I don't remember if it was my second or third hospital visit of the day. But the scene will remain etched in my memory. Before me was an Iraqi political activist, roughly my age, lying in what passed for an intensive care ward (less than half the beds have sheets, doctors have to rely on adult-sized IV tubes for children, and hardly any patients receive proper pain or antibiotic medications). He was in tremendous pain from several gunshot wounds, and yet he couldn't stop repeating to me that I shouldn't interpret his shooting as an act of sectarian violence. This is despite the fact that he was Shi'a and his shooter was Sunni, and that the morgue downstairs was overflowing with less fortunate victims of the same kind of violence.
In the spring of 2004, Iraq was descending into a spiral of violence from which it still hasn't emerged fully. Indeed, while the world's attention is turned to the "rebellion" in Egypt and the carnage in Syria, Iraq has suffered the worst eruption of violence in half a decade. Nearly 2,600 people have died in the last four months alone, including over three dozen killed in since last Thursday. Back then, however, few people then understood how bad it would get, although most everyone understood the risks. And so despite clear evidence to the contrary, even the victims were often desperate to avoid applying the sectarian label to the violence visited against them.
Despite the violence and the increasingly entrenched US position in the country, perspicacious Shi'a friends would argue that once the Americans leave, the Shi’a will be able to regain power. They got the ending right, but the timing, and the costs, were badly miscalculated.
Iraqis on exhibition
As more and more Iraqis lay filled the hospital and morgues from the violence of the invasion, occupation and "resistance" (which had already morphed into sectarian murder) a few were coming to the United States. Not as students, diplomats, refugees, or even tourists, but rather as performers in a curious spectacles that rendered an imagined version of Iraq "up to be viewed" by those in power over it.
These Iraqis were actors in US military training course for soldiers that ostensibly helped to prepare them for in-country kinetic operations associated with controlling the Iraqi population and prosecuting the occupation more broadly. The Iraqis played "real Iraqis" that the soldiers would interact with while they learned how to engage in urban combat and counter insurgency operations. To reinforce the experience, soldiers would practice using interactive video games whose plot would change depending on whether the players action would (presumably) produce compliance or hostility on the part of Iraqis with whom the virtually interacted.
"I've never been in the al-Anbar province myself," one of the Marine trainers explained in the movie Huma n Terrain , which chronicled this process, "but I've been told this is what al Anbar looks like."
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This use of what amounts to live specimens from the colonized - or soon to be colonized - world to allow citizens of the metropole to experience the "real" (in this case, in a very literal sense, the "desert of the real," since the Iraqis were bused into the California desert where the marine base was located) is an old phenomenon, and has been central to the discourse of modern imperialism and colonialism since the 19th century. At the World Exhibition of 1889 held in Paris, an entire neighborhood of Cairo was constructed, including dozens of Egyptians who were brought along to manage the animals and give the exhibition an added level of authenticity.
Such exhibits at once seemed incredibly realistic (down to the "dirtiness" of the exteriors of the buildings) and conveyed the sense of being accurate representations of real life in a city like Cairo. Of course, in reality they were incredibly controlled and even artificial, and could not reflect the realities of lived experience of hundreds of thousands of people then living in one of the world's great cities.
The relationship between the representation and the reality was brought home when Europeans actually went to places portrayed in the exhibits and realized they did not correspond to the representations at the exhibition. Once they had colonial power over these countries they attempted to remake them to correspond to the fantasized version, with the expected disastrous results for most of the indigenous population.
Not surprisingly, the US faired little better in prosecuting its almost decade-long occupation based on the idea that you can create a fantasy version of a country, stock it with a few natives, and use them to prepare for your actual rule in the country. But because they understood the war in Iraq to be a "culture war" where "perceptions are often more important than reality, particularly in that society there" (as American military officials interviewed in Human Terrain recounted it), they had to construct a scenario in which they could imagine gaining some level of knowledge about and control over the culture.
