The art of survival in post-Saddam Iraq

New forms of violence have risen out of the vacuum of civil conflict in post-Saddam Iraq. Ten years after the Iraq war, this violent legacy is emerging in the work of the country's artists through film, painting and poetry

Zoe Holman
15 April 2013
Wider than tall, black, busy-looking quilt

'My Night', a quilt by Hanaa Mallalah

Baghdadi film-maker Hayder Daffar tells us a story. One night in April 2003, as the first Coalition bombs rained down on the Iraqi capital, a woman resident began to go into labour. Her husband rushed into the street outside their house to look for help, but because of the chaos of warfare, their were no ambulances around. Nor were there any neighbours with cars and probably no functioning hospitals nearby to take her to. He decided to deliver the baby himself – “everything will be fine.” Daffar’s 2005 documentary film, Dreams of Sparrows is the story of that child, now ten years old and motherless since birth; it is the story of a country consumed by two decades of war, bloodshed and uncertainty, and reborn into third – the story of millions of Iraqis. 

“Iraqis are like sparrows,” he says. “Those birds are always flying around looking for houses or wires to stop on. Iraqis are also always looking for safety, rest... and electricity!”
As Saddam's monolithic effigy was being hauled from its plinth in Baghdad’s Ferdowsi Square on April 9 2003, the architects of regime change rushed to the airwaves to announce to the Iraq people that they were free. The joint address was made via the new Coalition-run channel, Towards Freedom TV, from which George W. Bush and Tony Blair broadcast that “a long era of cruelty and fear is ended.”

“It is in the spirit of friendship and goodwill that we now offer our help,” explained the US President. “The government of Iraq and future of your country will soon belong to you.”

To mark the ten-year anniversary of ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’, Baghdad was once again beset by explosions, this time at the hands of suicide-bombers. Since this bloody commemoration, 2013 has seen deaths from violence in Iraq numbering in the hundreds, alongside ongoing protests against repression and sectarian rule in Baghdad and a string of NGO reports deploring the status of human and civil rights in the country.

So what's new in liberated Iraq?

The capital city may now be sprouting Cadillac dealerships, five-star hotels and Krispy Kreme, but on the base lines of political freedom, everyday security and material infrastructure, little has changed.

“I was sad and confused then and I am still sad and confused now,” says Daffar. “The main difference is that before in Iraq you might die by chance, and now we live by chance – we survive by the luck of god.” 

A native of the capital, Daffar watched the 2003 Coalition campaign play out inside Iraq. In the days following the proclaimed April victory, he decided to travel around the country to film Iraqi’s first thoughts and impressions about liberation, Texan-style. The resulting documentary film  captures the nascent responses – be it jubilation, despair or rage - of a nation staring into the void of post-Saddam Iraq, from writers guilds, insane asylums, primary schools, homeless shelters and insurgent enclaves. Speaking at a London screening during the Reel Iraq Festival in March, he noted that the past decade had done little to diminish the uncertainty, fear or violence of those initial post-invasion days.

“Most Iraqis are like a nurse working in a morgue,” says Daffar, “we got used to death. After the Iran-Iraq war, sanctions, the Gulf War, the years since occupation – we are like machines around it.”

Likewise, he says that Iraqis have found little novelty in the political reality of their so-called parliamentary democracy – one which continues to top the red-alerts of international indexes of authoritarian rule, torture and corruption. 

“Many Iraqis say that before we had one dictator, and now we have forty”, he explains. “I lived under Saddam and it was the same thing but a different taste. Everyone knows the awful things Saddam did, the difference now is that the government is supposed to be my partner but it is still my enemy.”

Other human rights activists have pointed to new forms of violence which have risen out of the vacuum of civil conflict in post-Saddam Iraq since the 2003. A native of Iraqi Kurdistan, writer, poet and women’s rights campaigner, Awezan Nouri says that she never stops being aware of the multiple threats she faces as a woman in her current home city of Kirkuk.

“These days the violence could come from neighbours, husbands, terrorists or even the government,” she explains. “Whenever I walk down the street, I can feel the danger around me.”

Nouri has been active around women’s rights for some six years and now manages the Pana shelter where she sees first-hand the results of a rising tide of violence against women across Iraq. While she and her colleagues provide short-term protection and advice to victims of a variety of gender-based attacks – sometimes even taking them into their own homes – Nouri says that political disinterest allows violence to thrive in impunity.

“Before all else it is a social problem, but now it is also a political problem,” she explains. “Even after a decade, it is clear that women are still generally perceived as second-class citizens in Iraq, with no voice in politics.”

