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Overcoming structural barriers in digital learning

By Nahrein Network, on 28 July 2020

In this post, UCL Laidlaw Scholar, Fareeha Masood, writes about her recently completed research project, “Whose Middle Eastern Heritage? A demographic study of Oracc’s users worldwide”.

The Nahrein Network’s collaboration with Oracc and UCL’s Research Software Development Group aims to improve inclusivity in the study of cuneiform. Cuneiform texts preserve the earliest languages known to humanity. Yet today, for those living in the Middle Eastern lands where these texts were first produced, there are disproportionately high barriers to studying cuneiform in the Arabic language. Overcoming the loss of such rich literary heritage is part of the Nahrein Network’s sustainable development aims, and the adaption of open-access resources provides real prospects to re-centre the production of cuneiform research.

Oracc.org hosts a growing cuneiform corpus: an open platform for researchers to collaborate and publish projects on the traces of life left from Ancient Mesopotamia. Digitisation has come a long way in improving access to these tablets, which have become dispersed across the world through a haphazard history of excavation and plunder. As with much of the digital world however, the centre of gravity is shifted towards the European and American sphere, pulling Middle Eastern heritage along with it. In the last few weeks, I have undertaken research to assess the needs of Arabic-speaking audiences in the Middle East to access online resources, and specifically, Oracc.

Through a combination of Oracc’s Google Analytics data and a survey circulated across the Nahrein Network, I built up a detailed picture of the target demographic. Questions addressed included: how Middle Eastern users currently use the site, what technology do they access it through, what channels are used to reach the site, and what content and features are they interested in. The notification of a new survey response was always a welcome sound, promising insights into the real experiences of researchers behind the numbers on the screen.

Findings revealed similar research interests between Middle Eastern users and their counterparts around the world, although the former are slightly more interested in archaeology. The biggest divergences between the two groups came from the devices and software being used to access Oracc. A higher proportion of Middle Eastern users reached the site through social referral. Non-expert users found it difficult to engage with the site interface across all demographics, preventing the growth of widespread interest.

The future of scholarship relies on widespread access, and so I have put forward recommendations to develop the site for new, as well as existing, audiences. Solutions addressing immediate usability and marketing, such as mobile-friendly interfaces and a more diverse social media presence, are all under consideration. Most importantly, a longer-term, sustainable outlook is developing around content creation from the Middle East, which will spur engagement to organically grow from the region. All suggestions are driven by a shared, clear vision: improving the offerings for Middle Eastern audiences to explore their heritage.

Having newly joined the teams behind Oracc to complete this research, my personal takeaway has been the core values held by the people behind the site. Working during the pandemic has had its solitary moments, but meetings with UCL’s RSDG, Oracc Steering Committee, and of course, my supervisor, were infectious with the drive to be doing more. Decisions are research-heavy, solutions are ambitious, and integrity runs throughout project aims. Perhaps my most important finding, therefore, is that the future of cuneiform resources are in safe hands. The inheritors of the world’s first written culture can expect big things from this space.

Cultural Heritage, Statebuilding and the Future of Iraq

By Mehiyar Kathem, on 23 June 2020

The Nahrein Network – Chatham House partnership, established in 2019, addresses the neglected role of cultural heritage in statebuilding and international policy. Although in recent years development agencies as well as private foundations have recognised the significance of cultural heritage in countries affected by conflict and political instability, those growing interests have not been translated into effective policy or improved academic research. This partnership attempts to overcome that dearth of research in this regard and highlights the need for more holistic approaches to cultural heritage in Iraq.

The Nahrein Network’s partnership with Chatham House explores the connections between cultural heritage and statebuilding in Iraq. In Iraq’s contested statebuilding process, cultural heritage has been heavily shaped by the country’s changing politics. In recent years, new structures of power and systems for organising politics have transformed Iraq’s cultural heritage in ways that have yet to be fully understood or studied.

State institutions and other structures of power, including the ways in which resources are distributed, have also shaped national and community cultural heritage. Exploring the connections between cultural heritage, politics and statebuilding can help us better understand how the past is used today. These analytical directions, taking into account political-economic structures and resource-distribution, can shed light on why particular components of Iraq’s cultural heritage are prioritised and afforded protection and financial support, whilst other aspects suffer from neglect and even destruction.

Tangible cultural heritage, including historic city centres and buildings, archaeological sites, places of worship as well as intangible cultures, such as crafts and cultural practices, have been altered by decades of conflict and changing politics. The relationship between politics and cultural heritage was most glaringly highlighted by the destruction visited on Iraq’s built heritage in Nineveh, Anbar, Kirkuk, Salahaddeen and Diyala and other Iraqi provinces by the Islamic State and the war to oust them from the country. The deliberate destruction of material cultural heritage is a glaring manifestation of political contestation in Iraq. There are other forms of cultural destruction however, whether deliberate or otherwise. Those include looting and the effects of social-economic development, urban sprawl, construction and agriculture. Ill-conceived conservation interventions have also detrimentally affected Iraq’s tangible cultural heritage.

