Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Iraq Day 2012

On Saturday 4 August, London's new Iraqi Cultural Centre will be hosting Iraq Day 2012: a free, eight-hour celebration of Iraqi food, music, fashion and culture on Riverside Walk on the South Bank of the Thames, right by the National Theatre. The National's website has really useful travel information.

Events begin at midday and wind down at about 8pm. It's all free (though I assume that they'll charge for food), so do drop in if you happen to be in London—or come and make a day of it if you can face the Olympic hordes. Don't be put off by the reference to "the Games" on the poster: I don't think there's any organised sport involved! More details will be posted on the Iraq Day 2012 website in due course.

The organisers are still looking for volunteers, so do email them if you'd like to help out, even if you can only offer a hour or so of your time. See you there, I hope!

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Syria's cultural heritage in peril

The British Association of Near Eastern Archaeology has launched a petition seeking protection for Syria's cultural heritage.

This morning I have signed it in my own right and on behalf of BISI. I hope you too can sign it, support it and promote it through any contacts or avenues available to you.

The petition reads:

Save Syria's Cultural Heritage

The worsening situation in Syria places thousands of archaeological sites in immediate danger of current and future looting. A full discussion of the sites affected can be found here: Cunliffe, Emma. 2012, Damage to the Soul: Syria's Cultural Heritage in Conflict. 16 May 2012. Global Heritage Fund.

The British Association of Near Eastern Archaeology (BANEA) and other interested parties call on the British Government, UNESCO and the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM) to protest to all parties to the conflict and petition for:

  1. The removal of armed encampments, troops and weaponry from archaeological sites,
  2. protection of archaeological sites and museums from looting,
  3. recovery of stolen artefacts and the prosecution of the thieves and those who benefit from the thefts.

Updates and information can be found at

I know all too well, from BISI/BSAI's experience over the last nine years, how hard it is to keep cultural heritage on the political agenda during conflict, and to persuade those in authority that it is not an irrelevant distraction but central to the future economic and social well-being of the country. I do wish everyone involved, in Syria and worldwide, the strength, safety and resources to keep advocating effectively, and hope--with everyone--for a swift resolution of the conflict so they will not have to do so for long.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Opening the Embassy

The Iraqi Embassy at 21, Queen's Gate, London used to be a decidedly sinister place, despite its chichi Kensington address. I can remember visiting the visa section at the back in early 2001, preparatory to a trip to a conference in Baghdad, and being very unnerved by the heavy security and hostile atmosphere. (In fact, it turned out to be good training for our less-than-friendly reception at the Iraqi-Jordanian border a few weeks later, despite our status as official guests.)

Indeed, when the new Iraqi government re-opened the embassy after the war, they were shocked to discover illegal arms and spying equipment hidden in the now badly decaying building. The then ambassador, Dr Salah al-Shaikhly—a former Manchester University student and anti-Baathist dissident— decided there was nothing for it but to strip it out and refurbish it completely.

At yesterday's official re-opening ceremony no traces remained of the Embassy's unsavoury past, except in the minds and memories of many Iraqis present. In the elegantly refurbished upstairs reception room, Iraq's long-serving Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari reminisced about his own time as a London student, demonstrating against the regime, and spoke optimistically about the new diplomatic ties between Britain and Iraq. UK Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt gave an equally gracious speech in reply. Chargé d'Affaires Dr Muhieddin Abdullah was as charming and welcoming a host as he had been on our last visit. Unfortunately I couldn't stay for the slap-up lunch afterwards (had an essential meeting to go to—a miraculously unrainy walk on Hampstead Heath with my former PhD student Tash, her husband Sam and brand-new baby Juliet) but it smelled fantastic. And I never did solve the mystery of the Ferrero Rocher. Another time...

In this official Iraqi government photo, BISI appears central to the action but this is just dumb luck; we happened to be standing in the right place at the right time. The Embassy was in fact packed to the rafters with diplomats, politicians and other well-connected and important people. Here you see (l-r) Baroness Emma Nicholson; BISI Council member and former UK ambassador to Iraq, the very tall Edward Chaplin; Alistair Burt; the shoulder of BISI President Dr John Curtis; an unknown man in beige; BISI Assistant Administrator Lauren Mulvee (who seems very far away but can't have been really); and Hoshyar Zebari in the act of unfurling the Iraqi flag above the front door. Our Administrator Joan MacIver is somewhere between John and Edward, and I am lurking behind the policeman.