Defenders of the Coalition campaign have often pointed to the boom in Nouri’s oil-rich and semi-autonomous home region of Kurdistan as a sign of the economic potential liberated by the fall of Saddam. However, beneath its veneer of crony capitalism, Kurdistan remains a hotbed of political corruption and quotidian violence – most especially against women. With FGM practiced on as many as 60 per cent of Kurdish girls and honour-killings and domestic violence rates amongst the worst in the world, despite government legislation, the region is a prime example of political torpidity on women’s rights. Statistics from the region released in February documented 89 deaths from honour-killing burnings – either murder or purported suicide – in 2012, in addition to some 5,000 cases of non-lethal acts of violence against women. Nouri recalls one of the most haunting cases from the region she witnessed in 2009, when three women were murdered by their father.

“He set the women on fire and shot them later on,” she says. “Two of them died instantly, but one of them didn’t die despite three bullets in her body. For a number of years we kept her in a shelter in Sulêmani.”

Compounding these more archaic atrocities, liberal new gun ownership legislation in a region where even the local florist is armed has broadened the scope for quotidian acts of violence.

“Guns are bought and sold like any other item and it is women who pay the price,” says Nouri.

An outspoken critic of social and political practices, Nouri has herself paid the price for involvement in women’s liberty campaign, experiencing ongoing intimidation and violent threats. Although she is adamant that she will never renounce her activities – “even if it kills me, I will keep working” she says – the weight of her cause has taken its toll on her. It was the cumulative effect of all the brutality she had witnessed which eventually lead Nouri to poetry. As she explained, the medium has provided an artistic outlet for her political and personal rage, grief and frustration.

“I found myself become extremely effected by it all and my doctor suggested that I try to let it out through writing,” she explains. “Now, instead of shouting and getting angry, I try to express whatever I feel in poetry.”

Like the work of film-maker Hayder Daffar, Nouri’s writings reflect how the violent legacy of post-Saddam Iraq is emerging in the country’s rich artistic tradition. Where artists are using a range of practices to attempt to define everyday life and violence in today’s Iraq, so too the everyday violence of the post-Saddam era is coming to define Iraq’s art-forms.

“My work these days is all about war, destruction and occupation,” says Hanaa Mallalah, an exiled Baghdad-born artist who fled to Britain in the aftermath of the 2003 campaign.

Dirty, white canvas shoes with 'I.W.M.D.' written underneath.

'I.W.M.D', an artwork by Hanaa Mallalah

“I was not political then, but I was a teacher in university and artist so I was an easy target for militia,” she explains. “Almost all the good teachers, artists and academics were forced to leave after the war.” 

Mallalah says her practice is still not expressly political, but she acknowledges that her formative experiences in Iraq have emerged in her art. A powerful example of this, her trademark “ruins technique” evokes the visceral experience of warfare, informed by 35 years living through conflict in Baghdad.

“To physically taste war is completely different than to experience it second-hand,” she explains in her artistic manifesto. “The first lesson taught by physically tasting war is that ruination is the essence of all being: Death has no meaning and anything solid can be reduced to nothing in seconds.”

Despite this empircal understanding of violence, Mallalah emphasises that the content of her art is not a unique reference to Iraq. Rather, she suggests that her work reflects something more universal.

“I work for an international audience,” she says, “and it is about violence as a global concept. There is destruction all around us - not only Iraq. It is not a local thing.”

Equally, she is aware of the irony that has lead to the circumstances of her current artistic practice - that the country partly responsible for the profusion of violence in Iraq has given her the freedom to address the universality of war and destruction. While many still living in Iraq like Daffar acknowledge the encroaching restrictions on freedom of speech in the country, Mallalah says that as an artist she has flourished in exile. As she explains of her artistic liberty:

“I have often pondered the irony of living as a refugee in the very country that was – at least partially – instrumental in engineering the context which caused me to flee my home. London embraced me and my war culture, took my war aesthetics and expanded its language beyond the particularities of my Iraqi or Middle Eastern background.”

Could this paradoxical, collateral freedom - now manifesting to international audiences in Iraq’s poetry, paintings and films – be the one small, emancipatory outcome of the grand-scale liberation Bush and Blair promised to bring to the people of Iraq ten years ago? If this is the case, it is also certain that the Coalition of the Willing has provided an endless bounty of subject matter for the country's artists to grapple with.

Like Daffar, Nouri and others artists working in the country and in exile, Mallalah is not optimistic about the future of liberated Iraq. As she notes, speculating about the coming decade in her country of origin: “violence will not go anywhere, it will stay with us for a long while yet.” 

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