Changed practices in Iraq’s heritage related academic networks
By Mehiyar Kathem, on 30 June 2021
Written by Dr Mehiyar Kathem
It is not always easy to notice changing practices within the field one works in. Indeed, one must have relative distance – to notice and observe how things evolve over time – but also an in-depth knowledge of the field. By the end of the year, it would have been four years since the Nahrein Network started its work and one can now discern several transformations in Iraq during this period. This piece is written with a view to highlighting how the Nahrein Network, through its work in Iraq, has contributed to strengthening capacity amongst Iraqi academics and the universities it works with, focusing in particular on its heritage related activities.
Iraq, and in particular, Iraq’s academics – the Nahrein Network’s main partner in the country – are thirsty for international engagement, particularly with UK-based universities. As an essential component of civil society – and wider society for that matter – Iraq’s universities and academics are increasingly becoming engaged in Iraq’s intellectual, educational and cultural recovery. Observing those changing practices is not an easy task, particularly when much of Iraq continues to be framed as a crisis prone country. Understanding those changes however and exploring how things have evolved over the past few years is essential if we are to collectively work towards strengthening Iraq’s academic and heritage institutions.
We all know that the challenges in Iraq are immense. Perhaps in every single field Iraq finds itself reeling from decades of conflict, instability and ineffective working practices. The lack of institutional reforms, resource scarcity, brain-drain, isolation and weak incentive-structures for improving the quantity and quality of research in the country continue to debilitate Iraq and its intellectual and academic fields. What I am interested in however are incremental changes and improved practices, which I explore below.
With an understanding of those aforementioned challenges, and in a situation where Iraq’s heritage has faced and continues to endure major crises as a result of the Islamic State and the lingering impact of conflict, the Nahrein Network was designed to support Iraq at a time when it was just coming out of war.
In 2017, Nahrein Network director, Professor Eleanor Robson, initiated the project to directly enable and support Iraqis themselves to lead and contribute to the country’s post-conflict cultural and heritage recovery. Nearly four years since then, it continues to be one of the few initiatives providing support to Iraq in this field and the largest focusing on heritage related research and support to academics in this specialisation.
Incremental changes – often not picked up or analysed – have for the Nahrein Network been clearly visible, with tangible benefits noticeable in the field of heritage and academia. The bulk of those benefits that have accrued from the support offered by the Nahrein Network have been within Iraqi-led projects and research teams from Iraqi universities. The Nahrein Network’s small projects in particular – led by Iraqi academics themselves – are testimony to those changing practices in the field of Iraq’s higher education and more broadly in the field of heritage. Importantly, project leaders have used the opportunity to work on heritage-related projects to engage with society in ways that didn’t exist before. Funding for academics to work in the field of heritage have at least since the early 1990s been scarce and most financial support since 2003 for research in the field of heritage has come from outside Iraq.
Academic research in Iraq has largely been dominated by conventional approaches that have for decades remained unchanged. Understanding the limitations of those common research methodologies – which mostly rely on desk-based research and its monotonous reproduction – project leaders supported by the Nahrein Network have instead adopted new approaches that engage with wider society, using more people-oriented methods such as interviews and ethnography. Indeed, interview-based research – adopted by many project leaders – has offered researchers fresh and new data about society. The use of such methods is a relatively new thing in Iraq, with most researchers in Iraq’s universities suffering from poor training and an absence of knowledge about the type of diverse and context appropriate methodologies they could potentially utilise in their work.
Sanctions of the 1990s and conflict from 2003 have isolated Iraqi academics, producing a vicious cycle of poor academic attainment and little innovation and creativity in writing and research. Indeed, something as relatively basic as the adoption of new research methodologies to better understand such things as Iraqi society and cultural heritage – is a major development in a field that continues to suffer from weak academic standards and poor research production. For example, interviews with target audiences, including communities, is something that is neglected in Iraq’s higher education system. It is one of the reasons why academics in Iraq have produced little research about Iraqi society itself. They often rely on literature and research from the 1950s and 1960s, or commonly the adoption of abstract concepts and ideas taken from faraway places. In a context of the field of heritage, which is essentially about people, such antiquated research methods are devastating over the medium to long term, particularly when efforts are geared to strengthening the heritage and archaeology sectors in Iraq and learning about how they could be more responsive to people’s needs.
With an understanding of those limitations, the Nahrein Network’s projects in the country, which focus on research with an impact on society, have encouraged researchers to produce new data and information by focusing on people, communities and heritage. In particular, the Nahrein Network’s small – grants have been effective in supporting Iraqi academics and improving academic standards. Such projects are led and managed by Iraqi academics themselves and their projects are the ones that are defined and prepared by researchers living and working in the country. They have a high degree of local ownership, which is essential for realising good results and outputs.
