duality; or what it means to destroy a culture

Whenever I’m in Jordan I find myself confronted by thoughts of dual occupation. Of two wars. Of two significant refugee populations. And of the two powers most responsible for these problems: Americans and Zionist Jews (of course originally we can blame the British too). This map that appeared on Palestine Think Tank accompanied by an article by Rami Khoury, shows some of the layers of the Iraqi occupation. It would be useful to draw a similar map of those American corporations complicit in occupying, destroying, and stealing Palestinian land. The companies might look a little different, but these are corporations that should be punished through sanctions and divestment projects. I was thinking about this while I spent the afternoon with two Iraqi artists from Baghdad, one of whom smoked Marlboro cigarettes.

Marlboro aside, I met an amazing man today. It was a once in a lifetime experience. I spent all evening and night with the extraordinary artist and person, Mohamed Ghani (see photo above). Somehow my friend Wafa’a received an invitation to his studio and he took us around and showed us his amazing sculptures, drawings, sketches. He had several rooms in his studio filled with his art work, but nowhere near what his archive held before. Mohamed, who was born in 1929, and started sculpting in the 1940s had a tremendous archive of work, much of which is in museums and private homes around the world. But prior to the illegal U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, the entire third floor of the Baghdad Art Museum was devoted to his sculptures. There were 150 pieces on display there.

One might ask where his world renowned art went. At the time, in 2003, Mohamed was in Bahrain. In fact, he was watching television. He watched as American troops stormed the art museum and smash all of his pieces to pieces. Literally. All of them gone forever. Since the invasion he’s been living in Jordan, producing new art, much of it in high demand and commissioned around the world. But his mission is not really about his own artwork right now. Much of what he talked about with us was his desire to get the other artists’ works back–those that were looted by American invading forces rather than destroyed. He first tried to go to the American occupying soldiers who were “guarding” (horrible word to use for thieves, I know) the museum after its destruction. He asked the person in charge if he would help him put together some kind of fund to help him purchase the art on the black market to get it back in Iraq. Of course, he said no. Actually, he told Mohamed it is “illegal” for him to use U.S. funds to purchase items on the black market. Hmmm…. interesting: since when does the U.S. pay attention to international laws? Or its own laws? I don’t think I can remember that far back.

Of course, it’s not surprising that Mohamed wasn’t able to get the U.S. thieves to help him find the Iraqi art they looted, but he was able to pull together a group of younger, amateur Iraqi artists who put up the cash to buy back Iraqi art. They’ve been able to purchase over 100 pieces thus far and Mohamed says he’ll be able to pay these artists back. It is amazing to see this collectivity, solidarity among these artists trying to save their recent culture. So much of the reporting on looting has focused on ancient artifacts and art from Baghdad, which American occupation forces also looted and destroyed. But both are important parts of Iraqi culture and history. Chalmers Johnson has an overview article on the theft of Iraqi culture on the part of the Americans, which is worth reading. There is also an interesting website called the Baghdad Museum Project, which is an attempt to catalog and reclaim missing antiquities looted from Iraq. Interestingly, a bunch of American museum officials came to Baghdad after this looting took place. They wanted to bring Iraqi artists like Mohamed to exhibit their work and tour it around the U.S. Mohamed declined because at the time the Iraqi philharmonic had just done such a tour. In American reviews he saw how they had been manipulated by Americans who presented outlandish claims in the U.S. media about Americans bringing civilization and democracy to Iraq so that now they have an orchestra; reality check: this orchestra has existed since the 1920s. Americans had nothing to do with its formation. Americans in relation to Iraq are always only related to destruction or deception.

Mohamed is such a beautiful man, with an amazing energy. It is hard to imagine he’s going to be 80 next year as he seems more like 60. He exudes a youthfulness and a playfulness that is beautiful. He talked about some of his sculptures, which are all around Baghdad. For a long time he worked to make sure each neighborhood had one of his sculptures so that children would grow up seeing art and imagining their world with art. One of the more famous ones is his piece of Sheherezad. This man’s life and art have seen so much change–most of it for the worst–in Iraq. Over dinner at my friend’s house he talked about being a young boy in school with Baghdadi Jews, Christians, and Muslims. He remembered the Mossad coming in and bombing the Jewish neighborhoods, while blaming it on Iraqis, so that the Israelis could scheme and force the Baghdadi Jews to move to the Zionist state since they couldn’t get them to do it willingly. He’s seen more wars than he would like to have seen. And throughout it all he’s sculpted.

