The 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq by the US and its allies has prompted many reflections. They bring to my mind the Bad Faith to which the Iraqi people have been subjected ever since the victorious powers betrayed their Arab allies at Versailles after WWI. “Bomber” Harris, who presided over the destruction of German cities from the air in WWII, practiced on rebellious Iraqi villages in the 1920s. There was no organic connection between the royal Hashemite line imposed by the British on the Iraqi people, laying the grounds for nationalist coups to come, and the seemingly ineluctable descent into Saddam Hussein’s despotism. The extraordinarily destructive invasion (in its acts and consequences) was but one of the more recent such betrayals, although in that instance the American and British people were also victims, though less grievously so.
Saddam’s dictatorship betrayed the Iraqi people in countless ways, including the gross distortions of culture and corruption of institutions that benefited the narrow interests of the dictator and his regime. Unimaginable damage was wreaked by the war with Iran. The human losses in their most concrete terms were terrible, but those to culture were similarly bad, from the devastation of Basra to the ecocide that destroyed the Marsh Arabs’ way of life after the 1991 Gulf War, which was precipitated by Saddam’s desire to rid himself of the debts incurred by the previous one. The exorbitant costs of these wars resulted in the pervasive underfunding of culture and education throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, and the sad fact that the Iraq Museum was kept shut for twenty years before the American invasion, opened only for VIP events. That it remains closed despite much effort to rehabilitate it is evidence for the bad faith of venal and incompetent successor governments.
Starting in April 2003, I devoted my attention to the plight of Iraqi libraries and archives, resulting in two lengthy reports alongside other work that recounts much of that sorry tale*1
These two images, one general and one specific, of the first of three exhibits at the Cambridge Arts Council’s gallery representing the first of three exhibits of Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here-related artwork. They are principally artist books (85 of them in the vitrines), with some of the broadsides on the walls. A second exhibit of 82 books is now up, with a third to follow.
Cambridge Arts Council
It is through this work that I became acquainted with SAFE and the indefatigable Cindy Ho. It is generally the case that any successful voluntary enterprise requires one inspired leader to get it going and, often, to sustain it, even though other committed individuals may contribute to its depth and breadth. Cindy is that person, and one of those others whom she inspired to participate, Irina Tarsis, enlisted my participation in three symposia sponsored or co-sponsored by SAFE, the most salient being my paper, “Contested Patrimony: The Fate of the Iraqi Jewish Archive,” presented at Homeward Bound: Returning Displaced Books and Manuscripts.
It is heartening that SAFE has expanded its activities beyond Iraqi antiquities to those of other nations, and has considered those aspects of cultural heritage and national patrimony of more direct concern to those such as myself. Its activities and website benefit the whole world. Another person who, like Cindy Ho, was moved to initiate a project addressing threatened Iraqi culture, is Beau Beausoleil, poet and bookseller of San Francisco, who founded Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here following the catastrophic bombing of the street of the booksellers in Baghdad on 5 March 2007. He has stated that he kept waiting for someone to do something in response to such a terrible affront to all that is good and decent, but nobody did, so he acted, first locally and then globally. This has resulted in an arguably unprecedented imaginative response: the creation of much poetry and other writing,*2 scores of broadsides, and about 360 artist books that reveal an extraordinary range of visual, literary and technical creativity. They have been on exhibit in many places, and a complete set of will eventually arrive at the Iraq National Library and Archive (a set of the broadsides has already reached the INLA).•3
I was asked to provide a meaningful context for the eponymous event at one of the occasions associated with the six-month exhibit in Cambridge, Massachusetts. That follows here.
“Framing the Bombing of Al-Mutanabbi Street: How We Might Think about what Led to it”
Jeff Spurr, 25 February 2013
“Locating Al-Mutanabbi Street”
Cambridge Arts Council Gallery
We Americans tend to be navel gazers, deeply involved in our own problems, and oblivious to the consequences of our projection of power abroad. Few have any conception of — or concern for — the cumulative suffering born by the Iraqi people, and the derangements to Iraqi society caused by our contribution to it.
A long, dark road led to the bomb blast at Al-Mutanabbi Street on March 5th, 2007. The moral and symbolic implications of that horrendous event have been broadly addressed, thanks in particular to this wonderful initiative, Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here, rich evidence of which we see around us.
This evening I will briefly try to provide some context. In my view, five principal conditions frame that terrible act. They are (1) the nature of Saddam Hussein’s totalitarian regime, (2) the crippling sanctions against Iraq after the Gulf War of 1990-1991, (3) the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, (4) the disastrous policies of the Coalition Provisional Authority under L. Paul Bremer, and (5) the existence of a mobile radical Islamic movement associated with al-Qaeda, whose peculiar nature supports a terrifying cultural nihilism.
(1) Despotic regimes not only make the welfare of the tyrant and few others the measure of what is good and right for a whole nation, but their corrupt and absolutist ways suppress any normal civil society, and preclude the development of mature political views, mechanisms, and behavior, in the process injecting slow-working poisons into the body politic that remain long after these regimes are gone. The resulting political immaturity, unfamiliarity with democratic ways, and dearth of practical initiative (due, that is, to the top-down character of all decision-making in such police states), have dire implications for what comes after.
(2) The sanctions regime of the 1990s had no serious effect on Saddam, his family and cronies, whose control over the state remained unabated; however, it immiserated much of the Iraqi middle class, and made the lives of the poor much less bearable, adding new distress to a population that had already endured the terrible ravages of the Iran-Iraq war, ignominious defeat in the Gulf War, and the savage suppression of the subsequent Shi’ite rebellion in Central and Southern Iraq.
