Cultural centre closure protested by London Iraqis
London - A day before Mohammed Alawi was due to take up his post as director of London’s Iraqi Cultural Centre (ICC) he was informed that, due to financial difficulties attributed to declining oil prices, the Iraqi government was closing its cultural centres in London, Washington, Stockholm, Beirut and Tehran.
The decision in late August triggered an outcry among London’s Iraqi community and art lovers who saw in the centre a breathing space and a platform to promote and disseminate Iraqi culture.
Alawi, a former assistant director of the ICC, recalled with sadness in his voice how he would welcome poets, writers, musicians, creative individuals and hundreds of Iraqi residents of London to the centre’s spacious gallery and large conference room.
“Every week, the ICC hosted a cultural event, including writer Salah Niazi, who translated Shakespeare and Joyce into Arabic and was a regular guest,” Alawi said.
Readings were often arranged for Adnan al-Sayegh, a poet who fled Saddam’s Iraq in the 1980s.
The gallery was an explosion of colour with numerous art exhibitions, including Past.. Present and Future by Ansam al-Jarrah and Fulfil My Dream, a recent exhibition of Iraqi children’s drawings about peace which is to be sent to Iraq, Alawi said.
“As the Islamic State reduced Iraq’s cultural heritage to rubble, an ongoing educational project for young people about the Epic of Gilgamesh was organised at the centre by the Enheduanna Society to celebrate Mesopotamian heritage and its legacy today,” Alawi said.
Films were screened every Friday evening at the centre, which became a popular meeting place for Iraqis, Arabs and anyone interested in Middle Eastern culture. It was used for lectures, including one on radiation pollution in Iraq and on harmonising Kurdish and Iraqi health care reforms.
Playwright Hassan Abdulrazzak started a petition addressed to Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi decrying the centre’s closure, saying that London’s Iraqi community was in vital need of a spacious place to meet on a regular basis.
“The centre hosted the community, providing particularly the elderly with a place to meet and socialise,” the petition said.
“For me personally, the centre was invaluable as it offered a free space to rehearse my play Love, Bombs and Apples, which had a very limited budget and having access to the centre as a free rehearsal space was wonderful. The play was part of the Shubbak Festival and ended up having a sold-out run,” Abdulrazzak said.
He said London’s Arcola Theatre was impressed by the play and decided to bring it back next year. “This will hopefully be part of a nationwide tour. Therefore, the ICC not only supported activities that served the Iraqi community but also, as in the case of my play, it enhanced activities that reached a wider British audience,” he said.
The ICC opened in June 2012 initiated under the mandate of then minister of culture Saadoun al-Dulaimi.
Under its first director, Abdulrahman Dheyab, a journalist and media personality from Anbar province, the ICC championed Iraqi multiculturalism. Dheyab described it as a bridge. “We wanted the international community to understand our culture, which is the real strength of Iraq,” he said.
Prior to the opening of the ICC, the Kufa Gallery in West London promoted Iraqi, Arab and Islamic art for 20 years before it closed in 2006. Iraqi artist Yousif Nasser also hosted cultural events in the ARK Gallery, which closed in 2013. During the 1980s, the Iraqi government had a cultural centre in the heart of London. It closed in 1990 after the invasion of Kuwait.
London is once again without a venue for disseminating Iraqi culture. Alawi said the Iraqi government may reopen the ICC if the economic situation improves but this is unlikely to happen in the near future.
Jabbar Hasan, the director of the Iraqi Community Association (ICA), described the decision to close the centre as hasty and harsh.
“It could have been done in a different way. They could have reduced the staff but they did not look into that. The embassy has other offices which also cost money to run and I can’t explain why they just targeted the cultural centre,” he said. “The centre was open to everyone. Its impartiality was evident in the work it did. A lot of people are very dismayed and disappointed it closed and the ICA shares this view.”
Iraqi archaeologist Lamia al- Gailani said the ICC was basically directed towards the Iraqis rather than the British.
“We had a cultural centre in the ’80s which was very successful in the beginning, attracting British people who used to come to meetings, receptions, lectures and exhibitions and that was fantastic. But it deteriorated with time,” Gailani said.
“The centre which has just closed had a very bad address. People do not go to Shepherd’s Bush for cultural events. It should have been in the middle of London. For the Iraqis it was a wonderful place but if Iraq has a cultural centre in a foreign country it should cater to the local people.”