June 6, 2006 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 279

The Revival of Cultural Life in Iraq

June 6, 2006 | By Dr. Nimrod Raphaeli*
Iraq | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 279
He is defenseless. He has nothing but a pen
in a forest of guns [1]
(Reference to the Iraqi poet Adnan al-Sa'igh)
They [Iraqis] have taught me the meaning of hope [2]
(Bassen Fayadth, Lebanese Film Producer)


The culture of a nation embodies institutions, values and norms of behavior that are rooted in its history and collective memory. For the Iraqis, that history is long and proud, extending back to the glory days of Babylon, one of the great civilizations of the ancient world - extending back even further, at least well into the third millennium B.C.

Iraqis often remind the world that their country is the "cradle of civilization." Within its present borders lay the ancient southern Mesopotamian city of Ur- birthplace of Abraham, and the even older Sumerian walled City of Uruk. On the land that was to become Iraq, the great Babylonian King Hammurabi constructed the obelisk which bears the earliest written legal code yet discovered; on this land archeologists have uncovered libraries of cuneiform tablets bearing, in Sumerian and Akkadian languages, the earliest written epic yet discovered -the epic of Gilgamesh. The culture of today's Iraqis - descendents of Sumerians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, Persian and Armenians - is a fabric woven of many threads.

Cultural Life Under the Saddam Regime

Under the Saddam regime culture was bureaucratized: all expressions of human creativity not in conformity with the totalitarian and capricious nature of the regime were suppressed, and the proponents of alternative views often paid the ultimate price for their "deviation." Cultural endeavors were overseen by a few Ba'th Party loyalists who decided what was suitable for publication and dissemination and what was to be ignored or sequestered. In the words of Sayyar al-Jamil, writing in the Iraqi liberal daily al-Zaman, the centralization of, and the control over, cultural life, had "produced chauvinistic enclosure and official, parrot-like dogmatic culture cast in molds prepared in advance in accordance with pre-ordained specifications." As a result, Iraqi intellectuals, writers and artists found themselves marginalized and distanced from the social order and the cultural endeavor for 40 years. [3]

In the process, the Iraqi masses were on the receiving end of "meager portions of defunct culture, fabricated propaganda, fiery hero-worshiping poems, fancy carnivals and political gatherings in the service of the dictates of the president and the political party." [4]

The 12-year sanctions on Iraq, following the invasion of Kuwait, have also contributed their share to the decline of the cultural life in Iraq. Writing in 2001 about the "The Cultural Scene in Iraq… Against the Siege" writer Nada Omran pointed out that the Iraqi man of letters was facing more than the struggle for survival. There was shortage of printing facilities coupled with sharp shortage in paper and printing material; for example, Iraq used to import 100,000 tons of paper per year, ultimately reduced to 10,000 tons per year, beginning August 1990. Many Iraqi writers, journalists, and artists were either unable or not allowed to travel to attend conferences or because other countries did not grant them entry visas. The cultural enrichment generated by encounters with other writers and artists outside Iraq had been limited to the few whose loyalty to the regime was not in doubt.

When Saddam's harsh measures against authors, poets, artists and the intelligentsia in general were combined with the consequences of the UN sanctions, the result was cultural atrophy.

The Post-Saddam Cultural Revival

The fall of the Saddam regime in April 2003 has brought with it unprecedented cultural vitality, despite an environment affected by constant acts of violence and terrorism, often directed against those who want to lead Iraq out of the dark tunnel of the past. Indeed, and ironically, it is partially the chaotic climate associated with weak or absent state institutions that has permitted the unprecedented freedom of cultural and artistic creativity. Although many writers, thinkers, novelists, artists and intellectuals fled or were forced into exile during the Saddam regime, many remained. Now, after years of being kept silent, the varied political, nationalist, and ethnic groups, are able, finally, to express themselves without restrictions or censorship but, regrettably, not entirely without fear.

Today, Christian writer Yohanna Daniel says: "We are at a new stage loaded, at least in theory, with good intentions and liberalizing and humane ideas." For despite the violence and the lack of security, "the cultural class" has flung open its doors to those who were, in the past, forbidden or afraid to enter. Without exaggeration, Daniel says, Iraq occupies a position second only to venerable Egypt in terms of the number of newspapers, journals, magazines, radio and TV stations, both public and private - and, in fact, Iraq is freer than Egypt in many respects. [5]

Predominance of Poetry

Historically in Iraq, poetry has always had predominance over playwriting and other forms of literature. It is a legacy of a tribal tradition which favored the spontaneity and improvisation of the poet reciting his poetry in public, often in praise of the ruler, as the highest form of artistic achievement.

Under the Saddam regime as well there were court poets who were paid generously to sing the praise of the leader who provided the central themes for nationalist and personal glorification. Thus the Iran-Iraq war was called al-Qadisiya - more often Qadisiyat Saddam - referring to the battle in which the Muslim Arabs defeated the Persian Sassanid Empire. The term um al-ma'rik (the mother of all wars) was employed to designate Saddam's army's heroic stand against the so-called 30-country coalition which expelled him from Kuwait. It was around these central themes that poetry on demand was woven to perpetuate the myth of Saddam's epic battles, and his regime employed the stratagem common to many totalitarian regimes of turning stories of aggression and defeat into epics of great proportions. On the other hand, though, some other, less official, forms of poetry continued to be composed under the Saddam regime, as poetry could use images that escaped the sharp eye of the censor

It is of course true that even in post-Saddam culture of freedom and openness, many of the magazines, professional journals and daily newspapers cannot possibly sustain themselves through subscriptions, advertising in a moribund economy, or the revenue generated by the sale of their products. It is only reasonable to assume that the funding of much of this publication activity is coming perhaps from across the border or through subsidies by the Ministry of Culture or other government agencies. Nevertheless, the Iraqi cultural life is going through a period of renewal and rejuvenation, often constrained, however, by fear of violence or retribution.