(3) The criminally reckless American invasion was essentially undertaken without a plan beyond tactical questions concerning the inevitable military victory, which is to say the easy part. General Shinseki was fired for speaking the truth regarding management of the aftermath, and magical thinking reigned in the White House. The invasion began with the revolting spectacle of “Shock and Awe,” destruction from the skies targeting infrastructure and ministries whose principal consequence would be to dramatically diminish the capacity of successor governments to run the country. Even worse, no provision was made to impose a new authority after the totalitarian regime was overthrown: the lid was taken off the pressure cooker and not replaced. Chaos was the inevitable result. As history has shown, opportunists will always take advantage of the absence of authority, but the terrifying result under these especially bad circumstances was massive looting of nearly every institution in the country outside of Iraqi Kurdistan — whether cultural, educational, or governmental — from which Iraq will never fully recover.
Two images of the INLA (Iraq National Library and Archive). The ‘before’ image is actually after the arson but before restoration of an interior space (you can discern the stairs), while the ‘after’ is of the same space (though a larger view), after Dr. Eskander’s restoration.
(4) Then came the misrule of Paul Bremer, America’s satrap at the CPA, and arch-privatizer. A combination of arrogance, ignorance and ideology scarcely matched by his boss led to the cashiering of the whole Iraqi army, an act of folly that removed a potential stabilizing force (Republican Guard excepted), and threw a couple hundred thousand men out of work. Since the army of occupation had failed to secure ammo dumps across Iraq, arms were readily available. Bremer also closed all state-owned enterprises, consigning countless others to unemployment and disaffection. The mass firing of members of the Baath Party had similar results. Idle hands make for the Devil’s work, after all, and the inability to mobilize for employment and sustain anything resembling normal functioning, plus an endless series of other unfortunate decisions, led inevitably to resistance — further exacerbated by blunt force behavior by the occupying forces.
Indeed, resistance led to extreme reaction. Whereas it was said of the Vietnam War, “we had to destroy the village in order to save it,” things graduated in Iraq to “we destroyed the city to save it,” notably in the cases of Fallujah and Ramadi. What leverage might have been gained from overthrowing the widely-hated Saddam was quickly squandered.
It is virtually axiomatic that a system of repression such as existed under Saddam leaves people little choice but to identify with more elementary structures of society: the family, the tribe, and, particularly among the less secularized Iraqi lower classes, religion. This is where social fault lines develop when all else disintegrates.
Violent Sunni resistance led ineluctably to two things: the emergence of the much more radical al-Qaeda in Iraq, not invested in the preservation of any people or place, and largely consisting of foreign Arab elements coming from Jordan and through Syria, mirrored by the embrace of violence by Shi’ite groups, most conspicuously the Sadr Brigades, lumpen elements supporting that firebrand Shi’ite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr. This combustible situation led to an all-out civil war conducted by these radicalized elements, precipitated in its aggravated form when al-Qaeda blew up the Shi’ite Al-Askari Mosque and Shrine at Samarra in February 2006. Al-Qaeda elements have been employing a slogan, “taqsir wa tafjir,” which, translated into English, signifies something like “denounce and detonate” or, according to a friend, effectively “blow them all up.”
It was in the context of this explosion of hate and strife, when upwards of four million largely middle class Iraqis (proportionately equivalent to about 42 million Americans), were forced to flee their homes, unlikely to return, that Al-Mutanabbi Street was devastated. When tens of thousands are being murdered, when many parties are behaving in wanton ways, and when forces that consider humanism and enlightenment to be the enemy are unleashed on the land, it comes as no great surprise that this terrible crime occurred, much as we may lament it.
[modified and expanded for SAFE:]
As a coda, I would like to add that one man has shown what is possible in Iraq despite the conditions I have just described. That person is Dr. Saad Eskander, who took charge of a devastated Iraq National Library and Archive (INLA) in the fall of 2003 at a very dark hour for that institution and Iraq. There his performance has been exemplary under the most trying of circumstances.
Dr. Eskander not only succeeded in restoring a structure that had been declared a dead loss, but took a corrupt, moribund staff of 95 and turned it into a thriving, productive one of over 300, shepherding it through the dark years of civil war and difficult times since, initiating an enlightened administration in which the staffs of departments elect their representatives to the institution’s council; encouraging a women’s group that began a canteen and child care onsite. He reached out to the world, for which reason he received critical donations of equipment and materials of every sort from many countries and institutions, plus advanced training for his staff on several fronts. Despite having to repeatedly cope with retrograde elements in the Ministry of Culture and elsewhere in government, he has sustained the integrity of his institution and arranged for the building of a new National Archives building and a Generations Library for children and youth. A new building for digital projects is underway. Dr. Eskander has also spearheaded the effort to repatriate various classes of seized Iraqi documents on US soil or in American hands. Much of this is described in detail in my 2007 and 2010 reports. Despite the grievous losses due to arson and deliberate flooding in April 2003, Saad Eskander continues his labors in the service of Iraqi culture and heritage. His work provides not only a model for best practices in the administration of a cultural institution in Iraq, but for the world. We owe him our admiration and support.
*1 July 2005 report:
July 2007 report:
A substantial update that focuses on controversies concerning various classes of seized Iraqi documents still under American control may be found in
“Report on Iraqi Libraries and Archives, 2010,” MELA Notes, no. 83 (2010), pp. 14-38
at which point one must click on:
MELA Notes number 83 (2010)
*2 Beausoleil, Beau and Deema Shehabi, eds., Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here: Poets and Writers Respond to the March 5th, 2007, Bombing of Baghdad’s “Street of the Booksellers”, PM Press, Oakland, CA, 2012
NB: the big hole in the ground mentioned in this article is not the new Archives building, which has already been built, although not as yet fully furnished; it is the foundation for the Digital Library building, Dr. Eskander having long ago initiated a comprehensive plan for digitization in the service of transparency and access for Iraqis to their history and heritage.