At times, non-Iraqi facilitators or trainers have been invited by Iraqi teams, offering such things as training in data-collection, methodologies and field research. Funding for research in Iraq, particularly for social sciences and humanities, is highly circumscribed, though resource-scarcity characterises most of Iraq’s higher education. In this context, small-grants can go a long way, and for this reason the Nahrein Network’s projects are mostly made up of small projects. There is much to learn here – too long for this blog – about why small projects are generally more effective than larger ones in Iraq.
The exercise of devising and managing a small project is itself a learning process that most Iraqi academics are not accustomed to. In this context, the Nahrein Network has provided an important stream of support – financial but also other forms of assistance – to strengthen the capacity of Iraqi research and in the process for researchers to learn essential career but also project related skills. Those funded projects, which are related to heritage in its various dimensions, are about people and have compelled researchers to leave the comfort of their universities to better understand the social and cultural environments that they are seeking to research and shed light on.
Several projects stand out in this regard. A project led by Dr Zainab Alwaeli, a researcher from Al Mustansiriyah University, and composed of researchers from Iraq’s diverse backgrounds as well as cultural and religious group representatives, is focused on Baghdad’s cultural pluralism. After a period of research training – which itself has been an important aspect of researchers’ own skills development – team members are exploring how heritage practices, particularly within and between Baghdad’s cultural groups, have evolved over the past few years. For example, interviews were conducted with Iraq’s Mandaean representatives to better explore the life-situations of that community. Similarly to other non-majority cultural and religious groups, Iraq’s Mandaean population has dwindled in number in the face of Iraq’s post-2003 state collapse. Exploring those dynamics as they evolve is critically important during this period of change.
One of the things that the research team has realised is that the voices and perspectives of those communities haven’t been properly researched and written about. One of the goals of this research project is to understand their positionality within a society undergoing change and how the past few years have affected how they view themselves and wider society. Instead of framing community members from non-majority groups as victims, the research team has been exploring their cultural and religious practices and engagement in society.
Members of Baghdad’s Mandaean community by the banks of the Tigris. Baghdad, Iraq. June 2021.
A member of Baghdad’s Mandaean community performing an ablution by the banks of the Tigris, Baghdad, Iraq. June 2021.
Another major development that the Nahrein Network has encouraged and supported is the preparation of multidisciplinary research teams. Architects working with historians as well as with archaeologists, for example, isn’t a common phenomenon in Iraq and the Nahrein Network has encouraged multi-disciplinary teams to group together to research the particular subjects that they are concerned with. This has meant that researchers within each team – in most cases from different universities – are engaged within the confines of their projects to work together to produce and share knowledge. Support for team-based research in the field of heritage is not common in Iraq, and there are clear benefits particularly in terms of strengthening interdisciplinary skills and knowledge transfer between academics and universities.
Another notable project sheds light on the dearth of up-to-date research about some parts of Iraq. A collaborative research project led by Al-Qadisiyah University looking at Southern Iraq’s Bedouin communities is the first such study since the 1960s to better understand the life-situations and intangible heritage of nomadic groups. Those nomadic groups, who traverse the desert and alluvial plain situated west of the Euphrates in Najaf, DhiQar and Muthanna provinces, have produced new data about neglected segments of Iraqi society. Research and findings to date have highlighted issues that could possibly also be used for policy and new support oriented national and international programmes.
With a view to developing a new university module, focusing on the intangible heritage of Bedouin communities, over sixty interviews were conducted with those hard to access groups. Women as well as men were interviewed by Iraqi researchers trained in ethnographic research techniques. Indeed, interviewees said this was the first such effort that asked about them, highlighting issues of neglect and deprivation. Whilst the project is still being implemented, an interesting aspect of this research has highlighted how those communities and individuals have been able to negotiate such things as urbanity and climate change – which affects the grazing of their livestock, and the ways they have coped with change at a time when Iraq itself is undergoing rapid political and social transformation. In the face of change, Iraq’s Bedouin communities are also dwindling in number, which is affecting their way of life. In this situation, the project could be seen as a strategic intervention at a time when Iraq’s Beduoin communities and their practices and traditions may altogether disappear from Iraq.
The new and innovative research produced by the project will become integrated into Iraq’s heritage curriculums, forming a key part of higher-education learning materials. These new developments are significant in Iraq, especially as the field of heritage in Iraq has been mostly dominated by conventional notions of archaeological research and practices that have largely remained unchanged for over fifty years, if not longer. Current plans by Nahrein Network Co-Director Dr Jaafar Jotheri, Vice-Dean of the College of Archaeology in Al-Qadisiyah University, to develop a new masters degree in heritage – the first in Iraq – is a direct outcome of this learning experience and the urgencies of ensuring that heritage is oriented to people and their needs.
Taken together, the Nahrein Network’s activities in Iraq are having a positive impact on the country’s heritage sector and academic fields. Change is incremental, at times slow and difficult, but increasingly visible in Iraq. The good news that the Nahrein Network will continue to work and partner with Iraqi colleagues for the next ten years means that those resources and efforts invested in the country thus far can be built on, strengthened and rolled out across the country.
A member of a nomadic group in DhiQar, Iraq. June 2021.