For the past seven years I have been obsessed with
events in the Middle East, principally Iraq. It has been
on my mind constantly, either at the forefront, or as
a nagging buzz at the back of it. No doubt it has had
an effect on many decisions I have made and actions
I have taken. In that respect for better or worse it has
changed me. I suspect I can’t be the only person to
have felt this.
In the U.K., military and civilian life is segregated. It
is not common to meet soldiers in everyday life and there
are few Iraqi refugees given asylum in the country,
so firsthand accounts are few and far between. I have
read a ton of books and articles about the war, but
short of going to Iraq itself, there is no substitute for
meeting someone who has actually lived there, or been
there, hence the core part of this project. In a sense
I am selfishly doing this for my own benefit simply to
plug the many gaps that exist in my knowledge and to
satisfy the arguments that have been going on in my
head for the best part of this century.
On April 24, Jeremy Deller and Esam Pasha reported back from the road in a talk moderated by Nato Thompson, Creative Time Curator, and introduced by Amy Mackie, Curatorial Assistant, New Museum:
Jeremy Deller, Jonathan Harvey, Esam Pasha, and Nato Thompson talk about the project with GritTV.
Laura Hoptman, Nato Thompson, and Amy Mackie,
in conversation with Jeremy Deller
Laura Hoptman: What is Is It What It Is?
Jeremy Deller: The show at the New Museum will be a series of people being present in the gallery and available for discussion and conversation, and all these people have a very specific view or experience of Iraq—be it from an academic standpoint or a practical standpoint. Also other objects will be present, such as drawings and a car that was destroyed in an attack on a street market. Then part of the show goes on the road, literally. Myself, Nato, and our two guests Jonathan Harvey and Esam Pasha will travel through the southern states of America. And the bombed car will be in tow. Jonathan is a recently demobilized Platoon Sargeant in the US military, and Esam is an artist and was a translator for American and British forces in Iraq.
Nato Thompson: A lot of your work has dealt with very particular groups or subcultures. And It Is What It Is is about a particular group of people. Is it for a particular group of people?
JD: It’s for everybody. And when it goes on the road, it really is for everybody literally. We’re actually going to take it to them.
NT: Jeremy, you’ve talked about the project being post-activist, insomuch as you don’t want it to be pro- or anti-war.
JD: It is about the war, in the same way that a war museum is about war. But a great war museum is one that’s neutral. As much as possible, we’re just presenting information. But the project is also about everything that surrounds the war, before and after. The people participating in the project are those who have experience, rather than opinions. Often, the people that have the strongest opinions are the ones who have no experience.
Amy Mackie: So you’re using the New Museum and Creative Time, as neutral platforms…
JD: Art galleries are fantastic environments to do things in. They’re safe, clean environments to work ideas out and to make things happen. This is a work in progress in that respect.
NT: In other words the goal here is just to produce unmediated, direct contact with experience. Today we spent most of the day talking to people, predominantly Iraqis, having conversations about what they could speak about on the road or at the museum. What are you thoughts about all these incredible stories and what will happen when people with firsthand knowledge of Iraq engage in conversation?
JD: Well, you really don’t know how it will go. That’s what’s exciting about getting people in for an afternoon or a morning, to be present: they have no idea what’s going to happen. But the project is really about people meeting each other.
The war in Iraq has been obsessing all of us for years, but I would hazard that many people haven’t really come to terms with it. Hearing “I was kidnapped,” or “My father was killed” in the media is very different than meeting someone face to face that it’s happened to. And I think it will bring out a lot of emotion, because finally you get to hear about it from a real person. That’s something I hope to have: the intensity of a meeting, of a simple conversation.
LH: Is it public art, whatever that means?
JD: Yes. Well, it’s art in the public realm. It’s not public art in the traditional sense of a big sculpture in front of a building, obviously. I’m using the car we’re towing as the object that attracts attention to the conversations.
LH: Why the car?
JD: It’s an unusual thing to see, isn’t it? A car is such a sacred thing in America as an object—it’s such a special thing in the American consciousness. And we’re towing one that was destroyed in a war zone. That will be very familiar too though, because whenever you watch the news and there’s been a bombing, you don’t see the bodies, you see a car. It becomes a replacement for the body; they would never show a dead body on the news in Britain or America. So in that respect, our car is a body as well, effectively.
