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In Saddam’s Arms

The Monument: Art, Vulgarity and Responsibility in Iraq

by Samir al-Khalil
University of California Press, 153 pp., $16.95 (paper)

Culture, History and Ideology in the Formation of Ba’thist Iraq, 1968–89

by Amatzia Baram
St. Martin’s, 196 pp., $35.00

Saddam Hussein is now, so long as he holds power, the insecure dictator of a crippled and only partly industrialized third world nation of seventeen million souls. Hitler and Stalin, the rulers of great, powerful nations, may once have served as his models, but they can no longer do so. It is a good moment to consider the relationship of Iraq and its dictator to the West in an unfamiliar setting, that of the public arts.

The Iraqi who writes under the name of Samir al-Khalil has already, in his book Republic of Fear,1 published an impassioned account of how Iraqi politics came to terminate in the absolute rule of the Baath party and its leader, Saddam Hussein. The Monument, his new book, is a brilliant and moving essay on the propaganda of Iraqi public architecture, and on the political use of the arts by Saddam Hussein and the Baath totalitarian regime. His essay centers on the Victory Arch, a structure consisting of two enormous intersecting swords, brandished by outstretched arms, which Saddam Hussein erected in the center of Baghdad as a monument to the supposed victory of Iraq over Iran in their bloody eight-year war. A year ago a British TV program was based on an early draft of Khalil’s essay: the text has now been published together with some handsome and fascinating illustrations.

The subtitle of Khalil’s book, Art, Vulgarity and Responsibility in Iraq, points to its main thesis. Khalil maintains that the members of the artistic establishment in Iraq were gradually but wholly corrupted by the ruling Baath party, and that a once flourishing group of artists and architects was reduced to designing public monuments of pure kitsch—not, as might have happened with Western artists, because they subscribed to an ironic postmodernist view of kitsch as an artistic idiom, but because they had to accept the naive philistinism and vulgarity imposed on them by their ruler. Irony, Khalil says, is a concept virtually unknown to Arabic thought, and indeed it is a word hardly possible to translate into Arabic. The wit and irony needed to interpret kitsch as a form of high art are not publicly present in Iraq. In Iraq kitsch remains only kitsch.

Khalil makes much of the fact that in constructing the Victory Arch Saddam Hussein’s own arms were used to make the plaster model from which the immense version in bronze was cast. The dictator’s hugely enlarged arms in their metal version were anchored in the parade ground to hold the two monumental swords of the monument. A photograph in the book shows a construction worker on site, virtually in the palm of Saddam Hussein’s hand. To Khalil—understandably—this monstrous magnification of part of the ruler’s own body is peculiarly repellent. “The knowledge that in every little bump and squiggle [of the arms] which can be seen, felt and maybe even stroked, these were, are and will always remain. His arms is [sic] mesmerizing.”

Khalil writes that his indictment of propaganda art is meant “to highlight the rule of vulgarity, the demise of art and the complete breakdown of public culture” in Iraq. But it is also intended to raise the question of political responsibility. He argues, convincingly if not entirely clearly, that the concept of individual responsibility is viewed differently in the Islamic world from the West. He ends by inquiring what

future generations of Iraqis [will] see in this monument: a symbol of the demonic machinations of one man which they will once again try to tear down on the day of his overthrow, or an unforgettable testament to their country’s years of shame?

The implications are that Iraqis in general must bear a collective responsibility for not challenging the false doctrines of the Baath party, and that the cultural elites of Iraq must bear a special responsibility for the degradation of artistic purpose that was brought about by the regime.

Amatzia Baram’s Culture, History and Ideology in the Formation of Ba’thist Iraq is a more detached, academic study, which fills in much of the detail but also some of the political and social background not to be found in Khalil’s books. Baram is an Israeli scholar who is far from lacking in sympathy for modern Arab culture, and who describes clearly the Iraqi achievement in the visual arts during the past half century. Although the main Iraqi artists and architects were trained in the West, they have over a long period brought their own culture and point of view to bear on that training and produced genuine works of art. Their achievements are certainly implied in Khalil’s books, although—perhaps because he is himself a part of the cultural elite he discusses—he evidently found it harder than Baram to describe Iraqi artistic life in an objective way.

When Khalil agonizes over the ideological problem that Andy Warhol created by taking kitsch seriously as art, a Western reader may be slightly puzzled. There are plenty of aesthetic questions connected with the concept of kitsch as art, but the problem is not usually treated, as Khalil tends to do, as an ethical one. Khalil’s difficulties become clear when he explains his views on the plans drawn up by the prominent American architect Robert Venturi, the author of Learning from Las Vegas, for a state mosque to be constructed in Baghdad: the occasion was a competition held by the Iraqi government in 1983. In Khalil’s view the entry submitted by Venturi was “like something out of Disneyland crossed with the scenery for Errol Flynn’s film, The Thief of Baghdad.” The mosque design was described by Venturi himself as “unequivocally egalitarian,” a remark which might be taken by some people as referring to the religious egalitarianism of Islam, but which for Khalil can only mean that the Iraqis “are all equal in the degree of their monumental unfreedom.”

