Friday 18 January 2013

Embassy meeting: old friends, new collaborations

On Wednesday I ventured into the freezing fog for a visit to the Iraqi Embassy in London, to discuss co-operation with a group of official visitors from Baghdad. The meeting had been arranged by the Embassy rather hastily last week, and we weren't quite sure what to expect, or what would be expected of us. But miraculously I had the day free, and Lauren was also able to persuade Edward Chaplin and John Curtis to attend, so at least I knew we'd got a crack team assembled who could deal with whatever came our way.

Edward and I emerged from the tube at South Ken into glorious icy sunshine, which picked out the slate blue stripes of the Natural History Museum to gorgeous effect. After the zero-visibility white-out train journey from Cambridge this was an auspicious start to the morning, and my confidence grew further when I realised that we would be perfectly on time, despite the inevitable weather-induced travel delays (and the potential effect of the helicopter crash that morning).

Even better, the Baghdad delegation turned out to be led by the delightful and indomitable Dr Saad Eskander, Director of the Iraq National Library and Archive (INLA) and a long-standing friend to BISI. I had seen his name on the delegates list, of course, but it soon became clear that he was the driving force behind our meeting (as behind so many good ventures). He is now also attached to the Prime Minister's Office, which gives him a great deal of authority and scope for initiative.

l-r: Lauren, Dr Saad, Edward, Dr Ibtisad, me, Mr Mohammed, John, and Chargé d'Affaires Dr Muhieddin. Note the chic gold sofas. No Ferrero Rocher this time though, just tea and very nice biscuits which we were too polite to eat.

Accompanying him were Mr Mohammed Jabber of the Ministry of Justice and Dr Ibtisam Ali of the General Secretariat for the Council of Ministers. I had not met her before but she had clearly done her homework on us and, we discovered, had already been working to help BISI-sponsored Ur Region Archaeology Project (URAP) get their excavation permit to start digging next month. So naturally I was predisposed to like her too, and indeed she turned out to be highly engaged and helpful. As far as I can tell, she and Saad seem to have roles rather like ministerial special advisors, which enables them to subvert the often slow and obstructive civil service bureaucracy.

As the public relations officer made the formal introductions—Miss Lauren Mulvee, one of BISI's administrators; Mr Edward Chaplin, BISI Council Member and former ambassador to Iraq; Dr John Curtis, President of BISI and former Keeper of Middle East collections at the British Museum—it was very disconcerting to hear, "And Dr Eleanor, of course, who needs no introduction at all!" Apparently I am particularly famous for donning an abaya to go to Kerbala last autumn, as well as for my Babylonian school activities in the Iraqi Cultural Centre!

I had prepared a short briefing on BISI's work, highlighting current and planned activities in Iraq that we (have) sponsor(ed)—URAP; Sound of Iraq, which has trained sound technicians for INLA to create a national sound archive, the Al-Kafeel Holy Shrines museum project, etc.—but I'm not sure I told them anything they didn't know already. Saad and Ibtisad were particularly keen to know if there was anything in particular they could help us with in Baghdad. As it happens, there are a few new initiatives we're trying to get off the ground at the moment, so I could give some very concrete responses. (I won't say more here just yet... you'll have to wait and see!) I'm also hoping to be back in Iraq for a week or so in early April, so there will also be good opportunities to follow up these discussions in Baghdad.

Saad's current projects are many, various, and impressive. Apart from Sound of Iraq, he has initiated an Iraqi national film archive; plans to open European-language sections of INLA; is systematically acquiring originals or copies of Iraq-related archives from other countries, especially the UK and US; has got government funding for a permanent archive and exhibition commemorating the atrocities of the dictatorship, so that victims' voices can be heard as well as the victimisers'; and is writing a book on the history of censorship in Iraq. All that and he's coming back to London in September to speak at our Gertrude Bell conference.

So now I need to get a move on and finalise my April travel arrangements. The pretext is another conference—this time on quality assurance in higher education, oh the excitement!—but it will be in beautiful Najaf and this time—out of term-time—I'll be able to stay on for a little longer than my last visit.

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