Qishla’s conversion from military base to cultural space

Sunday 04/06/2017
New function. A view of Qishla cultural centre in Baghdad. (Oumayma Omar)

Baghdad - Ten-year-old Hamza Ka­zem’s eyes sparkled with excitement as the boat crossing the Tigris in the heart of Baghdad ap­proached the river’s opposite bank where the imposing Qishla build­ing and its landmark clock tower stood majestically.
The boy’s interest in Qishla, the Ottoman garrison turned into a public cultural space, delighted his father.
“I have always been keen on teaching my children about Iraq’s history and heritage. It is not ac­ceptable that they grow up without knowing and appreciating their country’s historical places, which are unfortunately falling apart be­cause of neglect and lack of resto­ration,” said Ribih Kazem, Hamza’s father, a university professor.
Qishla, built by the Ottomans in 1861, was partially restored and opened to the public in 2012 pav­ing the way for the selection of Baghdad as the capital of Arab cul­ture for 2013 by the Arab League. The two-storey building was con­structed to serve as the headquar­ters of Ottoman forces. In 1868, a high tower adorned with a large clock was erected in the middle of the yard to serve as an alarm to wake the soldiers.
During the British mandate in the early 20th century, the site housed British officers and in 1921 it held the coronation of King Fais­al I, the first monarch of modern-day Iraq. Qishla — Turkish for “bar­racks” — was later transformed into a serail, housing government offices. Now, it is known as the “old Green Zone,” a reference to the Green Zone in Baghdad where many government facilities are lo­cated.
The old garrison turned cultural space includes several spacious halls that are used for art exhibi­tions, concerts, theatres, poetry readings and cultural debates.
“The place is increasingly be­coming a popular destination for Iraqi families, especially on Fri­days with more than 3,000 visitors from different parts of Iraq. It is particularly attractive for intellec­tuals and lovers of music and po­etry,” said Qishla’s director Haidar Jawad.
“In addition to the cultural at­tractions, Qishla is popular be­cause of its historical importance. The place has witnessed key events that affected past generations and it is a source of inspiration for the young generation trying to revive their heritage through cul­tural and artistic events,” Jawad added.
Taking a tour of the site, one comes across artists and intellec­tuals who are regular visitors of Qishla.
“The place is of particular inter­est for intellectuals for two main reasons. First it is close to al-Mu­tanabbi Street — Baghdad’s re­nowned historic book-selling hub. Second, its gardens hosted many demonstrations by Iraqi activists and scholars,” said Iraqi cartoonist Khudair al-Humairi.
Humairi said he welcomed Qishla’s “remake,” which, he said, “bestowed” a sociocultural dimension that it did not have previously.
“The place has a new function different from any of the func­tions it had in the past one and a half centuries when it shifted from being a garrison for the Ottoman troops to a station for British offic­ers and then a seat of government offices,” he said.
“In my capacity as a frequent visitor of Qishla, I believe that its latest function is the most dis­tinguished. Its spacious gardens provide a unique and free space for artists, both professionals and amateurs alike, to demonstrate their talents,” Humairi said, noting that the location was the site of a landmark exhibition by the Iraqi Cartoon Association on combating corruption.
A corner of the garden has been allocated for “free drawing” by amateur artists. It is near areas used for art exhibitions and cultural performances, includ­ing singing and folk dance.
Qishla’s restoration project, however, has not been fully com­pleted due to budget restraints. MP Faleh Hassan, a member of parliament’s tourism committee, said more than 300 historic sites within Baghdad’s governorate need maintenance and restoration work.
“The financial crisis that has gripped the country since the dra­matic drop in oil prices has affect­ed a large number of projects, in­cluding the restoration of historic and ancient sites in the country, among them Qishla,” Hassan said.
Former Governor of Baghdad Salah Abdul Razzaq said the ini­tial project previewed transform­ing some of the Qishla buildings into an antique market featuring traditional items, paintings and rugs, along with Turkish, Iranian, Moroccan, Lebanese and Egyptian restaurants.
Hamza Kazem said he was hap­py to visit Qishla in the company of his family despite the site’s par­tial restoration.
“I am dealing with my son the same way my father did with me, basically introducing him to Bagh­dad’s heritage through informative visits of old quarters and historic sites,” Ribih Kazem explained.
“Historical sites should be reha­bilitated because they constitute part of the treasures and culture of this country. This is very impor­tant to the history of Iraq and its future as well,” he added.