NT: It seems as though the project mimics the teach-ins of activist culture. Where one might say, “Hey, let’s get up to speed on X issue,” and everyone self-teaches around a particular struggle.
JD: Yes, I agree. But it’s not didactic. It’s teaching through experience or through conversational means. It’s going to be very informal.
AM: The reality is that the people who have responded to our invitation to engage in dialogues are people who want to talk, who want to share. So they don’t need to be prompted or scripted.
LH: I guess the big question is whether people are going to want to listen.
AM: I couldn’t stop listening to the converstions today.
NT: Jeremy, will you intervene in the conversations?
JD: No, my role is as a facilitator. Once a dialogue starts, I’m not going to intervene or steer conversations.
NT: I think the project is also interesting in the basic sense of people talking about political issues in a public space. It’s increasingly rare.
JD: Especially in America and the UK. In America, the car has taken over public space for many people. It would be great to spark some sort of public debate on the streets, just people talking.
NT: Yes! Some of the power in this project is just the physical proximity to somebody that’s experiencing intense material. Sometimes I think that the United States isn’t even news-mediated. It’s Google-mediated. You’ll be bringing people face to face again.
LH: What will people think of a British artist starting these conversations in America?
JD: Well, I’m not really doing it: I’m not an active participant. My role while on the road is just to facilitate these conversations and encourage people to enter into them.
AM: Is the project influenced by the fact you studied history?
JD: I studied the history of art. But that subject is wrapped up with history; so, yes. But I’ve never done anything on this scale that’s this current, or as ongoing. This history is still being written, it’s still up for grabs. The interesting thing about the project is that the results will be unexpected. It’s interesting: many re-enactors say that they are “living history,” but they’re not. But the people we’ve spoken to today are living history. When they start talking about places they’ve been to and people they’ve met and their experiences, it won’t be like hearing a news story, but rather history from one person and one person’s perspective. And that’s what is really compelling.
AM: Wouldn’t you say that there is a history being written about Iraq through the media? But it’s an inaccurate one, so this is your alternate history?
JD: Yes. This project’s history will be by the general public.
LH: I think you’re a connoisseur of the everyday. That’s why you curated the Folk Archive [a previous project] and why you saw the grandiosity of the English Civil War in the confrontation in Orgreave [in your 2001 project entitled The Battle of Orgreave]. Because indeed it was a battle, but nobody called it that, did they?
JD: Not at the time.
LH: It was a confrontation between the mineworkers and the strikebreakers, and you elevated it into a battle that was as grievous as the English Civil War, even though no one lost their heads.
JD: Yes. Which is absurd.
LH: Absurd maybe isn’t the word, because there’s something heartfelt, emotional, and real in your work. The grandiosity and complexity of history became very clear in that particular project. And in It Is What It Is, that complexity and also that glory, if you will, of what has happened since the beginning of the Iraq War will become clear.
Essay by Jonathan Harvey
Jonathan Harvey served in Iraq
for a year in 2007 as a noncommissioned officer
in charge of a detachment of American soldiers in
Northwest Baghdad. He is participating as a guest
expert at the New Museum and is also accompanying
Jeremy Deller, Esam Pasha, and Nato Thompson on
the “It Is What It Is” road trip. In response to a request
by Deller to describe his experiences serving in Iraq,
he has written the following.
As a Detachment NCOIC, it was my responsibility to ensure that
my troops were able to do their job. As a PSYOP specialist, I
worked closely with the Brigade’s Information Operations officer.
PSYOP sounds more mysterious than it really is. Without
resorting to the boring army manual definitions to describe what
we do, in a nutshell it involves communicating with Iraqis. Each
of my teams had a dedicated interpreter—a truck equipped
with a loudspeaker, and printed materials (posters, handbills,
that sort of thing). We also helped distribute a weekly newspaper
that had a selection of news articles from around the world and
articles that covered what was going on in Baghdad.
Missions varied. There were times we went out on a random
patrol, stopping at a few places and talking to whoever
was available. Other times, we would go out for something
specific—to support a raid, to promote a store opening, anything.