In Iraq, cultural heritage has historically been central to the operation of politics. Specifically, the construction of singular narratives – most notably witnessed when key cultural sites are folded into competing political elite projects – also highlights cultural heritage as an integral component of statebuilding. In recent years, the fragmentation and fracture of Iraq’s national heritage institutions, overlapping power structures and laws, and the absence of long-term goals and strategies, are also some of the many outcomes of Iraq’s divided politics.

How tangible and intangible cultures are used, instrumentalised or destroyed can tell us much about politics, actor-motivations and provide evidence-based analyses about Iraq’s statebuilding processes that have conventionally been studied through other domains of practice and research. Significantly, an exploration of these dynamics can shed might light on the future of Iraq’s cultural resources and what the Government of Iraq, including the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, as well as international development agencies, NGOs, universities and academics can do to strengthen Iraq’s cultural heritage.

The Nahrein Network – Chatham House partnership is working to map key state, quasi-state and nonstate heritage related institutions in Iraq and the impact the country’s political system has had on its cultural heritage. Exploring the type of relationships institutions forge in relation to cultural heritage is a key component of this research. Other features of the report will explore lessons learnt over the past few years, case-studies and challenges pertaining to Iraqi and international initiatives in the field of cultural heritage. An evidence-based and policy-oriented research paper will be finalised in 2021.

Future events include roundtable discussions and other meetings planned from July 2020 and a series of one-to-one and group interviews. Webinars will also be organised.

We invite all those concerned about the future of Iraq’s cultural heritage, its protection and potential contribution to peace, stability and social cohesion to participate in these activities.

For further information, and to participate in these discussions, email us on nahrein@ucl.ac.uk

 

How Iraqi academics are overcoming a legacy of intellectual isolation  

By o.borlea, on 12 June 2020

Mehiyar Kathem

In recent months, hundreds of online academic webinars have been organised from Iraq as an outcome of the situation arising from COVID-19Across a wide range of topics and fields of research and discussion – from arts and heritage and archaeology to medicine and engineering – this new trend in Iraqi academia is helping Iraqi academics overcome decades of academic and intellectual isolation.  

Online meetings or webinars, including symposiums, lectures and conferences, are not only about academic conversations. They are ultimately focused on using more creatively and constructively online platforms such as Zoom, Free Conference Call and Google Hangouts for cultural exchange. Overcoming physical barriers, not least in terms of geography and problems of inaccessibility, online intellectual exchange has produced lively debates about the ways in which Iraqi academics can contribute to the development of their country and help breakdown in the process decades of isolation.  

Significantly, as seen from the images (link provided below) of these seminars and lectures, there has been an overwhelming focus on humanities and social sciences. This represents a major positive development as Iraqi researchers and academics recognise that these new forms of communication can provide an important alternative to physical meetings. In this context, online platforms have made it much easier to instigate and engage in conversations with academics and researchers, which have seen the participation of thousands of Iraqi academics as speakers and attendees. 

Online meetings have been a way in which Iraqis who have returned to the country after completing their education in the US and Europe and other parts of the world can continue to engage in international academic debates and ensure their connections to those countries and their colleagues are not severed. In the UK, these exchanges have included participants and speakers from University College London, the University of Greenwich, Lancaster University and Oxford University, to name just a handful. Another positive development is that webinars have seen a rapid growth in the number of femaleled lectures and have also provided a space for addressing gender balance in terms of participants.  

There are several factors as to why this is happening now. The first is to do with financial costs.  Inviting foreign academics to Iraq has been prohibitively expensive and Iraqi academics also find it difficult for cost reasons to visit other countries. Iraq’s security situation continues to be a key challenge for UK and other academics to visit the country. COVID-19 has also made it difficult to visit Iraq. Visa issues have been another obstacle.  

Webinars have provided an opportunity for academic exchange between Iraqi universities, who have otherwise found it difficult to communicate with each other. As seen from webinar invitations, there has also been significant exchange between Iraqi academics and their counterparts in the Middle East, including Turkey, Egypt, Morocco, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and many other countries. This marks a major change from years of Iraq’s isolation and cut-off from the region and this exchange is also helping Iraqis communicate with Gulf neighbours and universities in ways that have been not possible since the 1980s. This has importantly been a way to break down barriers resulting from conflict of the past three decades in the region.  

In this spirit, and acknowledging the challenges faced by Iraqi academia in recent years, online academic and cultural exchange have been widely encouraged by the Iraqi Ministry of Higher Education and university leadersMuch of these webinars have however been organised by individual academics and university departments, telling of some positive change within the university system in Iraq.  

