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Archive for January, 2020

Cultural heritage and reconstruction — a view from Mosul University

Nahrein Network7 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

Nahrein Network7 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

Nahrein Network7 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.