Two clouds kissed silently in the Baghdad sky. I watched them flee westward, perhaps out of shyness, leaving me alone on the bench beneath the French palm tree (so called because it stood in the courtyard in front of the French department) to wait for Areej. I looked for something worth reading in that morning’s al-Jumhuriyya, and found a good translation of a Neruda poem in the culture section, besieged on all sides by doggerel barking praises of the Party and the Revolution. The breeze nudged the palm fronds above my head to applaud. It was April, “the month of fecundity, the birth of the Baath and the Leader,” as one of the posters on the college walls announced.
—Sinan Antoon, I‘jaam: An Iraqi Rhapsody (City Lights, 2007)

Baghdad has been a city of many faces. Despite evidence that the city existed earlier, its name Madinat al-Salam (City of Peace) is associated with the glory of the Abbasid dynasty and the Round City built by the caliph Abu Ja‘far al-Mansour in 762. The moniker Madinat al-Salam alludes to a long and rich history that masks the faces of the city’s many occupiers and hides the cycles of its destruction. Over the centuries, Baghdad has had several makeovers to reflect the varied images and identities of its invaders. For its inhabitants, however, a cultural and intellectual continuity seems to persist, suggesting either schizophrenia or a mode of survival that necessarily disregards political realities. It is a contradiction of the kind expressed in the excerpt from Sinan Antoon’s novel. Like the Neruda poem, Antoon’s character is surrounded by reminders of the grimmest state violence; like the poem, he is at peace.

The modernist dream of a cosmopolitan Baghdad in the late 1950s and 1960s resulted in a master plan for the city that reflected less of its triumphant Islamic past and instead projected a more European modernity that was manifested in various buildings and public spaces. Master international modernist architects Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius were invited to Baghdad in the 1950s. Gropius’ visit resulted in the University of Baghdad administration building and Le Corbusier’s in the gymnasium and athletic center that was built under Saddam Hussein and used by his son Uday as the headquarters of the Iraqi National Olympic Committee over which he presided. Both buildings were badly damaged during the 2003 invasion and the latter neglected until recently. In April, there will be a three-day conference about Le Corbusier’s building organized by UNESCO to stress the necessity of French-Iraqi cooperation in the building’s maintenance and to explore modern Iraqi architecture in general.

In the early 1980s, Saddam Hussein initiated a grand campaign to dress the city in an imperial guise suited to the scope of his ambition. The Iraqi architect Rif‘at Chadirchi was the main consultant. Along with others, he had the chance to reconsider the image of Baghdad in a regional idiom of international architecture befitting the post-modern age. Regardless of the stylistic results, architecturally, it was to be a splendid dream come true, with no expense spared and much attention to restoration of Ottoman and other historical edifices. The Iraq-Iran war, however, put a prompt end to the dream. The city quickly turned into an empty canvas for the glorification of the “Majestic Father, Leader, President Saddam Hussein.” Monuments and murals depicting the leader in various poses left no space in the city unfilled. The larger-than-life portraits of Saddam in different types of Iraqi attire towered over Baghdad, announcing the dictator’s iconic omnipresence and crowding the thinking of passersby with messages intended and unintended. A favorite pastime after the 2003 invasion was to deface these portraits or tear them down. Aside from the subsequent destruction of other Saddam-era monuments by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Committee to Remove the Remains of the Baath Party, however, the city of Baghdad was mostly ignored, leaving decades of neglect, deterioration and poor maintenance of architectural heritage unaddressed.

Iraqi Culture in the Age of Revolts

Despite the Guardian’s headline of April 25, 2011, “Iraq’s Own Arab Spring,” for Baghdad, and the country in general, the euphoria of the Arab revolts was subdued. It was not that Iraqis did not feel the need for change. There were several attempts to engage and join the regional fervor, but they were comparatively small in scale and certainly not big enough to make a splash in the global media. Sporadic protest had taken place since 2003, bringing Iraqis into the streets to demonstrate against corruption, lack of security, poor public services, unemployment and the erosion of political rights, among other things. But protest diminished with the disappearance of the middle class and the exodus of the intellectual and creative cadre. In 2006, the UN estimated that 40 percent of the middle class had fled. The International Anti-Occupation Network and the Brussels Tribunal have compiled a list of 459 assassinated academics. The level of violence used against any dissent in the period 2005-2007 and then the “surge” of US troops in 2007 caused further mass migration to neighboring countries and further internal displacement (almost 5 million people, according to the UN). The displacement is also manifested in the segregation of space, including the blast walls separating “Sunni” from “Shi‘i” neighborhoods in Baghdad.