A significant number of these initiatives have been led by Nahrein Network’s partners in Iraq, including Mosul University, Kufa University and University of Al-QadisiyahMustansiryah University and DhiQar UniversityWithin a matter of a few months, and since the Nahrein Network started its work in late 2017, we have witnessed a remarkable increase in academic and intellectual activity in the country.  

 The Nahrein Network has actively participated and supported these positive developments. In 2019, the Nahrein Network implemented three workshops funded by the British Academy to support Iraqi academics improve the quantity and quality of research production in the country. Academics from London School of Economics, University College London and the University of Glasgow, were able to visit and implement the Iraq Publishing Workshops in Kufa University, Mustansiryah University and Sulaimani Polytechnic University. Whilst webinars are not perfect substitutes for tangible presence, they should be widely encouraged as important alternatives 

 Recently, the Nahrein Network issued a grant to Bristol University to work closely with Mosul University and Kufa University to develop Open Educational Resources (OER) as a way to improve awareness of Iraq’s cultural heritage (see further https://www.ucl.ac.uk/nahrein/research-grant-awards/large-research-grants-awarded). An introductory online meeting was recently held which saw the participation of numerous academics from both universities. The former Minister of Higher Education also participated in these debates. 

In an online meeting in early June, Nahrein Network – British Institute for the Study of Iraq Visiting Scholar, Dr Ali Naji, also led a discussion about peace and  the role of heritage in Iraq. Dr Ali Naji recently completed a scholarship at University College London and is now also working on a grant to document historic buildings and heritage in the old town of Kufa (https://www.ucl.ac.uk/nahrein/research-grant-awards/small-research-grants-awarded)This particular discussion saw the participation of Dr Hassan Nadhem, UNESCO Chair for Inter-Religious Dialogue, who has recently assumed the position of Minister of Culture in Iraq. To listen to this discussion, which is in large part in Arabic, visit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lXP9FJ7upJ4&feature=youtu.be 

There have been many other Nahrein Network friends and colleagues who have actively participated in Iraqi organised seminars. To view some of the topics discussed in the past few monthsI’ve prepared, with the support of Nahrein Network – British Institute for the Study of Iraq Visiting Scholar, Dr Dhiaa Kareem of Kufa University, some of these invitations and images. It provides a snapshot of the topics covered in Iraqi webinars. You can view them here to get a better picture of the type of discussions happening in Iraq todayhttps://www.dropbox.com/sh/q6mtb7uel85z87o/AABDM5fVjEzj-b42GaBqV0v5a?dl=0 

Online platforms, in Arabic and English, have been a central way for Iraqi academics to decide on topics that concern them most and have as an outcome provided significant agency to Iraqi universities and researchers. There is as an outcome of these recent activities obviously a ‘democratisation’ of learning that is taking place as knowledge and cultural exchange is made more accessible to people directly from their homes.     

Development is about gradual change and sometimes shifts, as we are seeing in recent months. These hundreds of webinars and online conferences and lectures that have taken place in a short period of time are not only about academic exchange but represent a thirst for engagement in a country that has suffered from many decades of conflict and political instability.  Taken together, they also represent an expression for moving beyond the challenges of the past few years.  

There is much to be done to support academics, universities and researchers who are now increasingly becoming an integral part of the country’s national development. We all can be part of this change.   

Cultural heritage and reconstruction — a view from Mosul University

By Nahrein Network, on 7 January 2020

Panellists at the Chatham House round-table on cultural heritage in Iraq

Panellists at the Chatham House round-table on the role of cultural heritage in the reconstruction of Iraq, 2 October 2019

On 3 October 2019, The Nahrein Network organised a round-table discussion on the role of cultural heritage in state-building, as part of Chatham House Iraq Initiative’s conference, Iraq in Transition.

Professor Kossay al Ahmedy, Chancellor of the University of Mosul, gave a local perspective.

I will speak about the University of Mosul.

DAESH’s occupation of Mosul has been hugely detrimental. Nineveh, capital of the ancient Assyrian state, saw a great deal of damage and destruction. 83% of the Old City of Mosul was destroyed, including its most iconic and historic sites.

DAESH undermined and attacked culture.

One of the most important cultural sites is the University of Mosul. Large parts of it were also destroyed – we had 70% destruction and over 300 buildings damaged and destroyed.

The electricity network of the university was 80% destroyed. 50% of the water network, 50% of the road network were also destroyed.

217 university vehicles disappeared from the university.

The central library lost 1 million books.

Now, the question is, why did ISIS target and destroy Mosul University so severely?

We have 48,000 students enrolled. 8,091 staff and 24 huge faculties. 125 scientific institutions and 7 research centres.

Mosul University is like a city within a city.

It’s a learning and education zone. That is why it was targeted – the intellectual class was attacked and undermined, including culture.

With international friends we are working to rebuild Mosul University. The university is not about formal education only. Its role is to rebuild ideas. We have achieved a military victory but not yet a victory in thoughts and ideas. The university is key to rebuilding this.