Whenever there was credible intelligence of an impending attack,
we distributed warning handbills with the names and faces
of suspected criminals, or warnings of what to look out for to
help avoid car bombs. As one of the Brigade’s PSYOP experts,
I helped develop ideas for new ways to reach the people of
Baghdad. We had to take into account several factors, including
who we were trying to reach, what assets were available, and how
long we had to develop the messaging campaign. During a cordon
operation searching for illegal weapons, a loudspeaker broadcast
alerting people to what’s going on can help reduce tension and
confusion, and can keep civilians from getting too close and
appearing threatening to a nervous soldier.
After an atrocity, when people are anxious and upset, a
broadcast can deliver a tips-line number to someone who saw
something but is too afraid to be seen talking to anyone in
the Iraqi army or police. I remember going on a nighttime
raid searching for a wanted criminal. I was with a platoon of
U.S. soldiers and a small Iraqi police contingent. We visited
three different houses, and consolidated everyone into one
home for questioning. All of the interpreters were in one area
helping with questioning, which left four or five soldiers with
no linguistic support guarding several clumps of men, women,
and children, who were terrified, confused, and who spoke
no English. I had with me some handbills that explained in
simple Arabic that troops were here to look for suspected
criminals, that they would be respectful of property and not
hurt anybody if it could be helped. I knew a couple of basic,
stock expressions, but more importantly by approaching a
family with a smile, my rifle at my side, and giving them this
simple piece of paper, I was able to transform their experience.
Being in the presence of armed strangers in your home is
not a pleasant experience, by any stretch of the imagination.
But the difference between not having any idea, and having
a basic understanding, helped relax that family. If one of the
goals of military training is to dehumanize the enemy to make
him easier to kill; here was the very opposite: humanizing a
local family and the foreign soldiers in their home, creating a
relationship—however fleeting—that flies in the face of the
mutual suspicion and stereotypes that make such relationships
Introduction to It Is What It Is مقدمة هكذا هو الحال
by Esam Pasha
Translation: My name is Esam Pasha. I am participating in the exhibition presented by Creative Time and the New Museum called It Is What It Is, created by the British artist Jeremy Deller. He has involved a number of Iraqis and Americans that have had first-hand experience in Iraq, each in different situations and from different times. Everybody needs to talk about these subjects and everybody has a lot of questions. So we're going to talk about it with the public. I am very, very excited to explore what is happening in Iraq and talk to other people about it. Thank you.
Essay by Esam Pasha
Esam Pasha is an artist who was born in
Baghdad in 1976. He has also worked as a journalist,
and as a translator with the U.S. Army and the British
embassy. He is participating as a guest expert at the
New Museum and is also accompanying Jeremy Deller,
Jonathan Harvey, and Nato Thompson on the “It Is What It Is”
road trip. In response to a request by Deller, he describes
the atmosphere of Al-Mutanabbi, a street in Baghdad
that was demolished by a powerful bomb in 2007.
Al-Mutanabbi is one of the oldest streets in Baghdad.
It goes back to about 1,200 years and is located in the
heart of the city. Since then, it has witnessed wars,
invasions, revolutions, coups, and disasters as well as glory.
Al-Mutanabbi street is located between the Sarai market
(which was once a mint) and now is a market and the Qushla,
which is an old building built by the Ottoman Empire as a
military base and then used as the royal pavilion in the 1920s
when the Iraqi kingdom was established. The street is full
of publishing housesand bookshops.
After the international embargo, the economy in Iraq was
crushed, and people started to sell all that they had to make
ends meet. Iraqis like to read a lot and love to collect books,
so people started to take their books to sell them to passersby
in Al-Mutanabbi street bookshops on Fridays—since print
houses and shops are mostly closed on that day. That was in
the early 1990s. I started to go to this market around 1992,
when I was in high school. I used to go there on Fridays and
put my books on the side street and spend the day talking to
other vendors. All of them were highly educated. I learned
a lot at an early age by talking to those people and by
having access to so many books to buy, read, then sell again.
There was a café on the corner of Al-Mutanabbi called
Shabandar in a very old building that used to be a
publishing house. I didn’t sell books for very long, but
I kept going to Al-Mutanabbi street. I used to meet everybody
there: artists, writers, journalists—Iraqis and foreigners—
students, UN advisors, and people who worked in NGOs (Non
Governmental Organizations). Those Fridays were a lot of
fun, with a lot of people talking and discussing ideas.
