Dance performance in Baghdad, Arab Capital of Culture 2013 (photo: DW/Alshimary)
Baghdad: Arab Capital of Culture 2013

Normality Still a Distant Dream

Terrorist attacks, corruption and scandals are casting a dark shadow over the celebrations to mark Baghdad's year as Arab Capital of Culture, as Birgit Svensson reports from Iraq's capital

The Iraqi government would like nothing more than to put on a show of normality, to demonstrate that Iraq is on a par with other countries in the region and to notch up a few points at international level. But somehow, it seems as if this normality is just not meant to be.

Iraq has a reputation to live down: there was much that went wrong at the summit of the Arab League in March of last year. Hotel reservations were chaotic, a mortar shell landed in the secure Green Zone directly beside the conference location and several car bombs exploded in the centre of the city. Some delegates quickly turned on their heels and left; others never even came in the first place. Iraq's year as chair of the Arab League passed without glory.

So there was great determination that everything would be different this time. Ever since Baghdad was named Arab Capital of Culture 2013, everyone in the country has been talking about the event. A generous budget was promised to allow for a broad-ranging cultural exchange and to show the world that Iraq was on its way to becoming a nation of culture once again.

Chaotic organisation and security problems

However, as so often is the case, intention and reality were poles apart. There is still no fixed programme leaflet with all the events; there's just a list of the general themes that have been selected for the individual months. June, for example, is supposed to be dedicated to children and young people. International youth meetings and a conference on children in the Arab world are planned.

It took a long time for translations of the programme into poor English to be produced. Nothing is planned for July because of Ramadan. And all the while, the number of bomb attacks is rising dramatically. Over 700 people were killed in April, making it the most deadly month in Iraq in five years.

The year of culture was only opened at the end of March with a three-day festival. Guests from around the world arrived in the recently renovated Hotel Rasheed in the Green Zone for a special ceremony in which they were addressed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. It was a closed event. By the same token, none of the guests was able to leave the hotel without tight security. Given the large number of guests, special requests from individuals could not be accommodated.

Concert performance as part of the events to mark Baghdad's year as Arab Capital of Culture 2013 (photo: DW/Alshimary)
Baghdad is Arab Capital of Culture 2013. The "Arab Capital of Culture", an initiative of the Arab League and part of UNESCO's Cultural Capitals Programme, seeks to promote the culture of the Arab world and to foster communication across the region


Margarete van Ess, director of the Orient Department at the German Archaeological Institute, travelled all the way from Berlin to the Rasheed and was "delighted to see that the theatre and dance projects that were shown revived good old traditions and that the focus was on the culture of the country and not on religion."

In this way, she continued, the issue of tolerance between religions was raised, as was a dramatic portrayal of the country's own history. In light of the many complaints made by Western media that culture plays an ever decreasing role and that artistic freedom is suffering in the country, van Ess felt that what she saw constituted a good counterpoint. However, there were no media representatives in Hotel Rasheed except for those from the state television channel, Iraqia.

Meanwhile, journalists and the "general public" gathered in a huge, specially erected marquee in Zawhra Park not far from the Rasheed. Criticism rained down on the organisers of this parallel event. The performances in the marquee were amateurish, poorly rehearsed and "cheap", it was said.

Accusations of corruption

When questions were asked about where all the money made available for the event had gone, the first heads in the Ministry of Culture rolled. It became clear that the organisation of individual events was solely in the hands of Ministry staff who had made hardly any contracts with external partners and consulted no professionals. The criteria used to select the performances were obscure and invited much rumour and speculation about corruption and nepotism.

Moreover, the demonstration of tolerance at the opening ceremony that van Ess so warmly praised did not last long. To be precise, it lasted until the end of April, when religion took centre stage once again. A performance from Germany which opened the theatre festival caused a scandal. The contribution by the Japanese dancer Minako Seki, who lives and works in Berlin, had been billed as one of the two German entries to the competition.

Seki danced for five minutes in a transparent, flesh-coloured body-stocking. That may be quite normal in Europe and Japan, but it caused outrage in Baghdad: to the audience, it looked as if she was naked, something which is absolutely unheard of in an Islamic country such as Iraq where Sharia is the legal system and religious fanatics have an influence on the government.

Hella Mewis (right) with colleagues from Morocco, Palestine and Iran at the Theatre Festival in Baghdad (photo: Birgit Svensson)
Ambitious theatre scene: according to German culture manager Hella Mewis (right, shown here with colleagues from Morocco, Palestine and Iran at the Theatre Festival in Baghdad), the plays put on by Iraqi directors at the festival are more courageous and critical of society than they were just a few years ago when she first came to Iraq


Saadoun al-Dulaimi, the Minister of Culture, was absolutely livid. The festival manager and head of the national theatre, in whose theatre the performance had taken place, was suspended from duty and replaced by a member of the Dawa party, the Shia religious governing party from which Prime Minister Maliki comes. From now on, all items in the cultural programme have to be viewed in advance and approved. It was a heavy blow for the Baghdad culture scene, which had such high hopes and great ambitions and was so keen to reach international standards.

"It is a pity that we Germans are being tainted by this scandal," says Hella Mewis, who has been managing and supporting intercultural theatre projects in Iraq since 2010, "although neither myself nor any other German institute had anything to do with it." Mewis feels that the organisers could quite easily have contacted the German embassy in Baghdad, the Goethe Institute, or herself to find out whether the dance performance would be controversial. After all, Seki is well known in the dance scene and has been performing this piece internationally for three years now.

Hungry for culture

All the same, Mewis feels that when all the performances are taken into consideration, the concept for the theatre festival was ambitious. Compared with three years ago, when she first travelled from Berlin to Baghdad with a young theatre group, the plays put on by Iraqi directors at the festival were more courageous and critical of society.

Experimental theatre and the blending of theatre and dance are in at the moment, she says. "You can see that many artists are coming back to Iraq from exile in order to work with colleagues here." The influence of Sweden on the Iraqi theatre scene is currently very strong.

It is some consolation for Mewis that the production of Bernada Alba's House directed by the Kurdish–Iraqi director Ihsan Othmann was named best play at the festival. Othmann lives in Berlin and works closely with Hella Mewis.

And there is something else worth mentioning: "The performances are packed to the rafters," says Mewis. Despite the fact that there has been very little promotional work, people are coming to the theatre in droves. "The Iraqis are hungry for culture."

Birgit Svensson

© 2013

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

Editor: Michael Lawton/

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