Three years ago, TAARII received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanitities (NEH) under a program to rescue Iraq’s cultural heritage. Our project is meant to help Iraqi colleagues to reconstruct and publish reports of theirs that were damaged or lost in the looting of the Iraq National Museum. During the summer of 2007, Mark Altaweel worked with three Iraqi colleagues for several weeks on the notes from a number of sites. The three Iraqi scholars were brought out of Iraq for the purpose. These sites included Tell al-Wilaya, Tell Muhammed, Tell al-Imsihli, Tell Muqtadiya, and Tell Asmar (ancient Eshnunna). These sites were excavated prior to the 2003 war. As a bonus, they worked on a preliminary report on an excavation that one of the Iraqi colleagues is currently excavating at Tell Qasra. McGuire Gibson spent ten days in the TAARII headquarters in Amman, concentrating on the Tell Asmar report.
The work at Tell al-Wilaya, located west of Kut in southern Iraq, is significant as a third millenium B.C. city that has been excavated by Iraqi archaeologists in a number of campaigns since the 1950s. Much of the work in the 1990s has not been published. A great part of the site has been heavily damaged due to recent looting. Publication of the Tell al-Wilaya material will provide significant new knowledge that would otherwise be lost. Tell Muhammad, within the southeastern part of Baghdad, was extensively excavated by the Iraqis in the 1990s, and it has yielded cuneiform documents and objects that help elucidate what happened in Babylonia after the fall of Babylon to the Hittites in 1500 (using the shorter chronology). The Iraqi excavations that were done in the late 1990s at Tell Asmar will supplement the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute excavations conducted there in the 1930s. Tell Asmar, ancient Eshnunna, was the capital of an important kingdom just prior to the time of Hammurabi, but even before that time, it was a major center for the Diyala region. The recent excavations have revealed unique domestic architectural features. Tell Qasra is located in the Kurdish region near Erbil. Relatively few sites have been excavated and published in the Kurdish region, and results from this site will add significantly to our knowledge of the prehistoric development of the area and the interrelations of northern and southern Mesopotamia.
Thus far, there have appeared several publications based on work covered by this grant, and more are in press or in preparation. First was an article in the academic journal Iraq, which covered sites near Mosul. Recently, the journal Akkadica carried a report on the excavations at Tell Abu Shijar, a small but significant exposure of a Kassite palace within the area of Aqar Quf, the ancient capital named Dur-Kurigalzu. Finally, Altaweel has completed his book, The Imperial Landscape of Ashur: Settlement and Land Use in the Assyrian Heartland, which is based on work done under an earlier TAARII grant as well as information derived from collaboration with an Iraqi colleague in the NEH-funded recovery of archaeological materials from Iraq. In May 2008, Gibson and Altaweel will join Iraqi colleagues once more in Amman to finish at least three more articles.
This project aims to prepare for publication in Arabic and English reports on important excavations and surveys carried out by Iraqi expeditions in the past thirty years but not published. With this effort, we will make available to the international scholarly public important information that may otherwise never be published, in part because of the loss of manuscripts in the looting of the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage (SBAH), which also houses the Iraq Museum. The destruction of the administrative offices of the SBAH, although not as high-profile as the looting of the museum, was in some ways more damaging to the archaeology of the country. As the repository of all records of archaeological activity of Iraqi and foreign researchers, the administrative wing held the institutional memory of the entire organization. Losses included numerous field photographs, plans, sections, etc., of expeditions carried out by foreigners and Iraqis since 1921. The editorial office that produces the journal Sumer and all other publications of the SBAH, were not spared. Manuscripts of many articles and some monographs were lost or badly damaged.
In this project, three American archaeologists, directed by McGuire Gibson, cooperate with three Iraqi colleagues who have carried out important excavations or surface surveys, the manuscripts of which were lost in the looting. The excavations include work done at the great Babylonian city, Sippar, and sites in the salvage area of the Hamrin Dam. Others investigations include a survey of more than 500 sites in the north of Iraq, including part of the Kurdish area, from which we have had little archaeological information for more than three decades. Two of the American scholars were born in Iraq, have excavated there, and have proven records of publication.