I. Cultural Periodicals

When one surveys the cultural landscape in the post-Saddam era one is struck by the diversity, quality, cultural scope, and analytical rigor of the many periodicals born since the regime's demise. In a recent dispatch, "Magazines Iraqis Read," [6] MEMRI introduced its readers to some of the periodicals that have proliferated during the past three years. The present special report will look at the broader cultural and artistic landscape. This survey is by no means all-inclusive but it is intended to provide the reader with some understanding of aspects of Iraqi life that may not be readily accessible to the Western reader in general, and the American reader in particular. It will offer a flavor also of what had been missing under a despotic regime which characterized freedom of expression and artistic freedom as pernicious if not as high treason.


The Mesopotamia periodical published by the Center for Iraqi National Studies is devoted to reviving and promoting Iraqi identity and culture. The editor is the playwright and novelist Salim Matar.

The most recent issue (no date provided) comprises issues Nos. 8 and 9 and is devoted to religion in Iraq, starting from the ancient Iraqi religions and discussing Shi'ite Islam, Sunni Islam, Sufism and Christianity, and ending with the religions of Sabeans, Yazidis, and Jews. The last chapter of the issue discusses such topics as "Religious Tolerance in the Iraqi Mind," "Religious Tolerance is a Humanist Demand," and "The Dialogue between Creeds and Religions." There are 63 articles in this issue.

An earlier issue of Mesopotamia - issue No. 2 - is devoted to the women of Iraq. The issue's editorial states, "There can be no doubt that Mesopotamian civilization would not have attained its historical distinction and left its fingerprints without the celestial presence of woman illuminating the skies of our history and our land." [7]

Al-Thaqafa al-Jadida (the New Culture)

This journal, first issued in 1953 (however, it is not clear whether it has been published since then regularly) addresses a broad range of topics - political, cultural, and economic. In the October 2005 issue, there are articles dealing with oil wealth as well as with oil theft, which is extensive and reported to be associated with Shi'ite militias in the south which, in turn, have ties to Iran. [8] There are also items on investment, business insurance, and views about the constitution and citizenship. The journal includes a comprehensive article about tribalism in Iraq by Fakher Jassim. In his introduction, Jassim writes:

The tribal phenomenon has occupied a large space in the Iraqi political thought both in terms of government and in terms of opposition so much so that no element of the political system is free of a tribal dimension whether positive or negative…The placing of the tribal consideration at the front of the public campaign in the current difficult circumstances leads to destructive results.

Jassim maintains that tribalization distorts the political actions. [9]

Al-Yanbou' (The Fountainhead)

Al-Yanbou' is a literary journal is issued in Erbil, Kurdistan. Sunoor Anwar's editorial, "Between Dialogue and Concessions," invokes the words of Iraq's best known historian and sociologist, the late Dr. Ali al-Wardi, that the domination of the idealistic or the poetic mentality on the minds of many of Iraq's educated class serves as a veil that prevents them from seeing things in a sound and rational manner that would otherwise bring a modicum of realism into their thinking and prevent them from falling into a simplistic mode of thinking of everything as positive and negative.

On the front page of the journal is an anonymous poem titled "Where Shall I Write your Name????" which may reflect the poet's longing for stability. The poet is powerful and deserves to be translated in full:

"Where Shall I Write your Name????"
I wrote the letters of your name in the sand, and they were washed away by the rain.
And I wrote them on the roads, and they were wiped away by feet.
And I wrote them in the air, and they were blown away by the wind.
And then I wrote them on people's faces, and they were lost to me.
I wrote them as tunes, and they flew away from me.
And again I wrote them in days, but the years erased them.
Shall I write it in the depths so it shall continue to pulse through the veins?
I wonder: Where shall I write your name??

The issue also carries an Arabic translation of Canadian singer Celine Dion's song "The Prayer." [10]

Gilgamesh (English)

Gilgamesh is quarterly containing articles translated from Arabic into English. It is published by the respected Dar al-Ma'moun publishing house in Baghdad and is edited by the Iraqi poet and writer Suhail Najm. The main article is written by the Iraqi anthropologist Hamid al-Hashemi, and it is about the late Iraq sociologist and historian Ali Al-Wardi.

The editorial is devoted to democracy and its victims in Iraq. It says that the Iraqis have determined to march in the path of democracy despite the many obstacles and despite much of the spilt blood because it is the only path to a civilized life.

The issue includes more than 10 articles on poetry, prose and art. One article researches the name of "Baghdad" in ancient languages; there is a short play by Sabah al-Anbary and a review of a book by Iraqi scientist Hussein al-Shahristani, "The Escape to Freedom." Dr. Shahristani has recently joined the new Iraqi cabinet as Minister of Oil. [11] According to Paul Bremer, Shahristani, a nuclear physicist who was trained in England and Canada, was imprisoned by Saddam "for 11 years for refusing to cooperate in the Baathists' secret nuclear weapons program." [12]

Al-Jandool Journal

The two most recent issues of al-Jandool available on the Internet are those of August and November 2004. This journal is issued in the Governorate of Qadisiya [south central Iraq] as a cultural/intellectual journal with an impressive list of members on the advisory board. In the August issue Hamid al-Hashemi analyzes "The Question of Violence in the Iraqi Personality." Drawing upon the work of the distinguished Iraqi sociologist Ali al-Wardi, [13] al-Hashemi suggests that "the tribal concepts and values rooted in common Bedouin [traditions] have had considerable influence… on the Iraqi personality in particular and the Arab personality in general."