Dissent surfaced anew with the return of some exiled families to Iraq, along with the rise of a new generation of discontented and disillusioned youth, amid the relative calm of 2008. The revolts of 2011 resonated with the youth in particular. Unlike in other Arab countries, in Iraq youth awareness of the country’s heritage is distorted by decades of war, sanctions and occupation, including the US rhetoric of the “new Iraq” that literally deconstructed Iraq and its national memory with the aim of building a nation from the ground up. Iraqi youth perceive no continuity with the past.

On February 25, 2011, a group called the Popular Movement to Save Iraq led a “day of rage.” The movement is headed by Uday al-Zaydi, whose brother Muntadhir threw the shoe at President George W. Bush, subsequently losing his job at the Ministry of Culture. Demonstrations were held in 60 towns and cities across Iraq. Security forces violently suppressed the rallies, and the state moved swiftly to smother all further efforts by invoking fears of sectarian unrest. The Popular Movement also has its share of internal strife. At any rate, the world media largely ignored the voices from Iraq, including those from Baghdad’s own Tahrir Square, home of Baghdad’s icon of resilience, Nusb al-Hurriyya, or the Liberty Monument. This installation is the first by an Iraqi artist, the sculptor Jewad Selim (1919–1961), and the only one untouched by any Iraqi regime since it was commissioned by President ‘Abd al-Karim Qasim in celebration of the 1958 revolution.

On February 25, 2012, around 1,500 people again convened to protest in Tahrir Square and, again, they were forcibly dispersed. “People have good reason to be afraid of protesting in Iraq,” said a demonstrator. “The regime is ready to use all necessary means to suppress dissent, and at the same time, no solidarity from the media means that both mobilization and repression go unnoticed.” [1] Demonstrators are convinced, in fact, that the series of explosions around Baghdad in the preceding days was calculated to reduce the turnout in the square.

Iraq is effectively divided today into three zones, and Iraqi arts and culture seem to be developing in three distinct ways. [2] In the north, Iraqi Kurdistan, there are attempts at promoting visual production that is identifiably Kurdish. The northern cities are also the safest home for NGO initiatives such as Sada (Echo), started by young diaspora women to aid artists living in Iraq, particularly in Baghdad. Sada offered a workshop in Baghdad in 2011, but was forced to move its 2012 workshop to Erbil for security reasons. Erbil was also chosen because it would have been near impossible to obtain visas for the Iraqi art students to go to neighboring countries. Skype is now emerging as an easier method for international artists and art educators to
communicate with students.

In the south, a new culture dictated by Shi‘i religious ritual is in the making, though there is little information on how this shift is influencing the development of art. Earlier in the 2000s, the Sadrist trend in Baghdad sponsored art competitions in order to promote a brand of Shi‘i Islamic art focused on themes such as the martyrdom of Imams ‘Ali and Husayn, but the experiment does not seem to have amounted to much. The shrine city of Najaf was selected by ISESCO, the Organization of Islamic Countries cultural body, as an Islamic Culture Capital for 2012, but the plans collapsed amid scandal over the rumored swindling of the allocated funds. The official ISESCO explanation is that “the celebration of Najaf as the Arab region’s Islamic Culture Capital for 2012 was postponed following the Iraqi government’s request.”

The middle zone, of course, is Baghdad. Since 2003, the arts scene in the capital has been neglected by the state, a reverse of the situation under Saddam Hussein and his predecessors, when Baghdad was the center of everything.

Looking Forward, Not Backward

Today, however, Baghdad is busily preparing to be the Capital of Arab Culture for 2013. The Arab Capital of Culture is an initiative carried out by the Arab League under the UNESCO Cultural Capitals Program “to promote and celebrate Arab culture and encourage cooperation in the Arab region.” In 1996, Cairo was the first designate. Cities chosen subsequently include Tunis, Sharja, Beirut, Riyadh, Kuwait City, Amman, Rabat, Sanaa, Khartoum, Muscat, Algiers, Damascus, Jerusalem, Doha, Sirte (Libya) and Manama. Perhaps stinging from the Najaf debacle, the Ministry of Culture has been eager to promote its plans for the capital. “Najaf has its own circumstances and so does Baghdad,” Ministry representative Tahir al-Hammoud told Iraqi television stations in response to opposition calls for the Ministry’s suspension for ineffectiveness.

Baghdadis remain skeptical of the plans, reflecting the general distrust of the Maliki government, as well as the recurrent car bombings in the capital. Nevertheless, the Culture Ministry’s announcements have generated a cautious hope, if nothing else, for their energy and intensity, which seem to hold out the promise of change. The atmosphere in Baghdad is reportedly cheerier, with an increased level of social activity. Artists are particularly hopeful about the renewed patronage of the state. In November 2012, the Ministry organized a Symposium of Iraq in Baghdad, an art festival aimed at reestablishing its connections with artists. [3] Other festivals were held elsewhere in the country. One hundred artists are reported to have attended the one in Baghdad, amid heated debates about the government’s capacity to pull off the city’s makeover into “the capital of Arab culture.” Iraqi intellectuals’ suspicions are understandable, given the mounting suppression of personal liberties.