The university is a key institution, able to rebuild the city and to rebuild the intellectual life of the city.

People lost hope. Most historical landmarks have been lost – destroyed. How can we revive hope for the people, especially the youth?

How to access the youth is key. Key question: Do youth watch and observe media – no! They don’t, they only focus on social media. Our university publishes a monthly newspaper. Most youth do not read newspapers, therefore we need to focus on social media.

We have 16 workers in the media department, and we set up tens of websites and social media sites – to transfer knowledge, using the language they understand.

Key to our work is to use media and knowledge to rebuild youth and their understanding of the situation in Mosul.

Now I am always smiling. My smile is a message – that we can rebuild Iraq and rebuild Mosul and build our culture and society who share our ideas.

We need international assistance. The challenges are immense and therefore we need to work together. We all have a responsibility to rebuild so that we can prevent this catastrophe from happening again.

 

This summary of Professor Al-Ahmedy’s words was compiled by Dr Mehiyar Kathem.

This event is part of a project funded by a UCL Public Policy Expert Engagement grant.

Cultural heritage and state-building — an international view

By Nahrein Network, on 7 January 2020

Panellists at the Chatham House round-table on cultural heritage in Iraq

Panellists at the Chatham House round-table on the role of cultural heritage in the reconstruction of Iraq, 2 October 2019

On 3 October 2019, The Nahrein Network organised a round-table discussion on the role of cultural heritage in state-building, as part of Chatham House Iraq Initiative’s conference, Iraq in Transition.

Ms Alice Walpole, Deputy head of mission for the United Nations Assistance Mission to Iraq, spoke about the role of international organisations in supporting heritage for state-building.

In September 2016, while I was working in Mali, the International Criminal Court in The Hague handed out its first ever sentence for cultural crimes. An Al Qaeda commander was convicted of involvement in the destruction of nine mausolea and a mosque in Timbuktu. This case gave rise to renewed international debate on the significance of culture in conflict. Why do parties to conflict target cultural heritage, and should an attack on a cultural artefact – building, manuscript, statue – constitute a war crime?

Throughout history, culture, ethnicity, religion or language have been leveraged to promote, intensify or justify conflict. Our cultural heritage describes who we are; it sets us within our historical context; it links us to our ancestors and will, in due course, link us to our descendants. An assault on our cultural heritage, then, is an attempt to deny our very identity. Da’esh’s physical destruction in Iraq and Syria of archaeological sites, places of worship, schools, cultural centres such as theatres and museums, and historical artefacts are a recent violent example of that urge to erase history; the desire to obliterate all narrative that runs counter to their world view; to deny human rights and freedom of expression with the imposition of a restrictive ideology.

An imposition against which many have fought back over the centuries. Our cultures make us proud. And protective. I suspect it was that proud and protective impulse that compelled my friend Father Najeeb, now Chaldean Archbishop of Mosul and Akra, and others to load the priceless library from a Dominican monastery into vehicles, and remove them, at considerable personal danger, from Mosul to a safe house in Erbil in the face of advancing Da’esh forces. The library comprises a unique collection of ancient manuscripts dating back to the 9th century, and printed books from as early as 1515; in addition to Christian texts, there are works on geography, history and mathematics, as well as Islamic, Jewish and Yazidi literature.  We start to understand the value placed on cultural heritage when we learn what risks our fellow citizens will take to protect it.

Those of us in a position to be able to support the rehabilitation of cultural heritage post-conflict, are eager to tap into that popular pride and affection. Because while culture can be exploited to cause conflict, in the aftermath of conflict, it can also play a vital role in reconciliation and inter-communal understanding. In fact, many of us believe that culture sits at the heart of all sustainable recovery and rehabilitation of societies.

Disputes over political access, land rights and the distribution of wealth and resources often remain unresolved in post-conflict environments and then serve to exacerbate future community tensions. But culture – the product of historical interactions between individuals and communities, representing shared understandings of the world – can serve as an entry point to a resolution of these disputes by reminding all parties of their religious, literary, linguistic or philosophical links to each other; or even simple commonalities such as a shared traditional dress, cuisine or dance.

This is culture as a unifying power. It is the reason the United Nations believes that the work of UNESCO is integral to the comprehensive, complex UN-supported rehabilitation programme currently underway in Iraq’s governorates liberated from ISIL.

Today, the United Nations in Iraq is seeking to promote a counter-narrative to Da’esh. A narrative of peaceful co-existence, reconciliation, respect for diversity and creativity. At the heart of this is the project ‘Reviving the Spirit of Mosul’, constructed around three pillars: rebuilding historical, cultural and religious infrastructure; strengthening education and returning children to school; reviving the cultural life of the Old City. It is important to note that the project goes beyond physical infrastructure – the EU has just approved a 20m euro project for urban rehabilitation in Mosul’s Old City, targeting youth and other returnees to provide them with skills and job opportunities. A similar project will be rolled out in Basra, again with a focus on urban regeneration. It will be important, in the longer term, that the Iraqi state takes full ownership of these projects, along with a strategy to protect, maintain and promote access to Iraq’s rich cultural heritage in all its forms for future generations.

