A watchword of the Baathist regime during Iraq’s eight-year war with Iran was the “spirit of victory.” Preserving this “spirit” (ruh al-nasr) was a major task of the regime’s efficient propaganda machine throughout the fighting. As soon as war broke out in September 1980, the cultural sphere was mobilized not only to represent the inevitable, “permanent” victory on the front, but also to radiate its essence among the public. The mobilization was quite effective. In 1980, the so-called baathification of culture had been underway for some time, cleansing the cultural establishment and its outlets of non-Baathists, naysayers who were compelled to leave unless they were willing to convert. After the 1979 collapse of the National Front, the political alliance between the Baath and the Iraqi Communist Party, hundreds of writers and artists fled into exile, and many others were killed, imprisoned or silenced. The baathification of culture left behind a docile chorus with very few dissonant notes. War gave the regime additional sustenance in its project to harness all cultural production to a single end. Dissent was no longer cast as merely anti-Baathist, but as unpatriotic or downright treasonous. There was one and only one cultural and political trench. In one of the most famous slogans of the era, Saddam Hussein insisted, “The pen and the barrel of a gun have one and the same opening.”

A popular, if Egyptocentric, saying in the Arab world holds that “Cairo writes, Beirut publishes and Baghdad reads.” As the war progressed, the Baathist regime developed ambitions to reposition Baghdad as the capital of Arab cultural production as well as consumption. Egypt was under Arab boycott following the 1979 Camp David accords, and Beirut entered a relative decline as a cultural center after the 1982 Israeli invasion, which displaced numerous publications and writers into exile in Europe. The Baathist regime was keen to host annual pan-Arab cultural festivals and conferences. Hundreds of Arab and foreign writers, intellectuals, artists and journalists frequented Baghdad. The visitors were usually taken on field trips to the front. The annual al-Mirbad festival of poetry was the flagship event, attracting the big guns, as it were, of the Arab cultural scene. The attendees recorded their positive impressions of Iraq, by and large reinforcing the official narrative that posited a secular Iraq simultaneously fighting off a theocratic Iran and building a state that supported culture and creativity. Inside Iraq, the “culture of war” produced a canon of its own — a massive list of songs, short stories, novels and plays. [1] This output varied a great deal in aesthetic merit, and much of it was easily consigned to oblivion almost immediately after consumption. A great deal of the canon, however, remains alive in the Iraqi collective memory and popular culture.

The “spirit of victory” also was to endure, manifesting itself in the solid form of monuments, murals and statues all over Iraq. These structures depicted not only the great commander-in-chief, but also the legions of valiant officers and enlisted men. Directly after the war in 1988, during the feverish campaign to rebuild heavily bombed Basra, the Iraqi side of the Shatt al-‘Arab was lined with 100 bronze statues of Iraqi soldiers pointing to the Iranian side. But two of the most memorable monuments were conceived when the war was in its initial phase. The Martyr’s Monument (Nusb al-Shahid) and the Victory Arch (Qaws al-Nasr) are considered among Baghdad’s most recognizable landmarks to this day. Nusb al-Shahid is dedicated to the martyrs of Saddam’s Qadisiyya, the official name of the war, which evokes the decisive battle of Qadisiyya in 636 in which the early Muslims defeated the Sassanid Persians. Even before the war, the regime had invested in projects designed to reinscribe the story of the battle in contemporary culture. The renowned Egyptian director Salah Abu Sayf was commissioned to make a costly film, al-Qadisiyya, which was released in 1982. Another major project was the Qadisiyya Panorama, a multi-media recreation of the battle housed next to the ruins of Ctesiphon, the ancient Sassanid capital, a short drive to the southeast of Baghdad. The site was popular for school trips and tourists throughout the 1980s.

The war was less than one year old when construction started on Nusb al-Shahid in April 1981. [2] The monument was completed in 1983 and visited by officials and foreign dignitaries, but was not opened to the Iraqi public until 1986. Designed by the famous Iraqi sculptor Isma‘il Fattah al-Turk (1934-2004), the 130-foot high, halved blue Abbasid dome sits on a circular platform surrounded by an artificial lake. The underground level beneath the dome includes a museum and halls. A sculpture of an undulating Iraqi flag rises up from underground 16 feet into the dome, symbolizing the rise of the martyr’s soul at the moment of death. The dome is split in two to allow the soul’s release. After the war, the names of hundreds of thousands of war dead were inscribed on the wall surrounding the museum. Following the 2003 invasion, the monument was used as a barracks for US troops. [3]

Nusb al-Shahid’s central narrative is sacrifice for the nation. Its aesthetic language is serene, its tenor elegiac. Aside from a short text about martyrdom attributed to him, Saddam Hussein is absent. The monument is thus an aberration among its kind.

Qaws al-Nasr, by contrast, is the exemplar of its genre, a monument that Saddam is said to have conceived and sketched himself. The enormous arch projects a decidedly different political ethos, one more in line with the late dictator’s grandiose fantasies of eternal victory and immortality and one in which his own hand is ever present. Qaws al-Nasr features two pairs of crossed swords that bookend a parade ground. The blades were fashioned of the smelted rifles of dead Iraqi soldiers. The contours of the bronze fists grasping the hilts were taken from Saddam Hussein’s own hands. Nets holding 5,000 helmets of Iranian soldiers surround the base of each arm. Saddam himself inaugurated the monument, riding a white horse underneath the two arches on August 8, 1989, the first anniversary of the end of the war, hailed by the regime as a victory.