The article presents Al-Wardi's theory that the Bedouin culture is characterized by three elements: (a) tribalism, (b) raiding, and (c) chivalry. Each of these elements is defined by the concept of "al-taghalub" or predominance. The Bedouin individual seeks to win over or predominate others by the force of his tribe, his personal strength and his sense of superiority.

Because of a lack of rules to protect him or adjudicate his conflicts with others, the Bedouin resorts to the use of force to avenge transgressions against him. The author refers to political demonstrations against the occupation forces in Iraq in which the demonstrators fire weapons in the air as if they were going to participate in a battle.

These values coincided with the militarization of the Iraqi society which has left "a heritage of means and culture of subordinating by force" those social and political elements which are perceived by the rulers as a threat to themselves Interestingly, the first recorded compulsory recruitment to an army was under the Babylon King Hammurabi (1792-1750 B.C.E.) and the first military coup in the Middle East was in Iraq in 1936.

One of the most important tasks of the Iraqi intelligentsia envisioned by the author is to spread the culture of tolerance and the supremacy of law, and renounce violence in all its forms. Above all, it will be important for the country to learn to substitute peaceful disagreements for armed confrontations by such means as the ballot box and the development of political parties and trade unions. [14] While the author does not touch upon it, it is obvious that such parties and unions ought to be open, democratic and, above all, competitive.

Hala (Welcome)

The first issue of Hala, an elegant and full-color journal, was published in Baghdad. It describes itself as a monthly journal concerned with unique characteristics of Iraqi culture. In her editorial, Iraqi playwright Lutfia al-Duleimi writes that the journal is one step in many for a national Iraqi cultural enterprise directed at confirming the characteristics and uniqueness of the multi-faceted culture and space that is "Iraqi in the geography of spirit and the geography of earth, water, mountain and desert."

The editorial secretary and fiction writer Hassan Karim 'Aati writes about Babylonian clay tablets dated 1000 B.C.E. that deal with the eternal relationship between the master and slave, the ruler and the ruled, between the authority and the individual and between the meaning and its interpretation in the memory of the repressed.

The short story writer Dr. Loui Hamza writes about the "fence" which is meant as an allegory of man's struggle with nature and with the phenomena of existence, death, and life's ebb and flow as if to say that man created fences to limit the size of the world around him at a time when the question of size was subject to endless speculations. [15]

Al-Naba (News)

This journal, issued by the Shi'ite News Agency, is devoted to a critical analysis of Arab and Western thought and the search for non-violence and moderation. In an editorial titled "The Iraqi Culture and the Horizons of Diversity," in issue No. 77, June 2005, editor Saleh Zamel argues that the silence of the educated and the escape of others during the Ba'th regime actively contributed to the creation of the dictator. He condemns the educated person who "embellished the tragedy and polished the picture of the dictator."

In the same issue, Sadeq Jawad Suleiman has written an article titled "From Current Extremism to Future Moderation," urging the shift from extremism to the middle road, from excessiveness to moderation, and from fanaticism to forgiveness." An article by Dr. Ahmad Rasem al-Nafis, titled "The fabrication of fact on our fabricated-upon history," discusses extremist television preacher Sheikh al-Qaradhawi as an extreme example of distortion of the truth.

Afkar (Thoughts)

This is an electronic magazine with a liberal bent. Its May 2006 issue carries an article by Abd al-Khaliq Hussein, a retired Iraqi physician and a prolific liberal writer who resides in England. In this article, titled "The Silence of the Educated [Intellectual] is a crime," Dr. Hussein writes:

Arab liberals are engaged in a ferocious intellectual battle against backwardness, deception, salafi tide, and the tyranny of political Islam. In the course of their struggle they [Arab liberals] face harassment, siege, banishment, and even physical liquidation by Islamist forces [acting] together with the despotic governments…Despotic Arab governments are responsible for the spread of extremist Islam.

Dr. Hussein compares those Arab governments that seek to undermine the nascent Iraqi democracy to the case of a seagoing ship with 100 sailors aboard, 99 of whom belong to one tribe and the hundredth belonging to a hostile tribe. The 99 sailors pray to Allah for the sinking of the ship so that the sailor from the hostile tribe will perish. [16]

Al-Adeeb Al-Iraqi (The Iraqi Man of Letters)

This journal is published by the General Federation of Iraqi Writers and is dedicated to the exploration of modern literature. The journal covers a variety of topics from plays to contemporary forms of prose and poetry. The issue carries an interesting article about how movie director Alfred Hitchcock viewed America. [17]

Ulum Insaniya (Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences)

This journal is bi-lingual. It publishes articles in all areas of humanities and social sciences in both Arabic and English. In the issue No. 28 (May 2006), there are four sections in Arabic and one in English. The Arabic sections are (a) History and Politics; (b) Economy and Business; (c) Social Sciences; and (d) Language and Culture. Articles published include D. Ismail al-Rubai' on "The Role of the Arab Intelligentsia Regarding the Ottoman Coup 1908-1914," D. Ahmad Abd Al-Fattah al-Zaki," Electronic Teaching - An Urgent Necessity in the Age of Technology of Informatics and Communications," and D. Jamal Hadhri, "The Genealogy of Names in the Arabic Language." [18]

Al-Khashaba (the Stage)

This journal focuses on issues related to the theatre. In the first issue of the magazine, May 16, 2006, an editorial bemoans the "tragic" conditions which prevent Iraq's cinema, theatre, and TV actors from finding work in their field and force them to spend their time under the heat of the sun searching for employment to meet the basic needs of their families.

