Featured People: Hussam Al-Saray

ECF highlights cultural policy research and activism in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Through a series of interviews, ECF introduces cultural policy researchers and activists from across the region who are working on developing and influencing cultural policy development in their countries (from Algeria and Egypt to Palestine and Lebanon). Some of their analysis and research contributes to the World CP – International Cultural Policy Database – which, since its launch in 2015 by the International Federation of Arts Councils and Culture Agencies (IFACCA), is growing as an important monitoring tool of country-specific cultural policy reviews from around the world.

We talk to Hussam Al-Saray, Member of the National Task Force for Cultural Policy, Iraq - a key cultural player in the MENA region and contributor to the World CP - about his work, ambitions, challenges and vision for the future of cultural policy in his country.

Hussam Alsaray Photo ©Ahmad Mahmoud

Hussam Alsaray Photo ©Ahmad Mahmoud

Since Baghdad’s group is new to the Arab Cultural Policy Taskforce, its message is to paint a different picture of the city, which breaks the common stereotypes brought about by the media, namely the stereotype of an unstable city in a turmoiled country. Our taskforce strives to present an aspect of life in Baghdad and make it known, first to our colleagues in other Arab taskforces, and then internationally, using different media, including social media.

Hussam Al-Saray is an Iraqi poet whose name started to become known in 2003. His collection of poems, Only Dirt Laughs was published by al-Farabi in Beirut in 2009. He recently finished another poetry book. He published poems in several Iraqi and Arab newspapers, including Akhbar Aladab (Egypt), Al Ettihad (UAE), Annahar, Assafir, and Al Ghawoun (Lebanon). He co-founded the Iraqi Poetry House and presided over its administrative committee in its second cycle (2013-2016). Al-Saray is also editor-in-chief of the House’s quarterly magazine Bayt. In 2015, he was chosen General Coordinator of the Iraq Cultural Policy Taskforce. His poems were translated into English, Italian, and Polish. His poem "Nation with a Grey Shadow" was chosen best poem in the 2009 Castillo Di Duino competition in Italy.

How would you summarise the message of your national task force?

The message of the task force is built to respond to the needs of the current cultural situation in Iraq, namely the need for new mechanisms of production, marketing, and public presence. Therefore, the first item on the message is to create a new relationship with the audience in ways which target new segments unrelated to conventional salons, which form elitist closed circles that are comfortable with that. Another aspect of our message is to explain the concept of cultural policies as a foundation of practices which express the country’s cultural needs and examine further the relationship between culture and society.

The task force in Baghdad is part of a wider Arab group that has representatives of other Arab capitals from east to west, except Gulf countries. Since Baghdad’s group is new to the Arab Cultural Policy Taskforce, its message is to paint a different picture of the city, which breaks the common stereotypes brought about by the media, namely the stereotype of an unstable city in a turmoiled country. Our task force strives to present an aspect of life in Baghdad and make it known, first to our colleagues in other Arab taskforces, and then internationally, using different media, including social media.

Is your activity limited to certain cities, such as Baghdad? Or does it work in several cities? Why so?

The task force was launched in 2015 with panel discussions in multiple cities, including Baghdad, Maysan, and Sulaymaniyah. This introduced the task force across Iraq: in the centre (Baghdad), the south (Maysan), and Iraqi Kurdistan (Sulaymaniyah). In 2016, the task force’s activities were limited to Baghdad, because we want to start building from the centre, by announcing our approach to cultural management, and communication and interaction with the audience. After we have made our presence in Baghdad with the ‘Do You Know?’ initiative, and its second phase ‘Do You Know Who Painted This?’ as well as the coming third phase; we will start being active in other Iraqi provinces, north and south. Perhaps 2017 will be the year of expansion to new Iraqi areas, to achieve the same objective, namely finding a new language of communication with audience whom event organisers do not usually target.

 (Do you know?) campaign ©The National Task Force for Cultural Policy in Iraq

 (Do you know?) campaign ©The National Task Force for Cultural Policy in Iraq

What challenges does working on cultural policies face in a country such as Iraq, which is suffering from internal wars and divisions?

The most prominent challenge is the common mood of frustration and despair, because of the general situation. Another challenge is that you don’t always meet people who understand your motivation to establish purely cultural work. Someone would ask, ‘why do you draw graffiti on the wall?’ or, ‘why are you giving this painting away for free?’ The reason is that Iraqi politicians have destroyed moral values in the country. Our problem today is widespread mistrust. For a citizen to trust you and believe you are independent without support from certain factions or political parties, you need to explain the idea clearly, and be ready to respond to the question, ‘are you associated with a party or political organisation?’ with ‘absolutely not;’ whether the question comes from a hospital director, the dean of a college, or a mall owner.

Does the government or civil society respond to your taskforce’s work?

