Iraq's scars of war

In a dark corner of a dingy courtyard, four stocky warriors with disproportionately tiny heads and huge, muscular arms stand with their backs against the wall. They wear thick vests — like flak jackets or breastplates — decorated with circles and strips, and knee-high boots with metal caps. Weapons dangle from their waists.
One wears a two-horned helmet and carries a round shield. A huge crescent-shaped sword rests against his shoulder.

They look like a jihadi group posing for a beheading video or the latest fashion show in an American sex shop; in fact they are 10cm-high bronze figurines called The Invaders, the latest in a series of sculptures produced by an Iraqi artist trying to come to terms with the everyday realities of his life in Baghdad.

‘The first three are American Marines, the fourth is a Mongol warrior,’’ says Karim Khalil (45), an Iraqi painter-sculptor. ‘They have all occupied Iraq and destroyed its culture. But while the Mongols were primitive savages who burned the libraries, the Americans, who call themselves a civilised nation, stood watching as the Iraqi museums were looted.’‘

Artists are emerging from the atrophied, censorious Saddam Hussein years, from the distortions of taste provoked by state patronage and control and the horizons foreshortened by sanctions, and are beginning to document what is around them.

In the courtyard of his small house in an impoverished Baghdad neighbourhood, where kids play around open sewage drains and electricity is as scarce as security, Khalil, chubby, bald and sweating like a boar, sits at the bottom of the stairs and paints another of his war scenes: a burning tank surrounded by red, orange and green flames applied with childish strokes on canvas. ‘A burning tank on the outskirts of Baghdad one day in May inspired me to do this,’’ he says.

Another painting, showing a jet fighter dropping bombs and called Falluja, lies in a corner, next to marble blocks and unfinished statues, under a laundry line strung with towels and underwear. In another corner a big plastic barrel used to store water during shortages sits next to an outdoor toilet and more paintings and statues. His wife has to step over piles of brushes and paint on her way to the kitchen.

There, in the middle of the domestic chaos, Khalil has produced his best work, A Man From Abu Ghraib: a series of a dozen 20 to 30cm-high marble and bronze figurines. A marble figure of a man, classically sculpted, at first reminds you of Michelangelo’s David; it’s only later that you realise he has a marble sack on his head.

Another figurine — of bronze — depicts one of the more famous Abu Ghraib pictures, a man also wearing something like a sack over his head, standing on a box, with electrical wires attached to his fingers.

‘I am an artist trying to document the tragedies in my country,’’ says Khalil. ‘I would love to paint flowers and happy life but go out to the street and tell me where can I find these.’‘

Unlike many other artists who flourished under Hussein by producing what was known then as ‘Presidential Art’’ — ranging from the mammoth presidential palace to gigantic Darth Vader-like heads of Hussein — Khalil preferred impoverishment. ‘I never did anything for the regime and as you see I prefer this to selling my soul like the others.’‘

The dilemma of Iraqi art started long before Hussein, when artists became official state functionaries paid and sponsored by the government. Later, under Hussein, the only form of art permitted to exist was state art.

The nation’s art slid further when artists were required to glorify the regime, positioning the omnipresent leader at the centre of everything, showing the history of Iraq as an epic drama of war and victory wrapped around his figure. Long years of sanctions added insult to injury: though the state still demanded that artists work for it, it stopped the generous rewards, and they had to look elsewhere for their income.

One of the artists who has to improvise new ways is Ahmad al-Safi, a young, wannabe-Bohemian artist who lives in a two-room studio in central Baghdad, surrounded by piles of sculptures, paintings, beer cans and dirty sheets. When official art lost its glamour because of the sanctions, a new class of chickens with golden eggs appeared: foreign workers, from the United Nations and NGOs, and journalists. All wanted to go back home with a couple of Iraqi paintings and a carpet, the trophies of having been to Baghdad under sanctions. With half a dozen galleries opening next to the UN compound, it felt as though a renaissance had swept through the art market.

