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Iraqi artists transform derelict tobacco factory into culture hub

The sprawling grounds of Sulaimaniyah's old tobacco factory are finding a second life as an arts center, although financial and bureaucratic obstacles have greatly hindered its progress.

Sulaimaniyah is considered the cultural capital of the Iraqi Kurdistan region. It was there that celebrated poets such as Nali and Salim wrote in the Sorani dialect of Kurdish in the early 19th century. It is one of the most liberal cities in the country, boasting music halls, bookstores, historic tea houses and public parks with busts of popular authors.

By the end of the summer, the city will unveil a new cultural and art space in the historical tobacco factory, a huge derelict industrial complex that looms over central Salim Street, one of the city’s main arteries.

The Sulaimaniyah Tobacco Factory was built in the mid-1950s and was operational by 1961. In its early years, the factory produced over 700 million Al-Jamhuriya cigarettes per year. An independent documentary produced by Taher Abdulwahid in 2010 quotes Mahmud Abdulrahman, Sulaimaniyah’s general director for industry until 2013, that in its heyday in the 1980s, the factory produced 23-24 million packs of cigarettes annually and provided income for 3,000 families.

Production, however, ground to a halt in 1990 when the United Nations Security Council placed a near-total embargo on Baathist Iraq after its invasion of Kuwait. The following year, Kurds rose up against Saddam Hussein’s regime, quickly leading to semi-autonomy.

The Iraqi Kurdistan region transformed politically and economically over the next decade. The local government attempted to reopen the tobacco factory, briefly producing the new cigarette brand San, named after a 20th-century Kurdish ruler from Howraman, a region on the Iraqi-Iranian border. The brand, however, could not compete with cheaper international brands, and production was stopped almost immediately.

Ironically, the factory continued to provide employment for 300 people and a manager, who still pick up government checks. They come to work every day to a ghost factory with derelict machinery. Mostly they chat of the old days and hope that the factory, whose Brutalist architecture one Sulaimaniyah resident complained made it look like a jail, would once more produce cigarettes.

Various plans were proposed to raze the factory after 2004 and replace it with an office building or even a park. But in 2012, a group of artists came up with a different idea: to create the largest arts and cultural center in Iraq, if not the entire Middle East. They wanted to transform the iconic industrial space into a “culture factory” full of exhibitions, workshops, recreational areas and a library.

The artists’ arguments for building rather than destruction were convincing, and their timing was right. They quickly formed a nongovernmental organization (NGO) in 2012 called Culture and Sustainable Development and formed a Facebook group to announce their plans and lobby for support. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), awash in lucrative oil deals and ambitious infrastructure plans, agreed to contribute approximately “$50 million for renovations for the project,” Shirwan Can, the NGO’s program manager, told Al-Monitor.

According to the early plans, the Ministry of Trade and Industry would transfer authority over the factory to the Ministry of Culture. The NGO would then run the cultural program. The group enlisted the help of the Vienna-based Chalabi architectural firm, founded by two Iraqi brothers, to design the master plan and created a steering committee from across Sulaimaniyah’s creative community.

Proposed designs included several art and design workspaces, a theater, a recording studio, a botanical garden, accommodations for visiting artists and a library extension connected to the city’s main public library, which sits next door. One building would even house machinery and documents from the original factory, employing some of the factory’s remaining employees to provide tours and participate in an oral history initiative.

Despite the ambitious plans, the megaproject would run into several bureaucratic and financial obstacles in the years to come. The transfer of authority between the ministries took five years, and in that time, the KRG faced a slew of mounting issues: souring tensions with Baghdad, the fall in oil prices, the rise of the Islamic State and an ill-fated independence referendum. The Culture Factory's budget was subsequently slashed to $4 million — which, all things considered, still shows considerable government buy-in and support for the project.

Today, Chalabi’s master plan still exists but only one building was renovated for cultural activities. The Culture Factory team offers cultural programs and workshops, but authority over the premises is still in the hands of the Trade Ministry, ideally to be transferred at the end of the summer before a public launch is made to introduce the new cultural space to the city’s residents.

The factory is now the site of a strange coexistence between the factory workers, who — perhaps naively — hope that the factory will return to production, and the culture team eager to start a full-fledged public program.

But Can is undeterred. “The limited budget is actually a creative opportunity for organic development,” he told Al-Monitor, underlining that this focus will enable the Culture Factory’s leadership to start with one building and leave future committees free to prioritize and spearhead projects as they develop.

Several of the original guard posts on the grounds have been turned into tiny art exhibit spaces. The sprawling top floor of the refurbished building features the youth center X-Line, which hosts workshops for young aspiring artists, a practice space for a rock band called Nova, meeting rooms for science and writing clubs, a miniature skate park run by a skate and graffiti collective called Boneless, and a cafe. Most of them opened in 2017. The skate park, the most recent addition, opened earlier this year.

Shero Bahradar, a sculptor by training and one of X-Line’s founders, described to Al-Monitor the philosophy behind the center: “We aim to be collaborative, inclusive and limitless. Everything inside the factory is constantly being recycled, and everything is shared.”

Early on a Saturday morning inside one of the studio spaces, Tara Abdullah, a student at Sulaimaniyah’s College of Fine Arts, diligently colored her canvas. “I prefer painting here at the center to my college. It is close by, and I am inspired by all the creative projects going on. I think working here makes my art better.”

Another floor in the factory holds a studio for comic books and animation. Mohammed Aouda, an animator and designer, moved from Baghdad last year and got involved in the Culture Factory by helping design its logo. “I want the factory to produce a comic book by the end of the year that explores some of Iraq’s major sociopolitical issues,” said Aouda, who is setting up a series of tutorials to train a team of cartoonists to that end. Aouda has also organized for Mesaha, Iraq’s first-ever comic strip collective, to come to Sulaimaniyah at the end of the summer to lead a workshop.

“We see the factory working as a hub to bring creators from across the city and Iraq together to collaborate. We next hope to invite artists from the region to come and create with us here,” said Can, noting that at present, the activities target the artistic community and not yet the general public.

At the end of the summer, the Culture Factory will formally open its doors to the public with an art exhibition, presentation and youth activities organized by X-Line. The NGO hopes that it will not only uphold Sulaimaniyah’s position as a center of culture inside Iraq, but develop a domestic art scene for the wider region.

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