Mega-initiatives that award international status — the Olympics, the World Cup — offer the host city or country an opportunity to revamp infrastructure and stimulate the economy. Arab Capital of Culture programs seem to yield considerably more modest results. In Baghdad, the designation appears to be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the attention to the city and its culture is certainly welcome. On the other hand, the Arab Culture Capital program has given the government a built-in excuse to proceed with what it deems the “cultural debaathification” of the city, as well as an opportunity to fashion its own image accordingly.

In January 2011, the culture minister, Saadoun al-Dulaymi, announced a “grand projects campaign that aims to reflect Iraq’s diversity as well as combat the one-sided official culture that the Saddam regime promoted.” “We will work to separate culture from politics and make it fully independent as per the new democratic system in Iraq,” al-Dulaymi proclaimed. The Ministry went on to announce: “The year 2011 will witness the execution of 14 cultural projects in Baghdad and 16 projects in other provinces, including the building of giant, modern movie houses, and the construction of halls for art conferences, poetry and theater festivals.” The grandiosity of the rhetoric, ironically, has been not unlike Saddam’s. Moreover, the announcement of these projects is politically motivated in that it is designed to buttress the Maliki government’s claims that Iraq is continually getting safer and more stable. The projects, the culture minister said, are only possible “following the improvement of the security situation and the establishment of law and order in cities across Iraq.” [4]

One of the projects in Baghdad is an Iraqi Opera House, set to be “the largest of its kind in the region,” according to the Culture Ministry. Ambitiously, the Ministry invited the famous Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid to design a 78,000 square-meter facility overlooking the Tigris. In the end, a Turkish company took the contract, promising in May 2012 to have the building ready in 18 months. There are also plans to erect 19 new monuments in the capital to depict major figures and events from Iraqi history and culture. The houses of major artists and intellectuals — Selim, the sociologist ‘Ali al-Wardi, the poet Muhammad Mahdi al-Jawahiri and the women’s rights activist and minister Naziha al-Dulaymi — are to be converted into museums highlighting their respective achievements. Naziha al-Dulaymi, minister of municipalities under Qasim, was an Iraqi Communist Party member and the first woman to achieve cabinet rank in any Arab country, let alone Iraq. She was then persecuted by the Baathists, and spent the rest of her life in exile. The state has taken other steps to capitalize on popular nostalgia for the Qasim era: To mark the fifty-first anniversary of the 1958 revolution that brought Qasim to power, in 2009 the State Board of Iraqi Antiquities and Heritage organized an exhibition in a National Museum hall showcasing the ex-president’s personal belongings.

There is no comprehensive list of the proposed projects and activities — one has to piece together the tidbits released to Iraqi media outlets. Reports vary, for instance, about the number of monuments to be erected in Baghdad, with some sources saying that as many as 100 statues and memorials will go up. In February, the Baghdad mayor’s office announced that it plans to inaugurate three sculptures designed by the late Muhammad Ghani Hikmat (1929-2011) and executed after his death, on the sidelines of Arab Culture Capital celebrations. [5] The General Secretariat of the Council of Ministers has recommended: holding artistic competitions, restoring pre-Saddam cultural sites, removing pro-Baathist ones and preparing sites for the newly commissioned pieces. An example of what these suggestions can mean in practice: On September 17, 2012, late at night and without prior notice, the government bulldozed the historic book market in al-Mutanabbi Street, not far from the surviving sites of the Round City, ostensibly because of “violations” that were hindering plans to beautify the capital. Apparently, those plans included converting the street into an animal market. [6]

Limited urban revitalization was initiated in earlier years, mostly in connection with religious tourism. A prime example is the al-Kadhimiyya district in Baghdad. Not unlike the 1980s makeover of Baghdad, several Iraqi architects who no longer resided in Iraq were invited to submit proposals to an international competition. One of them, Maath al-Alussi, was a main designer of the Haifa Street development in the 1980s, a project that resulted in the structure that was designated center of the arts and replaced the two museums of modern art that Baghdad previously had. At that time, he was given 22 design criteria, including urban renewal, room for schools and job creation for locals. The current government, however, had only one requirement for the al-Kadhimiyya project: to accommodate the large numbers of pilgrims to the Shi‘i shrine there, the tomb of Imam Musa al-Kadhim. The winning proposal, from Dewan Architects based in Abu Dhabi, replaced the medieval alleys around the shrine with an ordered grid and Dubai-like gentrification. [7]

