"Iraq is full of inspiring stories"

At the end of November, a squad of young cultural creatives from all over Iraq met in Erbil, in the country’s north. Their work spans the fault lines that run through Iraqi society, and draws parallels to the revolution in Baghdad and in the country as a whole. Christopher Resch reports from Erbil

By Christopher Resch

Lanah Haddad can’t stop talking. People are crowding around her in the Ala Center in Erbil, northern Iraq; the stream hardly ever stops. In Kurdish, Arabic, English and German, the archaeologist and artist explains the board game she has invented, which is called "The Assyrian Empire". In the game, players battle for power and influence as the Assyrian kings Ashurbanipal or Sennacherib.

The Assyrians controlled the region’s fate until around the 6th century BC. The fertile land of Mesopotamia – the country that lay between the Euphrates and the Tigris – was far more advanced than the Europe of that time. In its heyday, the Assyrian empire was one of the high cultures of the ancient Orient.

In Germany, a historical board game is likely to attract rather less interest. But in Iraq, the timing couldn’t be better: more and more people in the country are starting to reflect on their shared history. "The game is designed to provide a bridge to their common heritage," says Lanah Haddad.

Discovering what they have in common, overcoming divisions: this is also one of the slogans of the protests in Baghdad and many other cities in central and southern Iraq. The demonstrators want an end to corruption, violence and religious divisions; they are demanding jobs, prospects, reliable electricity and clean water.

Two different worlds

Erbil and Baghdad are an hour’s plane ride apart, but on this Saturday in late November, they feel like two different worlds. In Baghdad, hundreds of thousands of people are taking to the streets, while Erbil feels quiet and almost a bit boring. But only at first glance. In the Ala Center, a cultural centre owned by the youth organisation of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, which is full of nooks and crannies and has its own garden and cafe, 20 or so artists from all over the country are showing their work.

Establishing links with a common heritage: Iraqi artist and archaeologist Lanah Haddad presents The Assyrian Empire (photo: Christopher Resch)
Brücke zum gemeinsamen historischen Erbe: Die irakische Künstlerin und Archäologin Lanah Haddad hat das Brettspiel "The Assyrian Empire" konzipiert, in dem die Spieler als assyrische Könige Assurbanipal oder Sanherib um Macht und Einfluss kämpfen.

There are films, comics, music and theatre, and anyone who spends a whole day looking at the work, talking to the artists and mixing with the crowd will gain a good insight into Iraq’s lively cultural scene. The Goethe Institut has funded all these projects with its "Spotlight Iraq" programme.

 Breaking with long-held traditions

22-year-old Sarah al-Zubaidi, for example, wants to encourage the love of theatre in her hometown of Karbala. The city is hugely significant in religious and historical terms, due to the battle of Karbala in the year 680 – but living a modern life enriched by culture there is difficult, says al-Zubaidi, especially for women. "My theatre project is also designed to show that we need to break with some of these long-held traditions. At the moment, social restrictions are stopping women from following their goals, and even from participating in social life."

That is exactly what prompted Huda al-Kadhimi to return to her homeland. She grew up in Amman, because her family felt the tensions between Sunnis and Shias had become too great.

In 2006, al-Qaida began to ramp up these tensions with targeted terror attacks. “A lot of people have asked me why I came back – everything is just a big mess here. But even if life would have been simpler as a refugee in Europe, Iraq is full of inspiring stories that I want to tell.” Today, she works as a filmmaker, and her current project tells the story of three Arab women fleeing their home.

Eighty eight projects applied for Goethe Institut grants, which were only intended to provide seed funding, says Thomas Koessler. He is the head of the Goethe office in Iraq, which is based in Erbil. In the end, 24 were chosen. "The funding pot is not huge; we had a total of 80,000 euros to distribute. It was more about providing impetus, and saying: you can get something off the ground quickly here, without too much bureaucracy."

Spotlight Iraq an on-going project

Spotlight Iraq intends to fund more projects in the coming year, but the Goethe Institut sees its mission increasingly in motivating Iraqi partners to support exciting ideas themselves. “It isn’t the case that there isn’t any money in Iraq generally. The money is there, including in the Iraqi culture ministry.” The problem is that the processes for awarding financial support are far from transparent.

Hussein Muttar in Erbil (photo: Christopher Resch)
Hussein Muttar: "Die Leute werden nicht nach Hause gehen, wir werden nicht weglaufen. Auch im Irak gilt das Gesetz, wir sind nicht in einem Dschungel, wir leben nicht mehr in einer Diktatur, und Saddam Hussein ist nicht mehr unter uns."

Money trickles away – this is an everyday problem in Iraq, which is theoretically a rich country. Corruption, religious divisions, unemployment and lack of prospects: the problems in Iraq have been the same for a long time. The artists here in the Ala Center have either incorporated them into their work, or are affected by them themselves: many have graduated from Iraqi universities or are still studying, but can only dream of landing a well-paid job.

The spirit of Tahrir Square

The themes of the revolutionaries in the capital and other Iraqi cities are here in this room, too, finding their way into every conversation. The event was originally supposed to be held in Baghdad, but the security situation there was so unclear that the Goethe Institut moved it to Erbil at short notice.

The filmmaker Yasir Kareem regrets this fact, but also says: "That’s just one of the many contradictions in us, and in our country." In a short, fiery speech, he invokes the spirit of Tahrir Square: "To my mind, we’ve already won. On Tahrir Square I see the Iraq that I want, a homeland for all of us, at last." Huda al-Kadhimi agrees: "Everyone is united on Tahrir Square – here, we have finally overcome the divisions between Sunni and Shia or between north and south."

The resignation of prime minister Adil Abd al-Mahdi is the first step, says Hussein Muttar, a 21-year-old student. But others have to follow, because of the massacre in Nasiriyah, because of the tear-gas cartridges deliberately fired at people’s heads, because of the brutal violence of groups supporting Iran since day one of the revolution.

"People aren’t going to go home, we won’t run away. There are laws here in Iraq, too, we’re not in the jungle, we don’t live in a dictatorship any longer and Saddam Hussein is no longer with us. We aren’t just going to give up our rights."

Christopher Resch

© Qantara.de 2019

Translated from the German by Ruth Martin