The fact that many people went to Al-Mutanabbi made it a target
long before it was bombed in 2007. After the invasion there was
no problem with any books or magazines being sold, circulated,
or published. There were many new magazines and newspapers
started after the invasion from all kinds of political parties and
directions. The coalition had no problem with any of that, but
that doesn’t mean other Iraqi parties and militias didn’t.
Soon after the invasion, somewhat by coincidence, I started
working as an interpreter for the army. One day I passed by a
building occupied by the U.S. Army, and I heard a man from
behind the fence telling a group of people gathered there to
stand on the left if they were applying to work as translators and
to stand on the right for everything else. I thought why not and
stood next to the only other man who was applying to work as an
interpreter. Half an hour later I got the job.
I worked first with the 101st Airborne for about a month until
they were moved into the north of Iraq and were replaced by
the National Guard. We patrolled 24/7, for almost a year, in
the searing heat of summer and the freezing Iraqi winter (many
people don’t know how cold it gets in Iraq in the winter; it can
get down to thirty degrees Fahrenheit and below). We were
shot at, we went into burning buildings, we did car chases, and
we survived some explosions. For me though, the danger didn’t
stop once I left work. I was still threatened when I was at home
because people quickly found out that I worked as an interpreter
for the Americans. Many interpreters have been killed and many
others were threatened, so I watched my back.
I survived four close calls: two explosions, and two when working
with the Christian Science Monitor when angry mobs tried to kill
me and four other journalists. It was a miracle that we escaped.
Zainab Saleh in conversation with Jeremy Deller
Zainab Saleh is a PhD student in the
Department of Anthropology at Columbia University.
Born in 1973 in Baghdad, she holds a BA in English
literature from Baghdad University, and in 1997 left
Iraq to earn a BA in anthropology/sociology from
the American University of Beirut. In 2002 she
was accepted as a teaching fellow at Columbia
University. She is participating as a guest expert
at the New Museum.
Jeremy Deller: What do you think is the biggest
misunderstanding about the people and culture of Iraq
that is held in the U.S.?
Zainab Saleh: Iraq is usually viewed as consisting of three
essential elements: Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds, who somehow
do not get along. These elements are seen as determining
people’s self-identification and interaction. The fact is that the
prominence of sectarian and ethnic identities, which are really
political identities, is recent. Iraqis are multidimensional in that
class, political orientation, religiosity, etc. play a big role in their
identification and relations with each other. When I say I’m
an Iraqi here, the immediate question is: Are you a Sunni,
Shia, or Kurd? I feel uncomfortable when I’m faced with this
question because it puts me in a pigeonhole that I don’t relate
to, and it makes certain assumptions. If I say I’m a Shia or a
Kurd, the conclusion is that I was persecuted under Saddam’s
rule; conversely, if I say I’m a Sunni, the assumption is that I
benefited from the regime. This black-and-white view fails to
take into consideration the complex ways in which Iraqis identify
themselves. It disregards the fact that anyone who became a
suspect under Saddam’s rule was persecuted, and ignores the
historical context of struggle for power among different groups.
Ironically, if a person asks if I’m a Sunni or Shia or Kurd and I
refuse to answer the question, the person assumes that I must be
Sunni and loyal to Saddam’s regime. I say this is ironic because I
lost all of my family members under Saddam’s regime; my parents
were communists and refused to cooperate with the Baathists.
JD: Can you explain the difference in the refugee situation
between 1991 and 2003?
ZS: Iraqis in 1991 managed to find refuge in some countries.
It was possible to enter Jordan and live there, and the UK granted
asylum to thousands in the 1990s. After 2003, it became harder
to get asylum in Western countries and to secure residence in
Jordan and Syria. People who left Iraq after 2003 had lived through
the blockade imposed on Iraq since 1990, witnessed the collapse
of its social fabric, suffered another war, and were forced to
flee because of sectarian violence and the rise of militias. As
horrible as it was in 1991, people were not being slaughtered.