In at least one way Khalil found Venturi’s proposal for a huge religious building in his own native city of Baghdad deeply shocking.

Is Venturi playing post-modern games and having fun with tradition?—a perfectly reasonable thing to do, however unsuited to this auspicious occasion. Maybe he was deploying irony and wit to deal with the contradictory circumstances in which he found himself in Baghdad. But what is the point of a joke when neither your client nor any potential user of your monument has any idea of the ground rules that are supposed to make something funny?…

When a Pop architect ends up celebrating a tyranny in the name of equality and in the style of Disneyland, a very strange cultural dialectic of space and time is created; at least as strange as the one created in this essay. But oppositions, however hybrid, illuminate both sides: the West versus the East; regional identity versus “international style”; commercialism versus art; Dadaism versus the art establishment. The problem is that even in a godless, antiutopian, post-modern world, radical eclecticism and wit are not enough to create meaning. Monuments still have to refer to something other than themselves. The Romans had their empire and organization. The medieval world had its theology. The Enlightenment had its metaphysics of Reason and Progress. The early moderns had their machine and technology aesthetic. The Nazis had their racial rhetoric. And even Saddam Husain has his party values. Does Venturi want a share in them?

It is hard not to see an implication here that Robert Venturi was in his way just as corrupted by Baath totalitarianism as the native Iraqi architects. In fact, Venturi’s entry for the competition was rejected along with all the other entries: a rejection which showed that, although Western architects could suggest to Saddam Hussein projects that no Iraqi would have dared submit, there were limits beyond which even Westerners could not go.

The key to Khalil’s indignation about the Baghdad Victory monument is that, although a Westerner could conceivably take its kitsch ironically, an Iraqi could not. Irony is simply in appropriate, in Iraq, to the Iraqi circumstances. This does not mean that Khalil entirely rejects the use of irony in dealing with Islam: on the contrary, at the end of the book he approves the ironic demystification of Islamic history by Salman Rushdie in The Satanic Verses:

Salman Rushdie started an important ball rolling in The Satanic Verses. The reaction to the book proves not that he got it wrong, but that he got something extremely fundamental dead right. Iraqis in particular, like Muslims in general, could do with some demystification in place of their obsession with their own history, with turath [tradition].

Like most cultivated Iraqi intellectuals, Khalil is “modernized,” and he understands the ideas of postmodern pop art as well as a Western architect would. Khalil’s irredeemably modern view is expressed in his judgment that

Impressionism, expressionism, cubism, constructivism, social “realism,” neo-plasticism, futurism, surrealism, pop, and everything else that ever happened to art will always be out there, waiting to be picked up, rejected or redeployed. From this standpoint no artist, whatever [his or her] nationality or cultural heritage, can ever again be anything but thoroughly “international” in his or her origins.

But in his view it is, literally, in bad taste to supply a totalitarian regime with a sophisticated kitsch monument.

The question of modernization is basic to our judgments on Iraq. By comparison with their Iranian fundamentalist Shi’ite neighbors, and even by comparison with their Wahhabi neighbors in Saudi Arabia, alongside whom American troops have recently fought, the political doctrines of the Iraqis are determinedly modern and secular. The Iraqi Baath party is totalitarian and oppressive, but—partly in order to counterbalance the mixed religious and ethnic composition of the Iraqi state—its doctrine is nontheocratic and only in a subordinate way Islamic. Khalil brought this out clearly in his earlier book, Republic of Fear, as well as in his recent article in these pages. 2 Secularism is something the modern Iraqi Baath party shares with most pre-Baathi and anti-Baathi Iraqi intellectual elites: it is noticeable, for example, that in his long discussion of the mosque that Venturi designed for Saddam Hussein, Khalil scarcely mentions the religious purpose of the building. I also noticed the other day that when a young Palestinian woman protested on British television against what she saw as a systematic disparagement of Arab culture by the Western press and television, she chose as the authentic symbol of that culture the statue (by a well-known and respected Iraqi sculptor, Isma’il Fattah al-Turk) of the eighth-century Arab poet Abu Nuwas, which the Baath regime had erected in Baghdad in the early 1970s. Abu Nuwas often wrote about the pleasures of wine, and the statue shows him holding a wine cup. Since drinking wine is forbidden by Islam, the statue is not only a declaration of the value of Arabic literature, but also in its way a repudiation of Islamic orthodoxy and an assertion of “modern” values.

  1. 1

    Reviewed by Edward Mortimer in The New York Review, September 27, 1990.

  2. 2

    Iraq and Its Future,” The New York Review, April 11, 1991, pp. 10–14.

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