In a conversation with Georgetown’s Middle Eastern Studies Librarian Ryan Zohar, Baghdadi poet, journalist, and photographer Nabil Salih speaks of his lived and professional experience in Iraq, and why he chose to exhibit his photography at Georgetown University. This March marks twenty years since the United States and its allies waged another war on Nabil’s homeland of Iraq in 2003. The exhibition, A Requiem for Baghdad: Postcards from a Crime Scene, depicts the everyday lives of survivors in a wounded city.
Q: Could you tell us about yourself?
Nabil Salih: I was born and raised in Baghdad. I spent my childhood afternoons chasing a football in the family’s luscious garden with my brother, cousins, and friends. I try to play and watch football whenever I can. I love to walk, especially when humans’ absence occupies the sidewalks of Washington, D.C. The poets and philosophers I read all loved to walk, or wrote about walking: Walter Benjamin, stoned on hashish in Marseille; Sargon Boulus in the canals of exile and dreams. My most important works as a poet, journalist, and photographer were about and from my walks in Baghdad.
Here, I make frequent pilgrimages to D.C.’s museums during the day, and keep a scented candle lit for company at night, often as Tom Waits or Youssef Omar, among others, sing of deep wounds of past times. I long for the palm trees of Iraq. They are dying, but stand tall in my imagination. I love the smell of coffee and the bends in the Arabic alphabet’s letters. I make my morning mug of Arabic coffee the way the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish described in one of his books: I do so as I listen to the world slowly burning on the radio.
Q: How did the successive U.S. Wars in Iraq and the U.N. sanctions they brought with them shape your life?
Nabil Salih: Well, I was born in 1992, one year after the United Nations imposed what I call a regime of humanitarian starvation that left, according to estimates, half a million civilians dead. Quietly, without even a siren. I could have been one of those, had my parents not taken multiple jobs to raise us with dignity. My mother, who was a respected educator, was tutoring and sewing on the side. Alas, after enduring wars and sanctions, she would later depart us in a state hospital where patients’ caretakers bribed and begged medical staff in hopes they would provide the needed treatment and medication on time, as the power went out for hours in merciless summer afternoons — a miserable situation that exemplified everything that is wrong in the “new Iraq.”
One of my earliest childhood memories was standing on the rooftop as rockets rained on Baghdad at night. That was in 1998, my first encounter with war during Operation Desert Fox. Writing the previous line, I now remember how my father used to tell my brother and me bedtime stories before we’d fall asleep on the rooftop. No more. I once wrote that the sites of beautiful memories are now forever soaked in war. This is just one personal example of what that means.
One of my earliest traumas was inflicted by an event that preceded my birth, the Gulf War. In February 1991, around 400 children, women, and elderly people were incinerated inside al-Amiriyah bomb shelter in western Baghdad. My father’s aunt and relatives died there. As I grew up, my father would drive us past the site of the bombing during family visits to the sole surviving cousin who was not in the shelter that dawn. I used to look away, toward the opposite side of the street, but like many Iraqis, I could still see the fires, and still hear the screams.
As war limped its way to the gates of Baghdad again in 2003, we fled to stay with relatives on the outskirts of the city. Our house was attacked, or emancipated, with cluster bomblets. The same garden where I had played football was consigned to the category of target. Even our palm tree was hit with shrapnel. Alas, its dates tasted so good. Some walls and windows were riddled with bullets. But that is nothing compared to the loss of life, the houses bombed into nonexistence, the stolen archives, and works of art. I belong to a generation that was denied a visit to a museum to see the works of pioneer artists like the great Jawad Salim. The devastation of war escapes encapsulation.
In the years of occupation, we lingered in what Italo Calvino calls the “inferno of the living.” To give you a glimpse of the mayhem, my father was kidnapped, and my uncle too. My family received death threats and we were later displaced from our home. The same happened to my uncle’s family. Under a ‘liberatory’ occupation, each day was cloaked in tragedy’s robe. I saw coalition soldiers shoot a civilian where I lived, he writhed on my neighbor’s doorstep. On another afternoon, someone’s corpse was hanged from a nearby bridge, his lifeless body swayed over the highway as cars zipped by underneath. Armed clashes with the occupying troops erupted outside our door. There were corpses on the sidewalks; stray dogs ate from them. They still bark in my poems at night.
All of this creeps into my writings, willingly or not.
Q: Could you tell us about this project? What should viewers know about these photos?
