media, the logo of Al-Jazeera satellite television, shaped as a ball, is a good example of beautiful calligraphy. The Iraqi Fashion House also exhibited fabrics and clothes that offered a presentation of Islamic fashion items decorated with Arabic calligraphy. 
One Iraqi to gain prominence with recent exhibits is Munir Ahmad, who displayed his work in the southern city of Nasiriya. Because Nasiriya has been somewhat stable, it has become a relative haven for artists, including Kadhim al-Khattat, Nasir al-Siba‘i, Kamil al-Musawi, Talal ‘Abd, and Husayn al-Shannun. The art in Nasiriya is influenced by Sumerian art and by the existence of the nearby marshes with their vast vistas, birds, and forests of reeds. 
The Ministry of Culture also organized "Aspirations for Peace," an exhibition of photographs in the Ministry's Wasiti Hall, which featured the works of Iraq's three foremost photographers: Sa‘d Nu‘ma, Ahmad ‘Abdullah, and ‘Abbas al-Wandi. Their photographs of various aspects of Iraqi life represented the Iraqis' love of life, despite "the political challenges that are striking at this faithful land." 
Perhaps Wardi's explanation is best: Iraqi culture is essentially a Bedouin culture that regards peace as temporary, but conflict as permanent. ‘Abd al-Khaliq Husayn has accepted that Iraqis are "a people of discord and duplicity," differing from other peoples in their propensity to excessive violence.  Regrettably, much of this violence is apparent today, but has been channeled by Islamist elements toward intellectuals and cultural figures.
Nevertheless, despite the violence and thirty-five years of totalitarian Baathist rule, Iraqi artists, poets, and writers continue to produce a full measure of artistic work both inside and outside Iraq. The struggle for cultural survival remains, perhaps, as intensive as the violence directed against it. And one can hope that the Iraqis' pride in their cultural heritage will prevail over attempts to obliterate it.
 Al-Jandul (Al-Qadisiya), Aug. 2004.
 Al-Ghad (Baghdad), Mar. 6, 2006.
 Az-Zaman (Baghdad), Oct. 13, 2003.
 Kanan Makiya, The Monument: Art and Vulgarity in Saddam Hussein's Iraq (New York: I.B. Tauris, 1991).
 Nada Omran, "Al-Mashhad ath-Thaqafi fi al-Iraq-dhid al-Hisar," Islam Online, Oct. 12, 2001, as provided by e-mail from sources in Baghdad.
 Alefyaa.com, June 16, 2006.
 Al-Yanbu' (Baghdad), Mar. 15, 2006.
 Alefyaa.com, June 6, 2006.
 Sunur Anwar, "Al-Hiwar bayna al-Infitah wa-Altanazul [The Dialogue between Openness and Concession]," Al-Yanbu', Mar. 15, 2006.
 Wardi, Lamahat Ijtima'yyay fi Tarikh al-Iraq al-Hadith, pp. 321-5.
 As-Sabah (Baghdad), Aug. 29, 2006.
 Ash-Shabaka al-Iraqiya (Baghdad), Feb. 20, 2006.
 Ash-Shabaka al-Iraqiya, Feb. 20, 2006.
 Al-Hayat (London), Mar. 28, 2006.
 July 21, 2006.
 Al-Mada (Baghdad), Feb. 5, 2006.
 Al-Mada, Jan. 28, Feb. 19, 2006.
 Al-Mada, Mar. 19, 2006.
 Al-Mada, Mar. 30, 2006.
 Asharq al-Awsat (London), Aug. 4, 2006
 Al-Kauthar (Najaf), Ahl al-Beit Foundation, Jan. 2006.
 As-Sadiqa (Najaf), Feb. 2006.
 An-Nun (Baghdad), Feb. 2006.
 Munathamat Bint ar-Rafidain, at http://www.bentalrafedain.com/meen/nashtat/nashat051.htm.
 Az-Zaman, June 9, 2006.
 Ash-Shabaka al-Iraqiya, Mar. 13, 2006.
 Abdul Razzaq al-Rubai'i, Kitabat, Apr. 21, 2006.
 Afkar, May 4, 2006.
 Shakir al-Anbari, Al-Hayat, Feb. 20, 2006.
 Asharq Al-Awsat, July 4, 2006.
 Burhan Shawi, Fi Mulabasat ath-Thaqafa al-Iraqiya—Al-Asnam as-Siyasiya Wa al-Asnam Althqafiya, as provided by e-mail from sources in Baghdad. There is no date or publisher provided, but it is clearly written after the March-April 2003 invasion.
 Al-Mada, Jan. 21, 2006.
 Al-Hayat, June 23, 2006.
 Annemarie Schimmel, Calligraphy and Islamic Culture (New York: New York University Press, 1984).
 Ministry of Culture, Republic of Iraq, news release, May 3, 2006.
 Al-Mada, May 3, 2006.
 Al-Mada, Feb. 1, 2006.
 Abdul Khaliq Husayn, Al-kharab al-bashari fil-Iraq [The Human Devastation in Iraq], a series of three articles published in Elaph, May 29, 2006.
The Problem of Rogue States:
Iraq as a Case History
National Strategy for Victory in Iraq
American Foreign Policy -- The Middle East
Middle East -- Arabs, Arab States,
& Their Middle Eastern Neighbors
Islamism & Jihadism -- The Threat of Radical Islam
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Dr. Nimrod Raphaeli, an Iraqi-born Israeli and a Ph.D. in Development Planning from the University of Michigan, spent the greater part of his professional career at the World Bank, and has served as a consustant for the International Monetary Fund. Currently, Dr Raphaeli is a senior analysist at the Middle East Research Institure (MEMRI), a Middle Eastern press monitoring organization which is located in Washington, D.C., and which analyzes political, ideological, philosophical, intellectual, social, cultural, and religious trends in the Middle East.
The foregoing article by Dr. Raphaeli was originally published in the Middle East Quarterly, and can be found on the Internet website maintained by the Middle East Forum, a think tank which seeks to define and promote American interests in the Middle East, defining U.S. interests to include fighting radical Islam, working for Palestinian Arab acceptance of the State of Israel, improving the management of U.S. efforts to promote constitutional democracy in the Middle East, reducing America's energy dependence on the Middle East, more robustly asserting U.S. interests vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia, and countering the Iranian threat.
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