Conference Report: Radical Increments – Toward New Platforms of Engaging Iraqi Studies

A Conference Report by Alda Benjamen, Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History at the University of Maryland, College Park, and TAARII Representative

On April 24 and 25, 2015 Columbia University in the City of New York hosted a conference focusing on Iraqi studies, entitled “Radical Increments: Toward New Platforms of Engaging Iraqi Studies.” The conference was co-organized by Dr. Muhsin al-Musawa (Columbia University), Dr. Yasmeen Hanoosh (Portland State University), and Dr. Abeer Shaheen (Columbia University), and sponsored by the Columbia University’s Middle East Institute and Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies Department, and Dr. Aziz and Arwa al-Shaibani. One of the goals of the conference was “to create an informed space to address major intellectual and political issues pertinent to Iraq in a manner that bears practical utility.” As a result the conference successfully intertwined speakers from interdisciplinary fields who presented rich material pertaining to institution building and spaces, secular and religious politics, literature, and Iraqi Diasporas. Presenters included highly noted academics, alongside more junior scholars with intriguing academic projects. Also accounted for were internationally acclaimed Iraqi novelists, Iraqi government representatives, and NGO activists. All panels, with the exception of one, were in English, the last being in Arabic. The intermix of disciplines and perspectives fostered an engaging conference.

Introductions by Dr. Muhsin al-Musawi, conference co-organizer (Photo Credit: Alda Benjamen, 2015)

The conference commenced with a welcome speech given by Dr. Muhsin al-Musawi and opening remarks by Dr. Lila Abu-Lughod (Columbia University). This was followed by an opening presentation by Dr. Mohamed Ali Alhakim, Iraq Permanent Representative and Ambassador to the United Nations, who provided statistics about Iraqi higher educational institutions and the number of students enrolled inside the country and abroad with government funding. In his presentation, he strived to paint a picture of Iraq as a country with a positive future, irrespective of the decades of violence the country had been subjected to. Dr. Eric Davis (Rutgers University) gave the keynote address entitled “‘Covering’ and ‘Uncovering’ Iraq: Memory, Place, Authenticity,” in which he challenged the popular representations of Iraq as either an artificial society based on sectarian divides or a fifth column to neighboring countries, especially Iran. Instead, he argued that multiple Iraqi representations existed, where positive, civic and inclusive ones could be created as well. In his presentation, he demonstrated how Iraqi youth transgressed sectarianism within their civic society organizations and cultural production programs, such as the popular television show, “Love and War.” Davis argued that inside Iraq, teachers, academics, intellectuals, newspaper and journal editors were crucial in rebuilding Iraq’s educational system and teaching youth critical thinking skills based on the country’s history. He also advised the international academic community to stop viewing Iraq’s development, including how it was represented, as a “spectator sport,” concluding with “those of us who care about Iraq must be committed to helping it.”

Keynote address by Dr. Eric Davis (Photo Credit: Alda Benjamen, 2015)

Slide presentation by Dr. Eric Davis, “Anti-Sectarian activity, Iraqi youth 2013″ (Photo Credit: Alda Benjamen, 2015)

Slide presentation by Dr. Eric Davis, “Many Iraqis refused to celebrate their Eid in solidarity with Christians in Mosul” (Photo Credit: Alda Benjamen, 2015)

Dr. Yasmeen Hanoosh, conference co-organizer (Photo Credit: Alda Benjamen, 2015)

