Book review: Review of We Are Iraqis: Aesthetics and Politics in a Time of War | AMCA | Association for Modern + Contemporary Art of the Arab World, Iran + Turkey

Book review: Review of We Are Iraqis: Aesthetics and Politics in a Time of War

Nadje Al-Ali and Deborah Al-Najjar, eds.
We Are Iraqis: Aesthetics and Politics in a Time of War
New York: Syracuse University Press, 2012
(320 pages, illustrations, notes, bibliography) $45.00 (cloth)

Wheaton College
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In the face of obscene violence and political injustice, Iraqis cope in resilient ways to maintain the semblance of normalcy in their everyday lives: preparing meals, cleaning, caring for family, telling jokes and sharing stories with friends (xxvi). However, within Iraq’s ethnically, religiously, and geographically diverse communities, collective and individual traumas have also shaped extraordinary works of creative expression and political resistance. We Are Iraqis: Aesthetics and Politics in a Time of War constitutes an impressive body of this visual, oral, literary, cinematic, and curatorial work by Iraqis.

We Are Iraqis is an English-language collection of recent work by Iraqi academics, artists, and activists living inside Iraq and around the world. The editors, Nadje Al-Ali and Deborah Al-Najjar, aim to dispel the image of Iraqis as passive victims of war by presenting powerful examples from the most imaginative dimensions of human expression. There is much to be learned from the experiences of Iraqis. Al-Ali and Al-Najjar highlight the wisdom of non-violent resistance born out through the “creativity of trauma” (xxvi). Rather than providing a tidy narrative about aesthetics and politics in Iraq during recent decades of war, sanctions and occupation, Al-Ali and Al-Najjar’s introduction primes readers with complicated problems to work through as they move through the subsequent anthology of visual and written work.

This volume brings together a variety of texts and images, including poems, personal essays, conversations, critical histories, and exhibition reviews. The result is a prism of voices that illuminates the brilliant diversity of the art/activism that has emerged to cope, contend, and counter political violence and wartime injustices in Iraq. The collection is comprised of twenty-two chapters, and the editors intend their various authors to converse in both complimentary and contradictory ways. Among the many themes examined in the volume, narratives of exile and dislocation prevail as consistent threads, and contributors include Sinan Antoon, Sama Alshaibi, and Ella Habiba Shohat. Notably, this compendium signifies an emphatic shift from top-down studies of political oppression and victimization to interdisciplinary and grounded studies of Iraq’s visual and literary cultures.  In this review, I have chosen to highlight several essays most relevant to studies in the visual arts.

Nada Shabout’s essay, “Bifurcations of Iraq’s Visual Culture,” maps the theoretical and practical implications of thirteen years of sanctions and the subsequent US invasion on the production of Iraqi fine arts (i.e. painting, photography, sculpture, graphic design, etc.), which constitutes “a large part of the nation’s collective memory” (8). At stake in Shabout’s study is the reclamation and contextualization of historical narratives of Iraqi art, which have been subject to grave distortions by Western authorities since 2003 and have gone so far as to dictate current market values for Arab art. Looking toward the future, Shabout concludes that although recent artists have created new visions of Iraqi identity “predicated on invasion, war and destruction,” they can compel the world to see beyond political messages in their work and recognize their contributions in terms of aesthetic value (22).

Al-Ali’s conversation with the artist and curator Maysaloun Faraj traces her ongoing efforts to feature the work of contemporary Iraqi artists in a global context through the Strokes of Genius project, which has already resulted in a gallery exhibition, book, and online resource. In a subsequent chapter, Al-Ali provides a review of the show “Sophisticated Ways: Destruction of an Ancient City,” which featured the mixed-media work of two Iraqi artists, Hana Malallah and Rashad Salim. She writes, “Looking at their works, we are confronted with the undeniable facts of destruction: burnt canvasses, rigged materials, broken glass, torn pages, and broken pieces of wood. It’s not a pretty sight. […] But with their vision and creativity they also manage to transcend, transform, and reconstruct the debris, fragments, and ashes that are both the products and manifestations of devastation into something new, something aesthetically pleasing, even something beautiful” (151-2). Al Ali’s words capture an inherent tension between the narration of violence and the production of aesthetic value that is explored throughout the volume. Within this tension the “creativity of trauma” manifests through the words and work of the Iraqi poets, painters, essayists and filmmakers featured in this volume.