Since 2003, death and atrocities are public spectacles. People
don’t know, when they leave, if they will be able to come back
home. Exile has become permanent. This has been caused by
U.S. intervention in Iraq and its disregard for the life, safety,
and dignity of Iraqi citizens.
JD: Why is this situation underreported?
ZS: That the situation of refugees is underreported is an
understatement! According to a
publication by the Refugee Studies
Center in 2007, one in eight Iraqis
are either internally displaced or
has fled the country. This number
indicates the largest forced
movement of a population in
the Middle East since 1948.
If we think that Jordan’s
population is around six million,
and that there are almost one
million Iraqis in the country, we
can start to imagine the magnitude
of the pressure to understand the
fear felt by the host countries. I think
the reason that little attention is paid is because the international
community—and in particular the U.S. and the UK since their
2003 invasion—must take responsibility and take steps to solve
the issue, by granting asylum to Iraqis. I’m not sure if the issue
of refugees changed Arab opinions about the war or the West
since the majority of Arabs were against the war. However, it
definitely changed Iraqi views on the war, whether abroad or
inside Iraq. Iraqis were desperate to see Saddam removed from
power. Many of them are aware of the history of the U.S. role
in Iraq (i.e. the support of Saddam, and then the sanctions
against his regime), but they supported the war with the hope
that once Saddam was removed, the situation would improve.
JD: Could you describe the internal displacement that has occurred,
at a local and national level, from street to street, region to region?
ZS: No systematic information on the internally displaced
in Iraq is available, but it is estimated that at least two million
Iraqis are internally displaced because of sectarian violence and
military operations. The military operations in Falluja forced
most of its residents to leave the area. On the other hand, mixed
neighborhoods (whether in Baghdad, Dialya, Basra, Mosel, or
Kirkuk) have been divided ethno-religiously through intimidation
and violence. The living conditions for the internally displaced
are dire. They do not have regular income and proper accommodations
and they do not have access to basic services.
JD: What is the effect of this sustained situation in Iraqi society?
ZS: Iraqis have been demoralized and humiliated for decades.
The war in 2003 and its aftermath is just the last episode, and it
needs to be seen in relation to the previous two decades. Iraqis
from different backgrounds have fled Iraq, and there has been a
tremendous brain drain. Corruption has become widespread, and
infrastructures have collapsed. In addition, the social fabric has
suffered major blows. Iraq has become a dangerous place to live for
minorities such as Mandeans and Christians. However, fear and
terror have affected everyone since the rules imposed by religious
parties and militias define the way people should live.
JD: Could you describe the complexity of Iraqi society, tribal,
family, religious, loyalties?
ZS: Religion, ethnicity, and tribal affiliation have not historically
been a marker of a person’s identity. Under Ottoman rule, the
ruling class consisted of Sunni Ottoman officials who settled
in Iraq and became Arabized. Given the struggle between the
Ottoman Empire and Iran, Iraq became a frontier zone because
of the presence of a huge population of Shias. The Shias were not
allowed to hold positions in the government and were seen as a
threat by the Ottomans. Under Ottoman rule in Iraq, people from
the same sect, religion, ethnicity, and tribe used to live in the same
neighborhood or city quarters for their own protection.
An important divide at that time was city
dwellers versus tribes. With the formation
of the modern state of Iraq in 1921 by
the British, and with the rise of political
ideologies, ethnic-religious identities
lost importance. For instance, the Iraqi
Communist Party had a mass basis and it
included Sunnis, Shias, Kurds, Christians,
and Jews; and Arab nationalist parties were
joined by Sunnis, Shias, and Christians. By
the end of the 1970s, when Saddam and the
Baath Party rose to power and liquidated the
Iraqi Communist Party, party life came to an
end. The only remaining party opposing the
regime was the Shia Dawa Party, which
had to go underground. With the rise of the Baath Party in
1968, sectarian and ethnic persecution started at the state level.
After the 1991 Gulf War, Saddam’s regime used ruthless power
to put down uprisings in the south and the north. The Kurds
also paid a high price, but they managed to secure some kind
of independence in the 1990s. This state-sanctioned ethnic
and religious persecution led to the politicization of ethnic and
religious identities. After 2003, the resurgence of ethnic and
sectarian identities was accompanied by sectarian violence.