Mohamed also talked about the Mossad agents on the ground in Iraq, assisting American occupation soldiers, teaching them their methods of occupation. I have heard this before. It is one more way that I have been thinking of the dual occupations. The same actors. The same funds. The same interests. Americans and Zionists. Both occupiers, murderers, thieves. But in the context of art they have something else in common: they both destroy–or at least seek to destroy–culture. For if you destroy someone’s culture it enables you to erase them. To say that they don’t exist as Israeli leaders have done for decades. And some still do (read: when Palestinians of Akka are called “Israeli Arabs” or “Arabs” this is one of many such ways their identity gets erased). Iraqis and Palestinians alike have used their cultural roots and cultural present to resist that erasure and to claim their present. And they do this in many ways and against many odds. Which is why I cannot understand why one might censor art, literature, culture, information, news in this region.

Okay, I can understand it on some level. Neocolonial, postcolonial, and colonial regimes alike are all anxious. Afraid of losing power. Afraid of upsetting the masses. But given the history of Israelis censoring all sorts of literary works, many of which having nothing to do with Palestine, until 1994 (and some even today) I wonder why one would want to ban books in Palestine. Or films, culture, art. Why repeat the errors of one’s master? Earlier this week in Jordan poet Islam Samhan was arrested for writing poems that engaged with the Qur’an:

The head of the Jordanian writers association, Saoud Qubeilat, told the daily al-Ghad that poetry relied on figures of speech which could sound blasphemous if read superficially.

He added that the arrest of Mr Samhan would stifle creativity and freedom of expression.

Writers and artists have sent a petition to the government calling the arrest a “retreat in the freedom of expression”, and urging an end to “oppression of freedom and intimidation practised against intellectuals”.

This is one common reason why books, films, music, art may get banned in the Arab world. Sometimes the reasons are more political as was the case with Ibrahim Nasrallah, an amazingly beautiful Palestinian Jordanian poet and novelist. A couple of years ago when I was living here in Jordan his poems were censored, albeit many years after they were first composed, approved, and published:

The charges related to his fourth collection of poetry, Nu’man Yastariddu Lawnahu (Anemone Regains Its Colour). These highly figurative poems, first published in 1984, were suddenly banned, while the poet himself faced charges of insulting the state, inciting dissension and reporting inaccurate information to future generations.

“I was facing, if convicted, three years’ imprisonment,” says Nasrallah.

The authorities raided the offices of his Lebanese publisher in the Jordanian capital, Amman, confiscating copies of the banned collection. Protests from the Jordanian Writers’ Association and the Arab Writers’ Union were soon joined by support from the press in Jordan and the rest of the Arab world, while an internet campaign mobilised support from further afield. After almost four weeks which Nasrallah remembers being “haunted by these threats”, the case was dropped on July 9 2006.

It’s hard to explain the censor’s sudden objections to a collection first approved 22 years earlier. According to Makram Khoury-Machool, a lecturer at Cambridge University, it is the poems’ treatment of events in Jordan during 1970, a period known as Black September, that became an issue. The title of the collection can be seen as referring to the blood spilled during a conflict which led to the expulsion of PLO fighters and thousands of other Palestinians who had been living in Jordan.

“As is so often the case with poetry,” he says, “there is no direct reference in the collection to Black September, which took place when Nasrallah was just 16. Indirect references in Nu’man relate to a love story between a Jordanian Christian young woman and a Palestinian Muslim fighter, and imagery of Amman, its streets and blood.”

It is in some ways obvious why Jordan might be threatened by allusions to Black September (though on some level the fear and anxiety over this more than thirty years later is a bit unbelievable…). But in the end is Jordan, Palestine, or anywhere else really solving any problems by banning or censoring material? In every country where texts are censored the underground movement for those texts becomes so much stronger. Those texts become more readily and easily available. The desire to read or view those texts becomes far more urgent. For me the relationship among banning books (one of Sarah Palin’s favorite pastimes), arresting artists or writers, and destroying art is similar because all of them participate in destroying all or part of a culture. People create cultures. Those cultures represent people. Participating in suppressing that culture or eradicating it means you are somehow complicit in destroying a people. It’s one thing for American and Israeli terrorists to do that work: we expect that of them. But it is another for Arabs to do this to Arabs, Muslims to Muslims, Palestinians to Palestinians, Jordanians to Jordanians. Do people really want to repeat the sins of their colonial oppressors and rulers? Or can the very art and culture and literature being banned, suppressed, destroyed teach us something about those repeated mistakes so that they are not made again?

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