By Natalie Crnosija
The Iraq known to Americans has been burned into the public consciousness by images of urban warfare and improvised explosive devices. This Iraq is different from the Iraq that once existed: the one composed of the artifacts that have been stolen, music that has been silenced and art that is no longer exhibited. It was this modern, culturally conscious Iraq that became a war zone without running water, Dr. Donny George Youkhanna, Iraq’s former Chairman of the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage said.
“People wouldn’t believe what we had then…it was an open society with dance parties and social clubs where people could play bingo every Sunday,” Youkhanna said. “Now, the infrastructure is so bad that Iraqis get only two hours of electricity a day.”
Youkhanna is a visiting professor in Stony Brook University’s Department of Asian and Asian American Studies, where he has been teaching since 2006. It was earlier in 2006 that Youkhanna was pressured out of his chairmanship by threats against his family and the possibility of assassination. He had held the position for one year.
In the years since his departure from Iraq, Youkhanna has observed changing American policy towards his home country. There is now a time frame for American withdrawal from Iraq, and President Obama’s call for diplomacy has been seen as a turning point in the conflict. Though he agreed with Obama’s call for dialogue, Youkhanna stressed the necessity of cultural understanding.
“I believe educated people will not kill each other,” Youkhanna said. “There has to be a cultural approach to peace. If there is an attempt to see another culture and its achievements, that will give good results in the long run.”
The cultural history of Iraq, which spans back 7,000 years to the Sumerian Empire, has also been a casualty of the conflict through looting and damage to the museums.
Youkhanna, an expert in the achievements of Iraqi culture, oversaw the preservation of Mesopotamian artifacts in Iraq’s museums. There were over 150,000 artifacts in museums of Iraq. Of those artifacts, 50 percent were lost to looting after the invasion. Though some of these items have been returned, thousands of artifacts remain missing.
“It’s a disaster,” Youkhanna said. “There are masterpieces that are lost and have still not been returned.”
The theft of artifacts was prompted by the initial chaos of the 2003 invasion and the ensuing five years of urban combat. The low security of museums and massive unemployment made the theft of artifacts a viable way for Iraqis to make money at the expense of Iraq’s cultural history.
This unemployment, caused by the deterioration of the economy, also contributed to the growth of the insurgence movement. Financial desperation drives Iraqis to paying sectarian insurgent groups.
“We need to minimize unemployment,” Youkhanna said. “That is the only thing that will 100 percent work. The reason people go to the insurgence is because they have no money.”
The sectarianism in Iraq among the Sunnis, the Shiites, the Kurds and Christians has been the cause of the civil strife in Iraq and has fuelled the instability within the country. Because of the diversity of religious sects, Iraq cannot be classified strictly as an Islamic country, Youkhanna said. He preferred the classification of Iraq as an Arabic country as a cultural characterization.
“In Iraq, there are Muslims and Christians and as much as they are educated as such, they live together and are Iraqis,” Youkhanna said. “They recognize they are all Iraqis, and that is the most important thing.”