The view across the Tigris River from the eighth floor of the Babylon Hotel reveals a telling mise-en-scène: As a giant neon billboard that adorns the gleaming 32-story Baghdad Mall flashes the Iraqi flag in between ads for Coca-Cola, the ghost of the late Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid looms large over her adjacent tower in progress. Commissioned in 2010 to be the headquarters for the Central Bank of Iraq and a symbol of a “new era,” it’s not yet finished, and the Australian engineer whose company helped build it is still languishing in Iraqi prison after a dispute about payment.
Perhaps Hadid is conversing with the phantom of Semiramis, whose spirit surely pervades the Iraq Museum’s newly refurbished Assyrian Gallery, about the challenges of building riverside palaces. The fate of the opulent three-story, marble-floored, 1970s Semiramis Cinema — named after the Assyrian queen — is instructive. Located on Sadoun Street a few hundred meters from the banks of the Tigris, it survived the embargo-era closure of movie theaters when film processing chemicals were blocked at the border. But it succumbed to post-invasion chaos and violence, shutting down in 2007. It’s now become a drugstore, and Iraq, always cinematic in scope, has become a weird movie: a hybrid of biblical epic, Hollywood war flick, and black comedy. Two decades after U.S. Marines toppled a statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square, the spirits of Hadid and Semiramis are likely observing the scene with bemused concern and possibly even a glimmer of hope.
Although it has fallen off the international news cycle, Baghdad is booming, high on rising oil prices and full, once again, of neo-Abbasid, petroleum-fueled aspirations. The ziggurat-shaped Babylon Hotel — originally built for the seventh summit of the Non-Aligned Movement, which was scheduled for 1982 but foiled by the eight-year war with Iran — is now full of Iranian pilgrims and Chinese businessmen. A concurrent influx of foreign tourists is serviced by the same fixers who once worked for international journalists. Traces of damage from a bomb blast during the 2010 elections and another in 2015 have been erased by a brand-new swimming pool and spa.
Importantly, thanks to new anti-money laundering legislation introduced by Prime Minister Mohammed al-Sudani, funds are being funneled not only into hotels and real estate but also into new cultural enterprises. Iraqi governments have, in fact, been promising to increase state funding for some time now, even pledging to build a long-awaited opera house. But it’s unclear whether any national funding on offer for the arts — a tiny slice of the overall state budget of $153 billion — will go toward real projects rather than just Ministry of Culture salaries. Luckily, a mercenary free market is there to step in.
So what does culture in Iraq look like in 2023?
A mercenary free market steps in
Amid the ever-widening gap between the rich and poor, pre-invasion cultural traditions have given way to late capitalist realities. Slick new galleries sell commercial art to foreign ambassadors and Iraqis returning from abroad, even as the old gallery scene that once flourished in the riverside district of Abu Nawas has slowly dried up. The celebrated Dijla Art Gallery, started by Zainab Mahdi in her British colonial-era home in 1997, was forced to close as the neighborhood became home to squatters and militia headquarters. Now, she sells by appointment solely to private collectors. Meanwhile, the crumbling Ottoman- and colonial-era villas in the area face new threats from real estate developers as the property market heats up.
Downriver from the old gallery, neo-Abbasid neon archways announce Dijlah Village, a complex of international restaurants that opened last fall, where patrons can enjoy a stroll along the river after supper. It is a strange hologram of an actual Dijlah (the Arabic word for Tigris) village. Guarded by an armed security detail and full of well-heeled diners seated in Gio Ponti-inspired interiors, it appears to have been airlifted from Dubai to Karradeh. The only clue that one is still in Baghdad comes after viewing the Fantasia-like light show illuminating sparkling blue and pink fountains of river water along the Tigris — as well as flares from the Dora Refinery — that leave the faint smell of sewage in the air.
A few miles north, the Iraqi Museum of Modern Art is still recovering from the post-invasion looting of its 8,000-piece collection. Pioneering Iraqi artist Shakir Hassan al-Said’s 1970s-era Death to Colonialism is one of the few works from the golden age of Iraqi art still on display. Today, however, Iraq’s artistic legacy faces a new kind of looting: counterfeiting and illicit trafficking. Said’s family in particular has disputed the legitimacy of a work currently on sale at a Baghdad gallery.
