Poet Muzaffar al-Nawab’s visit to Baghdad in May 2011 was one of Iraq’s national and cultural highlights this past year.
In addition, after a series of protests over the last year, Iraqi intellectuals succeeded in preserving the legacy of the poet Muhammad Mahdi al-Jawahiri (1899-1997) by preventing the sale of his house in Baghdad, which had been slated to be converted into a commercial space.
Many creative people passed away in 2011, perhaps the most significant of whom was theater director Hadi al-Mahdi, who was assassinated in September; pioneering sculptor Muhammed Ghani Hikmat; music critic Adel al-Hashimi, who died suddenly in Cairo; and pioneering novelist Mahmoud Abdul Wahab.
Other important individuals who passed away in the past year include archaeologist Donny George; critics Qassim Olwan and Adnan Quttub; poet and journalist Muhammad Darwish Ali; his colleague Salam al-Nasser; the poets Mahdi Muhammad Ali and Ali al-Shibani; linguist Nima Raheem al-Azzawi; writer Mahmoud Zamdar; and the poet and artist Khaled Dulayr.
The growth of new cultural organizations in Iraq during 2011 has not been as impressive as other years. The initiative “Young Baghdad,” started by the poet Abdul Khaleq Kaytan, has gone quiet after he returned to Australia.
Other organizations that were established in 2011 have been limited in their activities since being established. One such group, the collective “We Are Baghdad,” was set up by the musician Naseer Shamma in response to the Mercer Consultancy Group’s choice of Baghdad as the worst place to live in the world.
One of the more significant phenomena that has evolved during the last few months has been Iraqi intellectuals establishing networking and dialogue groups on Facebook, similar to electronic cafes.
These internet-based groups include “The Generation After the Change,” for poets who appeared after the American invasion; “We Want to Know,” which aims to investigate events in a transparent and responsible way; and “My Nose Writes Stories,” which is administered by the novelist Ahmad Saadawi to share Iraqi, Arab, and international narratives.
Activists and intellectuals have also been reacting to the Arab Spring since January. They issued statements and came out in solidarity in Baghdad’s public squares.
Many of them have joined and supported the popular demonstrations against corruption and deteriorating social conditions in Iraq which began in February. Some of these activists and intellectuals have even been detained and humiliated by the security services.
Despite this cultural activity, the desire to leave the country has been on the minds of many intellectuals and artists due to a general feeling of despair and the intensification of political conflict and instability in Iraq.
The poet Shaker Laibi, who came back a few months ago with the intention of settling in Baghdad and returning to academia, quickly changed his mind and went back to Tunis.
Despite the overall gloom of the situation, there have been glimmers of light and successes here and there.
The first round of the Baghdad International Book Fair was held from April 20 to May 5. Najaf hosted the Theater Forum and the International Iraq Short Film Festival in 2011 as well as the Second Festival of World Poetry, which the city hosted in November.
In the cinema scene, Iraq won several prizes. The documentary film, Cola, by Yahya al-Allaq won second prize at the Gulf Film Festival in Dubai. The film also won the prize for best documentary at the Beirut International Film Festival.
Qutayba al-Janabi’s film, Leaving Baghdad, won best film at the Gulf Film Festival in Dubai and director Sahim Omar’s film, The Land of Heroes, won second prize in the Arab Muhr Competition for Short Films at the Gulf Film Festival.
Akram Hido’s film Halabja – the Lost Children won the special judges’ prize for documentaries in Dubai.
Meanwhile, a few local festivals took place such as the Baghdad International Film Festival in October, which critics say “was not a complete disaster, but experienced some clear organizational failures.”
The same could be said of the Mirbad Poetry Festival in Basra during April, which did not succeed in overcoming the mistakes of past years.
The ability of publishers to market Iraqi books did not improved last year. Writers continue to seek Arab publishers who will market their work with many local publishers still unable to make a success of their publications.
Meanwhile, publishers established abroad before 2003, such as Al-Jamal and Al-Mada, have continued to participate in Arab and international book fairs.