The University president and the co-sponsoring French institutions (the Institut Français, based at the French embassy in Baghdad, the IFPO, which maintains a branch on the citadel of Erbil, the Capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq) offered their greetings, followed by presentations by participants covering the entire Middle East region and beyond, including even reflections on the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban, and the impact of the recovery efforts on local populations (Constance Windham, Bert Praxenthaler). Discussions evolved around issues of cultural heritage destruction and its impact on social life, coping strategies of affected populations in Iraq and Syria, or the challenges to the preservation of living space, customs and linguistic heritage in the face of ongoing contestations of power and dominance between rivaling groups in the entire region, at the expense of local and minority identities (Alda Benjamen, Aline Schlaepfer, Mikhael Benjamin, Jean Lambert, Rafiq al-Akkuri, Jordi Tejel). Iraqi colleagues in particular bemoaned the loss of traditions of coexistence and collaboration that had dominated Iraqi social life in the past (Hassan Nadhem, Ghada al-Slik, Scheherazade Qassim Hassan, Mahmood Ahmed Bakr Khayat).
Particularly interesting were presentations by AUIS professor Edith Szanto about the “rediscovery” of Zoroastrianism among the Kurdish youth as the “original” Kurdish religion as push-back against the rising threat of militant Islamism, by former TARII fellows Bridget Guarasci on the pitfalls of post-Saddam reconstruction discourses as exemplified by the Iraqi Marshlands, Mosul archeologist Leila Salih’s discussion of the re-purposing of lost heritage site in her home town, former TARII fellow Abdulameer Hamdani’s stock taking of the disappearance and dispersal of Iraqi ancient heritage since 2003, and Thomas McGee’s fascinating account of debates in the North Syrian Kurdish city of Kobane about the re-construction or memorial preservation of the destroyed city center after Kurdish troops re-took it from Daesh in 2015. Accounts of the impact of the Syrian Civil war on cultural and social heritage were particularly chilling (Mustafa Ahmad, Mohamad Aljasem, Vanessa Guéno), while other presentations focused on possibilities of reconstruction, both materially and socially (Diane Duclos, Jala Makhzoumi). Conference organizers Géraldine Chatelard, Elizabeth Campbell, and Boris James steered questions and answers to cover issues related to political, legal and scholarly dimensions of the definition of heritage, and what the international heritage discourse can do to the life of communities. Interesting contributions to the discussion included Saad Eskander’s remark that it should not be forgotten that heritage destruction pre-dated the 2003 invasion and Daesh. Great parts of old Baghdad had fallen victim to Ba‘thist development plans, long before 2003. Altogether, the conference offered crucial insights to the variety of challenges that cultural heritage activists and practitioners are facing. The conversation is ongoing.