The project entails two working sessions in Amman, Jordan, in which the Iraqi colleagues will bring scanned copies of their primary notes and drafts of lost manuscripts to revise into Arabic manuscripts with the cooperation of the American collaborators. From the Arabic manuscripts, English translations will be prepared, and any necessary illustrative material will be created. Between the sessions in Jordan, the team will be in contact through e-mail, working to bring the manuscripts to final form. Editing for content and style will be performed on both Arabic and English texts. We anticipate that there will be manuscripts for three monographs and a number of articles. Before the end of the project, we anticipate that these manuscripts will be submitted to the publishers, either refereed journals, such as Iraq or Akkadica, or, as special publications by Nabu, a publisher in London that has issued a series of English translation supplements to Sumer and has served as distributor for Iraqi Antiquities publications for more than thirty years.
If these collaborations go as we anticipate, we may expand in future to help SBAH to publish its astonishing findings in the salvage operations of Umma, Umm al-Aqarib, Zabalam, Adab, and related sites, which were carried out from 1996 to 2003.
The oral history of Iraqis, like the histories of different peoples all over the world, is made up of the individual and collective memories, hopes and dreams, disappointments, and heartaches of several million people, each with a story of their own. Rarely, however, have these histories been told. Autobiography is not really an Iraqi genre, partly because over the past forty years, dictatorship and foreign wars have colluded to raise self-censorship to the level of survivor’s art, to the point where the re-conceptualization of the past has been portrayed as subversive. Like most historians around the world, therefore, Iraqis have focused on texts, whether published or unpublished documents, a few Arabic literary masterpieces, European travelers’ reports and British or French consular materials. On the rare occasion that a historian chose to write a more avant-garde narrative of the past, he or she would dip into the enormous trove of early Iraqi newspapers then found in the National Library.
In April 2003, the libraries, museums, and manuscript collections of Baghdad but also of Mosul, Tikrit, and Basra were pillaged and burned. The accounts and testimonies of Iraq’s inimitable civilization went up in smoke or were stolen, wantonly ripped apart or smashed. The world soon heard of the systematic looting and burning of the unique collections of the Iraqi Museum, the National Library, the House of Manuscripts, and the Ministry of Awqaf (Endowments). Eventually, an international campaign to rescue and recover lost treasures from the Museum, and to survey the damage done to national collections throughout the country was initiated, and both public and private funds went towards the repair and restoration of the salvageable evidence. Iraqis were able to come to grips, if only partially, with the enormous loss inflicted on the epigraphic, pictorial, and written record of their civilization.
But one highly significant consequence of the destruction of library collections, court records, and legal and financial data was the now novel, and quite paradoxical reliance on human evidence. Iraqis, who had been stripped of most, if not all, of the records of their official existence because of the burning and looting of government ministries, courthouses and Security departments, now fell back on human eyewitnesses to fill the enormous gaps produced by the lack of paper trails. In order to ascertain ownership of property or even to lend credence and legitimacy to marriage or birth records, Iraqis were now required to stand witness to the history around them, even as they made their own history themselves. Oral testimonies, once considered unreliable unless they were buttressed by textual evidence, have come into their own in the “new” Iraq.
Oral history is therefore of crucial importance to the reconstruction of Iraqi state and society. Even had Iraq been a fully functioning society, with no social, economic, or psychic damage done to its diverse communities, villages or tribes, oral histories would possess valuable, life-enhancing properties. Especially when focused on older persons, the systematic documentation of individual recollections of events, famous or forgotten, can become energizing reminders of a life well lived. How much more significant then are the remembrances of older Iraqis who witnessed the end of the Ottoman era in 1917; the occupation and administration of Iraq by British forces; the establishment of the monarchy and the lively parliamentary life it gave birth to; the bitter post-revolution years and the emergence of the republican tradition; the great cultural engagements of the 1960s and the efflorescence of art, poetry and music; the mass movements led by working-class and professional associations and the beginning of the Iraq-Iran war; the wartime conditions which sustained the Baathist government machinery; and the final and almost hallucinatory era of the sanctions regime and the Anglo-American occupation.
Ironically, the aftermath of the 2003 occupation has given Iraqis the space to recollect, refashion, and rewrite their individual and collective histories, for the first time in years. Now exists an opportunity to hear these histories, and to build an archive of who Iraqis were, and are, and who they aspire to become.
