Baghdad without beauty

After the United States invaded Iraq, many of Saddam Hussein’s statues were brought down, but their replacements are aesthetically lacking.

al-monitor A statue of Iraq's former President Saddam Hussein falls as it is pulled down in central Baghdad, April 9, 2003. Photo by REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic.

Topics covered

poetry, iraqi central government, history, culture, basra province, baghdad government, art

Jan 22, 2014

Baghdad city officials have turned renowned Arab poet Muhammad Mahdi al-Jawahiri into a coffee seller, and a Christmas tree into a large mosquito net, while the officials of Basra province have depicted “freedom” as a giant eggplant surrounded by horses. Iraqis woke up one morning only to find that all the concepts changed, from the sculptures to the statues that have covered Iraqi streets since the 1940s.

A big shock has hit the intellectuals and those concerned with art, just as it stunned the public’s taste. There are no specialized committees that put up statues and monuments in Iraqi streets. The matter is left to the taste of city officials, and their taste is poor. They put up ugly plastic Chinese statues throughout Iraqi streets and squares, which were once decorated with sculptures by regionally and globally known Iraqi artists, such as Jawad Salim, Khaled al-Rahhal, Mohammed Ghani Hikmat and others.

Jawahiri, the coffee seller

In the cultural center at the end of Mutanabi Street in central Baghdad, they erected a statue for the Iraqi poet who lived in exile for opposing Saddam Hussein’s regime, Muhammad Mahdi al-Jawahri. Jawahiri’s statue has become a bad joke among intellectuals, the public and the poet’s family. Jawahiri’s granddaughter saw her grandfather’s history collapse in front of her. No one in Baghdad province gave the history of that cultural and poetic figure his due.

The province put up a simple statue that said nothing about Jawahiri. It was a simple statue made of some kind of plastic material in the middle of a pool, whose water was dyed green during the unveiling celebration. But all that ugliness was not enough. They surrounded the statue with a number of coffee pots of different sizes. The statue’s head was crooked, and the coffee pots made the scene look even more ridiculous. Jawahiri’s family rushed to the governor to try to fix the monument, which offended the history of a man buried in the Ghuraba cemetery in the neighborhood of Sayyeda Zeinab, Damascus.

Baghdad assassinated Jawahiri twice, once when it forced him into exile, away from the “Tigris River of goodness,” and another time by making for him a pathetic statue that is unworthy of his history.

The governor promised to fix the statue and to remove the coffee pots and coffee cups from around it so that the poet doesn’t get turned into a coffee seller after his death.

A mosquito net Christmas tree

In central Baghdad’s Firdos Square, which became very famous when the US military brought down Saddam Hussein’s statue there in a Hollywood-like scene that marked the end of the dictatorship’s era, a Christmas tree was put up. The government has finally paid attention to the Christian minority that is suffering from displacement (more than two-thirds of Iraqi Christians have emigrated).

In the 1970s, the square used to display the monument of the Unknown Soldier. Then it raised a large statue of Saddam Hussein. But over the next 10 years it had no monument that befitted its stature. So Baghdad officials erected a long tube and covered it with a “mosquito net.” And so was born the tree marking New Year celebrations: a few light bulbs, a piece of green dusty cloth, and a rusty pipe. It is with this kind neglect that the Christians are being reassured. Three churches were targeted on Christmas in 2013.

The freedom eggplant

Basra is celebrating “freedom” to the point of ridiculousness. The local government commissioned an agricultural company to establish a monument for freedom at a cost of 7 billion dinars (about $6 million). After a long wait, the back of the monument looked like a giant eggplant, which was surrounded by horses inspired by those on carousels in amusement parks. Basra, which is governed by several Islamist parties, has depicted freedom in its true self: life in Basra is like horses running away from their past and the eggplant gives hungry people hope for food. Basra is described as Iraq’s cash cow because it is from there that 90% of Iraq’s oil is extracted and exported.

A silent battle is taking place in the streets of Baghdad and Basra. It does not distinguish between the political and aesthetic implications of monuments and statues that have sprung up before the United States invaded Iraq in April 2003 and the domination of Islamist parties on the political scene in the country. The statues glorifying the regime of Saddam Hussein were not the only ones to be destroyed and removed; so was the statue of Abu Jaafar al-Mansour in one of Baghdad's most upscale neighborhoods, which still bears the name of the Abbasid caliph. The statue of the pilot Abdullah al-Aini, which was erected in front of Air Force headquarters in Fath Square, was removed, just as dozens of other statues that symbolized the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) on the corniche of Shatt al-Arab in Basra.

But the most bitter event in this matter is the theft, in broad daylight, of the statue of the Iraqi prime minister who committed suicide at the end of the 1920s, Abdul Mohsen al-Saadoun. The statue was sold as a block of copper days after the United States entered. That happened despite that the statue was on a base 6 meters [about 20 feet] high in Nusra Square in the heart of Baghdad.

Baghdad without beauty

Baghdad has emptied itself of its intellectual, scientific and creative symbols, who have been killed or displaced. It has also emptied itself of its aesthetic symbols represented by monument and statues, which have been destroyed, removed or neglected, as is the case with the Freedom Monument, one of the most important monuments, according to art critics. Baghdad has been emptied of the mural of Faeq Hassan, which was vandalized due to the neglect of the Iraqi Ministry of Culture. A handful of ugly plastic sculptures got erected in Baghdad’s squares and streets. One is for al-Mutannabi, whose statue looks like a monster. And that’s the new Iraq, which just ended a year celebrating “Baghdad, the capital of Arab culture.”

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