Dr. Yasmeen Hanoosh chaired the first session of the conference: “Institutions, Infrastructure, Space.” The session included a presentation by Dr. Abeer Shaheen, “God’s Eye View into Transparent Baghdad.” Shaheen described how Baghdad came to be defined as a city under security parameters following the U.S. invasion in 2003. The imposition of physical barriers, such as walls between neighborhoods based on sectarian divides, further segregated Baghdadis. In “Baghdad Resolve: An International Collaboration to Improve Cancer Care in Iraq,” Claudia Lefko of the Iraqi Children’s Art Exchange, described the formation of an international connection project in 2012 where American children sent art to hospitalized Iraqi children diagnosed with cancer. She provided concerning statistics about the increased mortality rate in Iraq for children under five years of age, as well as the increased cancer rates for children in general. Adding to this dilemma was the decline in Iraqi social organization and schools, along with the isolation of Iraqi doctors given years of instability and war. In “Virtual Realities: The Wartime Labor of Eden in Iraq’s Marshes,” Dr. Bridget Guarasci (Oberlin College) described the material dimension of virtuality, which she tackled by engaging in an international project that aimed to restore the marshes in Iraq post 2003. Eden’s restoration came to be considered by the international community the success story of the Iraq war, though it had little effect on the actual marshes and local population. Guarasci considered the marshes restoration project the hyper simulation that did not correspond to reality. Finally, Dr. Emily Stetler’s (Mount St. Mary’s University) presentation, “Education for a New National Identity: Sketching an Iraqi Critical Pedagogy,” stipulated that Iraq’s prospects lie in the ability of its diverse youth to envision a future. An inclusive curriculum that engaged all communities was crucial in this vision. As Stetler concluded, for “Sunnis, Shi‘is, Assyrians, Turkomens, Kurds and Caucasians, the conversation begins in the classroom.”

Dr. Bridget Guarasci, “Virtual Realities: The Wartime Labor of Eden in Iraq’s Marshes” (Photo Credit: Alda Benjamen, 2015)

Slide presentation by Dr. Bridget Guarasci, “Narrative Labor on Eden” (Photo Credit: Alda Benjamen, 2015)

Henrik Andersen, “The Politics of Corruption and Organized Crime in Contemporary Iraq” (Photo Credit: Alda Benjamen, 2015)

Dr. Mohammad Salama chaired the second session, “Secularism, Religion, Politics.” Dr. Jabbar al-Obaidi’s (Bridgewater State University) presentation was entitled, “Iraqi Media Post 2003: An Analytical, Historical, and Political Overview.” In it, al-Obaidi described the five types of media ownership existing in Iraq post 2003: Sectarian Media Ownership, Ideological Media Ownership, Independent Media Ownership, and American Media Ownership. The Independent Media was the smallest type of media ownership, with fewer financial abilities but with an independent and inclusive voice. Al-Obaidi concluded by stressing the need for an inclusive rhetoric and denouncing the employment of racist terminology by these agencies.

Henrik Andersen (independent researcher) discussed corruption in Iraq in his talk, “The Politics of Corruption and Organized Crime in Contemporary Iraq.” He described the intricate connections linking militias to Iraqi politicians and parties. As a result, average citizens felt disconnected from the state and distrustful of its ability to protect them. Andersen further described the state of corruption in other government agencies and ministries in both the Iraqi central and the KRG regional governments. Finally, the presentation of Yaseen Raad (American University of Beirut) was read in absentia as he was not able to secure a visa to the U.S. His presentation was entitled, “Consolidating Socio-Spatial Practices in a Militarized Public Space: The Case of Abu Nuwas Street in Baghdad.”

Dr. Muhsin al-Musawi chaired the third session, entitled “Iraq in Literature.” Dr. Moneera al-Ghadeer (Columbia University) described the “Cannibalizing Iraq,” as relating to colonial violence, and focused specifically on the interrogation operation at Abu Ghraib prison carried out by American soldiers. Daniel Wolk’s (University of Chicago) presentation, “Confronting Corruption in the Iraqi City from Afar: Ṣakhī’s Khalfa al Saddah/Durūb al-fiqdān and al-Dāhūdī’s Dhākirat madinah munqariḍah,” described conceptual frameworks of corruption in Iraqi novels. Dr. Ikram Masmoudi’s (University of Delaware) talk, “Desertion: Then and Now,” compared the massive population flights of Yezidi, Christian, Sunni, and other Iraqis following the occupation of the Islamic State of Mosul and its vicinities in the summer of 2014, to the state of desertion Iraqis experienced during the Iran-Iraq war. Masmoudi argued that the Iraqi psyche was still narrated by the past and words such as “deserter” occupied the mind of contemporary Iraqi novelists, as desertion then and now conveyed a perennial response to coercion, abuse and killing. Dr. Mohammad Salama’s (San Francisco State University) presentation titled, “A Mimesis of the Future: The Dialectic of Writing and Forgetting in Luay Ḥamza ‘Abbās,” argued that ‘Abbās’ writing triggered an alternative thinking of effaced cities and mutilated memories in order to articulate a mimesis of the future which did not currently exist.