The Iraqi Oral History Project aims to create a living archive of Iraqi voices spanning the 85 years of independent statehood (1920–2005). Beginning in Amman, Jordan, it will eventually be expanded to include interviews with Iraqis in other Arab countries, including Lebanon, and Syria, as well as Europe, the United States, and elsewhere. As soon as conditions are propitious, the Oral History project will be moved to Baghdad.
Any good oral history plumbs the narrative of events that pit individuals against state and society, and the fluctuating conditions in which people discover (or rediscover) their agency in times of adversity. Asking Iraqis about how they have lived (in some cases, survived) the last several decades is bound to be a fascinating exercise: understanding the questions posed and the choices made by individuals in a complex, ideologically-driven state and society are all the more interesting, not only because they explode the unitary models and febrile conclusions drawn by dozens of superficial Eurocentric theses on Iraq, but also because they relay in vivid detail the hundreds of small compromises, arrangements and breaks in past tradition that makes living under democracies (the monarchy period) as well as dictatorships such a dynamic exercise.
How, for example, is history represented and recalled under these circumstances? How too is culture manifested? Who gains authority and influence? What symbols achieve hegemony? All of these questions can probably be posed, and many of them answered, only in one-on-one conversations.
The Iraqi Oral History Project will begin with a six-month pilot study of the living histories of Iraqis in Jordan. There are at least three sections of Amman in which Iraqis reside. These are the Al-Hussein mosque area, in downtown Amman; the Marka area, where Iraqi buses and taxis ferry Iraqis back and forth to their country, and in which Iraqis have set up shops and restaurants catering to the new arrivals' tastes; and the Jabal Amman/Jabal Weibdeh areas, where the middle-class professionals (and some wealthy Iraqis) live. Ideally, the principal investigators with assistants would survey these areas of sometimes transient, sometimes settled Iraqi communities living in the sections of greater Amman, and beyond.
Initially, the range of responders would be the older, Ottoman-influenced, elite families. Besides the Arab Sunni families, Amman is host to a number of Shiite, Kurdish, Turcoman, and Christian family units. Of course, all religions and ethnic groups would be included, because of Iraq’s celebrated ethno-religious and social diversity. After this group, the Iraqi Oral History Unit would expand to other people, and other classes of the same age group. Only after having culled the full potential of the older generation, would we drop down a generation or two.
Interviews will consist of two portions: structured and unstructured. In the pilot phase in Amman, a draft questionnaire will be tested and revised, for use in the broader study. Questions included in the instrument used in the structure portion of the interviews will be borrowed from or modeled on those used in similar oral history projects (such as Harvard University’s Iranian Oral History Project), to allow for possible comparisons. Over the course of two or more meetings, life histories will be recorded on tape and by video (whenever possible). All tapes will then be transcribed in Arabic and translated into English.
The interviewer(s) will start by using old city plans of Baghdad, Mosul and Basra, as a way of locating families in Ottoman and post-Ottoman times. By discussing specific streets and locales, the maps will function as keys to memory. The placement of houses, baths, khans, mosques, schools, and other familiar surroundings will trigger further recollections. Where they are nonexistent (except in the memories of a certain paterfamilias), family genealogies will be traced; family trees will be unearthed and checked for accuracy. The interviewer(s) will ask family members if they have photos to use them as an aid to identify people and events. If allowed, such photos will be scanned and the individuals identified. Moreover, Ottoman firmans, granting privileges to certain families, as well as other important Ottoman-era documents will be scanned as well, if available. Interviews will encompass topics such as birth, confessional background, household composition (including relatives living among the host family, as well as servants, and in the older period, slaves and ex-slaves), education, marriage, extended family links, tribal affiliation, revolution, exile, deaths in family, and more. A draft is in preparation.
In the six-month pilot phase, Dr. Hala Fattah will interview twenty Iraqis. In this period, a snowball approach will be taken to estimating the total number of interviews that can be conducted in Amman, as well as the other Iraqi communities that will be studied in the second phase of the project. In addition to recordings (audio and video), products of the pilot phase will include:
The American Academic Research Institute in Iraq anticipates submitting one or more grant proposals to continue the project within twelve months of the start of the pilot. Within the same year, the pilot report will also be adapted and developed for submission to an academic journal.