‘Before the war the situation was very difficult, with lots of artists producing and very few UN staff buying; we couldn’t get good prices,’’ says Al-Safi. ‘After the war the art market went into a very good period, there were lots of journalists and NGO workers, all with lots of money. But now everything has collapsed — after the terrorist attacks everyone left, and we can’t go to galleries any more because we fear attacks from religious extremists, and lots of my friends, writers and so on, are being intimidated by people like the Mahdi army.’‘

Writers, too have had their share of suffering. Under Hussein most ended up writing poems glorifying the ‘leader’‘, or hiding behind allegorical myths and fictions if they ever wanted to talk about the ‘Beast’‘.

In one of Baghdad’s oldest tea houses, where for the past 100 years writers, journalists and intellectuals have met and talked over glasses of sweet tea and shisha pipes, two men sit around a table covered with cups and empty cigarette packs. One, Mohamad al-Bardi, is tall, in his 30s, and wearing a pair of glasses that make him look like a Russian revolutionary from the 1920s. He is talking in a monotonous voice, stopping only to beg for cigarettes from passers-by.

The other, Ahmad al-Thair, older and much more patient, is writing down what the young man is saying: ‘Socrates, Buddha and Muhammad were all one person who was given different characteristics by different groups in history according to the time and place, reflecting the real desires of humanity in me and you ...’’

After filling several pages with the young man’s ranting, Al-Thair stops, sips some tea and says: ‘He is the last remaining crazy philosopher.’‘

Al-Thair himself is not much saner, a self-proclaimed head of the writers’ union, a poor journalist in his 50s who dwells in cheap hotels and lives on falafel and hummus. But for him art is going through a very important period.

‘Lots of us were optimistic when we saw the Americans. We thought the days of censorship were over and we would have democracy, but with the Americans came their tanks and barbed wire and again we feel imprisoned.’‘

He stops, inhales from his cigarette, looks around and whispers, ‘Worse than that, all those fundamentalists running around have accused me of blasphemy because I said that Muhammad was a Marxist and now no editor will take my articles. We got the freedom we were looking for but the same freedom is creating beasts. Lots of the writers who were writing for Saddam are writing now for the new political parties.’‘

In the disintegrating Iraq of today writers are still trying to produce plays, short stories and novels. For them Hussein’s oppression and the United States occupation are sources of inspiration. But those who have done the best by far are soap-opera writers and directors. At least half a dozen satirical soap operas have been produced in the past six months, and they have similar, and very popular, storylines about ordinary Iraqis surviving in a city riddled with car bombs. Lovers often meet in the shadows of US tanks.

A few weeks ago an Iraqi TV director invited me to a shoot taking place in a hospital. I went inside. Everything was as normal as an Iraqi hospital can be. It was dark, hot and in one of the corridors there was a typical postwar Baghdad scene: three policemen and a couple of men with blood on their faces and torn shirts. ‘Victims of a suicide attack?’’ asked a doctor. ‘No, actors waiting for the director,’’ answered a nurse.

The crew moved into a ward under the cameras and floodlights, relics of the golden age of the Iraqi Broadcasting Corporation.

Two policemen stood either side of an ‘injured’’ man and interrogated him about an alleged attempt to break into an Iraqi army depot. Then a ‘doctor’’ entered and complained that instead of treating victims from a car bomb he had to treat the ‘criminal’‘.

‘Iraq is filled with negative stories: everything is bad; the health system is bad, electricity is scarce, water is polluted, the police are corrupt and all these things are oxygen for a satirist,’’ said one of the actors, whose face was covered in fake blood.

‘The art of satire is something new in our country,’’ said Jalal Kamil, the leading Iraqi actor and director who is behind this series, ‘and the potential is great. For the first time we can work without fear of the censors.’’ He went on and on about this great potential, the great drama that can be found anywhere in Iraq these days.

Then, as he left he turned and said, ‘What I have learned, however, is that I am not allowed to make jokes about the Americans or to criticise the occupation.’’ —

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