Culture boom in Baghdad
Loay al-Hadary has a message: the UNESCO World Heritage site in southern Iraq is drying out; the marshes will soon have no more water. The fish are dying and with them, all the living things that have shaped Mesopotamia for thousands of years. "I’ve been researching Sumerian traditions, and have built them into my installations," says the visual artist, speaking in Beit Tarkib, the centre for contemporary art in Baghdad.
It is a Saturday evening preview. Al-Hadary is talking to the numerous visitors, explaining the dramatic story of the biblical Garden of Eden, which was first threatened by ex-dictator Saddam Hussein when he drained the marshes during the war against Iran in the 1980s. After he was toppled in 2003, the area was flooded again, and its former life returned. But now, the Euphrates and the Tigris are bringing decreasing quantities of water to the area and the marshes are drying out once more. Worldwide, Iraq is one of the five countries most at risk from climate change. The situation is made worse by Turkey and Iran building dams that prevent water flowing into Mesopotamia. "It’s a tragedy," says the 42-year-old artist.
"Right now, a lot of artists are addressing the issue of climate change in Iraq," says Hella Mewis, who was behind the creation of Beit Tarkib in 2017. The cultural centre feels particularly connected to young artists and works to promote them. The cultural manager from Berlin is back in Baghdad, having been kidnapped in July 2020 and been forced to take a break in Germany. "I am a Baghdadi," the 51-year-old says. "I had to come back." There is a real culture boom going on in Baghdad, she tells us, and she needed to be part of it.
"I am Iraqi, I read"
Hundreds of Iraqis are currently streaming into cultural events, and literary festivals are particularly popular. An old saying about the Middle East proves true many times over: "Books are written in Cairo, printed in Beirut and read in Baghdad". Beginning with the festival of reading on Abu Nawas Street, which runs along the Tigris riverfront, and continuing with the poetry festival on Mutanabbi Street, and the book fair at the exhibition halls in the Mansour district: everywhere is packed, everywhere people are reading and discussing books, and everywhere there are celebrations.
The "I am an Iraqi, I read" festival of reading has just been held for the ninth time. The latest iteration attracted more people than ever before, in particular under-25s, who now make up 40 percent of the population. For a long time, book weren’t such a priority: Iraqis were dealing with war and terrorism. But now, five years after the end of IS in the country, people are turning back to this tradition – and they’re reading.
Contrary to the old saying, however, books are no longer written only in Cairo. A lot of new literature is coming out of Iraq itself. Authors are processing what the country has been through, and the trauma of the past is finding an outlet on paper. New forms of literature are being tried out, and one current trend on the banks of the Tigris is for a mixture of poetry and prose.
Here, too, young people, young authors, are the ones setting the agenda and expressing their love of experiment. The annual reading festival – where you can also find numerous free books, and where authors hold book signings and traditional Iraqi music accompanies the whole thing – is organised by Amer Mudjeid, a young man in his early thirties. He is assisted by various sponsors. The site of the reading festival, on the Tigris riverfront, has been carefully chosen: it is also home to a bronze statue of Scheherazade, one of the key characters in the 1001 Nights.
Culture as an escape
Four years ago, young Iraqis like Amer and the young artists from Beit Tarkib took to the streets in large numbers. They maintained a tent city in Tahrir Square in the heart of Baghdad for more than a year, brought down the government, demanded new electoral laws and got elections brought forward. The sense of possibility was infectious. Revolution was in the air. But then came the snipers, the militias, the secret service and finally the pandemic.
More than 600 protestors were killed, many more were persecuted and threatened, and a few disappeared forever. Hella Mewis was taken hostage because she, too, took to the streets to fight for a better future for Iraq. The movement suffocated. For a year, the country found itself in a serious political crisis.
When the newly elected members of parliament were unable to agree on either a candidate for president or one for the office of prime minister, a dangerous power struggle erupted in the multi-ethnic state. Observers feared the outbreak of civil war between the various ethnicities and religions – something that had happened before in 2006 and 2007. This was prevented at the last moment. Since October, Iraq has had a new government, though it features the same old faces.
Every Friday, Mutanabbi Street in the old centre of Baghdad becomes a meeting place for the culture and art scene. The street is named after one of the Arab world’s most important poets ( 915 or 917-965), who is present there in statue form at one end of the street. From 10am until the Muezzin calls Friday prayers at around midday, anyone who is anyone in culture and art gathers here.
Mutanabbi Street is a street of bookshops and a place where anyone can come to sell books, and it has long been the epicentre of Baghdad’s creative scene. In the Shabander coffee house, meetings take place between publishers and authors, musicians and film makers, sculptors and painters. Mutanabbi Fridays are an institution that radiates out across the whole country.
An old caravanserai, lovingly restored by the city council, has become a cultural centre that offers spaces for events and exhibitions. In the inner courtyard, where once camels found rest and water, you can buy handmade jewellery, small artworks and souvenirs. Readings sometimes take place on the stage in the restored caravanserai, such as during the European-Iraqi poetry festival at the start of December.
Al-Mutanabbi is among the oldest and best-known streets in the Iraqi capital, and invariably functions as a seismograph for the state of the country. In the 1950s, the books sold there were mostly Marxist texts, and these were subsequently replaced by nationalist, pan-Arabian works, and then by glorifications of Saddam Hussein.
After Saddam Hussein was overthrown, there was a brief period when you could find anything and everything there that could be printed and financed. Beautifully bound editions of the Koran with gold-edged pages, sat alongside pornographic publications such as Playboy, Hitlers Mein Kampf in Arabic translation and George Washington’s memoirs; the half-naked pop icon Madonna beside the buttoned-up Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum. That changed rapidly from 2005, when the religious hardliners took power in American-occupied Iraq.
Nudity became taboo, religious tracts the order of the day. On 5 March 2007, a car bomb exploded in Mutanabbi Street. Forty people were killed and almost all the bookshops were destroyed. The blast was seen as a targeted attack by Islamic extremists against what was regarded as a liberal cultural scene. It was only when work to rebuild the street was completed in December 2018 that life returned to it.
Alaa Gaber Alyaseri often comes to Mutanabbi on a Friday, to meet like-minded people. She was one of many thousands who took to the streets in 2019 and 2020, calling for a new political system, a majority government based on the electorate’s choice, and an opposition that could be taken seriously. Now the 43-year-old has a seat in parliament, like 13 others from the protest movement, but with a total of 329 members of parliament, they have no real weight as an opposition.
One person who could have turned the wheel further has left politics. Frustrated by the relentless power struggle between reformers and conservatives, the Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr threw in the towel. He initially withdrew his MPs from parliament, and finally left politics himself. "When he did that, he gave up our aims," says Alyaseri. The way was clear for the "old guard".
The only avenue left for many people is to escape into culture, where they can express their creativity. The culture boom in Baghdad bears witness to this. Whether literature, music, the visual arts or film: experiments of every kind attract huge numbers of listeners, visitors and followers. Most want nothing more to do with politics, at least for the time being.
"Not much is to be expected from the new, old government," almost everyone says on Mutanabbi Street on Friday. Alaa Gaber Alyaseri, the "parliamentarian from the streets", will have a difficult time achieving anything in parliament. She too has already taken refuge in culture. Alaa’s striking fingernails are wonderful works of art.
© Qantara.de 2023
Translated from the German by Ruth Martin