During October 2013, Diplomantiq’s Mustafa Al-Obaidi travelled to Iraq and captured life-in-a-day during the Islamic festival of Eid Al-Adha. The festival is celebrated all over the world, with different cultures infusing their own flavour and colour to the unifying set of rituals and practices prescribed in Islam. This piece also continues from the ‘Art&Diplomacy’ case study, and aims to illustrate how reality of life on the ground can actually challenge mainstream narratives of conflict-ridden countries, and humanise the inhabitants of such a place that may seem alien to the rest of the world. Here, where the fusion of Iraqi culture and the festival of ‘sacrifice’ meet – an ode to the Story of Abraham that unfolded in the very same land of Mesopotamia (Iraq), thousands of years ago – Mustafa’s journey takes place…
It has been a while since I last visited Iraq. Since the summer of 2002 to be exact – with the hope of an immediate return cut short, by an imminent ‘end’ to what was… that my teenage years were too short-sighted to see.
Nostalgia is a hard hitting drug that can be induced with the slightest evocation of the senses – The immediate sights, faces, smells, sounds, and the embracing of friends and family not seen in a considerably long time, cuts through the extraordinary and unique day to day happenings one can encounter in Iraq like a finely sharpened knife. And thus resulting in a euphoric sensation which I, by my limited lexicon of English vocabulary can describe as a monotonous ‘fine’. Either that or I’m reluctant to accept this present reality in a place my mind has re-imagined with horror.
//The Birdseye view//
Iraq, from the outside, is a fascinating place – filled with wondrous marvels and epic tragedies, both intertwining poetically through an ageless lifetime that doesn’t seem to ‘repeat’, but ‘rhyme’ – An ode to the famous quote commonly attributed to Mark Twain that resonates deeply in reference to Iraq.
What is Iraq? And who is Iraqi? Two haunting questions that rose from the last past decade. Going back in, I was reassured that the mutual Mesopotamian heritage embodying the essence of life pertaining to the inhabitants of the land – is in fact very real. So real that even with all the separatist fuelled ethno-sectarian labelling and fragmentation, and sensationalist reporting on its liberation and self destructive social complexities, and so on – ultimately have not diminished the commonalities between all Iraqis , which still exists within the proverbial fire they, the people, are engulfed in. Unfortunately though, the fire consumes the attention of the man holding the extinguisher, and before he realises he holds the solution – he has ceased to exist. This sums up my firsthand account of Iraqis in Iraq. Albeit, my account is limited to a certain range of demographics within a specific geographic region of the country… However, benchmarking this with previous experiences living in and out of the country, I was also reassured that my memory and assertion of the ‘Iraqiness’ I believe exists is not compromised as an outcome of my return.
Travelling to the touristic areas of Iraq, such as the Geli Ali Bek Waterfall park pictured below, one finds groups and families from all over the country, from different ethnic and religious backgrounds who, despite their assumed differences, all participate in and enjoy the same cultural practices at this touristic haven. From the shared dialect, to shared cuisines, music, mannerisms and interactions – it’s easy for any outsider to be confused by my latter observations when comparing it to the information provided by politicians, media outlets and academics, who rationalise, theorise and institutionalise differences between the Iraqi people post invasion.
//The people speak//
Interestingly, in most cases during my visit, the ‘word’ on the ground has been extremely mixed. Swaying from intensely emotional and refreshingly original, to the more clichéd and disappointingly regurgitated propaganda.
My journey allowed me speak to many Iraqis in the City of Erbil about what they thought of the last 10 years and how it has affected them, and the first conversation was with a group of young waiters at a restaurant. Who actually didn’t care much for politics and dismissed the idea of any ethno-sectarian problems, basing it on the fact that there’s been a year on year increase in visitors to the city from all over the country. Which to them that seemed to indicate an exaggeration in the matter created by politicians who are profiteering at the expense of ‘poor people’. They speak fluent Arabic, Kurdish, Turkish and some English and they assert they have no problem with other Iraqis visiting the city. In fact they believe it is predominantly the visitors who are actually improving their way of life both culturally and economically – an observation they relate to their experience as waiters seeing their restaurant reaping profits from visiting Iraqis. At the end of the conversation, I left feeling that they were comfortable with this delicate idea of Iraqis being united, especially through the evident economic growth in their city.
Since my visit was during the Eid festival, Islamic protocol was adhered in most interactions – from the greetings of peace, to the mannerisms in which dialogue was conducted. It naturally set the tone. The respect for the occasion created a platform of unity for those celebrating regardless if they are locals from Erbil or visitors from the rest of the country, or even out of the country – like me!
Anecdotally, this alone gave premise for apparent unity in Iraq. Mere respect for a festivity, even simple acknowledgement of it, breaks the ice that otherwise may have (at times) fatal social implications (quite literally also). So, does this mean Iraqis constantly need festivities and occasions to acknowledge and entertain to be able to feel a sense of unity? No… but it certainly has proved to be a successful mechanism in this case. The key point here however, is understanding and accepting that unity has been and can be achieved. Without this realisation – progress arguably wouldn’t take place, or at least compound such ‘successful’ moments.
Watch this short video (below) of Mustafa’s trip to visualise his experience further.