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Iraqi debate over Baghdad as Arab cultural capital

As events to recognize Baghdad as the Arab Capital of Culture for 2013 get underway, Iraqis artists and creative producers express their discontent with the Ministry of Culture .
Monumental Assyrian works stand in a gallery of the Iraq Museum in Baghdad. The authorities closed the museum and removed most of its other treasures to secret hiding places during the 1990-91 Gulf crisis, but are now considering plans with UNESCO to put them back on show. (Picture taken 30NOV98) - RTXHUYE

BAGHDAD — Baghdad is celebrating its selection as the 2013 Arab Capital of Culture. Since the program began, many differences have emerged between the Iraqi government and those working in cultural production.

In addition to these differences, to which Iraqi cultural circles have grown accustomed, a former Iraqi ambassador to UNESCO, Shawqi Abdel Amir, pointed out “the neglect of the Iraqi government in mentioning the role of UNESCO [in the festivities].”

The activities to commemorate Baghdad’s selection as the Arab Capital of Culture began in March, with a huge opening ceremony attended by senior Iraqi officials, including Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Secretary-General of the Arab League Nabil Elaraby, as well as a number of Arab and foreign ambassadors.

Speaking to Al-Monitor, Abdel Amir said, “It is strange that the party supervising the ‘Baghdad, Arab Capital of Culture’ event for this year did not mention UNESCO.”

Abdel Amir, a renowned Iraqi poet, added, “In 1996, UNESCO decided to adopt the tradition of appointing cultural capitals in the Arab region, following a proposal made by the organization’s Arab member states. Yet, this year, Iraq did not give recognition to UNESCO, contenting itself with a nod to the Arab League.”

The former ambassador continued, “The party sponsoring the [activities] should not ignore UNESCO’s intrinsic role in the cultural capitals program.”  

According to UNESCO, the program’s idea is based on the concept that “culture is a fundamental component of community life, and it serves as an axis of comprehensive development. It aims to stimulate creative initiatives, and develop a cultural and intellectual reservoir. It strives to do so by highlighting the cultural value of the host city of the Arab capital of culture’s activities and developing its key role in supporting intellectual and cultural creativity. It also seeks to deepen cultural dialogue and openness to the peoples’ cultures and civilizations in promoting values,​ understanding, brotherhood, tolerance and respect for cultural specificities.”

The critical remark by the former Iraqi diplomat about the Iraqi cultural project was one among many; a number of disputes have taken place since the start of the event.

A group of Iraqi intellectuals believe that the project is very important for cultural life of Iraq, as it is the most important and the most prominent cultural forum since the fall of the regime of President Saddam Hussein in 2003. This is the first time since that the capital has embraced this number of Arab and foreign delegations. Moreover, the Iraqi cultural scene has not registered such a large number of events before. These events include theater productions, fine arts, cinemaliterary festivals, as well as the printing of dozens of books written by Iraqi authors.

On the other hand, however, there are objections from Iraqi intellectuals about what they say is the poor performance of the Ministry of Culture. They also claim that the project needs a more integrated management. Their criticism repeatedly stresses the need to address a Iraqi cultural environment that is fighting administrative corruption, an absence of security and a lack of services.

Iraqi TV stations have broadcast several programs about the crisis of disagreement on the project. They hosted educated Iraqis and officials from the Ministry of Culture to talk about the most important differences between them, but often the two sides wound up insulting and swearing at each other, especially when allegations of “manipulation of public money to fund the project” were mentioned.

Sabah Mandalawi, the head of the Iraqi Artists Union, told Al-Monitor, “In principle, Iraqi intellectuals should feel proud of this project, given its importance, but there are also a lot of painful details, such as the lack of coordination between the Ministry of Culture and the union of Iraqi artists in this field.”

Mandalawi added, “A higher preparatory committee that includes the heads of literary and cultural associations was initially formed in Baghdad, but there was apparently no actual carrying out of this decision.” 

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