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Inanna Dumuzi in the Underworld. Photo Credit: ferrebeekeeper.wordpress.com.
Volume 10

Iraq’s Ancient Past as Cultural Currency in Rasha Fadhil’s Ishtar in Baghdad

The US-led invasion of Iraq in March, 2003, and ensuing occupation, was seen by some Iraqis, initially, as an act of liberation from the brutal dictator Saddam Hussein. Such enthusiasm, however, was quickly dampened as the allied forces were ill-equipped to maintain order. Two events in particular, which occurred during the early months of the occupation, were held up as evidence by those who wished to dispute America’s professed good intentions. The first of these was the widespread looting and vandalism that broke out in Baghdad in the weeks following the invasion, with an emphasis on the assault on the Iraq National Museum. The second was the Abu Ghraib torture scandal, which was made public in April, 2004, 13 months into the occupation. As the first of these occurred, US forces stood by, lacking a mandate from their military command to intervene. Some Iraqis even held the Americans responsible for actively participating in the looting, despite lacking evidence for this claim. Critics of the invasion, in Iraq and indeed across the Arab world, compared the assault on the museum and city at large to the Mongolian razing of Baghdad during the thirteenth century. The Mongolian ruler Hulagu destroyed the city, which was at that time the capital of the Islamic caliphate, and massacred its inhabitants, bringing an end to the Islamic Golden Age. In this comparison, the US figures as an imperialistic, malignant force, eager to destroy a people and culture which it views as inferior. The Abu Ghraib torture scandal only reinforced this image. Photographs taken by American soldiers captured the torture and humiliation of Iraqi detainees in graphic detail. These two events, taken together, provided proof enough, for many in the Arab world, of the bad intentions of the US and its allies.

Writing in response to the invasion, a number of Iraqi playwrights have utilized one or both of these events to depict the incursion as an assault on both the Iraqi people and their cultural heritage. It is noteworthy that the Iraqi national identity is at least partially built upon the nation’s pride in its territory being roughly coterminous with that of ancient Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization. The attack on the museum served to reinforce the conviction that the foreign troops were intent on desecrating Iraq’s cultural heritage. Examples of Iraqi plays that invoke Abu Ghraib and/or the Mongolian invasion include Abbas Abdul Ghani’s Barbed Wire (2008), Sabah al‑Anbari’s Lust of the Ends (2007), and Rasha Fadhil’s Ishtar in Baghdad (2004). In the first of these, a character laments that the Americans did more damage to Baghdad than the Mongolians did. In Lust of the Ends, the protagonist witnesses American troops vandalizing the Iraq National Museum as well as the Iraq National Library and Archive, reinforcing the false claim that Americans were directly responsible for the damage. Additionally, the Mesopotamian deity Tammuz describes, in poetic language, the darkening of the waters of the Tigris, stained with the blood of Hulagu’s victims and the ink of books pillaged from Baghdad’s renowned libraries, using imagery that is well-known to Iraqis. In another episode, the protagonist witnesses the degradation of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib.

Rasha Fadhil, Beirut, Feb. 2018. Photo Credit: Rasha Fadhil.

What is unique about the third play, Ishtar in Baghdad, however, is that Fadhil introduces Mesopotamian deities into war-ravaged Baghdad as characters who not only witness the destruction of the city and the assault on its inhabitants, but themselves are apprehended by American troops and tortured by them. Rather than depicting the destruction of artifacts, as symbols of her country’s cultural heritage, she brings that heritage to life, so to speak. As the protagonists are fertility gods, tied to cycles of death and rebirth, this facilitates her characterization of the Iraqi people as resilient since she implies that, like the gods, they will be restored to their former glory in good time. In what follows, we will chart Fadhil’s development of the mythology of these two figures as representative of the Iraqi psyche in the face of the invasion and, specifically, the Abu Ghraib torture scandal. We will link the deities’ promise of rebirth, which occurs at the conclusion of the play, to the concept of sumud, or “steadfastness,” as an attribute of the Iraqi character. In this way, the dramatist deploys Iraq’s ancient heritage as cultural currency.

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