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The Monument: Art, Vulgarity and Responsibility in Iraq.

Samir al-Khalil, now revealed as the pseudonym for Kanaan Makiya, the son of the leading Iraqi architect, Muhammad Makiya (see the remarkable Profile about the two in the New Yorker, Jan. 6, 1992), has written a trenchant study about a strange monument constructed in Baghdad in the late 1980s by the present Bath regime. Two huge forearms, enlarged casts of President Saddam Hussein's very arms with every bump and follicle shown, burst out of the earth opposite each other holding crossed scimitars, on top of which is a disproportionately small Iraqi flag. This is at one end of a 100-meter esplanade and parade ground; at the other end are two more identical arms, each larger than the Arc de Triomphe. All this is supposed to memorialize Iraq's "victory" over Iran in the recent war. The sculptor was the late Iraqi artist Khalid al-Rahal, although Mr. al-Khalil tells us that according "to a reliable source," President Hussein himself was the originator of the idea. So huge was the project, that the arms of this triumphant "Victory Arch" could be cast only in Basingstoke, England, at the world's largest foundry.

Mr. al-Khalil/Makiya is the "Iraqi oppositionist" who wrote Republic of Fear, about the tyrannical nature of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq, so one might expect The Monument to be a partisan view of Bath Iraq. It is that indeed, but it is much more. The author has given us his reflections, one could say meditations, on the nature of architecture, art and politics in general and on Iraq in particular. He has also added his understanding of how present-day Iraq has used its architectural tradition, both pre-Islamic and Islamic. He shows how Hussein has utterly transformed Baghdad and how the traditional city of the early 20th century is no more; it has been replaced by megalomaniacal monuments and sterile housing, paid for by oil revenues. Al-Khalil analyzes the way in which Iraq's heritage has been appropriated for political purposes and finally debased. Turath (heritage) as vulgarity and kitsch is the final result of the totalizing sovereignty of the Bath regime, as pseudo-Assyrian, fake Babylonian, cheap Islamizing monuments are strewn over the Iraqi landscape. The culmination of all this is the Monument, symbolizing the demise of art, the rule of vulgarity and the moral breakdown of public culture. Even more sharply, al-Khalil argues that the essential insatiability of the tyrant is a reflection of the hunger of pan-Arabism for an illusory wholeness, an extension of his argument that will be challenged by many.

In addition to the overthrow of the regime, al-Khalil calls for a Pop irony (a la Warhol) that will look critically upon all this Iraqi Hollywoodesque architecture and unclog the Iraqi soul from its obsession with itself and its turath. This irony (a word al-Khalil does not find in Arabic) is necessary because our author suggests that Iraqi society has been complicit in this deformation of the artistic past by its assent to the Bath dictatorship. However, recent revolts in the Kurdish north and the Shiite south give evidence that Iraqi opposition to the regime is strong and Iraqi society not as complacent as al-Khalil contends. Nonetheless, this book, despite its occasional over-intellectualizing, is a valuable, perhaps unique, contribution to the study of contemporary art and its uses and abuses in Iraq.
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Author:Paz, Francis X.
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1993
Previous Article:Arabische Handschriften, Teil II.
Next Article:Die Blutezeit der arabischen Wissenschaft.

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