Freedom of expression in the new Iraq
Regardless, the international market for Iraqi art continues unabated. At a tony new art gallery in Karradeh, built by the scions of the private banking consortium Handal, a few of the old guard mix with the nouveau riche. While an artist returning from decades in North American exile waxed rhapsodic to a foreign ambassador about his Disney-esque takes on traditional Iraqi motifs, veteran actor and playwright Haitham Abdulrazzak spoke of edgier truths in a quiet corner.
Abdulrazzak’s latest play, entitled “The Disease of Democracy,” critiques the corruption and chaos of the American intervention and its aftermath. But even in the “new Iraq,” he said, “there are still red lines you can’t cross. You can’t talk about the religious hierarchies or the militias.” If anyone does take on the theme of corruption, he explained, “you can only be very general, not specific.”
The serious theater scene that had flourished even during the embargo, when former Communist and left-leaning playwrights who had escaped the Baathist purges of the 1960s and 1970s (as the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency helped supply names and addresses) produced plays about poverty, women’s rights, and subtle critiques of the regime, has disappeared. “Now it’s mainly comedies and cabaret,” he said.
Intriguingly, there seems to be a bit more freedom of expression in the world of television dramas. Abdulrazzak’s current project is a TV series called “The Cave.” In a sci-fi vision of the future that reverses traditional ideas of heaven and hell, he plays an engineer tasked with building a new city underneath Baghdad. “A happy city,” he said, unlike the actual Baghdad, where the voices of the few remaining protestors calling for jobs and basic services are drowned out by the construction sounds of unaffordable towers and shiny new shopping malls.
Much of his own work, he noted, is performed abroad, in France and Germany. He’s currently working on another play about “democracy,” he told me, that takes the Iraqi example to a more universal level where globally, “democracy is just a cover for the rich to get richer.”
A 2004 play of Abdularazzk’s entitled “I’m Sorry Sir, I Didn’t Mean That” speaks to issues of freedom of expression. In a pivotal scene, a young student asks him, “What does freedom mean?” but he is unable to answer. The play won first prize at a Cairo festival yet was not performed in Baghdad. It caught the attention of French and German directors and launched his international career.
When I asked him whether there is freedom now in Iraq, he responded: “Is there freedom anywhere? There are red lines everywhere. In America, they export freedom and democracy with violent military interventions.”
Iraqi culture under siege
“It has never been easy for artists in Iraq,” Saadi Youssef told me when I interviewed him in 2005. The late elder statesman of Iraqi culture, whose famous poem “America America" remains a defiant cultural anthem ("America let us exchange your gifts. [...] Take the stripes of your flag and give us the stars.") knew whereof he spoke. He was persecuted and imprisoned for his Communist Party membership in the 1960s and 1970s, as well as for his outspoken poetry.
As Youssef pointed out to me, there was a brief golden age for the arts in Iraq, which roughly coincided with the reign of Saddam’s predecessor, Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr. Until his resignation, in 1979, revenues from the newly nationalized oil industry were funneled into public art, literary magazines, theaters, and galleries, as well as a successful campaign to eliminate illiteracy.
Things began to change, he told me, as Saddam rose to power. Hundreds of thousands of young men were sacrificed on the battlefield with Iran, and cultural resources were drained for the war chest. The 13 years of draconian sanctions that followed Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 made life miserable for Iraqi civilians while entrenching the regime’s power, and posed new challenges for Iraq’s artists. “But now [that is, in 2005],” he sighed with melancholic resignation, decrying the lack of security post-invasion and the end of the once-secular state, “this is the worst it’s ever been.”
It’s relatively safer now in 2023, but there is a growing sense of erasure, as if the years of strife have imposed a kind of self-censorship and an intellectual vacuum. Iraqi culture as it once was has vanished like many of its ancient sites and modernist monuments, bulldozed for new roadways and shopping malls.
