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Shadow and Light

Essam Sharif Mohammed (#9)

Academic

Essam Sharif Mohammed: PhD in history, professor in Department of History and head of the College of Humanities, Baghdad University. Murdered October 25, 2003.

Artist Statement

I chose Essam because he was a professor of history. History is the collective memory of a nation. Therefore his murder is an act symbolic of memory erasure. I returned to Baghdad in February 2019 after a 38 year absence.

My family and I fled the country because of the Saddam regime. The few precious childhood memories of Baghdad I had, acquired a mythic quality over the years. It was getting harder to know what was real and what was imagined. My first stage play, Baghdad Wedding, was partially an act to capture those fragments of memory, to not allow them to be entirely erased.

I was very keen upon my return to visit the National Museum. The museum was looted after the 2003 invasion because American troops were more concerned with guarding the oil ministry than the museum. Staff have worked hard since then to retrieve much of what was stolen. Today it is open again to visitors. It contains Sumerian, Babylonian and Assyrian artefacts that take the visitor back to the beginning of civilisation. When you look at the artefacts of this museum, you are looking at the big bang of you. This surly makes it one of the world's most important museums.

It therefore filled me with some sadness to see that the museum was virtually empty on my visit. Admittedly this was on a Monday, a working day, but it was noticeable how empty the various halls were as the photographs can attest. One of the museum guides lamented the low volume of visitors. "Iraqis don't care about their history" he declared. He is wrong. Iraqis care deeply about their history but the country has come under unprecedented assault over the past 40 years: The Iraq-Iran war, The Gulf War, 12 years of murderous Western-imposed sanctions, the 2003 invasion, the systematic assassination of academics like Essam, sectarian war, terrorism and the rise of ISIS. Any one of those events alone would have made some other country collapse into a hot mess. It is amazing that after all these calamities, Iraq is still standing. It is a testimony to the incredible spirit of its people. After such trauma, going to a museum might seem like an act of indulgence for many.

If Essam had lived, he might have inspired a whole generation of students to visit the museum. He might have encouraged them to take their families and children along. Knowledge would have passed from teacher to student to layman. His murder has erased that possibility. It is now up to the next generation to repair the damage.

Hassan Abdulrazzak is an award-winning Iraqi-British playwright based in London.