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.


Is Saddam Hussein, then, a modern and not an “Islamic” dictator? One line in his propaganda asserts that the president is the direct descendant of the original Shi’ite martyr, the fourth Caliph Ali ibn Abi Talib, giving him an Islamic claim. While Khalil is of course aware of this absurd invention of Saddam Hussein’s family tree, it seems perhaps not quite so absurd when it is presented to the Iraqi masses. But the drift of Khalil’s arguments implies that Saddam Hussein is indeed a modern sort of dictator. In one sense, of course, Saddam Hussein is an ignorant barbarian: far even from being a half-baked, self-styled “artist” like Adolf Hitler, he was a country boy with only a rudimentary education, who picked up by his wits what he knows of the world outside provincial Iraq. The same applies to the little clique of provincial thugs from Takrit who surround him, and who are, at the moment, in charge of the key political posts in Iraq. But once he came to power he commanded the services of an educated and venal section of the Iraqi intelligentsia who wrote under his name speeches and books on practically every subject, from a work on religion and revolution to one on the principles of education.

The barbarity of Saddam Hussein is at the center of Khalil’s argument. Yet at the same time, because the intellectual theories of the Baath party have been widely circulated by the regime, Khalil sometimes writes as though Saddam Hussein is some kind of intellectual. For example, he perhaps incautiously assumes that Saddam Hussein was in the ordinary sense of the word the author of a speech on education in which the Iraqi leader talks about the child in his relationship to the teacher as “a piece of raw marble in the hands of a sculptor who has the power to impart aesthetic form, or discard the piece to the ravages of time and the vagaries of nature.” It is impossible to know if Hussein ever wrote or dictated that sentence, though he no doubt delivered it in a speech. After all, even American politicians are at the mercy of their speech writers! That Saddam Hussein thinks that children should be molded in every detail by the Baath party, and especially that they should spy on their parents, is more probable, but I doubt that the “Platonic” views on education which Khalil purports to ascribe to him were ever in any real sense his.

Like Stalin, Saddam Hussein speaks through hired party hacks who make him sound like an intellectual, which he is not. That does not, of course, mean that he is incapable of picking out accurately the politically important elements in the cultural and propagandist policies that have been worked out for him by intellectuals. But Khalil talks, with tongue in cheek, of an “artist-President” who is “providing us with a genuine human and historical insight,” and who is “like the better kind of artist.” This does not constrain our credulity so much as make us a little impatient.

Though this may at first sight seem odd, one of the most modern, Western things about the Iraqi Baath party leaders is their obsession with tradition, with “turath,” of which both Khalil and Baram write at length. From the beginning, pan-Arabism confronted Arab nationalists with something of a dilemma when they came to questions of local and regional tradition, which in the era of nation-states came to be matters of national tradition: this was especially true of pre-Islamic traditions. What were modern Arab nationalists to make of the Egypt of the Pharaohs or of the ancient Mesopotamian cultures from Ur to the Sassanids? The only case in which Islam had made a definite bid to capture the pre-Islamic past for itself was its claims to Jerusalem, which plays an important part in the Koran and in the tradition (hadith) about the Prophet. The other pre-Islamic cultures were virtually ignored by ancient Islamic traditions, and there were strong arguments to persuade most of the Arab nationalist theorists of the first half of this century, including the Baath theorist Michel Aflaq and the great educationalist of modern Iraq, Satia al-Husri (who were both, incidentally, Syrians), that magnifying the importance of the pre-Islamic past was dangerous for the theory of a single pan-Arab culture.

The Arab nationalists, insofar as they depended on Islam for the main unifying factor in their theories of a distinctive Arab culture, were not alone in facing such an ideological problem. In Iran the secular Pahlavi dynasty of the Shahs committed itself completely to an ideology of millennial Iranianism: the ancient city Persepolis, capital of the Achaeminid rulers Cyrus, Xerxes, and Darius, was the cultural jewel of Muhammad Reza Shah’s crown, and the site of a notorious propagandist festival held in 1971 to celebrate the 2,500 anniversary of the dynasty of Cyrus. Indeed, in 1975 Bernard Lewis committed himself to the opinion, in his interesting History: Remembered, Recovered, Invented, that this sense of Persian continuity and national identity had had the effect that “Persians think of themselves first as Persians and only then as Muslims.”3 Events were very soon to cast doubt upon that judgment! The Islamic fundamentalism of Khomeini’s Iran, on the contrary, has taken a cautious position to the pre-Islamic past, comparable to that of the earlier Arab nationalists.

In the long run (as Lewis saw very clearly) there is a cultural logic in the modern national state which makes it very difficult to neglect indefinitely any important element in the regional past that can be used to glorify the nation. Turath is not very far, in the end, from, say, “American Heritage.” In Iraq, particularly after the Baath dictatorship began in 1969, there were good reasons for playing down the purely Islamic elements in Arab nationalism, and in making much of the great early Mesopotamian empires which had once been based in the national territory of Iraq—doctored, of course, so as to exclude as far as possible any Iranian connections.