Film stars and a facelift for the Al Rashid Theatre
Meanwhile, at the Al Rashid Theatre, damaged by American bombs in 2003 and pillaged by local looters, it has taken 20 years for reconstruction to begin. Ahmed Hassan Moussa, the director-general of theater and cinema at the Ministry of Culture, hopes that repairs initiated by volunteers in 2016 and spearheaded by former Culture Minister Abdulameer Hamdani in 2019 will be completed in time for a big international theater festival in the fall.
The evening I visited, the last night of a national film festival was in full swing. A red carpet lined the newly refurbished marble-floor lobby, and paparazzi swarmed Iraqi film stars. Ayad Abd al-Hussein, a young filmmaker from Karbala, won third prize at the festival for an animated short about a street child who longs for a better life.
Hussein explained that the issue of child poverty is an acceptable subject, but he cannot touch on corruption in the religious hierarchies of the holy city, where shrines to Imam Hussein and other venerated Shi’a figures draw millions of religious pilgrims every year. Still, Hussain, who studied animation in Dubai, is happy to have won the prize and is at work on a feature-length film.
First prize at the festival went to a Kurdish film, “The Wind Girl,” by Erbil-based Dara Karim, which recounts the story of an old couple who stumble upon a mass grave near their village. Baghdad filmmaker Ouday Abdul Karim received the second prize for a movie called “Still Life.” The plot concerns an artist who eventually realizes that everyone whose portrait he paints dies, leading him to give up painting altogether.
Regardless of whether this plotline is symbolic of the struggles of Iraqi artists, critic Mahdi Abbas explained that definite taboos are at play when filmmaking in Iraq. “In theory,” he noted, “there is no official censorship now, but if you write a script criticizing religious people or militias, you could be killed. Only Iraqi filmmakers outside of Iraq can make such films, not those who live here.” While it is acceptable to make films documenting the sins of the Saddam era, the same is not true for the current regime, he pointed out. According to Abbas, “Iraqi filmmakers, they know their limits. They know where and how to work.”
Although Baghdad’s educational institutions — once the finest in the Arab world — are still recovering from the post-invasion assassination campaign against professors and intellectuals, the Fine Arts College continues to attract scores of eager students. However, a $300 million transformation of Saddam’s old palaces near the airport into the new American University of Iraq-Baghdad (AUIB) campus, funded by a single Iraqi family, speaks to more current trends. Just as Saddam sought to rebuild Baghdad as a neo-Abbasid capital in 1982, the AUIB campus is inspired by the House of Wisdom and Mustansiriya Madrasah, medieval centers of learning.
Down at the historic Mutanabbi Street — recently restored by the same private banking consortium behind the aforementioned Karradeh art gallery and a nearby internet cafe — there are still glimpses of the old literary scene. As beggars waited outside grandiose Abbasid-style gates, a young bookseller told me that his most popular item is Ahmed Sadaawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad, a 2018 novel that reimagines Frankenstein’s monster as a reanimated corpse seeking revenge on the instigators of sectarian violence in post-invasion Baghdad.
While the same red lines exist for writers as for filmmakers, it is the arena of social media that has been subject to a major crackdown by the authorities in recent years. After the Ministry of Interior launched a web platform in January to denounce “immoral content,” more than a dozen bloggers and influencers have been arrested for videos deemed “indecent.” Many see this as a symptom of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s influence and an effort to appease Iranian-funded militias.
Things look brighter for Baghdad’s music scene, since the post-invasion militia violence against Western-style orchestras has diminished, while both foreign and state funding have increased.
Ahmed Salim is a master oud player, manager of the Music and Ballet School, and director of the Institute of Music. The latter is in the Ottoman-era former British consulate (where Gertrude Bell used to stay) on Rashid Street that has just been restored with support from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). After a tour of the new facilities — where great pains have been taken to restore teak columns from Burma at a time when the British, not the Americans, were the great imperialists — and a former jail that has been converted into a rehearsal space, Salim took me to a special student oud competition at the Al Rabat Theatre. There is much less security today than there was in the aftermath of the invasion, when the Iraqi National Orchestra played under armed guard, and post-ISIS cultural projects have helped music resume its rightful place in Iraqi society. However, this music is predominantly comprised of politically inoffensive pop and instrumental music, as opposed to the songs of protest routinely posted anonymously on social media.
