Resisting hatred and tribalism with art

Sunday 23/10/2016
Poems preaching love and peace are displayed on Baghdad’s
walls. (Oumayma Omar)

Baghdad - “Omy friend, yester­day when the fronts flared up and we almost got killed, I wrote a song.”

“My ambition is beyond being just a woman… I always stop at that and have doubts.”

The excerpts from works by young Iraqi poets have been turned into graffiti splashed on the blast­ed walls of Baghdad to dissemi­nate a message of peace and love, countering the sectarian and hate speech of politicians and tribes.

Walls are not for Tribes’ Vendet­tas, an initiative launched by the House of Iraqi Poetry in October, aims to use the art of graffiti to spread positive messages in Bagh­dad’s streets amid high sectarian tension.

“Our initiative is meant to resist violence and tribal practices, such as vendettas, which have been spreading since 2003. The idea of taking art into the open public space started with (the initiative) Verses for Passersby and, likewise, it is addressed to the larger public, who, nowadays, are not thinking about art and culture,” said Hus­sam al-Saray, an Iraqi writer and president of the House of Iraqi Po­etry.

“We sought out the public through a visual speech that is graffiti drawings by plastering the walls of buildings, streets and res­taurants across Baghdad. We hope that our cultural posters will have an impact as strong as political and religious ones.”

Saray described the initiative as a “cultural confrontation” against hate speech and discourse of vengeance perpetrated by mem­bers of the society. “We believe that the cultural action can chal­lenge the language of animosity and any speech that tears apart the Iraqi society,” he said.

Several Iraqi poets, includ­ing Fawzi Karim, Salah Faiq, Safa Khalaf and Ali Hamza, have ex­tracts of their writings splashed on the walls of Baghdad neighbour­hoods of Hurriya, al-Salam and Zaafarani. The House of Iraqi Po­etry also organised a two-day event during which two young graffiti artists painted poems in al-Karkh and Rassafa on both sides of the Tigris.

Mohamad Wahid, a music stu­dent and graffiti artist, has been ac­tive in civil society, participating in several initiatives preaching peace, including the Wall of Peace, a giant mural drawn by 15 Iraqi artists on the building of Al-Iraqia Documen­tary satellite TV with the support of Germany’s Goethe Institute.

“Such initiatives had a big impact on my life, though I got no money in return,” Wahid said. “I was very excited to participate in the event held by the House of Iraqi Poetry through which we wanted to ad­dress the tribes who have been ignoring the law and persecuting citizens with the force of arms and obsolete traditions. We tell them: Art can provoke change and with drawings and words we can coun­ter you.”

He applauded the public’s posi­tive reaction and appreciation of the drawings, which reflected, he said, their feelings and minds. “Walls should be turned into plat­forms in order to induce and stimu­late change in the society,” he said. “We are a country ruled by the power of arms, and artists should be active under such circumstanc­es.”

Underscoring the “many hur­dles” that the artists encountered in turning walls into “public poetry books”, Wahid said: “Despite ob­taining security clearances, secu­rity apparatuses have obstructed our work. So we refrained from writing the title of the initiative un­til the drawings were completed, fearing backlash from supporters of ‘tribes’ rule’.”

Iraq’s tribes are social institutions that have preserved many customs and traditions that run contrary to the laws of the state. Their influ­ence over local affairs and daily life has been steadily growing after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. The tribes manage their issues, even se­rious crimes such as murder, under a blood money system. Many Iraqi politicians seek to please them, as they represent large numbers of voters in local and parliamentary elections.

The collapse of social norms and the civil state’s institutions prompted many Iraqis to resort to tribal authorities applying custom­ary rules outside the legal frame­work in order to settle their differ­ences, Khalaf said.

He said tribal customs are mostly inconsistent with democratic laws, if not unlawful at all, because they rely on their own customs to man­age the affairs of their members. “Personal and individual freedoms are compromised, especially if one belonged to a tribe or clan that is opposed to others. You become a victim without even knowing it,” Khalaf said.

He lamented Iraq’s transforma­tion from being a “source of cul­tural values” to one perpetuating “unusual norms” that pose great dangers on the society. “Poesy has always been the voice of the nation and thus we should return to vers­es and prose to express people’s vi­sions and aspirations.

“Any initiative which is non-vio­lent, opposed to armed confronta­tions and can rectify the people’s misunderstandings and wrong conceptions is welcome. Writers and poets believe in civil peace and we try hard to instil this culture in a country that has been torn apart by internal and external conflicts for decades.”