I have long viewed culture as a driver for reconciliation. In 2009, I was appointed British Consul General in Basra, on the heels of the departing British Army. One of the items I inherited from them was an assessment, by the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, British Army Royal Engineers and British Museum, that Saddam Hussein’s former Lakeside Palace in Basra would make an ideal new antiquities museum for Basra and southern Iraq.

Accordingly, in 2010, a small group of us, including a renowned Iraqi archaeologist, a former British Ambassador to Iraq and former Iraqi ambassador to Britain and a senior curator at the British Museum, formed the Friends of Basrah Museum to help bring this idea to life. BP made a very generous donation to get the project off the ground and other donors, including international companies active in southern Iraq, chipped in.

After much consultation between Baghdad, Basra and London, a constructive dialogue with the Basra Provincial Council, and sustained, resourceful and dedicated activity led by the Museum Director Qahtan al-Abeed, the first gallery of the Basra Museum opened in September 2016 and three more galleries (displaying some 2000 Sumerian, Assyrian and Babylonian artefacts) in March 2019.

Strikingly, since the museum’s opening, some 600 historical artefacts have been handed over by private citizens to the Basra Museum. Six hundred historical artefacts that families kept safe during times of war and instability. And which they are now eager to share with the wider community.

It’s this human dimension that is key if Iraq is to repair and sustain its cultural heritage. When I was in Erbil recently, I called on Father Najeeb. In the front room of his home, a young woman was repairing a damaged historical manuscript. I could see from her dress that she was Christian. The manuscript was an Islamic hadith. I commented that she was working on a Muslim text. Of course, she said; I am an Iraqi, and this document is part of my Iraqi heritage.

This event is part of a project funded by a UCL Public Policy Expert Engagement grant.

Iraqi cultural heritage – a national view

By Nahrein Network, on 7 January 2020

Panellists at the Chatham House round-table on cultural heritage in Iraq

Panellists at the Chatham House round-table on the role of cultural heritage in the reconstruction of Iraq, 3 October 2019

On 3 October 2019, The Nahrein Network organised a round-table discussion on the role of cultural heritage in the reconstruction of, as part of Chatham House Iraq Initiative’s conference, Iraq in Transition.

Dr Abdulameer al Hamdani, Iraq’s Minister of Culture, gave his vision of the role of heritage in Iraq’s future. 

The Ministry of Culture has 15,000 employees working across Iraq. The Ministry is responsible for diverse fields of culture, including cinema, fashion, theatre and antiquities.

Cultural heritage could be a unifying force in the country, used as a tool to unite people. It can be used to respect minorities, indigenous minorities – all communities, but ultimately, we are looking for a national identity.

Heritage can be used for peacebuilding and peacemaking. Wars did not help us to focus on these priorities.

We need to avoid another Halabja. We need to open a dialogue with each other. Excavations in Iraq attest to this shared history.

Heritage can be used as a tool for unification.

Culture and heritage will determine the future of Iraq.

Culture is key. SBAH is encouraging Iraqi universities to work on excavations and of course also international excavations. We have 60 expeditions in the country.

Since the 1980s, the previous regime and dictatorship, Iraq has been isolated. We are now back to normal in terms of field work and excavations. A few month months ago we were able to inscribe Babylon as a World Heritage Site, working closely with UNESCO to do this. Given this energy, we are working now to inscribe 12 new sites, including the Yezidi site of Lalish. This shows the Iraqi Government does care about minorities in the country.

There is increasing interest in heritage in Iraq and from the international side.

We believe heritage in Iraq is a global heritage and SBAH is responsible for that. We need to focus on cultural diversity.

The international community is helping us, standing with us.

Looters in 2003 said that heritage artefacts belonged to Saddam or were non-Islamic. But I worked with the Shia Clergy to put a stop to this looting. An edict and amnesty helped return 30,000 looted artefacts.

Our museums are open, which shows that Baghdad is a normal city.

We are organising the first international conference on cultural heritage, planned for April 2020, to share knowledge and unify the country. We hope to see 300/400 participants in this conference.

The purpose of the conference is to think about whether it is just stones we are looking at, or is it more?

We will build a new cultural complex, a new museum. The current one will be used as an Islamic civilisation museum.

SBAH has experience with international institutions since the 1950s.

We are open to dialogue, to discussions about how we can use heritage for peace and development.

We consider the country’s communities as natural heritage, organic to the country.

This summary of Dr Al-Hamdani’s words was compiled by Dr Mehiyar Kathem.

  • Read a summary of Professor Kossay Al-Ahmedy’s presentation
  • Read Alice Walpole’s presentation

This event is part of a project funded by a UCL Public Policy Expert Engagement grant.

