When it occurred, the toppling and decapitation of Saddam’s golden idol in Firdos Square seemed to many like a good omen, the symbol of an end to a reign of terror and a step toward freedom and safety for Iraqis. But as the war drags toward its fifth year, idyllic imagery escapes us and reality kicks in. There are no moral victories. Every step in the direction of Iraqi “freedom” has its price. The Defense Department calls this collateral damage, a blanket term that covers—and excuses—civilian casualties, destruction of homes, and the annihilation of Iraqi cultural artifacts. The idol was one of these: a very real, if unsavory, part of Iraq’s history that fell as part of an imaginary victory.
But the statue was the least of an innumerable collection of artifacts that have been destroyed or gone missing. The blame game has worn itself out, without anyone taking responsibility for failing to protect many national museums, and solutions for recovering the lost art have stalled. To put this in historical context, Poland and Germany are still bickering over pieces of art transferred between the two countries during the Nazi occupation 70 years ago. So a government-initiated plan of action may be long in coming. The burden of reclaiming Iraq’s history may well fall to private organizations and art historians.
One of these crusaders is Nada Shabout. The Iraqi-born art historian and professor at the University of North Texas talks about the importance of preserving Iraq’s culture in a Q & A with the Montreal Mirror. This preservation is especially important, it seems, in light of the ever-growing role played by the West in reshaping the country’s political identity. If what we do today can only be understood tomorrow, as the Bush administration claims, than it is a great blow to history that more care wasn’t taken in preserving Iraq’s art for future generations.
For more on the fate of art in Iraq, check out the documentary Erasing Memory: The Cultural Destruction of Iraq by Deep Dish TV. —Morgan Winters