Iraq’s cultural Dark Age

Sunday 21/08/2016
Baghdad’s Zawraa Cinema, now derelict. (Photo by: Ahmed Twaij)

Iraq is going through its own Dark Age in which culture has been strangled for fear that arts such as music and theatre offend Islam. The Dark Age has seen few scientific, artistic or economic developments in post-Saddam Iraq and sectarian conflict is just shy of descending into civil war.
There are, however, attempts to promote culture. Some audience members at a recent performance at the National Theatre in Bagh­dad chatted loudly, angering an older man. “You ask me to respect your Hussain, then you should respect my [theatre],” he shouted, referring to Imam Hus­sain, killed in battle in Iraq’s Karbala in 680.
The outburst highlights the rift within Iraq between those who follow the arts and those who fol­low religious edicts. Recently, the religious route has been far wider and freethought and development have been limited with words spoken by religious jurists deemed sacrosanct.
The streets of Baghdad, once famed for their beauty and archi­tecture, now have views obstruct­ed by a coating of tasteless posters of religious sayings or sectarian leaders, considered by many to be corrupt.
Speaking out against such divi­sive placards can be dangerous as if these figures’ role in society is not to be doubted. Iraqi cultural heritage is being overlooked in favour of new religious practices, such as the 18 million-man annual march from Najaf to Karbala com­memorating the death of Imam Hussain. The country shuts down for nearly a month, a shock to both the economy and security forces that are pulled from front lines to protect pilgrims.
Ironically, David Levering Lewis in his book God’s Crucible explains that if it were not for the Arabs of Iraqi heritage, such as Ishaq al- Kindi, Hasan ibn al-Haythem and Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwar­izmi, Europe would not have escaped its own Dark Ages and achieved the Renaissance.
Art and culture have always been the centre of inspiration and development of nations. Once a country begins to see the beauty in art and culture, there is a reduced tendency to highlight differences between sects, as what unites a population is greater than what separates it.
Iraq needs to have a Renaissance of its own. Grandiose cinemas, once the centre of arts and films in the region, such as the Zawraa Cin­ema, now lie derelict. The Zawraa Cinema on Rasheed Street used to be the site of premieres of art-nou­veau movies. The Cannes of the Middle East is now a warehouse.
The street itself used to be home to fashion stores, coffee shops and bookshops. Sadly, the last book shop, Mackenzie Library, closed in late 2015. Stores, previously promoting Iraq’s diversity, now sell less glamorous items, such as petrol generators.
The government’s failure to pro­vide security and basic amenities for its citizens has resulted in the population being less interested in culture than in its own basic survival.
The foundation of the new Iraq was formed on sectarian divisions, bringing the differences between Iraqis to the forefront of politics. The very purpose of arts and cul­ture is to unite people in question­ing what divides them.
It is high time we promote cul­ture, as it is through the arts that we can escape the vicious grip of division and conflict. This, how­ever, is a long process; deep-seated ideological differences will take years to resolve before any change is seen.