Teaching medieval history in Baghdad and Sheffield

By Nahrein Network, on 24 September 2019

Professor Maher Al-Helli is an expert in medieval history at Mustansiriyah University in Baghdad. Throughout April and May 2019 he held a Nahrein-BISI Visiting Scholarship in the History Department at the University of Sheffield. We are enormously grateful to our colleagues in the Sheffield History Department for making him so warmly welcome.

Here Professor Maher writes for us about his experiences.

Developing university teaching skills for the effective study of medieval history: The subject of history and cultural heritage as a model

Prof Maher Al-Helli with Sheffield University colleagues Prof Martial Staub, Dr Danica Summerlin and Dr Casey Strine, as well as the Nahrein Network’s director, Prof Eleanor Robson

I spent a lot of time at Sheffield University, where I met with Prof. Martial Staub, my supervisor in the History Department. I got many ideas from him through his assistance to me in teaching the Middle Ages to the History Department’s student. We exchanged information about the ways and means of developing skills in university education.

  • I attended a lot of Prof. Martial’s lectures, in topics such as Empires – Crusades, the Holy Roman Empire, the Social and Political History of Iberia and Latin America, Internal Crusades, Black Sea Empires, Ethnicity and Empire and Peace of Religion.
  • Also, I attended many lectures with professors such as Social and Political History of Iberia and Latin America – Islamic Spain (Prof. Phil Swanson), War of the Roses (Dr. Elizabeth Goodwin) and How Involuntary Migration Created Ancient Israel ( Dr. Casey Strine).
  • I got great benefit from Sheffield University Library, where I found many English-language history books near to my speciality. I collected a lot of paper and electronic
  • I attended a lot of seminars in Islamic and medieval history.
  • I gave a lecture to the students in the history department under the title: Ancient and medieval history of Iraq.
  • I did a course in English language and I got a certificate of participation from The English Language Teaching Center and Learn for Life/Enterprise.
  • I wrote an article in the Arabic language about new ways and means of developing skills in university education.
  • I worked on translating the book by Hugh Kennedy: Muslim Spain and Portugal: A political history of al-Andalus (1996) and I will complete it soon.
  • I formulated a joint project between Mustansiriyah University and Sheffield University to hold an academic conference in Baghdad next year, 2020.

I also visited London city 20th-31st May, where I saw the most important collection of archeology and heritage in the British Museum and found some rare books in The British Library.

  • I also met Prof. Kennedy at SOAS and visited The Nahrein Network at University College London.
  • I visited a lot of museums in London such as the National History Museum, Science Museum and Victoria and Albert Museum.
  • In the end of the research trip, I visited The British Institute for the Study of Iraq at the British Academy and discussed possible future programmes of collaboration.

I am happy to have visited the United Kingdom because I gained great professional benefit from the experience. I hope to I visit the UK again soon, for a longer time.

 

 

Mosul University Library at the British Library

By Nahrein Network, on 20 August 2019

A Visiting Scholarship Q & A with Mohammed Jasim

Mohammed Jasim (centre) with BL colleagues Eleanor Cooper, ..., and Daniel Lowe, and Nahrein Network director Eleanor Robson

Mohammed Jasim (centre) with BL colleagues Eleanor Cooper, Marcie Hopkins, and Daniel Lowe, and Nahrein Network director Eleanor Robson

Earlier this summer, Mr Mohammed Jasim Aal-Hajiahmed spent the first month of a BISI-Nahrein Visiting Scholarship at the British Library, hosted by Daniel Lowe (Curator of Arabic Collections) and many kind colleagues. Thank you very much to all of them!

Although Mohammed is currently studying for a PhD at the University of Barcelona, until October 2018 he was the Director of Mosul University Library. He is still closely connected to Mosul University and the library team, and his expertise in English means that he is able to liaise very effectively between the UK and Iraq.

At the end of his placement, we asked Mohammed to tell us about what he had learned during his time in London, and what he wants to do with it.

Nahrein: What were the main benefits of your scholarship?

Mohammed: There were many benefits! Here are ten—

  1. I learned how the digitization process works at one of the world’s leading cultural institutions, the British Library.
  2. Throughout my placement I learned how to set up a digitization unit at Mosul University Library, which should be one of the priorities at this time.
  3. I shadowed as many people as possible at the BL and got an idea of everybody’s work, which in turn helps us rebuilding our library collection as we are starting from scratch.
  4.  I set up a network with different people who represent institutions and universities which help get support for Mosul University Library.
  5. I looked for partnership opportunities with UK libraries: SOAS and UCL libraries are good examples where there is potential for future work.
  6. I gave a talk to BL staff about the situation of Mosul University Library before and after ISIS which was a good message to everybody who can be of support.
  7. My talk  helped BL staff understand better the issues that Mosul University Library is facing. Now we can address any problems we have to the right person at the BL and they will understand.
  8. Thanks to tens of meetings with specialists, I now understand a lot more about important topics related to library work, such as metadata, preservation, electronic library systems, etc. This will help us a lot as we are building up our collections again.
  9. Through my placement at Boston Spa for three days, I learned how can we provide newspapers with suitable environments to protect them.
  10. I was able to contact the right person about the important issue of reactivating Mosul University Library’s OCLC account.

