Resisting hatred and tribalism with art
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.”