Nabil Salih: It is a walk among the ruins. The Tigris River, seen in a number of photographs, is dying, polluted. No government oversight safeguards our water resources. The children you see swimming have to tip-toe their way into the waters over broken glass and litter. Sometimes desperate youth and grieving women would jump from bridges into the water. Their lifeless bodies would be found afloat somewhere down the river. During the years of occupation, corpses would be dumped into the water, their skulls and limbs pierced with hammer drills. I think of this when I visit the riverbank, and it will not go away.
In taking these photos, I also had to navigate a securitized city. There is a photo of three people on the riverbank at sunset. I captured the moment after being stopped and questioned three times by soldiers within 45 minutes for hanging a camera from my neck. Later that night, I was pulled by the arm by a soldier who forced me to show him each and every photo I took that evening to ensure my oeuvre entailed no captures of sensitive locations. Life is not only humiliating in Iraq, but precarious as well. Everyone is exposed to whimsical oppression by the state’s coercive apparatus.
Protecting the reigning (dis)order and reversing the fatal errors of its elite require young men to carry arms and fight. Among the consequences of the Iraq invasion was the emergence of the Islamic State (IS). Young people, many unemployed, joined many of the notorious Iran-aligned armed groups fighting IS militants. Today, these armed groups are legitimized, some of them rule over a people they also terrorize and kill. In one of the photos, there is a woman standing with her son, or a poster of him plastered on a wall. He was killed somewhere in battle, as the poster reads “martyr.” Qasem Soleimani, the feared former head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps assassinated in Baghdad in 2020 by yet another American airstrike on the city, smiles from another poster at the anguished mother. “I want a picture with my son,” she told me. I think of her tonight.
In some of these photos, you can see that I focus on children. I often think and write of my own childhood and the deprivations of war, but I was privileged. In Baghdad, I saw them selling tissues or bottled water on intersections, begging for alms or sitting silently on sidewalks. This is what war leaves behind. A child in mismatched flip-flops I once met sold juice at night and didn’t know his age. “Seven. Maybe nine,” he told me. The four children whose portrait you see in one photo are Abdul-Qayoum and his friends. They sold chewing gum to the few drivers on the street during a coronavirus curfew. They were happy, and laughed all the time. I hope they are well today.
Q: Your work, although heavily visual in nature, is also in conversation with literature, philosophy, and history in some important ways. How do you view the relationship between the written word and your photography?
Nabil Salih: In “The Written World and the Unwritten World,” Italo Calvino had answered this question before me: Although the “unwritten world” is already colonized by words, “one of the lessons we can take from modern poetry is to invest all our attention, all our love for detail.” This is not to say that what I read on a page dictates how I see on the streets. Rather, it teaches me to listen, to be attentive, and, as the late Iraqi poet Sargon Boulus writes, to be quieter. Think of Charles Simic, for example, who wrote of a run-down block “where the homeless come to die.” This doesn’t mean I go around with my camera preying on humans’ misfortune. Like the written word, as a journalist, my photography has a purpose beyond but without forgoing the aesthetic.
As for history, Walter Benjamin, the late revolutionary German philosopher, wrote of progress as being the “storm” that propels us towards a future we do not see, as our eyes are fixed on the past, where a catastrophe still piles up and whose debris reaches our feet, rising skyward. In other words, the present is laden with the legacy of a past still here, with us. Not only in memory or imagination, but also in the legacies of colonial rule, imperial wars and the debris left with us in the aftermath of upheaval.
In one of my articles for Al Jazeera English, I elegized Baghdad. I wrote of walking across Jisr al-Shuhada, a bridge where revolutionaries were murdered by a pro-British government in 1948. Ja`far, a brother of Iraq’s great poet Muhammad Mahdi al-Jawahiri, died during the protests that are known as al-Wathba Uprising. As I walked across the bridge, I thought of the young man, of his comrades who would lose their lives in another uprising that unfolded decades later on the nearby Republic Bridge in 2019. “Do you know or do you not know / that victims’ wounds are a mouth?” al-Jawahiri wrote in an elegy for his young brother.
Ryan Zohar, Georgetown’s Middle East Studies Librarian, and I compiled a list of books on Iraq that will be displayed to accompany this exhibition. I invite students and educators alike to sift through the pages and learn not only of Iraq’s history and politics, but its rich literature, art and even photography. The novels of Iraqi poet and scholar Sinan Antoon are essential, so is Hanna Batatu’s book on the history of modern Iraq. Nesma Shubber’s new book on Iraqi artist Suad al-Attar shows the encroachment of warfare on an artist’s psyche. The poetry of Saadi Youssef is a must-read, and Latif al-Ani’s photography complements a journey to mid-twentieth century Iraq.
Q: Why did you choose to display these photos in Washington, DC, at Georgetown, and in the Library? What was the importance of this particular audience for you?
