Meet the UK-based creatives memorialising Iraqi national sacrifice two decades after US-invasion
“I graduated as an archaeologist in Baghdad,” Rana Ibrahim tells The New Arab, “and I worked there for three to four years before marrying my husband. In 2000, we travelled for his work. But then the war happened in 2003. I was 27 at the time. I watched it all from afar.”
It was a terrible shock for her, especially not to be able to go back to her home. As her husband has British citizenship, Rana decided to move to Britain later in 2003.
“There, my brain blocked off from what was happening. The conflict meant a potential good life was impossible in Iraq, but I felt anger, watching the events on television was infuriating. I found myself losing my identity. I had to adapt to a new life and a new language.
"I had learned English at school, as we do in Iraq, but still, it was very new to me. The war affected me and my family, my parents, and my sister. They still live there, where I also have all my friends and my memories. But I could hardly ever go back.”
"When it comes to the role of Britain, there is much more to know... In the UK, there’s barely any education about colonial history; little about the role of imperial powers, Britain and France, in shaping the Middle East today"
Looking back after 20 years, Rana always thought the situation would improve in Iraq, but everything kept getting worse.
“I lost a lot of people, including my father in 2009 in a terrorist attack,” she adds. “I couldn't even go to my own dad's funeral… No one ever said ‘come and visit again’. It's been worse and worse. I only went once to Iraq in 2018 for my project for Iraqi women.”
What helped Rana to stay positive is her work.
“It was a very long journey for me. It took me five years to build up confidence. I volunteered, then I applied for a Master's degree in Newcastle, and I got it, my Iraqi degree was accepted, and then I got a job in a museum. I joined different charities, especially for refugee women. Because women are key to any family, that's why I want to join.”
She is now based in Oxford, where she created Iraqi Women Art and War project (IWAW).
The goal is to use creative arts to help individuals to recover from conflict, displacement and trauma, art therapies — music, dance, drama, storytelling, movement, paintings, and drawings.
The workshops are beneficial to the refugees and displaced people’s integration, allowing transformation and therapeutic change.
“We are focusing on empowering women, then they pass it on to the children. I'm working with arts and crafts, and I help them make collages. Then, more recently, I organised an exhibition. For me, it's like a bit of oral history, about why we are here. Most of the time, it's very colourful work; it brings a lot of memories, and hidden stories, some figures, Arabic letters, that retell these women’s stories.”
Rana still wants to go back to Iraq, and she remains in contact with her family. “I always want to, and I promised I would.” And she has a group of women trainees there that she supports. “The first artist I supported in Iraq was my own sister,” she says, “now I have five to six artists, Iraq-based, working with me, remotely.”
But what she notices is that everyone regrets Saddam Hussein. Yet what Rana really regrets is that the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and US President George Bush Junior, who made the war happen and lied about Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction, were never tried. “They didn’t even apologise."
“When we arrived in the UK, I heard about the protests against the war. The government didn't follow the people's will. Tony Blair said what he wanted, and so did Bush, but citizens wanted to talk about the invasion of Iraq in 2003; they asked me questions; our neighbours, people supported us."
Many were against the war
That precise moment of protest was recaptured by the Iranian British filmmaker Amir Amirani in his documentary We Are Many, released in 2015. He spent nine years documenting the movements, protests and actions to try and stop the war, and its legacy.
“I’m Iranian, so I can't escape Middle Eastern politics,” Amir tells The New Arab. “I was born in Iran, and in 1976 I came to the UK. And as a person living in the UK, I couldn't escape the war. In 1982, there was the Falklands war with Argentina. Then the first Iraqi war was in 1991 when Iraq invaded Kuwait. I was a student at the time in international politics and I was writing about OPEC… It seems war had always been with us.”
In March 2003, Amir was in Berlin and it was hard to escape the talks about the war in Iraq.
“I was opposed to the war and I went to the demonstration. When I saw the reaction of people, I noticed this incredible investment. A few months later, when I was working at the BBC, I thought about the radio programme Archives Hour, and I wanted to do something about the march against the war. It never happened.”
Instead, he produced and directed a documentary film, interviewing the organisers of the march, and activists who were particularly against the invasion. “Artists like Damon Albarn, from the band Blur, the American actor Danny Glover and Robert Del Naja from Massive Attack, they were very visible in the marches and beyond; they really put their head above the parapet.”
The other important aspect to the filmmaker was “the truly disgusting way the government, and Tony Blair in particular, misrepresented protesters as apologists for Saddam Hussein,” while they just asked: ‘don't rush into war’, he says.
“Twenty years later, do I think we should talk about it more? Yes of course I do. I'm actually trying to make a follow-up film, and book. We should talk about it much more.
"We are still living with the consequences of the war, of all the post-9/11 decisions, the war in Afghanistan, the recent withdrawal, the rise of the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq… So, for the 25th anniversary of the war, there is more work to come. It's even hard to find the right words, yet, there is no accountability. No one has paid the price apart from the civilian who died, or people like Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning.”
Arts and films can question the legacy of the war
Like Rana Ibrahim, most Iraqi artists based in the UK try to do their part to highlight the plight of their country, like the musician and researcher Hardi Kurda, working to archive the sound of his native city in Kurdistan, Jasmine Naziha Jones, author of the play Baghdaddy, or Mohammed Sami, born in Baghdad in 1984, whose work is at the centre of an extraordinary exhibition at the Camden Art Centre in London.
The Point 0 is described as an “exploration of memory in relation to time and conflict”.
Drawing on “his own experiences living under Saddam Hussein’s regime in Baghdad, and subsequently as a refugee in Sweden”, the artist produced large-scale paintings, representing abandoned interiors, emptied cityscapes, and forgotten objects, like clothing, mattresses, chairs and tables. The series manages to figure out the absence of people, in these spaces and places.
Famous British artists also produced work that questions the legacy of the war and the absence of justice, like Jeremy Deller, in his Conversations About Iraq, from 2009, and the aforementioned Robert Del Naja, who’s toured with Massive Attack since 2003 questioned the UK and US foreign policies with figures, quotes and visuals.
The main question now, 22 years after September 11, and 20 years after the invasion of Iraq, therefore remains the one of justice.
“When it comes to the role of Britain, there is much more to know,” Amir Amirani insists. “In the UK, there’s barely any education about colonial history; little about the role of imperial powers, Britain and France, in shaping the Middle East today.
"There's a lot of ignorance about Palestine for instance, and it's quite unbelievable. But it's all it is also due to a lot of propaganda: it takes a lot of effort to make people ignorant this way. It comes to the work of mass media, poor education, and government’s lines on these issues,” he concludes.
Melissa Chemam is a French-Algerian freelance journalist and culture writer based between Paris, Bristol and Marseille, and travelling beyond.
Follow her on Twitter: @melissachemam