Doura had become one of the most violent neighborhoods in Baghdad, which made it a good location for a $22,000 art show courtesy of the US Army. The show in 2010 was the third such event the Army had paid for in as many years. Neither the art nor the neighborhood had improved. Doura, in southern Baghdad, once was a well-to-do, mainly Christian neighborhood and home to Baghdad’s art community. The area included a university and used to have many small bookshops and art galleries. It was no Left Bank, but as Iraq went it was pretty decent. Many of the artists had earned a living sculpting neofascist statues and painting cheesy murals for Saddam by day, while practicing their own, more edgy work at night. Baghdad’s minority Christian community felt comfortable living among this crowd and was accepted by the Muslim majority as neighbors.
Doura erupted in sectarian violence following the 2003 invasion’s near-total destruction of civil society. Shias, seeking the prime real estate in Doura, slaughtered the Sunni residents,and both sides attacked the Christians, killing many and driving the rest to seek refugee status in Syria and Jordan. The problems with Christianity post-2003 were not limited to Doura. Before the US invasion, Muslim farmers in other parts of Iraq had a relationship with their Christian neighbors. The Muslims did not eat pork. The Christians liked pork. The farmers allowed the Christians to hunt the wild pigs native to the area. The pigs, left otherwise unchecked, would destroy crops. With the Christian population dropping post-2003 the pig population grew uncontrolled. “We don’t even want to plant anymore because the pigs just eat it all,” said a farmer. “The Christians would bring their guns and they would hunt these pigs,” he continued. “Those were nice times. They used to stay at my house and we were friends.” Since the rise of Islamic sentiment unleashed by the invasion, more than half of Iraq’s Christians had fled the country — ironic, in that they had been residing in Mesopotamia more than five hundred years before the Muslims arrived.
In the face of such upheaval, the secular Doura art community, faced with no more paid work from Saddam and sensing a bad time, went underground. Following the initial round of Shia-Sunni violence, the Sunnis regrouped to reclaim their turf, supported by al Qaeda, newly arrived in Iraq. The cycles of revenge were their own version of per for mance art, replacing Doura’s previous avant- garde shows. Despite the challenge of the violence, with its juicy propaganda theme of different religions once living side by side, Doura was a popular target for our hearts-and-minds campaigns. And while the few remaining artists may not have had much left to say about religious harmony,
In 2007, the US military reported, “Only a few weeks ago al Qaeda had the Iraqi populace in Doura in the grip of terror but they’ve been pushed out and the people have returned to worship.” The rebirth turned out to be stillborn, as the violence never really went away. In 2008, you could have read about Doura’s next “rebirth” in the National Review, where the author oozed, “I realized I had never really been to this place — I just thought I had. This is the real Doura, a neighborhood and a people reborn — thanks to the bravery and sacrifice of the US Army.”Except darn, that rebirth did not take either. Only a little later, Doura became again “the most dangerous place in the world to be a Christian.” Undeterred, the Army decided to celebrate Doura’s rebirth once more in 2010. They gave the community $5,000 to open an art supply store, another $5,000 to buy supplies from that store to distribute to local artists, and then $12,000 to put on an exhibit to show off all that US-government-paid-for-art.
The Army chose a private house owned by the artist who had received the entirety of the money for the two previous art shows and who got the $12,000 for this one as well. The art
business must be good, at least for this painter, because his house was sprawling, two stories, with a swimming pool. For security, a company of US soldiers spent two days stationed there, sleeping by the pool. Outside the gates, hot and overgeared Iraqi Army soldiers ringed the house, supplemented by disheveled Iraqi police sprinkled with US soldiers who unluckily had not drawn pool duty. Each art show guest went through a metal detector and was hand-wanded for weapons. Helicopters flew overhead and armored vehicles blocked off lines of sight. After that, one was free to peruse the art.
We all wandered around inside, making happy purring noises. Two giant sculpted eagles, a throwback to the Saddam School, dominated the show. One was clad in fake gold, perched
upon a Babylonian-style tower. A feminist art corner featured a reclining woman with a rooster perched between her knees (a cock, get it?). There was a giant screaming face that suggested Ralph Steadman’s work in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. One small bronze featured a male figure impaled by a telephone pole, likely gay iconography. Two large paintings showed an African woman with a fruit basket balanced on her head, crying out for velvet. The Army was happy. The Stars and Stripes reporter gushed:
The room was boiling hot due to the sheer number of people present. A canvas of variety, it was filled with people from many walks of life—sheiks, Iraqi Security Force soldiers, local businessmen and businesswomen, US soldiers, American civilians, Iraqi children. Such different ways of life, yet everyone was smiling and talking with each other like friends. What brought them all together would have been unheard of a few years ago, but because of the progress and stability in the area, an art show was able to go off without a hitch. . . . “This certainly shows the great progress that has been made in Doura,” . . . said Brigadier General Kevin Mangum. . . . “This used to be a rough neighborhood, and the fact that we can do this here, it is definitely an indication that things are becoming more stable.”That Doura was reborn (again) was dubious but the Army got some nice photos and the food was pretty good. The artist who received the $12,000 seemed happy. For a few hours, we all played along with the feel-good fiction as appreciative guests. The event, however, was nothing more and nothing less than smoke that blew away as quickly as we departed.
While I waited near the gate for the armored vehicle to take us back to the FOB [Forward Operating Base], one of the Iraqi police officers pointed to the blond American woman in our group and said something in Arabic. Curious, the translator and I went over to chat with the cop. He apologized for what turned out to be a crude remark after the translator falsely told him the blond woman was my wife. Apology accepted. The cop then asked what was going on inside. No one had told him it was an art show, only that he was to guard the gate and refuse entry to Iraqis not invited by the United States. He was very worried about car bombs. Happy birthday, Doura.