The editorial eulogizes a well-known Iraqi theater star, Ja'far al-Sa'di, who passed away recently. Al-Sa'di "lived during the theater's flowering and during its destruction. He was among the first of those who retired under the previous regime in order not to lose the gratification of the theater in their souls or be forced to bargain over their culture and their art." [19]


This monthly, edited by Maysaloon al-Damloojy, is issued by the Iraqi Independent Women Assembly. "Noon," the Arabic letter equivalent to "N," is the first letter of the word "Nisaa" or "Women." Issue No. 12, published in February 2006, focuses primarily on the difficult status of women in Iraq and the ways to improve it. It also includes interviews with mothers who have lost their children in Saddam's war or to current violence and terrorism. [20]

Munathamat Bint al-Rafidayn

Another women's magazine is munathamat bint al-rafidayn [the Organization of the Daughter of Mesopotamia] whose mission is to give the women the opportunity to express themselves "without pressures or restrictions." It also seeks to encourage the participation of women in the social, cultural and political domains in keeping with the drive toward democratic transformation in a free civil society." Among the organization's recent activities:

  • The 9thcourse to support the democratic awareness of the Iraqi woman
  • A training course for observing the media intended for media personnel
  • Various courses on the family laws in the context of democracy
  • The publication of a pamphlet on "bint al-rafidayn"
  • Training courses on the computer and the internet [21]

The pamphlet "bint al-rafidayn" covers a wide range of topics such as mental health, the village woman, the civil society, and the family corner. [22]

Qadhaya Islamiyya Mu'assira (Contemporary Islamic Issues)

The double issue of the journal No. 31-32 (Winter-Spring, 2006) of Contemporary Islamic Issues was published by the Center for the Studies of the Philosophy of Religion in Baghdad. The central theme of the issue is "living together in an environment of diversity and difference" and fusing religious and cultural multiplicity. The recurrent theme in the journal is the requirement of a Muslim society to adjust to a changing world. A couple of quotations will illustrate the point. In one instance, the journal writes that

We live in a time in which choice and selection have replaced the surrender to fate. In the old days, one chose to follow fate, meaning accepting that which has been preordained and living by it. However, the fatalist outlook has surrendered today to an outlook of choice. The development of science and human knowledge, and the advent of technology have combined to open before the human being, and at all levels, new horizons in his life…. The societies open before themselves new horizons continuously and no one knows where this course [of development]will lead.

Dr. Abdallah Ibrahim, a professor at the University of Baghdad, is quoted as saying:

Religious diversity requires secularization: secularization of religion, and subjecting the religious phenomenon to historical and critical research. This cannot be accomplished except by separating the original religious text from its subsequent interpretations, and subjecting these interpretations to profound critique to determine to what extent they are consistent with the times in which they were made, because the interpretations oblige their people only [at those] times but they do not bind us at all… [By doing this] we will liberate the religion from the obstacles that prevent it from reaching us. [23]

Finally, the journal offers a comparison between Western modernity and the failure of the Muslim society to attain it:

… Western modernity has accomplished much of its social, political, economic and cultural promise… There is no doubt about its achievements in such areas as technological development [and] human rights… The Islamic societies have not reached even the [stage of] labor pains of modernity… because they have not accumulated rational-critical knowledge that would enable them to… change the traditional structures in society and in their thinking. They continue to be dominated by despotic-paternalistic norms built on obedience and submission and governed by sectarian, class, gender, and religious order. [24]

Amidst rising anti-secular culture in Iraq, the call for secularization has deep roots in the relatively secular tradition of Iraqi multi-ethnic society. For instance, an article published in the daily al-badeal al-demoqrati [The Democratic Alternative] questions the custom of blasting prayers with powerful loudspeakers during the month of Ramadhan. The author, Muhammad al-Hanafi, reminds his readers that "faith is in the hearts of the believers and not in the loudspeakers on top of the minarets and on the rooftops." [25]

Majalat al-Furat (the Euphrates Journal)

Another Islamic journal is Majalat al-Furat, a monthly electronic Islamic journal published by the Euphrates Center for Islamic Communication. The journal seems to have a Shi'ite orientation, judged by its reference to the "so-called Association of Sunni Clerics." The articles are of a religious nature, discussing, for example, the position of the holy Shari'a regarding hypocrisy, the truth about death, and the Prophet Mohammad's birthday. [26]

Islam and Democracy

Also in this genre is the journal Islam and Democracy issued monthly by the Foundation for Islam and Democracy. The journal carries an editorial by the chief editor entitled "Why Do We Choose Democracy?" Articles include "The Questions of Multiplicity and Diversity in Contemporary Political Thought," "The Shi'a and the National Question," and "The Iraqi Constitution as an Enlightening Document for Islamic Democracy." [27]

Nussooss Iraqiya (Iraqi Texts)

This is a monthly journal focused on contemporary Iraqi literature and issued on the internet by the "Iraqi Writer." Issue No. 17 of April 2005 has five sections: poetry, prose, story, translation, and dialogue. [28]

Ashouriyoun (Assyrians)