Starting the conversation
Meanwhile in Baghdad, Iraqis were trying to preserve whatever remained of a shared culture and identity, with little more success than their American occupiers. I only visited one spot in Baghdad where sectarianism and violence were usually kept at bay - the Hewar art gallery located in the Waziriyah neighborhood of northern Baghdad. In a society defined by decades of dictatorial rule, war, sanctions and occupation, Hewar offered a different story to anyone lucky enough to pass an afternoon sipping Iraqi tea and soaking up the art, music, and conversation in its lovely garden and gallery: Iraq would survive. The energy of the artists, and the way they critically mixed the ancient and the new, was too powerful to be overcome by the violence against which it was created.
The art sponsored at the Cafe would build on just this theme, using the wreckage of war - including the charred remains of books from the library that were destroyed by US bombs at the start of the invasion, as the basis for creating transcendent visions of the future.
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It was in the Hewar cafe and gallery that I met a young Iraqi filmmaker, Oday Rasheed, who was then finishing what would be the first movie filmed in post-Saddam Iraq, Underexposure (in fact, much of it was shot during the early days of the invasion and occupation). Rasheed and his fellow artists offered analyses of Iraqi society and Arab/Muslim societies more broadly than most of Iraq’s religious leaders, and they presented ways to build very different futures than those unfolding before our eyes.
Whereas the majority of American and Western commentators, policy-makers and even activists on the Arab world betrayed an often profound ignorance of the history of Iraq and the broader Arab/Muslim world, the emerging generation of Iraqi and Arab artists were acutely aware of the complexity and ambivalence underlying the strange situation in which they found themselves.
As Rasheed put it, "I know your culture - your artists, writers, films. Do you know mine?" The answer, for most Americans or Europeans, whether those occupying them or those attempting to help them, was no. This cultural ignorance accounted for a large share of the problems that would doom both the invasion and occupation, and the activism that attempted to stop them.
A decade later, the situation has changed significantly, but only on one side of the equation. Americans still remain profoundly ignorant about Iraqi history, culture, or the contemporary, yet distorted realities they've so profoundly shaped. This ignorance has been aggravated ever since the US distanced themselves from the country.
But in Iraq, cultural outliers like Oday Rasheed turned out to be the avant-garde of a new generation who, fueled by the internet, strong educations, greater English language competence, and the same natural cultural hybridity that has defined the "uprising generation" across the Arab world, are working against the forces of sectarianism and chaos that still claim hundreds and even thousands of lives a month.
From metal to flamenco
There is in fact a fair amount of debate in Iraq about the state of the arts today. Whatever their critical success, auteurs like Rasheed have not found a formula for sustainable production in the country. On the other hand, filmmakers like Mohamed Daraji have managed to make profitable films today by focusing on human rights, women's rights, or the persecution of Kurds - subjects designed to move the emotions (and through it, gain a wide audience and greater funding) without necessarily offering a high degree of cinematographic originality. This has led some Iraqi artists and critics to lament the state of Iraqi arts, but the fact that Iraqi artists can engage in such debates is in fact a sign that despite the ongoing violence life is becoming "normal" enough for artists to focus on aesthetic innovation rather than just survival, sectarian conflict and corruption.
During my last visit to Baghdad, I had the chance to visit the Iraq Independent Film Center , where Daraji was directing a workshop with visiting American filmmakers , an increasingly common occurrence in Iraq. The offices are located in the one-time villa of Sassoon Eskell, one of the most important and well-known Iraqi Jews of the modern era, who played a crucial role in the creation of an independent Iraq and served as its first Finance Minister. The spirit of the bygone Iraq he represented, one at the cultural and political heart of the Arab world, clearly had an effect on the artists working in the complex.
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The participants referred back to Iraq's history at the cultural avant garde of the Arab world, and as a culturally diverse and hybrid society, as roots on which to grow a renewed aesthetic culture. One can see the same sort of development in the increasingly revived theatre community (even Sadr City boasts at least one NGO that puts on plays as part of its activities) and the plastic arts as well, despite, as Iraqi artist and filmmaker Furat Jamil put it to me, "an ongoing shortage of materials, archaic teaching methods, and a general fear by the older generation of the new. When I saw the opening of the event 'Baghdad Cultural Capital of the Arab World 2013,' it was almost a copy/paste of the opening of the Babylon International Festival in 1987."