That night, the special guest was Naseer Shamma, and the young students competing all hailed from his House of Oud project, which aims to preserve and promote traditional music. After the UNESCO Artist for Peace and oud master delivered a speech on the triumph of Iraqi culture in the wake of ISIS, several students — both Iraqis and recently arrived Syrian refugees — duked it out for first prize. It was refreshing to see young men competing with ouds rather than being recruited into militias.
In the audience was Ali Khassaf, one of three conductors at the Iraqi National Orchestra, and one of its youngest members, a 15-year-old violinist who calls himself “Murtadha, the Prince” and vows to one day become a star. Youthful enthusiasm aside, at a rehearsal the next day at the Music and Ballet School, a bit down at the heels from its 1970s heyday, the reality was more sobering. Orchestra members told me that — due to rising inflation in Iraq and just like in the dog days of the embargo when the dinar devalued by 1,000% — they still had to work three jobs to make ends meet.
Dreaming of Baghdad in Kurdistan
Nevertheless, Sulaymaniyah-based Kurdish oud player Majid el-Khaledi, who once taught Salim and hails from Adhamiya, said he longs to return to Baghdad. He explained that due to the economic crisis in Kurdistan, caused by the loss of oil revenues in the latest deal with Baghdad, “there’s much more work for musicians in Baghdad. It’s the cosmopolitan capital city after all.”
Moreover, Kurdistan has its own issues with freedom of expression, as documented by many human rights organizations. Although Khaledi traveled to Paris to record a song about cultural resistance to terror, at home he is confined to playing at private, all-male parties for doctors and dentists, accompanying traditional singers who mainly perform nationalist maqams (or melodic modes) about the glories of Kurdistan.
Even veteran Kurdish artist Osman Ahmed, whose enduring subject is the genocide and who once gave art classes to the children of Kurdish independence fighters, maintained there is more funding for artists in Baghdad than in Kurdistan. “I would love to have a show there,” declared Ahmed, who lived and trained in London for decades. His detailed pen and ink drawings powerfully depicting the Kurdish genocide enjoy more popularity in the West than in Sulaymaniyah.
The glories of the past and hopes for the future
Meanwhile, the Mosul Museum has officially begun its post-ISIS rehabilitation, with architectural plans respecting the original vision of Mohammed Makiya, who designed the modernist building in the early 1970s, before falling out of favor with the regime and fleeing Iraq. Additionally, a new exhibition in the adjacent Royal Hall features recent archaeological finds in Nineveh. In the south, the Basrah Museum, whose first gallery opened in 2016 and new library opened in 2020, doggedly continues with its exhibitions and educational programs in the face of ongoing funding challenges.
At the Iraq Museum, the new director, Luma Yas al-Duri, plans to expand the educational programs, while the recently refurbished Assyrian Gallery is a jewel among the many impressive rooms. Once a symbol of the cultural destruction wrought by the 2003 invasion, the museum, which officially reopened last year after a three-year hiatus amid the protest movement, is a promising example of Iraq’s ongoing, if fragile, cultural renewal.
For now, the ghosts of Semiramis and Zaha Hadid, not to mention the indomitable Lamia al-Gailani — the late, great archaeologist who fought for the Iraq Museum’s survival — will have much to discuss.
In a nation where contemporary cultural development has been historically tied to the price of oil, one hopes that some of the golden age of 1970s state investment in the arts will soon rematerialize — both as a counterbalance to the vagaries of the free market and as a boon to an ancient culture rising again from the ashes of three decades of destruction.
Hadani Ditmars is the author of Dancing in the No-Fly Zone: A Woman’s Journey Through Iraq, a past editor at New Internationalist, and has been reporting from the Middle East on culture, society, and politics for two decades. Her book in progress, Between Two Rivers, is a travelogue of ancient and sacred sites in Iraq.
Main photo by Khalil Dawood/Xinhua via Getty Images
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