The Assyrians are one of the oldest communities in Iraq, tracing their presence in the country for more than 3000 years. The Ashouriyoun is a monthly political journal issued by the General Conference of Assyrians. The second issue includes an article discussing the status of the Christian villages in Iraq and another article which deals with the traditional medicines of the past. [29]

Baghdad (French)

After a three-year interruption the Ma'moun House for Publication and Translation has renewed the publication of the magazine Baghdad in French. Issue No. 346 is devoted to the exhibition by Iraqi painters of their work in Paris and the collaboration between the educational institutions of the two countries. [30]

Kurdish Literature

The limited facility with the Kurdish language limits our ability to discuss the cultural life in Iraqi Kurdistan in any depth. However, three publications will be mentioned. There is the Kurdish language magazine called Panorama. The daily al-Taakhi which is associated with the Kurdish Democratic Party publishes every Thursday an extensive literary supplement which brings to the attention of its readers a selection of prose and poetry by Iraqi, Arab and foreign writers. The supplement is edited by Dr. Badrkhan al-Sindi.

The other Kurdish daily, al-Ittihad, published by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, also publishes a literary supplement although the focus is primarily on Iraqi writers and artists.

II. Theater and Stage

Under the auspices of the Department for Cinema and Theater of the Ministry of Culture the national acting group has presented the play "The Day after the Seventh," written by Mithal Ghazi and performed by some of Iraq's leading actors such as Sami Abd al-Hamid, Leila Muhammad and Faisal Jawad. The new play deals with an Iraqi man who participated in most of the wars waged by the previous regime and emerged unscathed. However, he discovered that he is afflicted with cancer and has but seven days to live. And there starts his struggle, which is both an internal struggle and a struggle against others, because he incapable of quietly resigning to his fate. The theme of the work, according to the author, is that the country should build itself on sound foundations before embarking on change and the expulsion of the occupier. It is a subject that must be debated calmly and deliberately without loud cheers and slogans. [31]

The Iraqi League of Human Rights in collaboration with the Center for Iraqi Civil Society staged a play in the City of Diwaniya called "Innocent Dreams." It is a comedy about a woman in the countryside who must deal with various educational, social and political issues. She must confront such poor public services as the absence of potable water and sanitation and the total absence of electricity. [32] Altogether, the League has produced 12 theatrical plays, all of which deal with the suffering of the Iraqis and their demand for decent shelter and food. [33]

In the neighboring city of Diwaniya a new play called "akfan wa-maghazel" (Shrouds and Flirtations) by 'Ammar Nu'ma addresses the issues of violence and mass graves through the prism of southern Iraqi mourning rites. [34]

The National Acting Group staged on the National Theater the play "What If?" written and produced by Qassim al-Sumari and performed by Sadiq Abbas, Shahrazad Shakir, Sadik Marzook and Hatem Odah. The play examines war - not as just a killing field, but as the antithesis of poetry. The poet is the hero not because of his creative output but because of what poetry represents - elevation of the spirit and a resounding hope. In the words of the author, "it is a conflict between the tendency for destruction represented by wars and the aspiration for life and construction represented by the poet." [35]

The National Acting Group was also scheduled to present a play, The Great Romulus, by Swiss playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt. In the words of the producer Hatem Odah who also had an acting part in the earlier play "Shrouds and Flirtations," "I see an attempt by great powers to make great changes in spatial and temporal geography and to draw a new map of the world... but I see a contradiction between this aim and the reality because there are many unknown variables underlying these aims."

The International Peace Group for Dramatic Dance produced an experimental modernist show called "al-Leila al-thaniya" (The Second Night). The show was also scheduled to be presented in the National Theater. According to the producer, Sarmad 'Alaa al-Din the dance group consists of 10 dancers each of whom tries to find his/her own style of dramatic dance that will merge into the language of the body in order to give concrete expression to the suffering of the individual and his/her internal and external crises. [36]

One of the most interesting theatrical productions in recent times is the play entitled "The Women of Lorca" which draws on several themes from Spanish playwright Federico Garcia Lorca's work. The writer and producer of the show, 'Awatef Na'im - who is also one of the five women actresses who make up the cast - is considered the premier stage actress in Iraq.

Na'im imagines a group of Garcia Lorca's women - the protagonists of "Blood Wedding," "Yerma," "The House of Bernada Alba," and "Mariana Pineda" - gathered together at a bloody dinner at Bernada Alba's house - "a house locked in permanent mourning not merely because of the husband's death but because of the single despotic will of Bernada Alba which turns the life of her five daughters in the original Lorca play into a dark prison where windows are closed, curtains are drawn, the air is rancid and the black color of mourning is omnipresent."

In discussing the play, Na'im said, "My choice of Lorca's work stems from his concern about the freedom of women and his emphasis on her role in defending their freedom. I strive to raise the voice of woman and highlight the significance of her presence." The play is produced one day at a time with little publicity in order to avoid acts of terrorism or violence against the artists or the audience. [37]

The daily al-Mada's critic, Fathel Thamer, finds that the unique character of Garcia Lorca's women is lost in the new rendering, as dialogue gives over to what amounts to absurdist monologue reminiscent of Becket's Waiting for Godot. But the critic also maintains that, in the end, the dominance of Yerma came to confirm the eternal role of despotism and the continuity of the executioner/victim dualism in human history. [38]

The Iraqi Hope Society is preparing to produce a play "Huquqana" (Our Rights) which deals with woman's rights, her freedom and her equality with man. It also deals with the children's rights and the methods of child rearing, as well as with bettering society in general. [39]

