مقدمة هكذا هو الحال

Artist Statement by Jeremy Deller

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.

Jeremy Deller
January 2009

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 challenging.

Introduction to It Is What It Is                 مقدمة هكذا هو الحال
by Esam Pasha

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.