Overcoming cultural divisions

"Iraq is full of inspiring stories"

At the end of November, a squad of young cultural creatives from all over Iraq met in Erbil, in the country’s north. Their work spans the fault lines that run through Iraqi society, and draws parallels to the revolution in Baghdad and in the country as a whole. Christopher Resch reports from Erbil

Lanah Haddad can’t stop talking. People are crowding around her in the Ala Center in Erbil, northern Iraq; the stream hardly ever stops. In Kurdish, Arabic, English and German, the archaeologist and artist explains the board game she has invented, which is called "The Assyrian Empire". In the game, players battle for power and influence as the Assyrian kings Ashurbanipal or Sennacherib.

The Assyrians controlled the region’s fate until around the 6th century BC. The fertile land of Mesopotamia – the country that lay between the Euphrates and the Tigris – was far more advanced than the Europe of that time. In its heyday, the Assyrian empire was one of the high cultures of the ancient Orient.

In Germany, a historical board game is likely to attract rather less interest. But in Iraq, the timing couldn’t be better: more and more people in the country are starting to reflect on their shared history. "The game is designed to provide a bridge to their common heritage," says Lanah Haddad.

Discovering what they have in common, overcoming divisions: this is also one of the slogans of the protests in Baghdad and many other cities in central and southern Iraq. The demonstrators want an end to corruption, violence and religious divisions; they are demanding jobs, prospects, reliable electricity and clean water.

Two different worlds

Erbil and Baghdad are an hour’s plane ride apart, but on this Saturday in late November, they feel like two different worlds. In Baghdad, hundreds of thousands of people are taking to the streets, while Erbil feels quiet and almost a bit boring. But only at first glance. In the Ala Center, a cultural centre owned by the youth organisation of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, which is full of nooks and crannies and has its own garden and cafe, 20 or so artists from all over the country are showing their work.

Establishing links with a common heritage: Iraqi artist and archaeologist Lanah Haddad presents The Assyrian Empire (photo: Christopher Resch)
Bridge to a common heritage: "The Assyrian Empire" is a board game invented by Iraqi artist and archaeologist Lanah Haddad. In it, players battle for power and influence as the Assyrian kings Ashurbanipal or Sennacherib

There are films, comics, music and theatre, and anyone who spends a whole day looking at the work, talking to the artists and mixing with the crowd will gain a good insight into Iraq’s lively cultural scene. The Goethe Institut has funded all these projects with its "Spotlight Iraq" programme.

 Breaking with long-held traditions

22-year-old Sarah al-Zubaidi, for example, wants to encourage the love of theatre in her hometown of Karbala. The city is hugely significant in religious and historical terms, due to the battle of Karbala in the year 680 – but living a modern life enriched by culture there is difficult, says al-Zubaidi, especially for women. "My theatre project is also designed to show that we need to break with some of these long-held traditions. At the moment, social restrictions are stopping women from following their goals, and even from participating in social life."

That is exactly what prompted Huda al-Kadhimi to return to her homeland. She grew up in Amman, because her family felt the tensions between Sunnis and Shias had become too great.

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