The assassination of Atwar Bahjat, al-Arabiya TV reporter in Iraq is the subject of a play titled "Atwar: the Eyes of the Truth." The dialogue is written in verse rather than prose, and the lead role of Atwar is played by a student at the Institute for Fine Arts for Girls in Baghdad. [40]

The Youth Education Department in the Ministry of Culture is also active in staging plays for a juvenile audience. The first festival was held in Baghdad on April 2. As evidence of the danger that artists face, two of the actors who were to take the lead roles in some of the plays for the youth, Fu'ad Radhi and Haidar Jawad, were gunned down. [41]

School children are encouraged to participate in presenting shows that are suitable for their age. Among the plays performed are "The Consequence of the Lie," "The Table of Love," "Respect Your Aunt the Palm Tree, "The Horse and the Rabbit," and "The Duck and the Grave News." [42]

The Kurds have had a great success in displaying their folkloric arts both in the cities of Kurdistan and abroad. Their traveling group (Gayran) has made appearances in Britain, France, Germany and the United States and has cut two CDs. The group sings in Kurdish even if the song was originally written in Arabic. The Kurds take a great pride in distinguishing between their cultural heritage and the common Arabic heritage of Iraq. [43]

School of Music and Ballet

The School of Music and Ballet opened in Baghdad in 1969. Like other cultural institutions it was looted in April 2003 and the mirrors used for training ballet dancers were all smashed. Nevertheless, the lovers of ballet and music brought back many of the former students, including many teenage girls who take the ballet lessons. There are currently 200 students who study ballet or classical music. Many of the students of music hope one day to play in the Iraq National Symphony. [44].

III. Funoon Tashkiliya [Plastic Arts]

The following are examples of the flowering of tashkiliya (the plastic arts) in Iraq:

Munir Ahmad, 42, specializes in the use of Arabic alphabets (a form of calligraphy) in his work. His exhibition was held in the city of Nasiriya (a relatively safe city) which boasts a number of artists such Kadhem al-Khattat, Nasser al-Seba'i, Kamel al-Mousawi, and Talal 'Abd and Hussein al-Shannoun. The art in Nasiriya is influenced by Sumerian art and by the existence of the great marshes with their vast vistas, birds, and forests of reeds (used to construct homes for the marsh dwellers). [45]

The first exhibit of the works of the artist Ja'far Muhammad was opened on April 15 in Madarat of Arts in al-Waziriyah in Baghdad.

Under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture an exhibition was held in Baghdad on May 2-10 of this year featuring Arabic calligraphy and Islamic ornamental works. One of the participants in the exhibition was the Iraqi Fashion House, which offered a display of Islamic fashion that is created from fabric decorated with Arabic calligraphy. [46]


Cartooning is another form of art in which Iraqis have excelled, and exhibition of cartoons is common. The Association of Cartoonists organized the first comprehensive exhibition with 25 participants presenting various ages, styles and technical forms, a total of 100 pieces of their "magical work." The cartoonists drew upon "human thoughts distilled from the daily reality" of Iraq, including current "hot" events and circumstances, the negative conditions and the administrative corruption throughout the government agencies. [47]

In the city of Basra, the second largest city in Iraq, three young cartoonists presented a collection of their work in an exhibit titled "The administrative corruption - caricatures." [48] The exhibit reflected the ubiquitous and deleterious manifestations of corruption which are undermining efforts to build a system of accountability, which is a fundamental precondition for the success of a democratic regime.

Posters Exhibition

In March 2006, for the first time in Iraq, 19 artists exhibited 40 posters in the open air near the Ministry of Culture in the center of Baghdad. The artists consider their works as "reflecting the street language with a powerful effect." The opening of the exhibition was delayed for two hours because of the falling of mortar shells nearby. Nevertheless, the exhibition was opened because "art is stronger than violence." One of the artists, Rana 'Adnan (25), exhibited a work titled "The Road to Life" which, according to the artist, "is an expression of her optimism about the possibilities of a better Iraq and greater freedom." [49]

Fotografia (Magazine of Photography)

The undated issue carries an article, accompanied by photographs by the photographer Ihsan al-Jezani. Rather than weeping over the looting of the national museum and the national library in April 2003 and the looting of Iraqi artifacts over the ages by Western archeologists, al-Jizani uses his camera to recreate the past. His camera took him to the Louvre in Paris and the museums in Berlin and London where so many artifacts are on display. He was impressed, however, by the number of school children who visited the museums and showed great respect for the artifacts while, during his own childhood in Iraq, very little attention was paid to "the names and symbols of our civilization" because the successive governments were more disposed to hang the photographs of heads of state than the pictures of the Iraqi civilization. [50]

Another Iraqi photographer who seeks to preserve the past through photographs is 'Adel Qassim who had a personal exhibition of photographs in al-Shahbandar Coffee Shop in Baghdad, a meeting place of writers, poets and artists since it opened for business in 1917 on top of the old Shahbandar printing shop which was closed for political reasons. [51] Al-Shabandar is the Baghdadi version of Café de Flore in St. Germain-des-Pres in Paris which was frequented by such literary and artistic luminaries as Hemingway and Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoire, and Pablo Picasso. Qassim's exhibition was open for more than three months. When asked about the reason for focusing on the past, such as old homes, pastoral village life, life in the marshes with its homes made of reeds, he replied, "I rarely resort to photographing the destruction; as long as there is life, there is beauty and there is blessing." [52]

