When Iraq was the bastion of a thriving cosmopolitan culture

Iraq must remain a unified cosmopolitan country, as must all its neighbours.

Iraqi volunteers fighting with Iraqi forces carry their weapons and chant slogans in Karbala city [EPA]

The three cities of my childhood in Iran – Ahvaz, Abadan and Khorramshahr – were under the shadow of Basra, a magnificent cosmopolitan city in southern Iraq from which I remember we received the very first television pictures of the legendary Egyptian singer Abd al-Halim Hafez (1929-1977). Hafez would sing his “Ahwak” (I Love You) as young Iraqi girls took turns to go on stage and ever so bashfully kiss him on his cheeks and giggling came down from the other side of the stage. I must have been a wide-eyed teenager when I saw this on television in Ahvaz with my young cousins.

An enduring picture of my late father is when after a long day’s work, he would sit by our Grundig radio, enjoy his Russian vodka and listen to Baghdad Radio broadcast of Umm Kalthum.

I was recently sharing these and many other reminiscences with a number of Iraqi colleagues – among them my old friend Haifa Zangana. Zangana and I grew up on two sides of Shatt al-Arab, one in Iraq and the other in Iran, under two hostile dictatorships led first by Hasan al-Bakr and then Saddam Hussein on her side, and by Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi on my side.

We were sharing these memories when we were hit by the news of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant or ISIL’s intrusion into Iraq triggering what appeared to be a disintegration of Iraq into three segments – a worrisome prospect instigated much earlier by the invasion and occupation of Iraq under the joint conspiracy of then-US President George Bush and former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair – for which these two corrupt leaders have yet to be tried for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Nasiri and countless other artists, poets, novelists, musicians, scholars that the entire Arab world knows, loves and admires were not the product of a sectarian society. Learned Iraqis have already started writing about their homeland and how it is blessed by many religions and cultures.


As the incompetent rule of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is collapsing under a widespread insurrection by Sunni Iraqis, Shia Muslims are reaching out to their Iranian benefactors, as the Kurds in the north are grabbing more land, triggering the anger of other communities, such as the Turkmen and Assyrians.

Iraq’s cosmopolitan culture

A particularly precious gift that Zangana gave me when we met last was a book about Rafa Nasiri (1940-2013), a magnificent Iraqi artist who passed away last year.

Nasiri was born in Tikrit, educated at the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad in the late 1950s, and early in 1960s went to China where he continued his education at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, from which he travelled to Lisbon to receive his diploma in printmaking.

I have spent many hours looking at Nasiri’s exquisite work, haunted as I am by the fear of the disintegration of Iraq, and wondering about the life and career of this singularly important Iraqi artist, the product of a thriving cosmopolitan culture, now all but forgotten under the thick smoke screen of a violent and vicious sectarianism.

Nasiri and countless other artists, poets, novelists, musicians, scholars that the entire Arab world knows, loves and admires, were not the product of a sectarian society. Learned Iraqis have already started writing about their homeland and how it is blessed by many religions and cultures.

In an article for The Guardian, the Iraqi scholar Sami Ramadani has argued that “those who claim it could only have peace if it is divided into three states do not appreciate the makeup of Iraqi society – the three regions would quickly fall under the rule of violent sectarians and chauvinists. Given how ethnically and religiously mixed Iraq’s regions are, particularly in Baghdad and central Iraq, a three-way national breakup would be a recipe for permanent wars in which only the oil companies, the arms suppliers and the warlords will be the winners”.

People talk about the artificial frontiers of post-colonial nation-states like Iraq. Of course, all the current borders around the world, including in this ghastly colonial concoction they have called their “Middle East”, are the results of rising and falling empires. Iraq, like all its neighbours, emerged in the aftermath of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire upon which various European colonial powers drew the map of their Middle East along their strategic lines and interests.

But 200 years and more into the aftermath of the post-colonial history, countries like Iraq are blessed  – yes blessed not cursed – by multifaceted cultures that include their various constituents but are not reducible to them. From the Code of Hammurabi, the Babylonian law code of ancient Mesopotamia, to the artwork of Rafa Nasiri, Iraqis are – all of them Sunni, Shia, Kurds, etc. – the proud inheritors of the very cradle of world civilisation, the very alphabet of our history. That dictators such as former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein abused that heritage for an empty and vacuous pomposity, or that the imperial buffooneries of Bush and Blair had not an iota of respect for them, does not discredit that heritage as the bedrock of a proud and confident Iraq.

That pride of place and political dignity cannot go in the direction of any separatist movement from Iraq or any other country. Iraqi borders may have been decided by colonial design but Iraqi people are not a colonial product. They are the proud descendants of a magnificent civilisation that belongs to all of them. If they are Sunni, Shia or Kurd, this is a source of inspiration, diversity and pluralism for their future.

A model of democratic pluralism

Iraqi and Lebanese Shia are blessed because they must determine their political future in conversation with other religious and ethnic groupings. They can and they will provide a model of democratic pluralism for the entire region, including, and in particular for Iran, where the seemingly unified 95 percent plus majority-Shia hides a deeply divided and multifaceted society. Iran should not export its pathological “Islamic Republic” to Iraq or Lebanon or Syria. Iraqis, Lebanese and Syrians must offer their future democratic pluralism to Iranians.

The Islamic Republic has spent more than 30 years suffocating a similar cosmopolitan culture and turning the country into a fanatical Shia Muslim theocracy, killing the dreams and aspirations of its own people for civil liberties. The Islamic Republic is not a model for any of its neighbours, and Iraqis – Shia or otherwise – should avoid an “Islamic Republic of Iraq” like the plague.

Fragmentation of Iraq would be catastrophic – and not just for Iraq. Fragmentation of Iraq means the immediate and further fragmentation of Syria and Lebanon. It means the vindication of the murderous Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It means the exacerbation of the repressiveness of the Islamic Republic’s Shia Muslim theocracy. It means the spontaneous over-militarisation of Turkey. It means the consolidation of the Egyptian military coup. It means the events in Libya will camouflage the hopeful signs coming out of Tunisia. It means a triumph of tribal patrimony in some Gulf states. It means 200 years of colonial memory will go down the drain. And it means the downward spiral of all the beautiful nation-states into states subject to the murderous whims of international mercenaries.

The Iraqi uprising can now go in two opposite directions: It can either plunge into a frightful disintegration triggered by a vicious band of mercenaries, or become the newest and most glorious phase of the Arab revolutions in the Arab Spring. Unification of Iraq also means the defeat of those who would wish to divert attention from Arab revolutions under the smoke screen of sectarian violence. That failure in turn will rekindle the original momentum of the Arab revolutions, as the Syrians resume their historic march to democracy and peacefully dismantle the Assad regime and its Russian-Iranian backing, and thus the military coup in Egypt will be exposed even more for what it is – an impediment to democracy.

Iraqis may have joined the Arab Spring late, but like all late bloomers they will have the more deserving spot in this never-ending spring. We are a people, we are Iranians, Arabs, Muslims, Kurds, Turks, and we deserve a far better future than to degenerate into a self-degenerative denominator of hatred and fear.

Iraq is a country and Iraq must remain a unified cosmopolitan country, as must all its neighbours. Zangana and I are the living testimonies to the promise that we were, of the promise that we are, on two sides of any colonial divide, of any post-colonial promise. To this day I have no idea if Zangana is a Sunni, a Shia, a Kurd, or a beautiful combination of all of the above. She is an Iraqi. She is Iraq.

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.