Tuesday, September 29, 2009

On Art and Culture in the Baghdad Diaries

Nuha Al-Radi's Baghdad Diaries: A Woman's Chronicle of War and Exile is a personal, yet straightforward account of an upper class woman artist's experience during the first U.S. invasion of Iraq, or the Gulf War. I am particularly struck by the structure of this narrative, in terms of tone and prose style. The language is pared down and elegant, demonstrating the artistic capacity of the journal entry as a genre. While reading, I notice that Al-Radi takes full advantage her genre's conventions, utilizing short sentence structures that are often without subject -- the implied subject being "I". That removal of the "I" is quite telling in that the author herself often feels dehumanized, a condition reflected in the robotic nature of some of her entries. This dismissal of the "I" also works to make the prose flow more easily; and, of course, communicates a sense of urgency to the reader. The style is very impressive. As a writer of fiction who tends to be long-winded, I admire this author's ability to write with beautiful simplicity.

Though I have many notes on the text so far, having read to the halfway point, there are two items (for length's sake) that I would like to bring up in this post that I will identify first using quotes from the text. Both have to do with specific cultural dilemmas associated with the Middle East.

1) "Ma says she feels like Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind...except we are far from starving" (52-53).
It is important, especially when reading a piece of creative nonfiction, to understand the speaker's point of view, her general station in life and and attitude toward her material. At this point in the narrative, it becomes abundantly clear that our author is of the upper-middle/upper class in Baghdad. She continually makes comparisons that involve high brow knowledge (like her reference to art critic Arthur Danto later on) or, in the least, a familiarity with Western culture. This reference to Gone With The Wind is quite loaded. Are the women in this story aware that they were quite spoiled before the war? Do they, like dear Scarlett, sense the ending of an era? Of course, this reference does provide comic relief, however, I find myself wondering about the plight of those who had next to nothing before the war began. What type of person is most adaptable in a wartime scenario? Are we all simply reduced to our basic humanity?

2)"Archaeological sites have also been hit..." (64)
At this point in the text, Al-Radi, an artist herself, relates a painful lament for the works of art that have themselves become casualties of war. We don't often think about the repositories of art that are destroyed in times of war. I am reminded of the devastating damage done to the museums in Baghdad as the result of our current conflict in Iraq. Looting, black market sales, and general destruction befell some extremely important works of art under our watch as occupiers of that country. One legacy of colonialism is the diaspora of artworks, estranged from their countries of origin. Many of the most important works of art from Persia, Sumeria, Assyria, and Egypt rest in European or American museums. This cultural robbery speaks directly to the doctrine of Orientalism, that we do not trust this strange "other" to take care of artworks that are rightfully his. Consequently, when we bomb these distant places, we might believe that any works of major importance -- those works that the West has already confiscated, artifacts that contribute to our homogenizing narrative associated with these cultures -- will be safe because we had the foresight to remove them years ago.

Of course, there is much more to talk about in this fascinating diary. I look forward to finishing the book and sharing ideas with all of you in class.


  1. So much of Iraq's art and culture were destroyed in US led bombings, and latter theft. It seems like and added insult to injury.

  2. I agree on your point about the reference to Scarlet O'Hara. Loaded is a good word as it raises numerous questions that blur the distinctions about positionality. Gone With the Wind questions al-Radi's position as upper-middle class, woman, Iraqi... etc... etc. The references don't stop with Scarlet but also include Philip Glass, Beethoven, etc.