The inauguration of Qaws al-Nasr and the new parade ground marked a shift of sorts in Baghdad memorials. Previously, two of the city’s symbols were the Liberty Monument, made by Jawad Salim (1920-1961) to celebrate the struggle of the Iraqi people culminating in the July 14 revolution of 1958, and the Unknown Soldier, designed by the architect Rif‘at al-Chadirchi in Firdaws Square. Both were products of the reign of ‘Abd al-Karim Qasim, the nationalist colonel and hero of 1958 who was ousted and killed by the Baathists in 1963. Qasim had survived a previous assassination attempt by Saddam and others. In 1989, in conjunction with the Victory Arch, a new Unknown Soldier monument was erected. The “old” Unknown Soldier, commissioned by Qasim himself, had been destroyed the night of November 4, 1982. [4] The square remained empty for almost two decades. In April 2002, a 40-foot tall statue of Saddam Hussein was installed there to celebrate his sixty-fifth birthday. That statue probably enjoyed the shortest life of all Saddam likenesses. Its camera-ready toppling by Marines on April 9, 2003 marked the defeat of Saddam’s regime and the fall of Baghdad.

If Saddam was obsessed with inscribing his name and deeds, real or imagined, onto Iraq’s history and intent on eclipsing, if not erasing, the legacy of his immediate predecessors, those who replaced him share at least some of his obsessions. The discourse and practice of debaathification in post-invasion Iraq extends beyond the purging of officials and barring of candidates from the political arena. The visual landscape, too, has to be debaathified. Thus, in 2005, a Committee to Remove the Remains of the Baath Party and Consider Building New Monuments and Murals was appointed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. [5] None of the ten-member committee are artists, art historians or experts in a field remotely relevant to such a sensitive undertaking. The roster of remnants under the committee’s consideration includes 100 monuments and other commemorative sites from the Saddam Hussein era. Before any official decision was reached, however, the bust of Abu Ja‘far al-Mansour, the second Abbasid caliph and founder of Baghdad, was blown up on October 18, 2005. It had been erected in the 1970s, under Saddam’s predecessor Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr. The identities of the caliph’s executioners remain unknown, but the motive is believed to have been sectarian since al-Mansour’s rule is notorious for persecution of the Shi‘a. Many other monuments and statues have been removed, including one in al-Mustansiriyya Square honoring Iraqi prisoners of war in the Iran-Iraq conflict. The removed memorials have often been replaced with religious and sectarian symbols.

Not surprisingly, Qaws al-Nasr, which became part of the Green Zone after 2003, is one of the primary targets for removal. The so-called Crossed Swords Complex, which includes the arches and the parade ground, was leased to the Iraq Memory Foundation by the interim government in 2004. In 2005, the 40-year lease was formalized. The Iraq Memory Foundation’s project is admirable in theory, but many Iraqis view it with skepticism because its ties to present-day Iraq are few. The foundation is a US-based entity established by Kanan Makiya, one of the main proponents of the invasion among Iraqi exiles. Its board includes four other persons, only one of whom is based in Baghdad (the Green Zone, to specify). The thrust of the foundation’s mission is to document the horrors of the Saddam era through oral history, archives and a “Museum of Remembrance” to be housed in the Crossed Swords Complex. It was the Iraq Memory Foundation, along with a strange ally, the US embassy, that lobbied to stop the destruction of Qaws al-Nasr in 2007. In early 2010, there were again murmurs about removing the monument. [6] The head of the legal committee of the Baghdad provincial council claimed that the cabinet had issued orders to remove most memorials related to the Saddam era in order to “purge Baghdad of the symbols of injustice.” [7] Beyond the trauma inflicted by Saddam upon many, many Iraqis, the gigantic arches and other monuments of its genre represent an embarrassment, if not an affront, to the pro-Iranian elements of the new political elite in Iraq.

Qaws al-Nasr is still standing, and there is no clear consensus among Iraqis as to its fate. [8] Many Iraqis, however, are against arbitrary decisions to send in the bulldozers that do not take into consideration the sentiments of the population or the artistic and historical value of monuments. Many are angered, as well, by what they see as another chapter in the destruction and erasure of their culture and history. Although at political loggerheads, those intent on removing Saddam-era symbols and those keen on preserving them to advance their own versions of Iraq’s past have one thing in common. They exclude Iraqi citizens from the debate, when it is these ordinary people who should be the ultimate arbiters in these sensitive matters that touch so deeply upon their collective memory. The current crop of politicians in the Green Zone does not genuinely represent the interests and wishes of the great majority of Iraqis, who, once again, have no say in what is to be done with their resources, their future or what remains of their past.


[1] See Salam ‘Abboud, Thaqafat al-‘unf fi al-‘Iraq (The Culture of Violence in Iraq) (Cologne: Dar al-Jamal, 2002).
[2] For details, see Kanan Makiya, The Monument: Art, Vulgarity and Responsibility in Iraq (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1991).
[3] Sinan Antoon, “Monumental Disrespect,” Middle East Report 228 (Fall 2003).
[4] Yahya Ghazi al-Amiri, “Hikayat i‘dam al-jundi al-majhul al-qadim” (The Tale of the Execution of the Old Unknown Soldier), al-Sabah, April 15, 2009. The Baghdad mayor’s office is reportedly planning to rebuild the “old” Unknown Soldier. The original sculptor, Rif`at al-Chadirchi, has agreed to oversee the project. Al-Hayat, November 8, 2010.
[5] New York Times, April 8, 2007.
[6] Al-Hayat, February 3, 2010.
[7] Al-Mada, February 4, 2010.
[8] For a sample of opinions of writers and artists, see the survey done by al-Naba’, an Iraqi online newspaper, in its April 2005 edition: http://www.annabaa.org/nbahome/nba76/tamatheel.htm.

How to cite this article:

Sinan Antoon "Bending History," Middle East Report 257 (Winter 2010).

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