This year the world commemorates 25 years since the Tragic bombing of the Amiriya shelter in Baghdad, an incident that annihilated over 400 civilians, all women and children. As an extension of the article on Naseer Shamma’s oud piece Happened in Al-Amiriya, Diplomantiq explored other representations of the belligerent attack in music, theatre, cinema and poetry.
In continuing to think about music and how it can transcend boundaries of communication, English rock band Radiohead, whose songwriter/vocalist Thom Yorke was deeply disturbed by news footage of the Amiriya shelter bombing. The band produced two songs that were in response to the First Gulf war atrocities; I Will in their album Hail to the Thief and Idioteque from their album Kid A. Although the song sounds deceptively subdued, Thom Yorke described I will as “the angriest song [he has] ever written”.
“Who’s in a bunker, who’s in a bunker, women and children first…”
Different to Naseer Shamma’s oud piece, which he composed from inside the shelter (literally and metaphorically), these songs work from the outside and push their way into the trauma of conflict as political critiques.
Space, (and movement: inside-outside), is a prime ingredient in artistic works that overturns the ostensible rationale that war is an ingrained feature of the human condition. Robert Minhinnick, a Welsh poet and novelist, talks about how existing in the physical space of the Amiriya shelter necessitated a response through film, which provides a means for a more corporeal engagement.
“Visiting Iraq in 1997 proved very important. I’m still trying to come to terms with it. I was making a film about uranium and we gained access to the Amiriya bunker where 400 people had been incinerated by a smart bomb that came down an air vent. Fragments of that film, called ‘Black Hands’ are on YouTube. […] Also on that journey, visiting Babylon and the supposed site of the Tower of Babel have had a powerful influence on my writing and thought. Wandering alone there was one of the greatest experiences of my life. I came upon the monstrous ‘Lion of Babylon’, one of the world’s most extraordinary sculptures, seemingly abandoned. On ‘the Street of Processions’ the griffins and dragons appeared creatures from other planets. I’ll never forget the ‘Babylonian blue’ of the tiles that were used in the art there.”
Navigating within the stretch of personal and community trauma is The Sorrowful Dawn, an Iraqi film that was produced shortly after the events of the shelter bombing,. The film’s director, Salah Karam, mixes real footage from the attack with constructed scenes overlaying Naseer Shamma’s music, effectively providing a chilling commentary on a country’s confrontation with life after death. Film then becomes not only a way to document historical events, but also to contend the dehumanization of war through provoking a sensory experience.
Theatre, especially that centered around witnessing war crimes, works along those lines of corporeal and sensory expression in a kind of “real-time” (real in following the emotion of the actors on stage). Nine Parts of Desire, a play written by Heather Raffo as her MA thesis, depicting characters based on Iraqi women she had spent ten years interviewing. One of the characters in the play is based directly off a woman who became a guardian of the shelter after losing her four children in the bombing. In the play, she is called “Umm Ghada” or “mother of tomorrow” and she says: “so I am Umm Ghada, Mother of Tomorrow. My full name is dead with them.”
You can read an eerie account of an Iraqi visiting the shelter and meeting the real woman behind this character here.
It is interesting to see the harrowing pieces discussed in this article become relevant even to this day, in not only to the Al Amiriya tragedy, but to the flood of devastations the country has witnessed since. Countless songs, art exhibitions, poems, films, theatre productions and other artistic pieces have been diversifying the conversations around Iraq, its traumatic history, and at the same time, its rich heritage and culture. Beyond mere documentation and consumption, art and certainly artists themselves also play a role in reconciliation, in bridge building contesting the traditional approach to diplomacy.
The role of art becomes a way to complicate narratives beyond the stagnant witnessing of incidents, to stories of a nation progressing past traumatic history to a present moment, thriving in nuanced experiences. //
You can find out more about the 25th anniversary of the Al Amiriya commemoration by following the Iraqi Transnational Collective and please take a moment to like and share with your networks.
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