The most important of these reasons was the existence of ethnic and cultural fissures in Iraqi society. The governing class of modern Iraq had been, and continued to be after 1969, predominantly Sunni Muslim and Arab. Yet substantially more than half of the Iraqi population is Shi’ite Muslim, of the same sect as that of their feared Iranian neighbors. About a fifth of the population is Kurdish, and by 1969 the long and bitter war for some kind of Kurdish independence had already begun. From the government’s point of view there was a lot to be said for a propagandist line that would emphasize the regional heritage of Iraq, and not throw everything into a pan-Arab basket, as it at first seemed that the Baath would be committed to doing.

Khalil and Baram approach the history of “tradition” and propaganda in Baathist Iraq from different, though converging, points of view, and together their accounts tell a fascinating story. To Khalil the history of the relationship of Iraqi artists with “tradition” is one which begins with the good faith and authenticity of a pioneer school of Iraqi artists, headed by Jewad Salim, who managed to a large extent to reinterpret their experience of Western art—Henry Moore and Picasso are mentioned as particular exemplars—and to produce works that were at the same time authentically indigenous to Iraq. However, for Khalil the seeds of artistic betrayal were already present in Jewad Salim in 1961, when he began the Freedom monument to celebrate the 1958 revolution against the Hashemite monarchy.

Ironically, Jewad Salim had first come to international prominence in 1951 with a sculpture of The Unknown Political Prisoner. Khalil clearly thinks that the 1961 Freedom monument, which was Jewad Salim’s last work, was deeply flawed, though for reasons that are technical and aesthetic rather than ideological; for example, he criticizes the spatial organization of the monument, especially the way it is raised on a platform so that the detail is invisible. His criticism might well have been more political than aesthetic however, since the monument shows a political prisoner released from his cage, apparently in Iraq, and an Iraqi soldier breaking the bonds of tyranny. In a monument built in 1961 such a sight can only inspire skepticism; the Iraqi government was not conspicuous for its liberalism, even in 1961.

Khalil is not self-righteous about the Iraqi artists and architects who worked for the Baath government between 1969 and the present day. If one can judge from photographs, he is rightly contemptuous of Khalid Rahal’s March of the Ba’th (1973), and of the same artist’s Unknown Soldier monument of 1982, for both seem crude and pompous. Khalid Rahal was the original designer of the Victory Arch which is the main subject of the book, though his death meant that another artist, Muhammad Ghani, took over (reluctantly, I have heard) and finished the project; it was Muhammad Ghani who received the hint that the president’s own arms should be cast as the model for the monument. Yet Khalil is not unkind to Muhammad Ghani, whose talents he respects, and who for years tried to maintain some independence, and he makes a great effort to understand and sympathize with the plight of the Iraqi artist under tyranny. Even the evident fact that the Iraqi artistic establishment was coddled by the Baath regime does not make Khalil treat it very harshly. He says:

The kindest thing that can be said about the collaboration of the Iraq intelligentsia in the various works of the Ba’thist city is that they chose to live at the expense of their art or whatever else they were engaged in doing.

This is a merciful judgment, although perhaps Khalil is implying that they should have gone with him into exile.

The institutional and social history of Baathi propaganda, which Khalil deals with in passing, is described very informatively by Amatzia Baram. He emphasizes how the policies of Saddam Hussein and the Baath party gradually swung away from the old ideas of the eventual fusion of all Arab “regions” in a unified Arab state to an emphasis on the Iraqi notion that attributed great importance to individual state boundaries, and in particular to the boundary between Iraq and Kuwait. Baram makes a detailed analysis of the propagandist policies that glorified and financed Mesopotamian archaeology and encouraged the artists, poets, and writers for the theater to turn to Mesopotamian themes. He also provides some startling information on the government-sponsored “spring festivals” of Thammuz which tried to evoke a pagan, pre-Islamic past. The festivals celebrated two notoriously unchaste ladies of antiquity, the Assyrian queen Semiramis, and the pagan goddess Ishtar. This was strong stuff: Islam is based on the fierce denunciation of all paganism. Saddam Hussein was evidently personally associated with the spring festivals, and he has been consistently identified by Iraqi propaganda as a latter-day Nebuchadnezzar, right down to the present day. However, Baram is hardheaded in the way he uses this material, and near the end of the book he observes that in his attempts to win over the Iraqi masses Saddam Hussein had little success with his talk about Nebuchadnezzar and Hammurabi, and much more when he asserted his direct descent from the early Islamic Caliph Ali.

Since the 1960s the Baath party has exercised a terrifying and absolute control over the lives of the citizens of Iraq, and if things go badly future Iraqi governments may continue to exert such control, even after the departure of Saddam Hussein. To explain that control is not just a matter of historical interest, but a vital question for any Iraqi, and an important one for anyone who hopes that there can be a degree of liberal political life in the Middle East. The kind of totalitarian propaganda discussed by Khalil and Baram is relevant not only to explaining the grip of power of Saddam Hussein but to other Arab countries, including Syria, which was a member of the coalition that has just defeated him, and which is ruled by another branch of the same Baath party that held power in Iraq. The ways in which the Baath party achieved and maintained control of Iraq will not cease to matter, and these two books help us greatly to understand them.

This Issue

April 25, 1991