The Ministry of Culture organized an exhibition of photographs under the title "Aspirations for Peace," representing the work of Iraq's three foremost photographers Sa'ad Nu'mah, Ahmad Abdallah and Abbas al-Wendy. The photographs, primarily in color, represented the Iraqis' love of life despite "the political challenges that are striking at this faithful land." [53]

IV. Lectures and Seminars

The following is a sampling of lectures and seminars that have taken place in Iraq:

The Arab-Swiss Cultural Center, known as Baghdad Gallery, organized a lecture on "Democracy and the Government Systems" by the lawyer Hussein Hafith. [54] Another lecture, delivered earlier in the year, dealt with the "Tribal Authority in the Iraqi Culture." [55]

The same center also hosted a symposium commemorating the third anniversary of the Swiss poet Jan Demot titled "The Talking Funeral of Jan Demot from Baghdad to Sydney," hosted by the critic Jamal Karim. [56]

Al-Mada Cultural Week

The Foundation for Culture and Arts headed by Fakhri Karim, the publisher of the daily newspaper al-Mada, organized a cultural week on April 22-28 in Erbil, the capital of the province of Kurdistan. The location was chosen because of its relative security compared with anywhere else in Iraq. The theme of the meeting was "Democratic Culture for a Free Iraq."

The event was meant primarily for Iraqis although many other Arab writers attended the event. There were a variety of seminars and symposia offered to the participants on such topics as democracy, women, minorities, and the economy. There were exhibitions for books, caricatures and folklore. The cultural week was also culminated in the creation of "a fund for the support of the Arab intellectual" and the creation of a non-governmental organization called "the High Council for Culture" which will take upon itself the uplifting of Iraq culture through a national perspective that will encompass the interests of Arab intelligentsia. The minister of culture in Kurdistan offered the poignant observation that "the conditions for freedom require the flourishing of culture." [57]

The cultural event provided a forum for the use of new expressions to reflect the current reality of Iraq. For the first time, according to one observer, one could hear repeatedly concepts such as "the local culture vs. the culture of exile," "the democratic culture," "the secular culture," "the religious culture," and "the culture of resistance," which was viewed by the participants as tantamount to "the culture of dictatorship" which has left wounds in the body of the Iraqi culture from which it continues to suffer. [58]

It is perhaps a characteristic of the new Iraq that the 400 participants, Iraqis and others, were entertained by the Iraqi symphony orchestra which played compositions by Bach, Mozart and Debussy. Reporting for the Saudi daily al-Riadh, Fatman al-Muhsin wrote that despite everything else, "The educated audience lived hoping to regain what it has lost in enthusiasm for art and life." [59] It will be recalled that the Iraqi symphony orchestra performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., on December 9, 2003, amidst great expectations about the cultural revival in post-Saddam Iraq.

Dangers to Iraqi Intelligentsia

"Writers without Borders" is an intellectual organization headquartered in Berlin but headed by the Iraqi writer Ayad al-Zamili. The organization has recently written to Iraq's new Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki expressing its concerns that Iraqi journalists, university professors, writers and artists are being subjected to collective liquidation. In its letter to the Prime Minister, "Writers without Borders" said that 150 university professors and scientists and 115 media people have been murdered as a result of terrorism and sectarian violence. As a result, the letter to the Prime Minister warns, the emigration of Iraqi intelligentsia will continue unabated, impoverishing the cultural life of the country. [60]

In one specific case, the Iraqi poet 'Adnan al-Sa'igh was invited to read from his work at a special poetry festival called al-Marbad, in Basra. Among his lines he read the following:


In my homeland
Fear binds me and divides:
A man writes
And the other -behind the curtain of my window
Observes me
My God
Is one
Not Catholic
Not Protestant
Not Sunni
Not Shi'ite

He was chased out of the meeting and threatened with death. A friend, Abd al-Razzaq al-Rabi'i, was to describe him as "The defenseless - he owns nothing but a pen in a forest of gun." [61]

Arab Writers Federation Boycotts the Iraqi Federation

The General Federation of Iraqi Writers was a founding member of the Arab Writers Federation. In July 2004 more than 800 writers from all across Iraq met to elect their federation leadership which was to attend the Arab Writers Federation meeting in Alger the following year. However, when the Iraqi delegation appeared in the conference they were snubbed by the Secretary General of the Arab Writers Federation Dr. Ali 'Aqla 'Irsan, a Syrian national, who refused them admission and threatened to leave the conference if the Iraqi delegation was let in. His ostensible argument for denying the Iraqis access to the conference is that they were under occupation. [62]

It is ironic that a representative of an authoritarian regime which exercises censorship over cultural life should deny admission to a delegation from a country that has recently emerged freer than any Arab country, Lebanon being the exception. It is another indication that the dictatorial regimes which neighbor Iraq suffer from nightmares that democracy in Iraq would unleash forces that could destabilize their illegitimate hold on power that can only be sustained through the force of compulsion over frightened and intimidated citizens.

Proliferations and Drawbacks

The fall of the Saddam regime has released an enormous amount of intellectual and artistic energy that was suppressed or misdirected for almost four decades. The suppression was secular and political in nature. There is a looming danger of a different kind of suppression carried out by religious militias whose tolerance for liberal and secular culture goes no further than the muzzle of their gun.

Branches of the national libraries have been looted and privately owned bookstores in many parts of Iraq do not dare to offend the armed religious militias that prowl the streets in complete freedom. Cinemas, one of the most popular forms of entertainment for the vast majority of Iraqis, are almost extinct because of threats against what is narrowly perceived as lewd films or because people are afraid to congregate in one building which could be blown up at will. This is the case also with regard to other artistic events-a problem which is only exacerbated by the unreliability of the electrical supply.

