It is said that when Baghdad was sacked by the Mongols in 1258, the river Tigris ran red one day with the blood of those killed, and black the next with the ink of their books. Artistic expression, in the form of poetry, music and literature, remains prominent in the Iraqi cultural identity.
Iraqi people celebrate poetry and music and view it as a vent for their pain and sorrow as well as for their hope and wisdom. Sadness is prevalent in Iraqi art. And that is no surprise to those familiar with its history.
ENDLESS WARS AND HUNGER
In the last 50 years, Iraq has lived through many wars and atrocities that have harmed not only its people but also the social fabric of a land that is the birth place of so many ancient civilisations. August 2nd was the 25th anniversary of the 1990 invasion of Kuwait by the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussain. At the time, the Iraqi army was just coming out of a futile and devastating war with Iran that lasted 8 years (1980–1988). The sheer length and brutality of the war resulted in half a million casualties and several billion dollars’ worth of damage.
Two years after the end of that disastrous war, Saddam Hussain decided to engage in another war — the consequences of which would be shouldered almost exclusively by the Iraqi people for years to come. A few months after Iraq invaded Kuwait, in 1991, an international coalition was formed, and in less than a year Saddam Hussain was pushed out. The consequences were disastrous. The ensuing international sanctions were so heavy that they led to mass starvation and severe disruption to medical supplies. The UN eventually removed the sanctions describing them as a near genocidal policy. Iraq had to pay a war debt of $53 billion, to which it still allocates 5% of its oil revenue in reparation to Kuwait.
The sanctions and the 2003 US-led invasion left the country devastated, plagued by internal conflicts and sectarian tension. The legitimacy of state institutions has been continuously challenged especially with the spread of corruption and the lack of transparency. The deterioration of the Iraqi state has prepared the ground for terrorist organisations like the so called Islamic State to flourish. What I find startling is that while Iraq has the fifth biggest reserve of oil, almost 23% of its population is undernourished.
LITERATURE AND RESILIANCE
In spite of these atrocities, Iraqis continue to show resilience, tolerance and hope. One aspect of that is the cultural life which never ceases to flourish. In the face of war and poverty, Iraqi music and literature bring joy and hope to people’s hearts. There are two examples that I find particularly telling.
The Mutanabbi Street, in the city’s historic literary district is home to booksellers, printers, and cafés, and has been the meeting spot for Iraqi writers and intellectuals for centuries. In March 2007, a car bomb exploded in that very street killing at least 30 shop keepers and readers, while destroying many historical buildings and libraries. Such an attack, and the continuing threat of similar attacks, was thought to have annihilated the street’s spirit and cultural prominence. Yet, a year after, the Mutanabbi Street had already regained its charm and beauty, as well as its title of cultural hub of the Iraqi capital, attracting students, intellectuals and writers from all over the country
The other story is that of Kareem Wasfi, the head of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra. He plays his beautiful music in the streets of Baghdad in the aftermath of explosions to honour those who lost their lives and to help plant the seeds of hope among the people of the capital. Wasfi told Huffpost Arabi that he thinks of music as a powerful tool to resist terrorism and that hope resides in every aspect of our lives. In one particular performance following a car bombing that killed his journalist and friend Ammar al-Shahbandir, Wasfi only waited a few hours before picking up his cello and playing for him.
These are only two of many stories of resilience in Iraq. They are beacons of hope and beauty in the face of pain and despair.