Nabil Salih: Washington, D.C. is where orders were given to inflict indelible wounds on my land and people. There, faraway in a former theater of operations that is so forgotten, traumatized humans linger in a present haunted by the fires still burning in their past. A mélange of lies was stitched together to build the case for war and transform my country into the crime scene you see in these photos. Does it have to happen again? When I see the likes of former President Bill Clinton arriving on campus to a warm reception, or flags flown at half-mast for politicians like Colin Powell, I wonder how many of my colleagues and classmates think of what happened overseas, at the receiving end of U.S. foreign policy. I invite my fellow students and educators to reflect on this question. Their choices, as the next generation of leaders, have significant implications on the farthest of the world’s corners. Question and speak truth to those in power. Let us inflict less harm on man/woman and land tomorrow.
Q: What should readers know about Iraq today?
Nabil Salih: Today, Iraq is abducted by a political order lacking legitimacy in the eyes of millions. As always, and despite the agony, we have generations of educated youth: doctors; engineers; artists; writers; journalists. But we are ruled by successive lethally-corrupt governments whose elites share a camaraderie in theft and benefit from a lucrative abnormal situation they normalize and beautify.
Hundreds of thousands of Internally Displaced People (IDPs) are still lingering on the periphery of life. Some of their ruined lands, leveled in the war against IS militants, are in the firm control of feared armed groups. Environmentally, too, Iraq will soon become an unlivable wasteland. It is already unlivable in parts of the southern port city of Basra, where Iraq’s oil “wealth” is concentrated and gas flaring emits poisons day and night. But even environmental activists are not safe. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), environmentalist Jassim al-Asadi was recently abducted, tortured and released without the public knowing the identity of the perpetrators. Social media users are being rounded up for what the state consigns as “vulgar” content. This also means an increase in the probability of the persecution of journalists. As a writer, I jeopardize my safety each time I pen an article. The country ranks near the bottom of Reporters Without Borders’s Press Freedom Index, so much for a “democracy.”
Meanwhile, in Fallujah, women continue to give birth to dead and malformed babies. The white phosphorus and depleted uranium from past wars continue to live in our lungs and wombs and soil. In a continuation of the assault on the people of the city, the US recently announced its intention to name a warship the USS Fallujah. Is the war really over? We used to have seas of palm trees in every direction, now they are thirsty, decapitated and bulldozed to make way for the next shopping mall. Meanwhile, Baghdad’s architectural identity is being disfigured. Corruption continues unabated, and real estate is one way to launder stolen billions. Pro-Iran militias are at the heart of corruption schemes, and now they are empowered more than ever with the ascension of a Coordination Framework government. The Uprising of 2019 almost sounded the death knell for the reigning (dis)order. I was there, covering the protests and protesting myself. Hundreds of youth were killed and thousands injured, but accountability remains an elusive dream in a country where everyone is in peril, a candidate target for death’s many messengers.
As the political system seems irreformable, and as grievances pile up, perhaps the next uprising, which is always on the way, buries it alive.
Q: You talked about the importance of honoring the victims of this violence in your work and I think it really comes through in the photos themselves. I wondered if you might comment more broadly about the many events and initiatives cropping up in the U.S. to mark 20 years from the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. They often place an emphasis on the lives that were lost. Less commonly, however, do we see them engage with the question of accountability. What is the importance of justice for the victims and accountability for these crimes in your work?
Nabil Salih: I am thinking of both the dead and the living here. One purpose is to remind the audience of those who survive but carry the wounds and traumas in a gunny sack on their backs every day. But it is not only the living that are grappling with hardships and pain. Walter Benjamin once wrote that “even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins.” This is what comes to my mind when, for example, I see George W. Bush joking on Jimmy Kimmel Live to an amnesiac audience. I think of Iraqis being pained in their graves. I think Bush needs to be in a courtroom with a good lawyer and striped prison pajamas, not on a talk show. But I wish that the reader would think of all the politicians who voted in favor of the war, Republicans and Democrats alike. The latter two groups and the warmongering columnists, reporters and dissident “scholars” à la Kanan Makiya who sounded the drum for war before 2003, are all rehabilitated today as if nothing ever happened.
As for the other part of the question, many scholars and researchers speak for and over Iraqis for a living. The country is transformed into a field of study whose people are put on mute, only heard of when a foreign correspondent or scholar interviews them. Then there are the members of the dubious category of “Iraq experts” who speak in Think Tanks of normalcy, stability, democratization and the farcical notion of reform. Of course, their interlocutors are not the people of Iraq. These people do not represent us and are detached from our sufferings; they are merely in the business of treating Iraq as a commodity, a source of income.