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Stability gives Baghdad a chance at a cultural renaissance


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Hari Sreenivasan: The city of Baghdad is experiencing a phase of stability and security rarely seen since the 2003 U.S. invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein.

Baghdadis who once flocked to outdoor cafes, parks and cultural events are going out on the town again --to experience both the pleasure of art, as well as see how artists are interpreting the recent past.

But getting back to some semblance of normalcy isn't easy.

NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Simona Foltyn is in Iraq and has our story.

Simona Foltyn: A slight wind of hope is blowing through old Baghdad. On a rainy autumn day, a small group of artist and art enthusiasts gather on historic Rashid Street for an open air photography exhibition. It's an unusual sight in a city that has been marred by violence for much of the past 16 years.

Hussein Motar: It was wonderful, it was very spiritual. People they don't see this daily, and the world does not see this about Baghdad.

Simona Foltyn: Hussein Motar is taking part in the art walk, a weekend event during which young artists exhibit their work at famous landmarks throughout the city. His photography project documents Baghdad's transformation over the past decades by hanging up old photographs of Baghdad alongside his own. Motar chose famous archive pictures of the capital, and photographed the same places to show how the city has changed. While there has been some development, much of Baghdad's old architecture has suffered from damage and neglect.

Hussein Motar: This particular picture is hung on a building from the year 1933, it's a very old and beautiful building, the combination of the columns and the outside details and also the balconies is very particular and it distinguishes Al Rashid street.

Simona Foltyn: Motar, aged 20, comes from a generation that grew up mostly indoors to avoid the violence that raged on Baghdad's streets in the wake of the 2003 American-led invasion. For years, daily explosions and sectarian strife altered the physical appearance and social cohesion of the city. Then, after a brief lull in violence, ISIS took control of a third of Iraq's territory in 2014, and although its so-called caliphate never extended to Baghdad, the group terrorized the city with car bombs and suicide attacks. Security has much improved since ISIS's defeat in 2017 and gradually, the concrete blast walls that have blocked off streets and buildings for years are coming down. Motar's exhibition is an effort to rediscover and reclaim his city.

Hussein Motar: People started to think of Baghdad like it doesn't represent them due to the architectural changes and like destruction you can see. We are trying to make them believe again.

Simona Foltyn: As much as these young artists seek to overcome the impact of the war, it has inevitably shaped their art. Louay Al Hadhari exhibits his work in Liberation Square.

Louay Al Hadhari: I worked on the topic of women who were taken as slaves by ISIS and sold on the market as sex slaves.

Simona Foltyn: Al Hadhari says his sculpture of a woman from Iraq's Yezidi minority has broken shackles to represent the ongoing fight for freedom in Iraq.

Louay Al Hadhari: I chose Liberation Square because the Freedom Monument is the largest monument in the Middle East, which represents liberation.

Simona Foltyn: The Freedom Monument in Baghdad's Liberation Square was designed by a famous Iraqi artist called Jawad Saleem in the 60s, a time when Baghdad was a jewel of Arab capitals with a thriving art scene. Many decades and wars later, that scene is a shadow of its former self. Artists today struggle to grab the attention of a public that's too exhausted to care. Only a few people stopped to observe the exhibits of the young artists.

Louay Al Hadhari: So many people are just working they don't know about art, they even more of them, they don't have any education like that, so this is something new for us.

Simona Foltyn: It's not just declining educational opportunities that have stunted interest in art over the past decades. After the demise of Saddam Hussein's secular dictatorship, Iraq witnessed a resurgence of political Islam and conservative Islamic values that deemed much of art as "haram" or forbidden. Only a few organizations dare to push the boundaries. This art institute, called Bait Tarkib or the House of Installation in Arabic, was established in 2015 to promote contemporary art.

Hella Mewis: When we did the first installation, exhibition, people we were shocked and said This is not art. This is a question: what is art?

Simona Foltyn: Bait Tarkib is run by Hella Mewis.

Hella Mewis: The Iraqi society, some of them of course are conservative, but some of them are simply afraid to make a change. So this is why what we are trying to do -- not to be afraid to make a change and other people will follow, I'm sure, they started to follow us.

Simona Foltyn: Bait Tarkib organizes exhibitions and workshops to help emerging artists develop their portfolios and get exposure through events like the art walk. It receives funding from French and German cultural institutes, but not the Iraqi government.

Hella Mewis: The government doesn't care at all about the young generation and art especially. Culture, no, nothing. Grants like we have in Europe so we have grants for the young generation, grants for cultural institutions, here is nothing.

Simona Foltyn: The Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Antiquities does organize and fund several art festivals and other cultural activities to promote Iraqi artists, musicians and writers, according to spokesperson Omran Al Obeidi.

Omran Al Obeidi: Every year we put in place an integrated plan to support cultural and artistic activities in all of Iraq. The ministry provides all the required facilities for these events.

Simona Foltyn: But Al Obeidi admitted that the number of programs is limited due to insufficient funds. The ministry's share of the government's 2019 budget is less than 0.2%. We've got the smallest budget of all the ministries but we overcame this difficulty through appropriate management and the selection of the right activities that deserve the attention and that have relevant cultural impact in the artistic media and the cultural field.

Simona Foltyn: But the bulk of resources are spent on salaries and not programs. More than 98% of the ministry's 2019 budget of $118 million is earmarked for administrative expenses and the payroll for its 13,800 employees, with only $1.9 million left for art, music and other cultural activities. The lack of government support reverberates through all segments of Baghdad's culture scene. Iraq's National Symphony Orchestra once received more government funding, and attracted conductors and musicians from around the globe. Today it suffers from a shortage of funds and basic facilities, including a dedicated building. The orchestra meets three times a week to rehearse at this dance studio at the music and ballet school.

Mohammed Amin: There's no comparison. The simplest things the orchestras around the world have are lacking here. The location, as you see, it's not convenient or appropriate for an orchestra rehearsal because of the echo.

Simona Foltyn: Some of the musicians are frustrated at the perceived lack of opportunities. Nepotism is prevalent, and getting ahead requires connections, says this 19-year old violinist. He's been with the orchestra for seven years, but hasn't been offered a salaried position. So he plays for free.

Shirwan Mohammed: I've been playing in the second violin and then I got promoted to the first violin, and I've been in every concert they've had, but I still haven't got the employment because I don't have any connections.

Simona Foltyn: Despite all these challenges, on this night the orchestra draws a packed audience at Baghdad's national theatre. Fakhar Hadaad and Faisal Habib are medical students and regular concert goers. For them, being able to visit cultural events like this one is a sign of Baghdad rising.

Faisal Habib: People in the beginning used to be afraid maybe of congested places and crowded places such as this one.

Fakhar Hadaad: Music is one aspect of a normal life and this is what we are trying to have around here, even though we are having a lot of obstacles from having a normal life, but yeah, we are trying our best.

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