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Articles and thoughts by Peter Holslin

Q&A: Kanan Makiya

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The Iraqi exile Kanan Makiya is haunted by the Baath regime. For years, he has sought to bring them down and document their crimes.

Son of eminent Iraqi architect Mohamed Makiya, Kanan worked for the London-based firm Makiya Associates as Mohammed led a Hussein-sponsored project in the early ’80s to transform Baghdad’s winding, back-alley streets into an imperial metropolis. Disgusted with the idea, and further repulsed by the immense and vulgar monuments that reformed the city, Kanan slowly backed out of the project. He soon produced the groundbreaking “Republic of Fear: the Politics of Modern Iraq.” Published under the pseudonym Samir al-Khalil and guided by Hannah Arendt’s theories of totalitarianism and extensive research on the Baath regime, the book exposed modern Iraq’s panoptic system of state-sanctioned torture and widespread execution.

No wonder Makiya supported the American invasion of Iraq during the Gulf War and was deeply involved in the efforts of Iraqi ex-pats to help the United States overthrow Hussein in 2003.

After writing “Republic of Fear,” Makiya wrote “The Monument: Art, Vulgarity and Responsibility in Iraq.” Returning to Arendt and taking on architectural theory and even Plato, he dissected Saddam’s most frightening monument: two arches that open either side of a parade ground in Baghdad. They are casts, down to every detail, of Saddam Hussein’s arms, wielding two giant swords grafted with Iraqi weapons from the Iran-Iraq war, their blades crossing at an apex over one hundred feet in the air. Bullet-pocked Iranian helmets are set in the ground and collected in baskets slung around the arms.

Makiya currently heads the Iraq Memory Foundation, which seeks to preserve Iraq’s monuments and Saddam’s statues for historical purposes, hosts a digital database of interior Baath documents uncovered during the U.S. invasion. The foundation also collects recorded testimonies of Iraqis who lived under the regime, broadcasting edited versions on Iraqi T.V. The group intends to eventually build an archive or museum in the vein of the Holocaust Memorial Museum, perhaps at the Victory Arches site.

Here’s a short interview I did with him today, part of reporting I’m doing for a story on the past and future of Iraq’s architecture and art.

PH: Explain the origins of the Iraq Memory Foundation.

KM: It was started in the summer of 2003 in Baghdad, Iraq, and it was a continuation of a project that I had been running for nearly thirteen years at Harvard, called the Iraq Research and Documentation Project. The project only involved documents from the former Baath regime, and then we enormously expanded the number of documents we managed to get a hold of and work on and archive. We also added history interviews, interviews with survivors of the atrocities during the Saddam era. We added another section on artifacts and paintings and works of art, generated by Iraqi artists during the Saddam era that dealt in some way or another with the cruelty of the regime.

PH: Where, and how, did you obtain these documents?

In the building that used to be known as the regional headquarters of the Baath regional command. It was like the central building of the Nazi party or something like that, in Baghdad. The building was being guarded by certain units. I went to visit. By chance conversation with the officer—he happened to be a historian, it was part of his job just guarding this building, in the summer of 2003, it was hot—he told me, quite by coincidence, he thought that in the basement they had all these documents and he had no idea what they were. I went down there. There were no lights or anything. I brought flashlights, carried away the rubble and saw a treasure trove of documents. That’s the origin of most of the important documents we got following the fall. We started classifying them and organizing them and putting them on shelves and so on.

PH: Why did you begin preserving old Baath regime artifacts?

Sort of overnight, all these posters—which I had written about in “The Monument”—most of those were starting to be torn down. We started a bit of a campaign in the governing council and amongst the public, with newspaper articles and that kind of thing, to say that these things had value and should be kept for historical purposes. The particular monument that we put a great deal of effort in was the Crossed Swords, which I wrote the book about. Eventually, it sort of temporarily belonged to the Memory Foundation to come up with ideas to what would be done with the site. And we started to put together—this took a long time, of course—over the next two, three years, proposals to transform it into a museum, perhaps equivalent of the Holocaust museum, and a starting point of an urban renewal of the central part of Baghdad, which was really run down.

PH: In a totalitarian or fascist system, the powers typically seek to destroy the old traditions and even the geographic make-up of a state, to build it anew. Do you see the current destruction–for instance, repeated attacks on the Al-Askari mosque in Samarra, revenge attacks on Sunni Mosques, and the bombing of Baghdad’s Al-Sarafiya bridge in April, which had a profound demoralizing effect on Iraqis in the area–as working in this vein?

KM: You have, essentially, an inverse version of the same thing. Different groups are each writing their own narrative, reading into the past their own interpretation of events. Sunnis looking at everything as against them, Shiites seeing everything directed against them, ending up with several totalizing narratives, all very biased. In other words, we have a war over narrative.

PH: How does that affect the work of the Memory Foundation?

It is making it very, very hard at the moment. We continue with oral history work, continue with the TV program. What we’re doing is in a certain sense ahead of its time. Iraqis are still fighting over what previous regime meant. Iraqis are not yet feeling common experience of totalitarian rule to develop a new identity, recognizing old regime. The real war is being fought now, a war over meaning and memory of previous era.

PH: How do you incorporate Islam, Kurdish, Jewish and Christian religion and culture into the Foundation’s work?

We equate peoples’ suffering with each other. So, following the airing of the interviews, we also have a one-hour program where people from different communities discuss the testimonies and we share documents that reinforce it. So suddenly Kurds see that their experience has been parallel to Arabs, and Shiites see their experience has happened to Sunnis, and Sunnis see that they, too, have seen what other people have gone through. And we don’t allow sectarian or ethnic considerations to come into the way in which we select or present these testimonies. That’s had a very powerful effect. We’re one of the few organizations that refuses to bend to the sectarian way of thinking. By the end of this summer, there will be two hundred testimonies. We are on our way to creating a living history, if you like.

PH: Does the organization make a lot of money?

Not really, no, especially not for cultural matters, efforts in making documentaries. We got a few grants, but they have all dried up now.

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Written by Peter Holslin

July 2, 2007 at 8:48 pm

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