The Nahrein Network


How cultural heritage can help Iraqis heal

6 August 2018


When you think of cultural heritage التراث الثقافي, what comes to mind? For many, cultural heritage denotes material artefacts and archaeological riches, intellectually valued relics worthy of preservation. It is also the things we cannot necessarily see or touch, defined by UNESCO as the ‘intangible attributes of a group or society that are inherited from past generations, maintained in the present and bestowed for the benefit of future generations’. These ‘intangibles’ can include societal values, communal bonds, traditions, rituals, oral expression and language. But heritage is subject to filtering in a ‘selection process: a process of memory and oblivion that characterizes every human society constantly engaged in choosing…what is worthy of being preserved for future generations and what is not’. This process provides us with a ‘version of history’. In a land of diversity and time of change, is it yours?

Heritage kept and heritage lost are often the results of decisions steered by institutions and elites, in any country. Qahtan Al-Abeed, supervisor of world cultural heritage sites in Iraq with UNESCO, experienced this directly. Born in Basra in 1980 before moving to Kirkuk in 1986, Qahtan ‘always liked old things’. However, at school he wondered why there was ‘limited information of our history, limited information of our civilisation’. An Archaeology degree was then a specialist opportunity only afforded to 15 students a year at Baghdad University.

Dictatorship, conflict and instability in Iraq have enabled attacks and control over legacies, buildings and human identities. Iraqi history has been characterised by the ‘systematic dismantling’ of heritage, suggests Professor of Ancient Middle Eastern History at University College London, Eleanor Robson, ‘from the time of the British Mandate, post-World War I, to during the past 15 years…the Coalition Provisional Authority and others deprioritised understanding of communities and civil society. Think about the ways museums have told a nationalist history – this set the scene for Saddam through to ISIS.’ So why is heritage of particular interest and investment now?

Partly because the country is on the cusp of change and also because cultural heritage has been a tool in war. Over recent years ISIS destroyed swathes of North-Western Iraq including the walled city of Hatra, the monuments of Nimrud, libraries, and a number of religious sites. Furthermore, ISIS’ intolerance to pluralism and the group’s crimes, such as rape and the demolition of shrines, is an ‘ideological removal of identity’ says Professor Robson, ‘and there’s a failure to understand its importance’.

ISIS also destroyed the Mosul museum. When this happened, Qahtan Al-Abeed, as Director of Basrah Museum, opened its first gallery in September 2016. It was a show of solidarity ‘to counteract it [war with ISIS], a message of peace.’

In an attempt to assist with the reconstruction of Mosul, Qahtan hopes to use his position to train others. He laments how the city is ‘in zero condition, it needs a long time’. Rather, heritage rehabilitation can also be about ‘giving and creating. Young people, engineers, doctors…they are interested, but they want someone to teach them how to do it.’

Prior to ISIS, events involving the United States were also manipulated for political and ideological ends. ‘Stuff happens… freedom’s untidy’ said Donald Rumsfeld of the rioting and looting of museums and libraries unprotected in the United States invasion in 2003, citing the burning and destruction of heritage as ‘collateral damage’.

In the instability of American occupation Qahtan Al-Abeed moved back to Basra to work for the directorate of antiquities. But squatters had looted and taken over the premises. Qahtan indicates the difficulties Iraqis faced post-2003 – ‘If we couldn’t even protect our office, how to protect a heritage site? We had to create from zero’.

So, cultural heritage has been weaponised for decades to further agendas, ideologies and notional superiorities. After ISIS and current post-election uncertainty, how do Iraqis want to move forward?

Venturing inquiry is the Nahrein Network. Headed up by Professor Robson, Nahrein’s aims are to support the sustainable development of antiquity, cultural heritage and the humanities in Iraq and its neighbours. Cultural heritage can contribute to ‘sustainable development and social cohesion’, she explains, if it is ‘inclusive, accessible and democratic’. When rehabilitation allows ‘for individuals with collective identities’, heritage can be a mechanism for recovery in diverse societies.