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Anticipating Catastrophe!

The tireless driving force behind UNESCO UK's campaign for ratification of the Hague Convention is Professor Peter Stone of the University of Newcastle. In 2003 he was unexpectedly seconded to the Ministry of Defence as their special advisor on cultural heritage in Iraq (being an expert in cultural heritage but not on Iraq). Since then, he has not only led the Chilcot cultural heritage deposition and the Hague ratification campaign.

He has also co-edited, with Joanne Bajjaly, The Destruction of Cultural Heritage in Iraq (Boydell Press, 2008), which I happen to think is the best account of the multiple complexities of the Iraq war and its impact on the country's cultural heritage. In allowing each of the 28 expert contributors their own voices and opinions, rather than harmonising them into a single narrative, Stone and Bajjaly highlight the often complex relationships between themes and events presented from different national and professional standpoints.

I was delighted when BISI agreed to contribute towards the printing of the 2009 paperback edition of Destructionwhich is still available—and even more delighted when it won the Archaeological Institute of America's Wiseman Book Award for 2011.

As if that weren't enough, this month he is bringing an updated version of the Chicago Oriental Institute's excellent Catastrophe! exhibition to the Great North Museum in Newcastle. It's free, it runs from 17 July to 28 August 2012, and there will be series of four weekly lectures associated with it. The one on 14 August just happens to be by me... "Cradle of Civilisation, Navel of the World: Why Iraqi Cultural Heritage Matters". Lamia Al-Gailani, Neil Brodie and Peter himself are all slated to speak as well (on different nights). There will be more details soon, on the websites of GNM and BISI, as well as on here, of course.

If you can't get to Newcastle (and even if you can), you can download a free PDF of Geoff Emberling and Katharyn Hanson's original Catastrophe! exhibition catalogue from the Chicago Oriental Institute website. And buy Peter's book too!

Inquiring after the Hague Convention

It's not often that one's desperate for a disgraced politician not to resign. But this is what I found myself wishing for in the aftermath of Jeremy Hunt's appearance at the Leveson Inquiry on 31 May.

As Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport (you couldn't make it up: DoSAC, anybody?) Hunt has been accused of being inappropriately accommodating to James Murdoch in relation to News Corp's bid for BSkyB. But he has also been the minister most accommodating to the UNESCO UK-led lobbying for the UK government finally to ratify the Hague Convention.

As should be obvious from its name, the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict—to give it its full title—commits its signatories, should they go to war, to identify and protect movable and immovable cultural heritage, and buildings that house such objects. It was drawn up in 1954, in the aftermath of the Second World War, and has since been ratified by over a hundred countries. The UK is not one of them.

In early 2010 UNESCO UK led a consortium of UK cultural heritage bodies, including BISI, to present a written statement to the Chilcot Inquiry (yes, remember that one? It still hasn't reported). The document (409 KB PDF download) set out evidence to show that, in the words of the press release:

Despite the attempts of various cultural organisations to alert the UK Government of the importance and vulnerability of archaeological sites, monuments, museums, archives and libraries in Iraq, the identification and protection of the cultural property was not a formal part of the planning for the invasion.

Not surprisingly, the consortium also urged the government to ratify Hague as a matter of urgency.

Since then the UNESCO-led consortium has kept up the letter-writing campaign, both to goverment departments and to the media, with coverage both in the press and radio this past spring.

Hunt responded swiftly and positively to the latest round of lobbying, calling ratification "a priority" for the government, which is "committed to introducing legislation to ratify the Convention and accede to its two Protocols as soon as Parliamentary time allows, taking account of all our legislative priorities". He told us that he had already requested parliamentary time for the reading of a Cultural Property (Armed Conflicts) Bill in the 2012-13 session.

It is too early to get too excited about this promise, as we have been here before. In 2008 the Labour Government tabled a Draft Cultural Property (Armed Conflicts) Bill which didn't make it through the legislative process before the 2009 election killed it. But we hope and expect that Chilcot will also include ratification of Hague amongst its recommendations, when (later this summer?) it produces its report on lessons learned from the Iraq conflict.

Doubtless I will be writing about Hague again soon: watch this space.