Nahrein: What was the main highlight of your scholarship? 

Mohammed: The main highlights were:

  • Learning how to digitize and document recovered materials and how to set up a digitization unit at Mosul University Library.
  • Beginning to discuss partnership with SOAS library and further steps needed.
  • Networking as we are trying to get support for Mosul University Library.
  • Throughout our meetings we were able to work on various practical issues related to Mosul University library, such as the OCLC account, access to e-materials, etc.

Nahrein: What were the main things you learnt from the British Library?

Mohammed: I actually learned a lot from the BL as I shadowed a lot of people there and spent good time in most of its departments. However, the most important ones were:

  • I got an idea about library e-systems and discussed the possibilities of applying some of them at Mosul University Library.
  • I learned how to preserve and digitise manuscripts.
  • I learned how to train library staff and share expertise with them. I also learned how to distribute the tasks amongst the staff.
  • I learned how the BL buys resources for the library and how to deal with donated special collections.
  • I also learned how to work with public libraries in the same region.

Nahrein: How has the scholarship helped you in your work in Iraq?

Mohammed: It helped me a lot as we are trying to rebuild our library collections after the destruction and burning caused by ISIS’ occupation of the city of Mosul. As I mentioned earlier, I learned how to set up a digitization unit at our library, especially the equipment needed and the training required. I will apply what I learned from my placement at the BL to Mosul University in general and to Mosul University Library in particular, sharing what I have learned with my colleagues at Mosul University Library.

Nahrein: What will you do to continue your research in Iraq?

Mohammed: Again, I will share the experience with the library staff and work on what I have achieved during my placement, especially with regard to partnership opportunities, access to e-materials, training opportunities for the library staff and following up the expected support for the library from the people I met. All that will be in coordination with Mosul University and the library’s administration.


We’re all looking forward very much to welcoming Mohammed back to London and the British Library in a few months time for the second half of his Visiting Scholarship placement.

Cultural (dis)continuity, political trajectories and the state in post-2003 Iraq

By Nahrein Network, on 25 June 2019

Our postdoctoral researcher, Dr Mehiyar Kathem, has published an article in the International Journal of Heritage Studies.

In it, he argues that:

Cultural continuity and the political trajectories of states are intimately intertwined. What happens to state institutions, how they are transformed through the interventions of external and domestic actors, affects heritage and its continuity in myriad ways. This paper looks at heritage in relation to the state and sites of power through the prism of cultural continuity, which can offer a more nuanced and historical perspective of the field of heritage in situations of change, transformation and conflict. It examines the repercussions of Iraq’s political system based on political quotas installed under the occupation of Iraq, where state institutions, including those of heritage, are allocated as electoral windfalls to competing political groups. The ensuing institutional disorder, absence of centralised rule and multiplicity of overlapping power structures in the country have detrimentally affected the conditions of Iraq’s heritage. International heritage interventions too have been largely ineffective in the face of the catastrophic damage inflicted on the sector since 2003. I argue that the fragmentation of state institutions and on the other hand a weak international heritage infrastructure, concerned mainly with its own priorities, has left Iraq’s heritage in a perpetual state of crisis that has not been addressed in any meaningful way.

Full reference:

Follow the link above for a free PDF download. The print version, with pagination, will follow in due course.

 

 

Building Ancient Boats for Today’s Iraq

By Nahrein Network, on 11 June 2019

Safina Projects on the revival of Iraqi watercraft heritage

By Hannah Lewis

I arrived in Iraq for the first time on 14th April this year.

1 Guffa coracle, Tarada canoe, and Delil barge guide-boat, on the Euphrates at Hit 12 April 2019 - copyright Rashad Salim

1 Guffa coracle, Tarada canoe, and Delil barge guide-boat, on the Euphrates at Hit 12 April 2019 – copyright Rashad Salim

The visit felt overdue: it was almost two years ago, in June 2017, that I co-founded Safina Projects with my husband, the expeditionary artist Rashad Salim, and joined him on a mission to revive, protect and study the traditional boats and craft heritage of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. My experience lies in project management and grant fundraising, so I took on the back office role –applying for funding, reporting to funders, admin and communications – while Rashad was in the field, tracking down the last few craftspeople who know how to build traditional boats like the Guffa coracle, Meshouf canoe and Isbiya barge.

