Iraqi culture struggling to survive
Baghdad - It was once an active cultural hub in the Arab world but decades of international sanctions, a destructive invasion, deteriorating security and political tensions and the rise of religious fundamentalism have taken their toll on culture in Iraq.
Baghdad, a 1,250-year-old city, has seen its well-established cultural scene collapse since 2003 when a US-led invasion toppled Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in an attempt to usher in democracy and freedom.
Cultural life in Iraq has faded quickly in the last decade, especially with the rise to power of religious parties which imposed standards under which little margin was left for culture-related activities. While many cite insecurity and violence as the main reasons behind the deterioration of the quality of life in Iraq, others blame it on the absence of government political and financial support for artists and writers.
Subsequently, collectors of art fled the country and the painters and sculptors who could afford it followed suit.
Sculptor Karim Khalil stressed that “Iraqi art” is going through its darkest and most decadent phase due to the migration of most professional artists and the limitations imposed on those who stayed behind.
“We have lost 95% of our best artists who preferred to work abroad without ever contemplating the possibility of returning to Iraq, which is plagued by political tensions and violence,” Khalil said. “Most fine art galleries have closed down. Baghdad now has only three galleries, down from 30 (before 2003), and this in itself is a big calumny.”
Cultural events, art exhibitions, festivals and “poetic evenings” during which writers competed in prose, have become rare, as audiences thinned out and more artists quit the country.
“Art is no longer the same. Capacities have become limited and talent rare,” Khalil said. “The present generation is being apprenticed at the hands of art technicians who are not artists such as [painters] Ismail al-Turk and Ismail Al Shaikhly and Faeq Hassan, and this has left a negative impact on their creativity and taste.”
Khalil bemoaned that most fine arts students have become impregnated with religious ideologies, “voiding art from its superior and elevated content”. On top of that, he said, the Department of Arts at the Ministry of Culture is not equipped with experienced people capable of reviving fine arts, “not to mention that with its religious approach and understanding, the government does not recognise the importance of arts but views sculptures and paintings as religiously unacceptable”.
Khalil and other artists have been trying to prevent the total demise of art in Iraq. “Despite our repeated attempts to organise exhibitions and encourage joint art events, the prevailing [security and political] conditions have been stronger than us,” he said.
The state of Iraqi cinema, the fourth oldest Arab cinema industry after Egypt, Syria and Tunisia, is as bad as fine arts. Scarcity of decent theatres, in addition to the small number of moviegoers, are cited among factors that had a backlash on the quality and quantity of cinema productions.
“After 2003, the Iraqi public has lost the habit of going to the movies. Many families have never set foot in a movie theatre because of deteriorating economic and security conditions,” commented Hikmat Baidani, a professor of cinema.
Baidani lashed out at “schools’ negative role” and “failure to provide guidance and raise awareness about this art”.
“Mistrust in the capacities of Iraqi cinema to produce quality films was a detrimental factor, not to mention the very few theatres that are still operating in Baghdad,” he added.
Iraq has a handful of cinemas, mainly located in malls in Baghdad, but much fewer than the 86 that existed in and outside the capital before the US invasion. After 2003, security concerns, irregular electricity and Islamist pressures against most forms of entertainment have led to movie theatres closing throughout Iraq.
Writer and scholar Majed Samarai described the situation in Iraq as “historically aberrant”. “The country was exposed to a brutal imperialist invasion that brought to power a subordinate regime void of any sense of nationalism or feel for culture… Such an abnormal situation will only produce an abnormal cultural life,” Samarai said.
However, a brighter side of cultural life in Iraq remains Al-Mutanabbi Street, Baghdad’s historic literary district — home to booksellers, printers and cafés where Iraqi writers and intellectuals have gathered for centuries. The place, which was bombed in 2007, is where writers and scholars of different visions meet to discuss and exchange ideas and viewpoints.
The street becomes particularly lively during the Friday market, when books are bargained, sold, browsed, thumbed through and read. The street is among the few places that host cultural and artistic events, organised mainly by activists striving to maintain cultural life in the war-torn country.
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.
However, for many Iraqi intellectuals, artists and art lovers, Iraq’s cultural life is like the Iraqi people themselves — a victim of the war.