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

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Fadhil is an award-winning Iraqi writer and activist currently based in Lebanon. She was born and raised in Basra, has a BA in English from the University of Tikrit, and a Certificate in International Journalism and Media Studies from the Institute of Arab Strategy in Beirut. She has published collections of short stories, poetry, and criticism. As an activist, she has been involved in promoting AIDS prevention through health education, working with the Red Crescent and the Red Cross in Iraq. She has received recognition both inside of Iraq and internationally: the Iraqi Ministry of Culture has honored her and she has received international awards in short fiction and playwriting. Her plays have been staged in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, and Oman, and Ishtar in Baghdad was given a staged reading by a group of students in Australia. It has yet to receive a professional production.

In Ishtar in Baghdad, Fadhil manifests the ancient origins of Iraqi culture. Mesopotamia refers to the region encompassed by the Tigris-Euphrates Valley, which was the site for the world’s first cities, irrigation systems, states and empires, writings, and recorded religions, and accommodated the civilizations of the Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians, and Assyrians; excavations have uncovered sites dating back to 7000 B.C.E. Versions of the myth of Ishtar and her consort Tammuz survive from Akkadia and Sumer, and detail journeys to the netherworld in which power is lost and then reclaimed, corresponding to the loss and restoration of fertility. As noted above, the playwright conflates the myth with the Abu Ghraib scandal. The report that aired on CBS included graphic photographs of the torture of Iraqi inmates at a detention center on the site of what had been a notorious prison under the Hussein regime. The photos had been taken in the fall of 2003. The inmates are naked in many of them, placed in humiliating and often sexual positions. In some, American soldiers pose gleefully alongside detainees and even a dead body. The images were distributed worldwide and damaged the image of America as liberator of Iraq. In juxtaposing the myth with the prison scandal, and indirectly referencing the pillaging of the Iraq National Museum, Fadhil depicts the invasion and occupation as an attack upon both the modern-day populace and the ancient heritage of the Iraqi nation.

In the myth, Ishtar, referred to as Inanna in the Sumerian versions, descends to the netherworld in order to add that realm to her domain and claim the power of death and rebirth. Tammuz appears in this narrative but also in his own, parallel ones, in which he as well descends to, and returns from, the netherworld. The liturgies of Damu relate the journey of an aspect of Tammuz, also referred to as Dumuzi, who is associated with the fertility of vegetation. The journey is undertaken in order to fulfill his divine function of granting prosperity, specifically the fertility and rejuvenation of the vegetable kingdom and of the forest, watercourses and marshes. The narratives of Ishtar and Tammuz belong to a group of Sumerian myths of the goddess-and-consort type which often favor the female. In many of them, the male suffers death or disaster and must be rescued by the goddess.

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