Iraqisms: The shape of Iraqi art today

BEIRUT: “There are so many children’s songs that circulate in the Arab world and you wonder where they come from. You have no idea who wrote the lyrics, but if you listen to them, you realize you’re putting a kid to sleep with a song about killing a pigeon,” Rasha Salah laughs. “Imagine the horror, when you go to Europe and have to translate to for someone.”Salah is briefing The Daily Star on Iraqiyyat (“Iraqisms”), a one-week event she curated for the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung that opens at Dar El Nimr Monday evening. Its centerpiece will be an exhibition of work by Mahmoud Obaidi and Adel Abidin. Abidin’s new work, “Back to the Future,” shares Salah’s interest in the history of Arabic children’s songs.

“Adel got into this Iraqi children’s song,” she pauses to sing part of the refrain. “When he started asking about it, people would always say, ‘Oh that was the song that was sung in front of Hitler in Berlin the ’30s.’ It’s unclear why, either for an international youth gathering or the Olympics, so it’s become a myth. No two versions of the story are the same, but you eventually learn that a Jewish Iraqi swimming coach wrote this song for his students to repeat behind him.

“When the Iraqi delegation arrived in Berlin, they learn all the international delegations are expected to sing their national anthems, but Iraq didn’t yet have a national anthem, only music. ‘Don’t worry,’ a famous Iraqi artist leading the delegation said. ‘Just repeat after me.’ So he starts to sing this children’s song. One version of the story has it that Hitler loved the song so much he asked the delegation to repeat it three more times.

“Adel is sort of criticizing how Arabs’ lack interest in documenting our history, our lack of archives. Our history is written by anyone but us, or else becomes oral history, so legend and myth. It also reflects his own memories of old Iraq.”

Iraqisms combines diverse elements in addition to the exhibition. A tribute from Palestine to Iraq will see Raeda Taha recite the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish. Novelist, poet and scholar Sinan Antoon will hold the talk “The Text’s Memory: A Biography of Water” and modernist pioneer Dia Azzawi will use his 2010 installation “Wounded Soul” as a touchstone for a discussion of Iraqi identity today. The closing event will feature Iraqi music critic Samer Almashall’s discussion of his country’s musical heritage, with a focus on the work of composer Kawkab Hamza, who will also attend.

In addition Iraqi directors Adel Khaled, Dhyaa Joda, Mohamad al-Daradji, Parine Jaddo and Nadia Shihab will introduce projections of their feature-length and short films. One event highlight will see Swiss-based Iraqi filmmaker Samir present the MENA premiere of his latest feature “Baghdad in My Shadow.”

Salah says the project began when Rosa Luxembourg director Mariam Younes invited her to program a night of Iraqi films. Salah suggested a broader, more ambitious event.

“She gave me carte blanche to create whatever event I wanted,” she recalls. “It’s ‘Iraqisms’ because it’s a bit of everything, while being serious. You can’t cover everything in a week, so I varied the program and the artists’ and filmmakers’ backgrounds, the kinds of interaction between the conceptual and contemporary while keeping the nostalgia - or what we have of nostalgia for Iraq.”

The curator said she was particularly interested in breaking the stereotypes and cliches about Iraqis that have emerged since the 2003 invasion of the country.

Salah has been working with Arabic cultural production for a few years now, first with the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture, then with Dar El Nimr. When it came to programming Iraqisms, she said, it was quite organic.

“It’s mainly people that came into my life in one way or another,” she says. “I tried to draw the widest image of Iraq that I could. There is the quality of the filmmakers and their work of course, but there’s also their interest in different subjects. It’s kind of a puzzle. You have all the communities that make up Iraq - Yazidis, Kurds, the Turkmen.

“Then you have the perspective of the new arrivals to Europe, as in Adel Abidin’s ‘Crazy Days.’ I think it would speak to any new immigrant or refugee in Europe today. It’s the eye of someone from this region, where crazy days are about war and bombing, while crazy days in cities like Helsinki could be a Friday where people can buy things for cheap.

“It was Abidin’s first project. I really wanted this to be in this show because it represents all the new perspectives arriving in Europe today. It’s critical, of course, and voyeuristic, in a way. There judgement in it but it’s realistic. It may seem like it doesn’t make sense in this Iraqi puzzle, but I feel it really makes sense today.”

She pauses. “If you ask people what they say when they think of Iraq, everyone says artists like Muzaffar al-Nawab and Dia Azzawi. I found there’s a lot needs to be done on the more recent work. What is the actuality of Iraq?

“So Iraqisms tries to bridge [modernist and contemporary art as well as] cinema, and to complete the scene in literature with Sinan Antoon. It’s really hard to do everything. There’s a lot of things happening. Of course it will not be enough.

“That’s my goal,” she adds, “to say look there are some really interesting filmmakers and great contemporary artists, without forgetting the older generation of modernists. That’s why we’re ending with a session on music with a Baghdadi music critic and a great composer who’s almost forgotten, Kawkab Hamzah.

“We used to see him on Hamra Street, Hamzah, having a glass of whiskey talking about music, about Baghdad, about the old cabarets of Baghdad, the brothers Kuwaiti. All this stuff I learned from this guy in bars in Beirut.

“As someone who lives in this region,” Salah says, “I feel like I owe something to Iraq. I’m trying to give back.”

For more information of “Iraqisms” see:

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 05, 2019, on page 8.




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