2 Two Taradas and Chilaika on the Euphrates at Babylon 20 April 2019 - copyright Rashad Salim

2. Two Taradas and Chilaika on the Euphrates at Babylon 20 April 2019 – copyright Rashad Salim

These watercraft represent a heritage that has endured since earliest recorded history, but is now on the verge of extinction. Through a series of boat reconstruction workshops and oral history recordings – as part of our current projects, “Thesiger’s Tarada” supported by Nahrein Network (AHRC), and “An Ark for Iraq” supported by the Cultural Protection Fund (British Council with DCMS) – Safina Projects has documented these boats in detail, from the materials used to the making techniques, structure and traditional terminology associated with each boat type.

Through daily conversations with Rashad and through the thousands of photos and video recordings he has captured, I already felt familiar with the boats, their settings and the communities involved in their making. But seeing them at first hand would be very different, and I was excited to experience the real boats, the rivers and wetlands, and to meet the people Rashad had been working with for many months.

3. Hannah with Sajjad and Abu Muhenid paddling Nawfili at Chibayish 24 April 2019 - copyright Rashad Salim

3. Hannah with Sajjad and Abu Muhenid paddling Nawfili at Chibayish 24 April 2019 – copyright Rashad Salim

My two week trip was a whistle-stop tour, checking in at Baghdad, Hilla, Basra, Huwair, Chibayish, Nassiriya, Samawa, and back to Baghdad. Many days were filled with meetings, updating partners on our project progress and planning the next stages. We’re collaborating with organisations including Humat Dijlah and Humat Furat (the Tigris and Euphrates Protectors, an environmental activist network), the Ministry of Culture, Ministry of Water Resources, and several universities and museums. Joint efforts include river expeditions, boat training events, and student projects featuring the documentation of boats using architectural drawing techniques (University of Basra, architectural department) and the transciption of oral history recordings for our planned digital archive and online museum (University of Thi-Qar, sociology department).

4 Leila helps tar the Nawfili - copyright Hannah Lewis

4. Leila helps tar the Nawfili – copyright Hannah Lewis

We’re working towards the culmination of the Nahrein-funded Thesiger’s Tarada project: bringing one of our reconstructions of Wilfred Thesiger’s iconic Tarada (Sheikh’s canoe) along with a Guffa coracle to participate in London’s Totally Thames festival this September. We’ll then hold a major exhibition at Basra Museum in October, when a second reconstructed Tarada will make its way from the boatyard at Huwair downriver to Basra, and be displayed in the Museum alongside photographs from Thesiger’s archive (provided by our partners at the Pitt Rivers Museum) and selected archaeological artefacts that offer clues to the development of the Tarada and its predecessors dating back to Sumerian times.

Progress in building partnerships was satisfying, but my favourite moments were those when I could forget about planning, step into one of the boats and be carried on the fast-flowing waters of the Euphrates at Babylon, or move into the deep quiet of the marshlands at Chibayish, where we stopped in a small Mudhif guesthouse on a reed island, and I practised paddling a Nawfili (a particular type of canoe named for the tribe who commissioned them, who preferred a more upright prow resembling those seen in Sumerian boat depictions). Observing some of the boat-making at first hand was a joy too, and even our 2-year-old daughter became totally absorbed in “helping” to tar the Nawfili, using a scrap of wood to push cooled tar into the gaps between the boards at the edge of the boat, while boatbuilder Abu Muhenid swiftly rolled hot taronto the larger surfaces.

5 Abu Muhenid tarring the Nawfili - copyright Rashad Salim

5. Abu Muhenid tarring the Nawfili – copyright Rashad Salim

I also loved watching others using the boats, particularly during the training event we held at the Babylon archaeological site (19-21 April), when 28 young members of Humat Dijlah’s network who are keen to participate in our upcoming Euphrates Expeditions attended to practice the art of paddling Guffas and Meshoufs, as well as learning First Aid and oral history skills. The camaraderie of being part of a boat crew, the sheer enjoyment of being out on the water, and the shared pride in an ancient heritage that’s intimately connected with that environment, combined to make the experience very special for everyone involved.

6. Tarada, Meshoufs and Guffas at Babylon training event 20 April 2019 - copyright Rashad Salim

6. Tarada, Meshoufs and Guffas at Babylon training event 20 April 2019 – copyright Rashad Salim

As our current projects draw to an end, the next challenge is how to sustain the boatbuilding practices that have been revived: how to forge some continuity for this heritage when the boats no longer serve their traditional functions, having been pushed out of existence by industrial substitutes (truck transport or motorboats), by damage to the environments in which they traditionally operated, and by the rupture of intergenerational knowledge transfer? There are no easy answers, but my experiences in Iraq demonstrated that traditional boats still have the power to bring people together and generate pride in post-conflict Iraq. They may no longer serve a central role in the economy, but in sectors like tourism, sports and leisure, culture and education, they bring a unique ingredient – perhaps a glimpse of how heritage can be engaged, not just as an effort to preserve the past, but as the foundation of a future that honours traditional knowledge, local ecology, and the vernacular heritage that has outlasted successive civilisations in Mesopotamia.