25 May 2009

On the woad (part IV)

And so we come to the last in our current series of posts on Unkie Dave's road trip to Edinburgh, in which our hero puts himself permanently on the CIA's watchlist and forever removes himself from the limited circle of foreigners his friends in the State Department are allowed to associate with.

At the heart of the roadtrip and the basis of its timing were the last few events of the Reel Iraq Festival, a celebration of Iraqi cinema and culture. Following on from last year's successful Reel Afghanistan Festival, the event brought together a large number of Iraqi film-makers, writers, poets, photographers and historians to explore the culture, traditions and history both ancient and contemporary of Iraq through their combined work.

As with most things, the limited knowledge I had of Iraq was just enough to let me realise just how much I didn't know. Almost everything I knew was learned through the lens of the first and second Gulf wars, second hand knowledge gained from non-Iraqi eye-witnesses to the invasions and their terrible aftermaths. Books like Rajiv Chandrasekaran's "Imperial Life in the Emerald City", Naomi Klein's "Shock Doctrine" and "No War", Loretta Napoleoni's "Insurgent Iraq", Jeremy Scahill's "Blackwater" and Charles Ferguson's "No End in Sight" have dominated my bookshelves for the last three years and formed the basis for my rather one-sided view on Iraq, telling a tale of middle-class guilt over the actions carried out by one's governments, of neoliberal ideology run amok and serving as the proof for the superiority of one's own political beliefs. Iraq existed to show how wrong the neocons and religious right were, its role was as a proof to a theorem distant and removed, the suffering of its people a part of a formula that proved I and my comrades on the Left were right, and the Right were wrong, and somewhere in the midst of all this righteous indignation the voices of Iraqis themselves were abstracted into near irrelevancy.

Thus I went to Edinburgh to hear those voices directly and filtered through no lens save that crafted by the Iraqis themselves.

Knowing some of the festival organisers has its advantages, for in addition to attending the exhibitions, films and readings I was also able to hang around with quite a few of the guests, and over lunch and dinner got talk with quite a few folks, including Layth Abdulamir, Director of "Iraq: Song of the Missing Men", and possessor of the finest mustache I have seen outside of India, poet Sinan Antoon and writer and journalist Hussain al-Mozany. All are exiles from Iraq, though have little else in common, and between them managed to portray a sense of deep sadness, regret and anger for what has transpired in their country, during the Ba'athist years and subsequent US occupation.

While I learned many things in a short amount of time, the biggest eye-opener was just how secular a society Iraq was before the invasion. While anti-zionist rhetoric had risen dramatically during the rule of Nuri al-Said in the late 40's, up to that point Christians, Jews, Sunni and Shiite had lived side by side in relative harmony. Even during the Ba'athist years the divisions between Sunni and Shiite were not substantial, only rising in the aftermath of the US occupation and its subsequent policy of interacting with groups primarily along religious and ethnic lines, and acts such as the division of the city into ethnic zones and creation of "Peace Walls" to physically divide communities, or the recognition and financial support of religious paramilitary groups and militias. Previously the average Iraqi was as religious as the average Irish Catholic today, identifying themselves as Sunni or Shiite and attending the major festivals, but not really worrying about the details too much (especially the whole ban on alcohol, almost every Iraqi I met at the festival drank like a fish). In fact, it could be argued that for women in Iraq through to the 70's life was considerably more liberated than for their Irish counterparts at the time, with more opportunities for education and careers outside of the role of homemaker and mother, remembering that until 1973 women in Ireland were still legally required to resign from the civil service upon marriage.

It was also evident that this once great culture had been destroyed by the egos of three men, Nuri al-Said (supported by the British for much of his rule as a way of securing access to Iraqi oil), Saddam Hussein (supported by the US for much of his rule as a way of securing access to Iraqi oil), and George W Bush, who decided to bypass the traditional method of accessing Iraqi oil through supporting a local dictator and grab it all for himself directly.

For me the films, writings and photography on display throughout the Reel Iraq festival all merged together to form a keening lament for a once noble culture brought to brink of extinction over the course of fifty years, sacrificed on the altar of the West's insatiable demand for oil. Sadly the most notable thing missing from the Festival was any sense of hope for the future. For some that I talked to Iraq was dead to them, written off as unsalvageable and their only duty to it now was to remember what it once had been as they lived out their ghost lives in foreign cities. For others the hope remained that this death would only last the current generation, and that something new would be reborn in twenty years time, but that this phoenix would have almost no direct connection to its past such was the current level of destruction in Iraq. For all that I spoke to this was to be, and is, a lost generation.

All in all it was a profoundly moving and depressing experience, but I came away from it feeling that it was at least more real to me now than words on a page, and that however saddening their voices were at least I had stood up and heard them.

The Reel Iraq Festival



At 4:02 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Okay, Unkie Dave, time is nigh to follow your calling as a travel writer. Kick off a politico-tourist, intellectual-adventurist genre. Hanging on your every word over here.

Oh, and "Mrs. Inessentials"? Defining the woman in terms of her relation to a man? Shame, shame.

Mr. No Name (aka Inessentials)

At 4:06 pm, Blogger Unkie Dave said...

hehe. Maybe I should start referring to you as Mr Mrs Innesentials.


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