Maysoon Pachachi’s essay speaks to this tension, as it narrates the ambitions, difficulties, and successes of establishing Baghdad’s first independent film school in the wake of the US invasion. Despite the kidnappings, suicide bombings, and random violence that regularly compromised the personal security and practical capacities of students and staff, the unyielding dedication of young Iraqi filmmakers resulted in students’ completion of two film courses and ten short documentaries, in which students use moving image and montage to narrate aspects of everyday life in Iraq between 2004-2007.

Irada Al-Jabbouri’s penetrating essay, “Identity of the Numbers,” is the last of the collection. Her words comprise a graceful protest and a testimony. Al-Jabbouri chronicles the enormity and humanity of the individual stories of life and death in Iraq that have been reduced to numbing displays of empty numbers. She writes,

…reports say that 11,572 Iraqis were killed in 2005, 25,774 in 2006, 22,671 in 2007. I study the numbers…I search for the faces of the killed…I try to find out the identity of no. 530, or no. 3, or no. 200, or 29, or 2773…I ask for the number of our neighbor’s young son who left the house one day and did not come back. His family only happened to find his swollen dead body, days later…piles of bodies waiting for someone to identify them. What the number can’t tell you is that Saad was 22 years old, he loved the Barcelona football team, and he used to support the Talaba Iraqi team. He used to love dibs and rashi (date syrup and tahini, usually eaten for breakfast). He used to dream that the day would come when the girl who studies at the Teachers’ Institute would return his look (251).

Al-Jabbouri writes her memories as an act of survival, one that “resists amnesia” and promises to keep these stories alive for her daughter.

The diverse collection of essays and artistic perspectives in We Are Iraqis evocatively illustrates how the personal is political in a time of war. The editors and contributors produce a compelling critique of and counter-narrative to racist generalizations of Iraqis as either passive victims or perpetrators of violence, tropes that are promulgated and normalized through Western media. Al-Ali and Al-Najjar explain how these cogent stereotypes work to rationalize ongoing suffering in Iraq in terms of a “culture of violence” theory, which collapses specific histories and subsumes individual and collective agencies (xxx). As a whole, the anthology effectively debunks this top-down approach to understanding Iraqi culture through an illumination of specific histories and artistic agency.

Since the book lacks a transparent framework that might help readers navigate its broad range of contents (e.g. thematic structure and/or introductory essays), the individual is left to determine her or his own interpretation of the connecting themes and dialogues among authors. Reading the chapters in a progressive linear order has its advantages. The editors have curated a journey that unfolds gradually, with some unexpected twists and turns, as a novel might. On the other hand, readers without the luxury of time may be frustrated by the lack of guidance and resort to the arbitrary selection of texts based on title or author alone, missing the discursive dimensions of the volume altogether. In addition to text, images of paintings and drawings by contemporary Iraqi artists appear somewhat haphazardly amidst the various chapters. Unfortunately, this visual content remains largely unengaged by adjacent texts and thus serves chiefly to decorate the chapters rather than decode potential relationships between the visual and written narratives.

We Are Iraqis succeeds in its effort to lay bare the complexities and contradictions of societies, families, and individuals confronted with political violence and injustice. Despite their potentially disjointed organization, the multiple and contested narratives put forth in We Are Iraqis create a vital new space within the prevailing discourse on Iraq, which tends to focus on the over-deterministic lenses of sectarian difference and violence. Instead, the editors re-orient the reader towards a diverse spectrum of work created by Iraqis who practice non-violent resistance through art and activism. We Are Iraqis is recommended for courses in anthropology, art history, comparative literature, creative writing, gender and women’s studies, history, Middle Eastern studies, media studies, and peace and conflict studies.

Mona Damluji is the Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Islamic and Asian Visual Culture at Wheaton College (Norton, MA) and a research fellow in the Arab Council for Social Sciences working group on space.