Funded by the U.K. Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Global Challenges Research Fund, the project runs until 2021. During this time, Nahrein is cooperating with museums, universities and cultural heritage sites in the Middle East to develop interdisciplinary humanities research and education, thus also driving social and economic development. Many institutions have a stake in the network, and collaborations are already in place with the University of Baghdad and Basrah Museum, amongst many others.

Nahrein then is also a vehicle, ‘a funding body, trying to hook up Iraqi ideas with money and infrastructure,’ explains Professor Robson. Soon Nahrein will fund Iraqi research projects exploring ‘the synergies between history, the humanities and heritage’. Professor Robson has worked in the country for several years. ‘We want to bring intellectual ownership back to Iraq,’ she adds. ‘I hope that the isolation of the past 28 years starts to dissolve and in the next few years, others work with Iraqis. It’s normal.’

In a move to realising this ambition, Nahrein is equipping Iraqi academics such as Dr. Rozhen Kamal Mohammed-Amin with scholarships to visit the U.K. Dr. Rozhen, architect, founder and head of the Digital Cultural Heritage Research Group at the Sulaimani Polytechnic University, says: ‘Through the network’s joint visiting Iraqi scholarship, I am awarded a unique opportunity to modernize cultural heritage storytelling and experience at a local museum as a model, a plan that I had to put on hold due to lack of local funds’.

Ultimately, Nahrein is trying to ‘re-establish local pasts for local people, where culture is part of a rich and fulfilling life’. Recently the project has been engaged in fact-finding missions, listening to a wide range of Iraqis, and asking, how would a good future look? Nahrein hosted a session at The Station in Baghdad with around 25 young professionals. At that focus group, “Someone said ‘old minds decide what happens.’ We want to get outside these institutional cultures.” Most participants, it transpired, were ‘bored at school’, instead finding a ‘love of culture and heritage through family…through being at their grandparents’ house, through songs, car trips, picnics…’ Notably, ‘They were emotional responses. Whether home or a place,’ says Professor Robson, ‘It’s about feelings’. Possibly, the emotional aspects of heritage are the glue. Eleanor elaborates how cultural spaces ‘can also be an opportunity to forget, and have fun. An escape mechanism, to not think of difficult presents. Museums, the marshes…these are calm spaces for contemplation, for people to be themselves.’

Qahtan Al-Abeed echoes the sensory powers of heritage. ‘We want to change the sad memories of Basrawi people’ he says. He plans to fully open the remaining galleries in the Basrah Museum in March next year. The museum uncovers 1800 years of history and excavations in the region, showcasing artefacts, pottery, glass, coins, toys and coffins. Yet, it is the less tangible dimensions that make the museum more significant than the sum of its contents.

Paradoxically, it is housed in Saddam’s old palace complex, in a tourist location. Qahtan rationalises why: ‘It is huge, with a secure gated area and big rooms for galleries.’ It is also of course a ghostly and emblematic acquisition. ‘People hated it!’ states Qahtan, ‘As a symbol of the totalitarian regime’.

In 1991, during the Shaaban Intifada, Saddam’s army carried out massacres in the palace. It was physically ruined again in 2005. In the allegorical ashes are messages. For regimes around the world, the Basrah museum aims to represent ‘humanity and civilisation…we are not for dictatorship, for doing bad things to people’. And, affirms Qahtan firmly, ‘We are not removing Saddam’s names from the walls. We will tell people in future the story. That is the only testimony we have.’

Meanwhile, also in Basra, Qahtan is trying to reactivate Khashaba خشابة, a local traditional form of music and dance. He is supporting the development of tourism amongst the marshes, a UNESCO listed site since 2016. But the water shortage, the result of climate, geography and regional politics, has created drought and now civil unrest. ‘Life continues,’ Qahtan observes, with stoical resilience, ‘We have to live. We have to do something important. Humanity has to help earth.’

And it is this relationship ‘between people and things’, says Professor Robson, that heritage personifies; ‘It’s who you are.’

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