It is true that the press is relatively free, but editors exercise self-censorship when it comes to criticizing the likes of the young radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr who will not hesitate to unleash the fury of his militia against any journalist who might dare to criticize him. Other militias are also known for enforcing their own version of the law, including the use of extreme measure against individuals and institutions, particularly secularists.


The revival of the Iraqi cultural scene reveals a strong current in support of indigenous Iraqi culture, secularism, women's rights, and opposition to terrorism and violence.

As in the past under Saddam, a large number of Iraqi writers, artists and poets receive monthly salaries from the Ministry of Culture. For the moment, at least, these salaries appear to be granted with no conditions regarding the creative work of the recipients. How long this will continue is not known, and very much depends on the nature of the government that will eventually gain the upper hand in the country.

*Dr. Nimrod Raphaeli is Senior Analyst of MEMRI's Middle East Economic Studies Program.

[1] Referring to the Iraqi poet Adnan al-Sa'igh, whose life was threatened for reading "progressive" poetry (see below).

[2] Fayadth produced a documentary film about the life in Iraq from the destroyed Kurdish villages in the north to the fisherman in Shat al-Arab in the south. September 12, 2005.

[3] Al-Zaman (Baghdad), October 13, 2003.

[4] Al-Zaman (Baghdad), October 13, 2003.

[5] Yohanna Daniel, "The Phenomenon of Cultural Exclusion: Iraq Today as an Example,", May 12, 2006.

[6] MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 272, "Magazines Iraqis Read," May 2, 2006, Magazines Iraqis Read.

[7] Quoted by al-Sabah daily (Baghdad), May 16, 2006.

[8] Smuggling of oil is a very lucrative business because of price differentials of refined oil products in the local Iraqi market and in other countries.


[10] Al-Yanbou', No. 45 (March 15, 2006).


[12] L. Paul Bremer III, My Years in Iraq. New York, Simon & Schuster, 2005, p. 358.

[13] Ali al-Wardi, lamahat ijtima'iyya fi tarikh al-Iraq al-hadith (London, Dar Fufan, 1992).

[14] Al-Jandool Magazine, No. 13 (August 2004).

[15] Ali Hassan al-Fawaz at HTTP://

[16] (April 5, 2006).




[20] Al-Mada (Baghdad), March 6, 2006.



[23] Similar views regarding the secularization of religion were expressed by Sayyed Ayad Jamal al-Din at a lecture at MEMRI on April 6, 2006. Sayyed Jamal al-Din is a Shi'ite cleric and Iraqi MP. See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 1138, "Iraqi Reformist MP Sayyed Ayad Jamal Al-Din Discusses the Situation in Iraq at MEMRI's Reform Lecture Series in Washington, D.C.," April 12, 2006, Iraqi Reformist MP Sayyed Ayad Jamal Al-Din Discusses the Situation in Iraq at MEMRI's Reform Lecture Series in Washington, D.C..

[24] Majalat Qadhaya Islamiyya Mu'asira, No. 31-32 (Winter-Spring 2006).

[25] (May 18, 2006).

[26] Majalat al-Furat, No. 56, May 2006

[27] Al-Mada (Baghdad), April 4, 2006.


[29] Al-Mada (Baghdad), February 21, 2006.

[30] Al-Mada (Baghdad), April 29, 2006.

[31] Al-Mada (Baghdad), February 5, 2006.

[32] Al-Mada (Baghdad), April 16, 2006.

[33] Al-Mada (Baghdad), April 6, 2006.

[34] Al-Mada (Baghdad), May 14, 2006.

[35] Al-Mada (Baghdad), January 28, 2006 and February 19, 2006.

[36] Al-Mada (Baghdad), January 22, 2006.

[37] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), May 17, 2006 and al-Mada, May 16, 2006.

[38] Al-Mada (Baghdad), May 23, 2006.

[39] Al-Mada (Baghdad), February 14, 2006.

[40] Al-Mada (Baghdad), March 19, 2006.

[41] Al-Mada (Baghdad), March 30, 2006.

[42] Al-Mada (Baghdad), January 3, 2006.

[43] Al-Mada (Baghdad), May 6, 2006.

[44] Reported by Reuters and published in the Palestinian daily al-Hayat al-Jadida, April 26, 2006.

[45] Al-Mada (Baghdad), May 3, 2006.

[46] Republic of Iraq, Ministry of Culture.

[47] Al-Mada (Baghdad), January 21, 2006.

[48] Al-Mada (Baghdad), March 26, 2006.

[49] March 30, 2006.


[51] A short history of the al-Shahbandar coffee shop appeared on, on January 13, 2006

[52] Al-Mada (Baghdad), January 2, 2006.

[53] Al-Mada (Baghdad), February 1, 2006.

[54] Al-Mada (Baghdad), April 14, 2006.

[55] Al-Mada (Baghdad), January 19, 2006.

[56] Al-Mada (Baghdad), May 9, 2006.

[57] Al-Mada (Baghdad), May 12, 2006.

[58] Ali Abd al-Aal, comments on the Fourth al-Mada Cultural Week in Iraq, dated May 5, 2006 (supplied by MEMRI's Baghdad office. Source not available.) It was the first time that the event was held in Iraq although three previous events were held in Damascus. Hence, it is referred to as the "Fourth Week" although it the "first week" in Iraq.

[59] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), May 1, 2006.

[60] The letter was published in Elaph No. 1829, May 25, 2006.



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