In chaotic new era, Iraqi artists seek aid

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

Like many theater people, Basim al-Hajar talks about suffering for his art. But he doesn't mean psychologically.

In 1992, Baghdad's fine arts college expelled Mr. Hajar. His crime? After Saddam Hussein's massacre of rebellious Kurds and Shiites, Hajar chose to direct Albert Camus's play "Caligula," in which the Roman emperor courts assassination by indiscriminately killing his subjects.

No longer a student, Hajar was conscripted into the army. He deserted four times, earning prison time, beatings and broken bones. "This is from Saddam," he says, smiling, pulling back his shirt and stroking his jaggedly broken collarbone. "So he's staying with me all the time."

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Hajar is now Iraq's most promising young theater director. He even has a job in the new Ministry of Culture. But while they no longer fear Mr. Hussein's thugs, young artists and writers in Iraq now face a subtler opponent: indifference.

Funding the arts may seem like a luxury in a country where many families still lack dependable access to clean water. But if the US is serious about building a model Middle Eastern democracy in Iraq, say some experts, it's going to have to rebuild the country's intellectual infrastructure as well as its buildings and roads.

"Supporting culture and the arts has to be an important part of the endeavor," says Farhad Kazemi, a member of the State Department's Advisory Group on Public Diplomacy in the Arab and Muslim World "Artists are definitely part of civil society - and an important part at that."

The US-led Coalition Provisional Authority has issued a $100 million contract for newspapers, radio, and television stations. But so far, the US Agency for International Development has given just $123,325 to the arts. The United Nations has pledged $360 million to rebuild cultural institutions, but almost all of that money will go toward repairing large buildings like the National Museum and the Tourism Board.

The war may have freed artists from the Baathist regime's censors, but it also deprived them of Baathist subsidies.

"We are asking for backing from the government, from political parties, from NGOs, and our questions are shut down," says Hajar. "We are crashing into a wall. It's like running into the Berlin Wall."

Support for the arts can help the American occupation forces, too. "They need medicine, I'm fully aware of that," says Yvonne Haddad, professor of Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University in Washington. "But given the fact that all the art was in the service of the past government, this is a way to show that there is no one direction that the Americans are promoting. It manifests that we are truly for freedom of thought - that when we say democracy, we mean it, we don't just mean hegemony."

Iraq used to consider itself the cultural capital of the Arab world. In the 1950s and '60s, Baghdad boasted a thriving culture of independent artists and writers. Saad Yusuf, a famous poet, supported himself as a teacher. Fuad al-Tikarli, a judge, wrote avant-garde short stories.

But with the influx of oil money into Iraq in the 1970s, Iraq's government and elites began generously financing the arts. Artists and writers quit their day jobs - and lost their independence. Many ended up working for the Baath Party.

Like many dictators, Saddam Hussein loved art, and especially adored poetry. He patronized the arts like an Ottoman caliph, lavishing riches on artists and poets who pleased him. He commissioned hundreds of sculptures, paintings and monuments. And he poured millions into a film industry he called the "cinema of the state."

Poets who wrote paeans to Hussein's greatness earned medals. Often, the government appointed them editors of news papers. "It was the dream of everyone to write a poem that caught his eye, because they would get money, power, a title," says Faris Harram, a bearded young poet who works as a low-paid clerk. "It was possible to make a lot of money working for the government. If I had, I would be rich!"

But there was a catch: Artists had to support the government. Those who didn't got nothing. Driving taxis or selling gas instead of working for Hussein's state-funded cultural foundations, they never stopped making art and writing poems. But they kept most of their work secret.

"We wanted to survive, because we believed that the regime would end with time, and freedom would return to the arts," says Mr. Harram. "And this has happened."

Now this lost generation of Iraqi artists is mounting a quiet cultural revolution. Just after the fall of Baghdad, Hajar directed a play in the ruins of the state-owned Al-Rashid Theater. His friend Basim Hamed, also jailed as a deserter, built a stylized sculpture of an Iraqi family. Today, it dominates Baghdad's Firdous Square, on the pedestal that once held Hussein's statue, toppled on live TV. And their friend Oday Rasheed, who was kicked out of the government's film school, is making Iraq's first postwar feature film, with help from Hajar and Hamed.

But while the friends convinced the Kodak Corp. to develop the film for free, their pleas to NGOs, political parties, and government officials have yielded nothing. "We wasted three months talking to them," says Rasheed. "It's useless."

Most Iraqi intellectuals believe they should receive funding to help rebuild the country's civil society. But some object to asking for money. "I've been asked many times, 'Why don't you contact the CPA?'" says Suhail Sami Nadir, a novelist and editor-in-chief of the leftist weekly Almada ("The Horizon"). "As intellectuals, they should contact us; it's their duty. We are not begging."

Nadir lived in Iraq under the Baath Party. Like many Iraqis, he is accustomed to the state approaching its citizens, instead of the other way around.

"This is the Iraqi mentality," says his friend Zuhair Al-Jezairy. "It's right to ask the CPA for money, now that they are the government," says Mr. Jezairy, who left in 1979 and lived in London until seven months ago. "Why shouldn't we ask for help? It's our money!"

He accepts the possibility that the money could come with conditions, or Iraq's new government could try to censor or control the arts.

"If it happens, it won't be a surprise," says Hajar. "We'll just have to fight against the new government, too."

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