Baghdad rising like a phoenix from the ashes
Sura Hussein Mohammed Ali explains why she chose an unusual subject for her thesis – and what it’s like for a woman to live in today’s Baghdad.
Corinna Lotz reports
Iraq’s capital is viewed almost entirely as a place ravaged by endless war and dictatorship. It was recently ranked as the city with the lowest quality of life in the world. The largest metropolis in the near east after Cairo, its seven million residents remain a target for terror attacks and living standards are poor.
Iraq’s infrastructure was devastated in the wake of US-UK led invasion of 2003 and the subsequent toppling of Saddam Hussein. There was a huge toll on education with 84% of higher education institutions being burned down, looted or severely destroyed, according to UN statistics. Women suffered disproportionately from violence and abductions. But now there are distinct signs of change and hope. Last February Baghdad elected Dr Zekra Alwach to become the only woman mayor in any of the 22 Arab League countries.
In any case, Baghdad hasn’t always been viewed as a place of fear and destruction. From the time of the Islamic golden age in the eighth century until it was sacked by Mongol forces in 1258, it was one of the world’s great and sophisticated cultural centres, with a peak population of around 1.5 million.
Indeed, its name is said to mean “Gift of God” or, in some interpretations, “Garden Lover”. Far from a place of devastation, it was renowned as a centre of learning and culture. And, over the centuries since the time of the Abbasid Caliphs who ruled during the Golden Age, Al Mutanabbi Street in Baghdad remained the heart and soul of Baghdad's literacy and intellectual community. When it was hit by a car bomb in 2007, hundreds of artists, poets and writers around the world responded with a collective artwork.
For Sura Hussein Mohammed Ali Baghdad is home. Rather than being intimidated by the constant threat of death and destruction that has affected her country, she has defied the odds to set down a marker not just for Iraqi women, but on behalf of all those who have suffered from war.
Some years ago, when she began her Master’s degree at Baghdad University’s College of Education for Women, she discovered the rebellious Iraqi anti-war poet Adnan Al-Sayegh while surfing the Internet.
Eventually, she concluded that Al-Sayegh’s personal odyssey and his poetry could be fruitfully compared with the famous British war poet Wilfred Owen and this would be the subject of her thesis. It was not simply a personal, literary choice, but a cry of anguish, anger and defiance. So Sura dedicated her thesis to “those who suffered the atrocities of war” when she submitted it in the spring of 2014.
How did she come to choose two poets from such different countries and epochs?
“Being laid in a bullet-ridden cradle after my birth and growing up as a girl accustomed to the sound of bombs rather than toys and flowers made me choose this subject,” she believes.
“Once I read about Al-Sayegh’s life and some of his work, I immediately decided to write about this Iraqi poet. Both he and Owen went through the same experience despite their differences in terms of culture, geographical locales and cultural climate. I intended to draw the world's attention to the tribulations and dilemmas that resulted from a blood-thirsty, dictatorial regime that reigned supreme in Iraq for more than three decades.”
She describes Baghdad as a city of “lively and thought-provoking contradictions”, a kind of surreal world where “expressions of life, hope and promise exist alongside fear, expectation, and apprehension. Feeling safe, frankly speaking, is a matter of inner strength. Most of Iraqi women go out on the streets by themselves going to work, doing shopping, having fun with friends, and so on.
“Contrary to the images of death and destruction propagated by the media, life in Baghdad is vibrant and pulsating, just as in other cities of the Middle East. In the early days of the ISIS invasion, people were indeed very anxious. But, after counter-attacks by the Iraqi army and members of Popular Mobilisation Forces, which succeeded in regaining large areas of territory, Iraqis have begun to regain their self-confidence and this feeling has faded away.”
Sura lives in an Iraq turned upside down since 2003 and the US-led occupation. Many fled the country in the years that followed as rival Shia and Sunni terror groups killed indiscriminately in the absence of the enforced secularism of the Saddam Hussein years. The contradictions abound.
“Unlike the pre-2003 period which was characterised by state terrorism, continuous censorship and surveillance, and the complete absence of freedom of speech, Iraqi people nowadays can discuss politics, religion, culture, sport and other topics.
“Yes, there is censorship but it is looser than before. It is mainly due to the domination of some political and religious groups and to the general atmosphere of social and political instability. In this regard, the Internet and social media help a lot as they serve as informal forums to give vent to people’s opinions.
“Iraqi women, nowadays, are working and proving themselves in all walks of life. University is no exception. Being a female student in an Iraqi university empowers me and places me in a better position inside and outside home.”
Young people connected to the rest of the world by way of social media are open to all sorts of influence. Some of them are more unexpected than others. Rap is among the new emergent artistic forms among the young people. Like the Western rap artists, they use it to criticise the socio-political problems of Iraq. “They can discover new cultural forms like participating in voluntary campaigns, NGOs and others. New horizons, in fact, are opened for them,” says Sura.
Poetry is close to the heart of Arab society and has been since the earliest times. It is said that poetry is the ‘diwan’ of the Arab people in which they record and tell about their personal experiences and aspirations, the problems of their societies and cultures. In the Arab Spring, poets played an important role in encouraging people to revolt, Sura explains. They wrote what is called ‘popular’ poetry that used everyday language, themes and images to bring it closer to the people and their struggles.
“Modern poets, in fact, respond thematically and formally to the political and social changes that their societies have been through. So, poets have a distinguished role in Arabic culture and society, especially in the social media nowadays.”
In her thesis, Sura references the eight-year period (1980-1988) when Iraq and Iran were locked into a calamitous war. She explains that some poets eulogised the regime while others tried to oppose it through their writing.
“This is a thorny issue indeed,” she says. “Some have justified their subservience by saying that under such a repressive and tyrannical rule, where resistance or expressing free opinion equals death, people in general and poets in particular, have limited options. Some say that in time of war there is little space for dissidence and disagreement. Accordingly, one may understand the genesis of these conflicting attitudes towards the war and the former regime. If we are to trace what happened to the poets of both sides, we would need many books.
“Most Iraqi intellectuals were threatened with execution because of what they had written. Some were lucky enough to survive and flee, others were not. Some of those who stayed behind paid for their words with their own life. Freedom of expression was forbidden to the extent of losing one's life. Al-Sayegh was not the only poet who chose self-exile. As he has explained, the list of the Iraqi poets who lived and died in exiles is very long: among them are Muhammed Mahdi Al-Jawhiri, Abdul-Wahab Al-Bayati, Kamal Sabti, Sarjun Boulus and others.
“What is unpardonable is that some poets insisted on praising the regime and the dogma of killing and bloodshed, even after the overthrow of Saddam. One such notable example is Abdul-Razaq Abdul-Wahid. Unfortunately, many of those who opposed the situation after 2003 are no less under fire, due to the recurrent conflicts that negatively affect life in Iraq.”
Iraq became a pioneer within the Arab world in its championing of modernism of different kinds – in art and culture, and especially in its view of a liberated role for women in society. Decades of wars, invasions, dictatorships and the current threat from Islamic State have taken their toll.
“We have to admit,” she says, “that what is left of this legacy is not as promising as it was in the middle of the last century. War and conflict have left a heavy burden on all aspects of life. But the potential for rebuilding and regaining former glory still remains. Despite many ups and downs, we have made considerable achievements since 2003 at the international, regional and local levels. Women in general enjoy a better position.
“Iraq is struggling to survive, just like the phoenix, from within the ashes. Thanks to the continuous and costly sacrifice of its people, the future will be better. People in general and in spite of their ordeals, have a strong appetite for life. They are eager to study, work, travel and enjoy themselves.”
9 May 2016