Iraq’s artists display war trauma in work

Feeling resentment, they showcase emotions in art

By Hamza Hendawi – Associated Press – Tuesday, August 3, 2010

BAGHDAD | Iraq’s artists are using their work to try to process the turmoil since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, and what they are producing shows a profound anger over their country’s traumas and uncertainty over its future.

They have a lot to deal with: A change of regime, foreign occupation, an insurgency, sectarian massacres and, now, the prospect of a divided nation left by the Americans in the hands of unpopular politicians, unprepared security forces and a fragile democracy.

The ambivalence is clear.

Many of the artists lament Saddam Hussein’s ouster, but don’t wish to see one day of his rule come back. They are grateful to America for having rid them of his tyranny, but they vilify it as a foreign occupier. The majority Shiites see justice in their post-Saddam empowerment after decades of oppression, but say their own politicians are ruining the country.

“The Iraqi people are victimized by everything and everyone,” says Fadel Saddam, who directs short films. “They are victimized by both the ruler and the foreign occupier.”

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Muayad Muhsin is venting while he paints.

“What we need in Iraq is a ruler who shares Saddam’s tyranny, but who fights oppression and corruption, and champions the poor,” he barked in one of several outbursts to an Associated Press reporter as he worked on his latest canvas.

It was another of the all-too-frequent 110-degree days when electricity is out and fans and air-conditioning units sit useless. Mr. Muhsin’s stuffy apartment was covered in dust from the previous day’s sandstorm, and the heavyset Mr. Muhsin, in shorts and a T-shirt, repeatedly wiped the sweat off his face.

The merciless heat is even enshrined in his work. On the back of one canvas is written: “Painted in 48 Celsius [118 Fahrenheit] in the shade while the power is continuously out in the summer of Iraq.”

Like many Iraqis, the 47-year-old Mr. Muhsin is filled with anger and feelings of betrayal. He blames everyone and everything for Iraq’s current predicament.

The work in progress depicts a man standing desolately by the side of a road that bends until it disappears into a burning, apocalyptic orange sunset. The man is headless, holding in his left hand an oud, the Middle Eastern lute-like instrument that holds a cherished place in Iraqi culture.

In place of the man’s head is a streetlight pole.

“He is screaming, How long will we stand still like light poles on deserted roads?” explained Mr. Muhsin. “The sunset gives the impression of the end of the world, the end of a conflict, a horizon that promises new — but not necessarily good — things.”

Mr. Muhsin hauls other paintings from a storeroom. One also shows a headless man standing by a railway that abruptly ends behind him. His body is cracking, as if about to crumble. In the background are the famed ruins of Babylon.

“The head represents rationality, but we Iraqis are headless because of our sectarianism,” Mr. Muhsin said.

His next work, he says, will be about President Obama.

It will depict him shooting hoops. The hoop will be hanging from a wall depicting the mythological winged bull of Assyria. The Statue of Liberty will be in the background, its back turned on the U.S. leader.

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At 30, Omar al-Saray already is a prize-winning poet, published literary critic, popular college lecturer and chairman of Baghdad’s prestigious Society of Iraqi Poets.

But none of those lofty distinctions could help him when Shiites and Sunnis turned against each other in Baghdad with murderous force in 2006 and 2007. Like the hundreds of thousands who feared for their lives, Mr. al-Saray fled the country, traveling in Syria and Lebanon for four months in 2006 after suspected Shiite militants left a threatening note on his doorstep.

The note was weighed down by a bullet, a common militant signal: Leave quickly or die.

Ironically, Mr. al-Saray is a Shiite, though a secular one. The militants assumed he was Sunni because his first name, Omar, is rarely given by Shiite families to their children. It’s the name of one of the Prophet Muhammad’s 7th-century successors who, while revered by Sunnis, is reviled by many Shiites.

“The sectarian violence has divided the city into cantons, and a man’s name has become a problem,” said Mr. al-Saray, mourning a bygone Baghdad where religious tolerance prevailed over sectarian boundaries.

The blood-soaked days of the height of sectarian violence in 2006-2007 are gone, and Mr. al-Saray is taking advantage of Baghdad’s current relative security. His office is littered with empty soda cans, water bottles and overflowing ashtrays from a late-night poetry recital two nights earlier, an event that would have been impossible two or three years ago when many feared leaving their homes.

Still, the young poet is less than happy with his country’s state.

“After the fall of Saddam’s regime, the margin of freedom was widened, but we were shocked and disappointed when we found out that they were false freedoms,” he said.

“The future is scary. The Americans are leaving after they have destroyed so much. They never solved anything. They occupied us, but never took us to the safety of the shore.”

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Abdul-Kareem Khalil won international fame back in May 2004, when he exhibited an alabaster statue of a crouching, naked man, his hands tied behind his back and his head covered with a hood.

It came only a week after photographs had emerged showing remarkably similar abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American guards at the Abu Ghraib prison on Baghdad’s western outskirts. Mr. Khalil said he based his sculpture on stories he had heard from former Abu Ghraib inmates freed before the scandal broke.

Six years on, Mr. Khalil continues to be inspired by Abu Ghraib and his deep resentment of America’s military presence in Iraq.

One recent statue depicts a woman flanked by two men. All three have paper bags over their heads, recalling the hoods used on detainees. One of the men has a protective hand placed on her shoulder. The other man is groping her thighs.

“The second man may be a symbol of evil,” explained Mr. Khalil.

Like many Iraqi artists, Mr. Khalil laments Saddam’s overthrow, not out of love for the dictator, but because of the anarchy that ensued.

His most disturbing sculpture depicts a man raping a woman. Both on their knees, the woman struggles to break free while the man restrains her, his hands pawing her bare breasts.

“The woman is Iraq, and the rapist is the American occupier,” said Mr. Khalil.

Saddam was not an angel, but he was the head of a regime that had functioning institutions,” he said. “We thought that those who will come after him will be better, but that never happened.”