Whither Iraq?

KurdistanmountainlakeImaginary Grace is fortunate to have a special field correspondent in Iraq. Really, it’s just my friend who lives in Irbil. I don’t pay her much, but I did persuade her to take some shots for me so that I could write a mini photo essay to share with you. This first one is really a stunner. Not what you see on the news every night. Iraq is beautiful! These are the foothills of the Zagros mountains. This one was fun for me to Qaladeclarationsee because I am currently studying some letters from an Old Babylonian archive at Shemshara, which is in the Sulaimaniyeh plain, not terribly far south of where this photo was taken. (You can find a map here.) One of the letters has an itinerary in it, and this photo enabled me to envision the kind of territory the recipient of one particular letter was meant to traverse. Irbil itself is, of course, ancient Arbela, and has been inhabited at least since the Ur III period. (That’s the late 3rd millennium B.C.E.!!!!) The sign on the Qalah of Erbil pretty much says it all.

A bit like the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, ancient Arbela has not been excavated because modern buildings sit atop it. Wouldn’t you love to know what’s under there? Have trowel, need plane ticket… As you can tell from the Qalaerosionsign, the people who live here on top of the tell were recently evacuated so that the decaying Qala can be repaired. It so happens that the displaced are among the poorest in Irbil, many of them already refugees from Baghdad, and the move to renovate is apparently very controversial there. I don’t know the details of the controversy, but it involves weighing cultural preservation against the welfare of the most vulnerable in that society. That got me thinking about the value of what’s buried beneath this decaying edifice and how it might be relevant to the people living on top.

This essay was put off a few days longer than I had hoped, but the delay turned out to be fortuitous, because The New York Times today published an op-ed piece by Matthew Bogdanos, titled “Fighting for Iraq’s Culture.” (Charles Halton over at Awilum also has some commentary on this.) Bogdanos points out how Iraq’s ancient cultural heritage is being sold off, probably to the benefit of the insurgents. As someone who studies the ancient history of the region, I have of course fooled myself into thinking that this material is inherently valuable and respond accordingly with shock and anger, as though someone were causing harm to my child or my true love. But, as archaeologists know (it’s the principle of our business), one person’s trash is another’s treasure. I do not say this to question the value of these artifacts altogether. I find this situation to be a tragedy. I say this to remind myself and us that the value of artifacts is not inherent, but assigned, created. Whoever is selling these artifacts clearly does not value them as a cultural heritage, or at least not as much as they value whatever they gain from exploiting the “trash/treasure” principle. If Bogdanos is right about the insurgents, that gain surely involves ammunition so they can go out and kill their neighbors. This, too, is tragedy.

Why don’t they value their cultural heritage? That’s an extremely complicated question to which I can’t even pretend to have an answer. One factor I suspect may come into play is that they don’t view it as “their” heritage. Iraq, after all, is a collection of separate ethnic groups that were split apart and lumped together by imaginary lines drawn in the sand in the 20th century. Bogdanos, with hope, sees the potential for this incredible ancient culture to be claimed as a common heritage, whatever the future of Iraq ends up being. But allow me to offer another possible factor for consideration.
Shortly before the United States invaded in 2003, a friend drew my attention to a book that revolutionized how I think about Iraq, even as a student of its ancient culture. Prior to reading Cruelty and Silence, written by Kanan Makiya, an Iraqi dissident whose previous books had to be written under a pseudonym, I had no idea of the kind of suffering that went on there. Particularly shocking was the effort to exterminate the Kurdish minority that took place in the late 1980s, referred to as the Anfal. I encourage you to read it, for it is powerful. He includes transcripts of interviews, including the following excerpt from his interview with a survivor named Taimour (Makiya, Cruelty, 199):
  • If you could choose, what would you want to do in your life now?
  • I don’t know for myself.
  • Is there something you want out of life very much?Slemanicivilsociety
  • Yes.
  • What?
  • To be a known person.
  • A known person?
  • Yes.
  • Known for what?
  • The Anfal.
  • Do you want to be known more for the Anfal or for being a peshmerga?
  • For Anfal.
  • What do you mean “known for Anfal”?
  • I want the world to know what happened to me.

In addition to the interviews, Makiya also has an essay in this volume titled “Whither Iraq?,” in which he gives us his vision for the future of Iraq. He characterizes Iraq in a very powerful and provocative way: “The problem of Iraq is that everyone was a victim, and most people…only know how to think and behave like victims” (Makiya, Cruelty, 225). Whether he is correct about this or not, I don’t know. But when I think aboutHawler-Kayserientrance what can result from impoverishment and violence in America’s inner cities, I don’t find it difficult to believe. Victims of violence, forming their identities out of violence, perpetrating violence. The possibilities offered by the riches of culture for defining identity sadly seem to go untapped. They seem to offer not just a common element to connect with, but also the possibility, or maybe just the hope, of a peaceful life.

How can those of us who appreciate and study and love this ancient culture help those who might find in it a common heritage? That’s a pretty big question. I don’t know the answer. In fact, I’m rather overwhelmed by it. But I thought I’d put it out there. Bogdanos has given us one idea. It’s not just about the “inherent” value of the artifacts, or even their value as the earliest evidence of human learning, human technology, human religious impulse. It may also, somehow, be about the people who live on top of the tell.

This post was originally published at Imaginary Grace on March 4, 2007

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