الرئيسية » English Articles » They are in pain as well – baghdad’s statues and monuments

They are in pain as well – baghdad’s statues and monuments

I was an eyewitness to the process of dismantling the monument to the Iraqi POW in Mustansiriyya Square in central Baghdad, one of the achievements of the De-Ba’thification Commission, which aims to remove all the physical symbols of Ba’thism from Baghdad.

That particular monument had been erected by the previous regime in honor of Iraqi prisoners held in Iran, and is a physical representation of a scene where an Iraqi POW’s arms are being ripped out, a scene which Iraqi television repeatedly played during the 1980s war with Iran. No-one has been able to identify the hostage as either Iraqi or Iranian, so the regime’s official version remained, and inspired the monument. Experts considered the monument to be artistically infantile propaganda, exposing passers-by to the ugly scene of arms being ripped out day and night, as if they hadn’t already seen it on TV.

There weren’t any serious objections to dismantling these monuments, such as that one and the “revolutionary bride” one in Baghdad’s Allawi district. That one mixed the basic Ba’th party symbols with elements from Mesopotamian cultural traditions. Many people thought that it would be difficult to retain the monument, even given a more tolerant, open interpretation since it was so ideologically Ba’thist, and thus it shared in the fates of the Iraqi POW monument and all the statues of Saddam.

One should also not assume that all the Ba’thist statues and monuments were removed systematically, the proof of this statement being that many Ba’th propaganda statues and monuments are still up across Baghdad, including the Monument to the Iraqi soldier in City of Medicine, a Mesopotamian obelisk intertwined by a tank surrounded by Iraqi soldiers in various poses. On top of the obelisk stands an Iraqi soldier holding an Iraqi flag approximately two meters over his head.

This monument was preserved since it does not have any directly Ba’thist tones, despite its obvious praise of the mechanisms of war and its equation with a cultural and historical symbol, and its manifestation of war ideology and culture. The same thing happened with the monument to the martyr created by the late Iraqi artist Ismail Fattah al-Turk, a dome split in half with an Iraqi flag emerging from a fountain at the center, a monument to the martyrs of the unjust war with Iran. However, it could also be interpreted in a different way after being completely de-Ba’thified; i.e., by making it into a monument of religious or nationalistic martyrdom. For this reason, it was not removed.

On the other hand, anonymous hands have defaced a number of artistic statues and monuments that have nothing to do with the Ba’th regime and culture. The statue of Abdel Muhsen al-Sa’adun (the first modern Iraqi Prime Minster) was stolen from its pedestal on the middle of Sa’adun street in Baghdad, and it has not been found. Probably, the motives for the theft were not political, the thieves hoping to cut the statue into pieces and sell it as scrap metal, something that has happened to statues large and small across the city, stolen in the first months following the Ba’th regime’s fall. Other unknown people removed the statue of the Iraqi Mother from its place at the entrance of Revolution City (now renamed Sadr City) alleging that its representation of feminine charms clashed with religious morality. Young artists managed to find the statue and saved it from a foundry on the city’s edge, and it was returned, not to its original site, but to the entrance of the Ministry of Culture, where it remains to this day. The statue of Kahrumanah and the Forty Thieves, sculpted by the Iraqi artist Mohammad Ghani Hikmat, is crumbling into pieces day after day as a result of vandalism and not one thing has been done to protect this beautiful statue, a landmark of the Karada district. A few months ago, the municipality of Baghdad foolishly painted the statue gold without asking the artist’s permission or consulting any experts, which caused an uproar that finally ended when the paint was removed and the statue returned to its original state.

Extremist groups are most likely responsible for blowing up the Abbasid Caliph Abu Ja’far al-Mansour’s statue, on Mansour Street in Baghdad, and other extremists have destroyed or defaced other statues of cultural and historical icons, such as Al-Farabi and Al-Mutanabi, which many claim is a result of the general chaos and the fact that different armed gangs rule the neighborhoods.

The Liberty Monument, on Tahrir Square, still stands, a unique piece in the Arab world, created by the great Iraqi artist Jawad Salim almost five decades ago. However, many Iraqi intellectuals worry about how well-protected the monument is, especially after we learned that the moulds that the fourteen pieces of the statue were made from have disappeared, so it could not be recast if they are destroyed.

I think of these things as the roof of the Amara high school, overlooking Firdaws Square, collapsed in a terrible truck-bomb explosion, killing over seventy people on June 19. The distance between the site of the explosion and the building from which I saw the school roof collapse is quite large, with the monument in between, closer to the site of the explosion. It wasn’t the first time something had blown up near the monument, and it doesn’t seem like it will be the last, so it is possible to imagine the threats to the monument in its current location. Of course, it is one of the most important cultural landmarks of Baghdad and Iraq, being the most important work of the second of the two founders of Arab sculpture (the Iraqi Jawad Salim and the Egyptian Mukhtar, who created the famous Nahdat Misr statue).

In any conversation about the current situation of Baghdad’s monuments and statues, one notices the intentional (sometimes ignorant) link made between those statues representing Baghdad’s cultural and historical identity and the monuments created by the Ba’th party’s chauvinistic culture. It is imperative to preserve all the statues and monuments of high artistic quality, which represent vast humanitarian and cultural achievements and increase the Iraqi citizen’s visual culture and underscore his feeling of cultural and nationalistic belonging. On the other hand, it’s impossible to find any cultural, historical or national argument to keep artistically inferior works of art that were created as war propaganda or for Ba’thist ideological purposes and as symbols of the Ba’th regime in Iraq. In fact, the requisites for establishing a new humanitarian culture are that society should be cleansed of the manifestations of the culture of violence, blood and belligerency, and lead us to purify the social, visual and inhabited space of the representations of this culture. The purification effort, in truth, has so far been incomplete, since there remain statues all over the city, for example, in the Mansour neighborhood, an artistically inferior and symbolically suspect statue created by Saddam’s private physician Dr. Ala’a Bashir still stands. It’s named “The Meeting” (of the Leader and the people), which is symbolized by two walls that are leaning towards each other, one wall higher than the other, the artist-doctor wanting to make it clear that the higher wall was Saddam himself.

The intentional link is being done in the media for political purposes, and to add fuel to the fiery conflict between the political parties currently on the Iraqi scene. As long as these parties’ first priority remains to ignore the real problems and challenges of the issue of statues and monuments in Baghdad, the priority being to protect what remains from vandalism or accident, and then to propagate a new national culture free of party or religious discourse, since the divisions that have sprung up in Iraq after the Ba’th regime’s fall have meant that many of the concrete pedestals that once supported Saddam’s statues now support religious and party pictures. They are continuing the initial work started by Saddam of creating partisan monuments and party statues, with different parties and religious, as if they hadn’t realized that that was the problem to begin with.

To return to Sa’adun’s stolen statue: an Iraqi artist created a copy of the statue stolen by bronze and copper thieves three years ago. It’s made out of fiberglass, and is nothing but a poor copy of the original, but still manages to evoke the same feeling as the old one in passers-by. The luckiest statues and monuments in Baghdad, however, are those between sturdy concrete boulders, such as the statue of the magic carpet from One Thousand and One Nights, sculpted around twenty years ago by Muhammad Ghani Hikmat, now rather ironically trapped in the concrete barriers placed to protect the Palestine Meridien Hotel, Baghdad’s media headquarter. Another lucky statue is that of Abbas bin Farnas, one of the Arab world’s aviation pioneers, which is now in the security fortress around Baghdad airport, which allows him to spread his mechanical wings confidently and securely, away from the noise of the city and its continuous explosions.

Ahmad al-Saadawi

23 June 2007