By Maura James
You may have noticed the ‘Reel Iraq’ film festival badge Strife hosted on the blog over the past week. Thursday I attended the festival launch which featured the documentary, ‘The Dreams of Sparrows’ directed by Haydar Daffar. Daffar chronicles 2003, the year of the US led invasion, in Baghdad Iraq, his home town. The film was very moving, and I encourage readers to view it. What I would like to share, though, is my experience Friday, when I participated in ‘Art, War and Peace: Responses to the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq’. The day-long conference featured Iraqi artists from the diaspora and was moderated by Dr Alan Ingram (UCL). The talks were presented by artists featured in the exhibition ‘Geographies of War: Iraq Revisited’
The first talk presented by Rashad Selim titled ‘Separation, Outflow and Attitudes of Return’, set the tone for the day. Selim, like all of the artists present, is a diaspora Iraqi artist. His talk focused on a sense of entanglement and loss that he feels as an Iraqi artist and that Iraq is currently experiencing. Throughout history, Iraq and Mesopotamia was the bed of civilisation. Art and culture flowed from there to the rest of the world, but today there is an outflow and talent drain that is leaving Iraq. Selim is very concerned about the cultural identity of exchange that has been threatened by the wars and turmoil in the land for the past fifty years. His talk was depressing, but Selim is focused on creating points of connection in his art to revive the historical exchange. Though Mesopotamia is the cradle of civilisation, Selim noted that the cradle can be the grave.
Satta Hashem described how his identity as an Iraqi was intertwined in his artwork because, according to Hashem, art reflects experience. As a youth he was tortured and forced to flee Iraq to go to school in Algeria. After university he returned to northern Iraq and became a partisan for three years before leaving Iraq in 1978. In 1991 his family, still living in Iraq, lost everything as a result of the first Gulf War. During the first Gulf War he was constantly watching the footage coming out of Iraq and he spoke to his family regularly. Much of his work reflects the horror of that time and his feelings of dislocation and despair. Unlike the other artists, Hashem called the American invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq the ‘liberation’ of Iraq. He, like others, highlighted the recent history of violence in his homeland but emphasised the repressiveness of Sadam’s regime.
The afternoon sessions featured Nadje Al-Ali, a Gender Studies professor at SOAS and Hana Malallah, another diaspora Iraqi artist. Al-Ali just published the book We are Iraqis: Aesthetics and Politics in a Time of War which explores the ways in which Iraqi artists and activists produce art and activism and resist destruction. Malallah fled Iraq in 2007. As a recent refugee, a lot of her art focuses on, what she calls, the ‘cycle of ruin’. She watched her country rebuild after the first Gulf War only to be destroyed again during the US led invasion in 2003. She looks to create violence in her art to reflect the destruction around her. After Malallah presented her work and story, some in the audience were quite offended with her portal of ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’. She in no way endorsed or commended Sadam Hussein in her discussion. Since she was forced to flee her country during the American led invasion, though, it is clear that she does not support the current state of affairs which she sees as a result of invasion and occupation.
It was very interested to hear the exchange between Malallah and other audience members. The discussion got quite passionate, and Ingram had to step in to stop the talk from descending into shouting. The discussion on Friday between those who viewed the operation as an invasion and those who viewed it as a liberation illuminates the complexities of the Iraqi people and the core of the debate. A skit from ‘The Dreams of Sparrows’ articulates these nuances. Daffar interviews a female filmmaker in his documentary. She talks of the censorship under Sadam and how artists were forced to produce propaganda for the regime or be jailed. Daffar points to a picture of George W. Bush in her living room and asks her why it is there. She says she loves George Bush. ‘And the Americans?’ Daffar asks, ‘How do you like life under the Americans?’ The artist responded by saying, ‘Sadam was bad. The Americans are bad. It is all bad.’
The sectarian violence that now grips Iraq and the weak democracy that is in place does not give anyone much hope for the future of the country. As an American, the whole festival was somewhat surreal. Many of the European attendees had opposed the Iraq war since before it began. There were massive protests across the world in opposition to the invasion. It just was not like that in the US, of course there was opposition but not in the same way. One was unpatriotic or did not support the troops if one did not buy into the Iraq war as an integral battle in the War on Terror. I was young, and I opposed the war, probably because my parents opposed it. Ten years later, though, it does not feel very good to be able to say ‘I told you so’.