The fourth session, “Diasporic Continuities” was chaired by Dr. Jabbbar al-Obaidi. Deborah al-Najjar (University of Southern California), in “Iraq and the Consolidation of Grief,” engaged with cultural production as an imaginative space in which Iraqi Studies was re-conceptualized. She focused specifically on Dr. Sinan Antoon’s The Corpse Washer. Dr. Sobia Khan (Richland College), in “Enacting Disaster: The Iraqi Nights, a Site of Conflict and Crisis,” discussed the anguish for the homeland in Dunya Mikhail’s writings, befittingly evoked by Mikhail in this verse: “homeland. I am not your mother, so why do you weep in my lap like this every time something hurts you?” The Arabic original of this verse was written along an image of a broken brick wall, resembling a Sumerian tablet. Reemah al-Urfali’s (American University in Cairo) presentation, titled, “Translating Iraqi Women’s Literature: Between Gender and Genre,” described the ways in which Iraqi female writings were translated to English, relying on certain political ideologies and gender expectations intelligible to English readers. Finally, Dena al-Adeeb (New York University), in “Architecture of Trauma: Embodied Practices and Resistance,” focused on the Shi‘i practices of mourning post 2003 and their utilization in new political, religious, and social formations to transform previously marginalized Shi‘i communities from the periphery to the center.

Panel participants Samuel Shimon, Dr. Taher al-Bakka, Dr. Jabbar al-Obaidi, Shakir Noori, Ali Badr, and Dr. Ikram Masmoudi (Photo Credit: Alda Benjamen, 2015)

The fifth session, chaired by Dr. Ikram Masmoudi, was presented in Arabic and titled, “Writing in Post-Occupation Iraq: Session in Arabic with Translation.” The first speaker was Dr. Taher al-Bakka, former Minister of Higher Education in Iraq, 2004–2005. Al-Bakka provided background on the effects of the 2003 war and absence of power on higher education. During this period, 1,600 Iraqi professors left their posts and 500 were killed. In the aftermath of the war, Iraqi political parties heightened their influence on academic institutions, whereby their religious and political views were imposed on universities (for example, certain deans forced female students, including Christians, to wear the Islamic veil). Al-Bakka concluded with ways in which universities can improve, chiefly in being politically and religiously independent. Turning to the audience, he stated: “Iraq and its higher education are in need of your pens and your intellects.” Samuel Shimon (Banipal Literary Magazine, U.K.) discussed his literary career focusing on his novel Iraqi in Paris. He also shed light on his current memoir, which will tackle his experience in the Iraqi civil war of the 1970s — although an Assyrian, Shimon fought in the Kurdish uprising against the Iraqi regime. Shimon further explored the importance of teaching tolerance, and how Iraqi pluralism was reflected in his novels. Shakir Noori, (Iraqi journalist and novelist) illustrated the important relationship between a historical period and the novel. He lamented the absence of the Iraqi novel within this genre and described his role in rectifying this by writing war novels. As a novelist, Noori wrote while war was going on instead of waiting for it to end, preferring not to distance himself from the immediate sentiments associated with war. Finally, Ali Badr (Iraqi journalist and novelist) described his numerous novels, including The Tobacco Keeper and the Sinful Woman. He vividly illustrated a lucid dream while stationed in Alqosh as soldier in the 1990s. He woke up to write what he considers to be his masterpiece, The Road to Moutran Hill, a novel about a Christian character, in 24 hours. Badr was 22 years of age at the time.

The closing remarks were provided by Dr. Muhsin al-Musawi. He introduced plans for the formation of an Iraqi Center, where larger conferences on Iraqi studies can be organized. The conference co-organizers are planning to publish the conference proceedings, along with additional compelling submissions on the topic, in a co-edited volume.