Perhaps one should be grateful that the Ministry of Culture’s new campaign intends to remove monuments perceived as offensive and relocate them to museums, rather than destroying them, as has been the practice since 2003. The state’s argument was as follows: “The proposed construction of monuments and murals to replace the former regime’s began with the formation of the Debaathification Commission. The refusal this commission encountered from some authorities — under the pretext of needing to preserve such relics — prompted the Council of Ministers’ General Secretariat to establish a department to study these artifacts and place them in a special museum for martyr monuments.” [8] This last category includes the Martyr’s Monument, or Nusb al-Shahid, designed by the renowned Iraqi sculptor Ismail Fattah (1934-2004) and completed in 1983. The enormous halved dome commemorates the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi soldiers who died in the 1980-1988 Iraq-Iran war. Aside from an inscription attributed to Saddam Hussein, its iconography contains no reference to the Baath. [9] Nonetheless, the announcement of the competition inviting artists to submit proposals for the new monuments said that Maliki’s debaathification committee asked the army “to clear the site” of Nusb al-Shahid in compliance with “the directives, approved by the prime minister, to transfer this monument to a museum housing relics from the former regime.”

One noticeable absence from these ambitious plans is the fate of the National Museum of Modern Art, looted in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion, and other official and private collections. The bulk of the museum’s collection is still at large. The museum itself has not been reopened to the public and the approximately 1,700 retrieved works have not been restored or conserved. There is instead a pronounced push to “look forward, not backward.”

What Is, What Could Be

It is easy for the Iraqi government to judge monuments by their perceived purpose and to promote new production that articulates a vision of change and progress. But who can evaluate the meaning of the national visual art heritage within the cultural ambiguity of today’s Iraq?

It is interesting that, despite the post-invasion talk of privatizing museums and the like, Baghdad’s selection as the Arab Cultural Capital of 2013 has reinstated the traditional notion of state patronage of arts and culture. The city’s designation has instigated yet another state-led campaign to reconstruct the Iraqi identity, this time devoid of traces of the Baathist era, though perhaps highlighting its own selected episodes
from the Iraqi past.

In 2012 a traveling exhibition called “City of Mirages: Baghdad, 1952–1982” made its debut in the United States. “City of Mirages” narrates Baghdad’s history of undelivered promises and unfulfilled dreams — what could have been — and presents a number of proposals for transforming Baghdad into an “ideal” modern city. The title of the exhibition quotes a poem of the same title by Badr Shakir al-Sayyab (1926-1964). The verse is included in the exhibition: “The years stretch out in front of us / blood and fire, I forge bridges with them / But they become a wall… For ten years now I have not ceased walking / Toward you, “City of Mirages! Destruction of their life!’”

The systematic destruction of identity and erasure of national memory by successive states in modern Iraq has resulted in various voids. Since the invasion of 2003, Iraq’s modern heritage has been neglected as part of what seems to be a larger policy of de-nationalizing Iraqi history. What this latest wave of destruction and reimagining will bring has yet to be determined. Perhaps the Arab Cultural Capital celebrations will occasion a few worthy projects. The week of official festivities to inaugurate the year is scheduled for March 23, to be launched by a concert from oud player Naseer Shamma and followed by a multitude of cultural events. There are also a number of promising conferences in the works that will bring international scholars and experts together to discuss a variety of relevant issues, including intellectual property and the arts. Perhaps 2013 will usher in the beginning of change.


[1] Al-Akhbar (Beirut), February 28, 2012.
[2] One can speak as well of a fourth zone—the Iraqi diaspora—where the direction of arts and culture is distinct. This sphere is highly varied, but united in being mostly disenfranchised and marginalized from developments inside Iraq. The number of Iraqi artists in exile has multiplied. Most of the older generation of artists left Iraq during the 1990s or before, and established themselves elsewhere in the world. Now they are joined by a younger generation
of established artists who are refugees in various places. Collectively, the diaspora artists are outside witnesses to the destruction and other changes in Iraq. Their work constitutes historical, albeit personal, documentation thereof.
[3] Al-Hayat, November 14, 2012.
[4] Mawtani, January 19, 2011.
[5], February 23, 2013.
[6] Al-Hayat, September 21, 2012.
[7] Sebastian Jordana, “Dewan Architects Wins First Prize in Baghdad Competition,”, February 27, 2010:
[8] Mawtani, May 26, 2009.
[9] See Sinan Antoon, “Bending History,” Middle East Report 257 (Winter 2010).

How to cite this article:

Nada Shabout "A Makeover," Middle East Report 266 (Spring 2013).

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