No politics, no religion, no sex

Lena Bopp explains in this article why the head of a cultural centre in Baghdad is standing her ground
Lena Bopp explains in this article why the head of a cultural centre in Baghdad is standing her ground

Hella Mewis refuses to give in. The head of a cultural centre in Baghdad has already been kidnapped once, but Baghdad is her home, and she’s staying. Lena Bopp finds out why

By Lena Bopp

She is often asked why she's so attached to Baghdad, Hella Mewis tells me. "My answer is always the same. Because of the architecture and the people." A warm wind blows over the veranda, and fine dust settles on the table, the benches, coffee cups and cigarettes.

The veranda of Bait Tarkib, the cultural centre that Hella Mewis founded years ago and still runs, looks out onto the street and affords a view of the building opposite, which might be a good example of the architecture she's talking about: light-coloured brick, two storeys with a flat roof, its ornate wooden shutters closed many moons ago and a few of the windows smashed in. Its former beauty is clearly visible behind its present derelict state.

On this street, every third or fourth building looks like this; they all tell similar stories of the well-to-do middle classes whose lifestyle was shattered and who have left the country over the years, worn down by instability and despotism, by the chaos and violence on every street corner.

You can't walk a kilometre in Baghdad without being reminded that a few years ago, a suicide bomber snatched a lot of other people's lives when he took his own; that a refrigerated truck laden with explosives was driven into this busy shopping street, and a few streets away a car bomb blew a metre-deep hole in a government building. Baghdad is paved with memories of horror.

Held captive for three days

They include the horror that Hella Mewis herself experienced in the summer of 2020, when she was abducted in Karrada, the neighbourhood where she lived. She was held captive for three days, though who her captors were is something that remains unclear. Then she was released, thanked the Iraqi authorities in front of the cameras, and flew to Germany.

She stayed there for about a year. "That was hard for me," she says. If you've lived in Baghdad for as long as she has, Berlin is a foreign city. And so she defied warnings from the German authorities that it was too soon to return, and went back to Iraq on her own initiative. And now?

"I don't cycle so much these days," she says with a laugh, knowing full well that the bike she liked to use for getting around Baghdad made her fatefully recognisable.

In hindsight, she says, she probably also visited Tahrir Square too often – the site of months-long protests where tens of thousands of Iraqis gathered to demonstrate against corruption and sectarianism in 2019, and where dozens of tents were erected in which discussions and arguments were held. "And I was the one who was always giving people the motto: no politics, no religion, no sex!"

Hella Mewis next to musician Ameen Mokdad at the Bait Tarkib cultural centre (image: TARKIB)
Sich ein Bild von einer Stadt machen: Hella Mewis neben dem Musiker Ameen Mokdad im Kulturzentrum Bait Tarkib.

That has always been the credo for Bait Tarkib, to protect the building and its artists from people whose attention it is better to avoid in Iraq. "But sometimes in life you make the wrong call," she says. She wasn't alone in that.

In all likelihood, her abductors wouldn't have expected the huge public interest and the wave of solidarity triggered by her disappearance. The German crisis team spent days trying to get her released. Friends organised a big press conference and launched a social media campaign. And Hella Mewis is convinced that this publicity was the decisive factor. "The Iraqi people rescued me."

"My God, we're making art"

In future, however, she will take pains not to attract too much attention again, and to find a balance between restraint and carrying on her work. The latter is all the more difficult since, following her abduction, financial support for Bait Tarkib has been withdrawn, first and foremost by German institutions. You cannot fund a cultural centre when you feel its leader is in danger and would prefer her to be out of the country. Hella Mewis seems to have some understanding for this, though she does sigh, "My God, we're making art."

The centre has been in existence since 2015, and like Pippi Longstocking's house it brings together every possible form of artistic expression under one roof. There is a room for dance and a room for music, one for visual design and one for drawing. There are workshops and books, coffee and tea.

Hella Mewis likes to withdraw to the roof, where she had added another room containing a tiny library. Here she collects her impressions of the city – pictures of monuments, architecturally interesting buildings, murals, installations and interventions in the streets of Baghdad, which she publishes in a kind of digital archive.

"People often don't know much about their city," she says. "But they do want to know."

Artists forced into isolation

And the artists of Bait Tarkib are evidently united in a desire to help change this. There is no longer a single blank wall or unoccupied corner in this building, which is crammed with photos, pictures, posters and sculptures that give a good impression of the issues they are addressing, and the tone with which they are addressing them.

That tone is a provocative one, a kind of tentative questioning that speaks from these works of art – from the photos by Jumana Ridha, who focuses on the perception of women in Iraq, and the installations by Loay Alhadhary, whose subject is the threat to the natural world in the marshlands of the country's south.

There are works that focus on environmental protection and migration, climate change and childhood trauma. Four or five young artists are currently working as artists in residence at Bait Tarkib, with Hella Mewis as a combination of mentor and house mother. "Tarkibis often have a socially critical view," she says. Most of them want to stay in Iraq. "If they reach only one person, that's a lot for them." The Tarkib Baghdad Festival of Contemporary Art finished just a few weeks ago, at which some of them exhibited their installations, conceptual and multimedia art to the public.


Women are venturing out of the house more often

A small public, mind you: the contemporary art scene in Baghdad doesn't bear comparison to many of the country's Arab neighbours, or to other parts of the world. The American art historian Nada Shabout, who teaches at the University of Texas and specialises in Iraqi modern art among other things, gives a number of reasons for this: the lack of infrastructure, access to arts education, and the brain drain that has weakened Iraq in recent decades.

"All of this has forced Iraqi artists into isolation. They are not seen as being able to speak the global language of art and so are really distanced from the artists of the Iraqi diaspora," she writes in an email. The scene is also still dominated by the rhetoric and the institutions of the 1970s, universities, artists' groups and unions. "The artists of Bait Tarkib are challenging this status quo and putting new options out there," says Shabout. They are pushing, amongst other things, to make the language of contemporary art visible as a means of expression.

This is no easy task, of course, even if things have begun to shift in recent years. A few new galleries have opened. Hella Mewis, too, has observed changes brought about by the "October Revolution" of 2019. People have more courage to speak up, she thinks. Women venture out of the house more frequently. "Work is being done on the cityscape as well – cosmetic work, admittedly, but still."

Late on this spring evening, the Umm Garden on the other side of Tahrir Square, which was also a focal point of the uprising, is filled with water features, strings of lights and people – and that is something new. As are the numerous families strolling down the famous Mutanabbi Street in the evenings, the heart of the Iraqi publishing industry and a dream destination for Arab book lovers.

In the years before the protests, the street was dark and deserted at night, but now it is brightly lit. People walk past flute players, booksellers and confectioners – and the entrance to the old teahouse where the portraits are displayed of the owner's four sons and one grandson killed by a car bomb in 2006. Another site of horror.

A few metres further down the street, people are crowding onto a pleasure steamer that sails up and down the Tigris late into the night. Just as if nothing had happened.

Lena Bopp

@ Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung/ 2023

Translated from the German by Ruth Martin