Iraq's Artists Strive for Freedom

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Posted by Middle Finger from ? ( on Tuesday, May 20, 2003 at 5:52PM :

Iraq's Artists Strive for Freedom

BAGHDAD, Iraq, May 19 For 30 years Daoud al-Qaysi sang the praises of Saddam Hussein, bartering his modest musical talent for a dictator's favors, and now he has paid the price.

The court bard of the dead regime was killed on Sunday. Unknown gunmen shot Mr. Qaysi in the head in the doorway of his home in Baghdad, silencing a man who had helped silence any artist who refused to glorify his patron.

In its brutal way, the killing demonstrated how profoundly Mr. Hussein had corrupted creative life in Iraq. He manipulated artistic expression so completely that many musicians, writers and artists now wonder if they can ever again find their own voices.

Mr. Qaysi was one of the most famous of Mr. Hussein's apologists. He wrote the songs that schoolchildren had to memorize and recite on command, songs that extolled the president as the sun and the moon, the wisest and most benevolent of leaders. Even as American bombs fell on Baghdad, Mr. Qaysi was out on the Tigris River in his Baath Party uniform, pistol on his hip, leading a chorus in rapturous devotion to the Iraqi president.

He was inextricably associated with Mr. Hussein's government, and that is why he was assassinated, family members said.

"He really didn't hurt anyone," said Mr. Qaysi's son, Salwan, as he accepted condolences from the few neighbors who dropped by today. "He just loved his people and he loved his country."

But by virtue of their high positions in the Culture Ministry, people like Mr. Qaysi could make or break other artists. Through pettiness or fear of the president's wrath, those favored by the government determined who was published, who could travel and who received stipends.

"Those people are excluded from intellectual life from now on," said Safaa Dhiab, a young poet who makes his living selling used books at a weekly book market near Baghdad's old covered bazaar. "And we should set up a tribunal to judge some of these so-called men of literature because of what they did to artists and writers."

Mr. Dhiab, who is 28, refused to make the compromises that some artists made to try to get along with a despotic government that turned art into propaganda. "I didn't even praise Iraq," he said, "because that was considered praising Saddam Hussein."

But many of his elders, acting out of what they considered simple patriotism or artistic license, skirted the edges of what became Iraq's jingoist national literature. Some did it for money a writer was paid a bonus for each phrase praising Mr. Hussein. Some did it to buy a little space to write what they wanted, in private or in metaphors dense enough to confuse the censors.

"Iraq is filled with poets and poetry," said Aryan al-Sayed Khalan, one of the country's best-loved poets. "The land is poetry. The palms are poetry. So I didn't praise Saddam. I just praised my land and my home and my country."

In 1979 Mr. Khalan was imprisoned for his association with the Iraqi Communist Party. His tongue was slashed. After his release he soon found himself in the harsh glare of Mr. Hussein's attention.

The Iraqi leader, it turned out, loved his poetry.

Incongruously, Mr. Khalan, the ex-prisoner, was often summoned to recite at palace functions. Mr. Hussein let it be known that he always listened to recordings of Mr. Khalan reading his poetry. The government sponsored the poet's trips to Europe and the United States for literary conferences.

Mr. Khalan said he had resorted to inserting his true feelings between the lines.

"All of my poems used symbolism for things like democracy, repression and totalitarianism," he said. "I'm sure I was understood, because the Iraqi people know the imagery very well."

Symbolism became the refuge of Iraqi poets who chose to remain in Iraq.

"When we wrote here, we had barracks full of policemen and soldiers monitoring us in our minds," said Hamid al-Mukhtar, a well-known poet who spent eight years in prison on suspicion of supporting Al Dawa, an outlawed Shiite Muslim opposition party backed by Iran.

"So we used a style filled with symbols that could be interpreted in many ways," he added. "If we were questioned, we could give various interpretations of what we meant."

Every Friday, Mr. Mukhtar joins his fellow writers at the Shabander cafe, a shabby tea shop in the shadow of the ancient covered bazaar. The cafe has been the haunt of artists for nearly a century.

These days it has an air of sadness, perhaps of lives wasted and talents stunted. The men sipping glasses of sugar-loaded tea and trading manuscripts talked recently of what they had lost.

"My professional life was lived during the years of Saddam Hussein," said Mr. Mukhtar, one of the saddest looking men in the place. "I developed my style of writing during these years and now it's become my style, set in concrete. Maybe only the new generation can reclaim the Arabic language."

But many of the city's artists revel in the new possibilities. At the Writers' Union, a shabby building that once was the domain of the government's literary minions, a new leadership has declared itself in charge.

A maxim of Mr. Hussein's still adorns the entranceway, proclaiming, "The nation without great poets will not have great politicians." But outside, a handwritten sign had been taped to the wall.

"All of you who used your pens to glorify the dictatorship must lay down your pens and make way for those who were smothered by the regime," the notice said.

It was signed "The Liberated Iraqi Poets' Society."

-- Middle Finger
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