In 2015, we organised a conference on ‘Cultural Management in Times of Crisis’. This was the first test to how responsive government and legislation bodies would be to ideas and recommendations of the conference. Some of them pertained to the management of cultural events in the countries, and some pertained to the marketing of artworks and showing them in public places, while some pertained to regulations of culture. We did not find any meaningful response. Everything representatives and officials said turned out to be empty rhetoric. The Ministry of Culture still improvises in managing cultural issues. The parliament turned a blind eye to all our recommendations to revise old cultural regulations or to consider new laws. We probably need more pressure campaigns, at least for new regulations.

The next step is to shift the moment in such a manner as to target regulations primarily. On the other hand, the response to other activities, especially the ‘Do you know?’ initiative was excellent, from both government and society. Some official entities even told us they would like to organise similar joint activities. We were not enthusiastic about that at first since these entities have more logistic and financial resources than we do and yet they never thought of creating such activities; now that the initiatives were successful, these entities want to share the credit for this success. We believe this was one of the most important cultural activities in 2016.

Many organisations and activists posted on social media that the taskforce’s use of graffiti is a true milestone in Iraqi cultural activity. Additionally, some of our initiatives became interfaces for Facebook pages, which reflects some of the positive reaction.

Are there any other groups of similar nature in your country?

There is no other group working for similar objectives. This might be due to the novelty of the concept of cultural policies in Iraq. Moreover, it’s important to acknowledge that the official control over Iraqi culture undermined the cultural sector and isolated it from society. However, we believe that with time, such initiatives will spread, especially with writers taking interest in studying cultural policies and demonstrating its importance for improving the cultural movement in form and content.

Do you collaborate with other task forces in MENA? How are your needs different from the needs of cultural actors in other places around the world?

Collaborating with other task forces is not possible now. Our interaction and communication with other MENA task forces are limited to annual meetings, where we share ideas with other Arab cultural policies’ task forces. We look forward to more collaboration after we are better established locally and have bases, on which we can build to find ways to collaborate with task forces in Lebanon and activists from Syria, due to the similarities of the situation in these two countries with the situation in Iraq. Lebanon had suffered a long, devastating civil war, and Syria is suffering one now, which made all Syrian cultural work move to exile.

Due to this peculiarity, namely working in unstable environments, our needs for planning and continuation are completely different than those of task forces in the Maghreb region.

What are the most important relationships and partnerships you have built with Europe? What effects do they have on the Arab region?

We are still working on instituting the new approach to cultural policies. We need to continue working on defining the concept of cultural policies. Then we need to move towards achieving new milestones in cultural work and launching initiatives. We look forward to working with German cultural organisations which have abilities and expertise, from which Iraqi cultural actors can benefit. We hope that work will allow for reviewing the mechanisms of communication with, and support of, European embassies’ cultural centres in Baghdad. So far, the support has been limited to very few organisations and activists. We are also looking forward to obtaining resources for reading and education projects, most important of which is European public libraries, for there are no independent civil libraries in Baghdad. All libraries are linked to commercial cafes and so on.

What are the most important programmes and activities of your national task force and how can they create an impact in your country and the region? Which programmes or initiatives are the closest to you, which you are personally proud of?

We have created our own programme, called ‘Features of Cultural Rhetoric in Public Spaces’. Through this programme, we started the aforementioned ‘Do you know?’ initiative. The programme aims to reproduce the cultural question within society and revive this type of rhetoric in the street, where cultural symbols or icons are represented through graffiti, next to commercial ads, political slogans, and religious posters.

What we are proud of is what we have achieved in our programmes; namely, bringing together Iraqi intellectuals living inside Iraq and abroad side by side, engaging painters and creative people who represent the true diversity of Iraq, and presenting several representations of different art disciplines in one activity.

The second activity we are planning is organising interactive theatre performances, where people can see, and engage with, representations of the harsh reality they are living in. This is what are preparing for now. Moreover, our ‘Revising Cultural Regulations’ programme is always present in all our projects and activities.

What is the ultimate goal of your work for the future?

Our ultimate goal is to turn cultural work, made for the people, to a core element of the Iraqi cultural landscape. Repeated festivals and celebrations in the name of culture have proven to be failures. They are completely ineffective socially. Such quick events are only temporary activities with no strategic view and their audience is limited to certain social circles.

The violent political turmoil Iraqi society faced requires us to move in such a manner as to take reality into consideration, and realise the public’s disappointment and disbelief in slogans and rhetoric, which were shattered by the first war we witnessed three decades ago. To realise the dream of our movement, we have to redefine how we communicate with the audience in such a manner as to invoke important questions in their minds. This is our goal, through which we can achieve future success, and generalise the question which was strongly posed on social media, ‘will Iraqi intellectuals play their role in facing what is going on in their country?’


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