That may be. But even if the Iraqi arts, like its educational system, are still suffering from four decades of intense isolation from the broader world and a broad lack of aesthetic innovation, the enthusiasm and energy of the younger generation of artists and academics, and their constantly expanding connections with fellow artists, trends and ideas from outside thanks to the internet and their growing ability to travel, augur well for the cultural renaissance of less than a century ago was one of the major cultural centers of the world. The fact that the Defense Minister, Sadoun al-Dulaimi, is also the Culture Minister, has also brought some extra weight to cultural affairs in a government that is intensely focused on security issues.
For me, perhaps the most telling example of the present stage of Iraqi culture was revealed when I met up with some young members of the country's rock and metal scenes. Whereas a decade ago extreme metal was the most natural soundtrack for Iraqi youth, most of the metal guitarists I met this trip have become fanatical about flamenco. I have always considered music a canary in the coal mine for culture more broadly. In this regard, the shift in taste by a new generation or rockers marks a telling transformation that reflects the larger shift in Iraq from the anger and extreme violence of the height of the occupation and insurgency that was so well expressed by extreme metal to the combination of sadness and happiness and even joy that have always defined flamenco, including in today's Iraq.
' We're not angry at America anymore'
For anyone who's seen the costs of the US invasion and occupation up close and spent the last decade working against it, these words are hard to digest. Indeed, one of the most challenging aspects of being back in Baghdad was the reality that for a significant share of the population the occupation really is in the past - far more so than it is for most American activists, for whom it still marks the fundamental turning point in American politics since Vietnam. Despite all the harm caused the US and its allies have caused, among most of the Iraqis I know or more recently met there is little inclination nor, in fact, the luxury, to harbor, never mind act upon, what are quite legitimate grievances and anger against the US.
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No one who shares this view has remained untouched by the invasion and occupation. Many lost parents, siblings, and other loved ones to the violence, either directly to the US invasion or because of the internecine war it unleashed. But there is a strong sense in Baghdad that a decade after the US completely upended a decades-old order, it is no longer a dominant or even very relevant factor in daily life. Because of this, few of artists, academics, students and activists I met have the kind of philosophical or ethical problem working with US organizations, or even taking money from the US government (whether through the Embassy, USAID or other initiatives) that characterize the attitudes of their counterparts in other Arab countries.
Such an attitude is epitomized by grass roots groups such as Fikra Space , a "hacktivist" youth network who've just held their first " Start-Up Weekend " in Baghdad with the help of USAID and corporations such as Google, Microsoft and Amazon.com . The event brought together young techies and entrepreneurs from across Iraq, the Arab world, and globally (including at least half a dozen mentors from major US tech firms) to share ideas, develop products and create start-ups that could produce viable hi-tech companies.
In countries such as Jordan, Egypt or Morocco with weak economies and not much free capital, Start-Up Weekends would probably bring low expectations. But unlike most Arab countries in the midst of transformational change (with the exception of Libya), Iraq's massive petroleum reserves and ramped up production offer Iraqis a chance at development that most of their peers can only dream of. And this, despite the immense problems Iraq faces that I documented in my last column about the country, is what gives many young Iraqis hope.
During my last visit to the famed al-Mutanabi street market before departing, I came upon a group of over a dozen grass roots activists engaged in a street theatre performance against sectarianism, right in front of the statue of the street's name sake and famed Arabic language poet. Each person wore a sash that represented a different ethnic or religious group - Kurds, Arabs, Sunni, Shia even Turkmen and Sabbians were all represented. With an array of artists displaying their work in the two Ottoman-era government buildings that flanked the river-end of the street, the enthusiastic street performers drew an increasingly large crowd eager to join the chanting.
The question is, will the country be trampled upon so brutally that its once again ripped apart before it had time to mend. In the end, it's a question only Iraqis can decide.
Mark LeVine is professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine and distinguished visiting professor at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh. His book, Heavy Metal Islam, which focused on 'rock and resistance and the struggle for soul' in the evolving music scene of the Middle East and North Africa, was published in 2008.
Follow him on Twitter: @culturejamming
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.