Nada Shabout: There is more to be mourned than Iraq's ancient treasures

Historians in the News

That coalition forces have behaved with such blatant disregard toward these ancient monuments flies in the face of the 1954 UNESCO Resolution outlining the criteria for the protection of cultural sites in the event of armed conflict.

After five years of occupation, these stories have become awfully familiar. At the same time, the weight given to Iraq's ancient artefacts suggests how Orientalist international attitudes toward Iraq's art and cultural production are.

The neglect of Iraq's modern artisitic production - wrapped up in the campaign to destroy any remnants of the Baathi regime, and therefore Iraq's collective memory - was the central theme of Shabout's resounding lecture.

Shabout supports her argument with clear evidence and scholarly consideration. Those drawn to her lecture by its title and program synopsis perhaps assumed that her main interest was the looting of Iraq's Modern Art Museum and the subsequent trafficking of its works.

At the beginning of her talk, Shabout admits she's tired of talking about this subject, and instead speaks with passionate urgency about the need to expose the "systematic campaign to erase Iraq's collective memory."

Aided by a series of slides, Shabout demonstrates how the process of building a new, "democratic" Iraq entails the razing of public monuments, therefore the "erasure of collective memory."

Shabout argues that this massive campaign, initiated by L. Paul Bremer - US presidential envoy to Iraq and top civil administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) - and the CPA's Iraqi interlocutors, is not only disrespectful but dangerous for the future of Iraq. "You cannot just erase a people's history, and memory," she says.

As she illustrates, Saddam Hussein's public monuments were often hideous but, she argues, they still ought to survive, to bear witness to this era that the Iraqi people lived through.

The "Hands of Victory" for example, removed in February 2007 by the Committee for Removing Symbols of the Saddam Era, is a series of arches in the shape of swords, their bases formed by Iranian helmets. Meant to depict the putative Iraqi victory in the Iran-Iraq war, the piece may not be particularly attractive, but it is still history.

Shabout suggests alternative policies be explored, such as housing such structures in museums - although she admits that, given the present security situation, people are more concerned with day-to-day survival than anything else....
Read entire article at Laura Wilkinson in the Daily Star

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