Sunday, 28 April 2013

Nimrud, from Mound to Museum

As I mentioned in January, BISI is a project partner in an AHRC-funded research project that I'm currently working on with Ruth Horry, Jon Taylor, and Steve Tinney. It's got the possibly over-long title, "Materialities of Assyrian Knowledge Production: Object Biographies of Inscribed Artefacts from Nimrud for Museums and Mobiles" and its basic aim is this:

How do archaeological artefacts find their way into gallery cases and museum websites? How do objects found in the ground get transformed into specimens for scientific and historical study? How have the processes of making archaeological knowledge changed over the past two centuries? This project tackles those questions using objects excavated from the ancient city of Nimrud (Kalhu), capital of the Assyrian empire in the early first millennium BC.

The project aims to bring together as many as possible existing online resources on Nimrud, as well as creating substantial new interpretative content, designed and licensed for re-use by museums in mobile gallery guides. We're also hosting several related events throughout 2013.

The first of these was held yesterday at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. "Nimrud, from Mound to Museum: Making Knowledge from Archaeological Objects" brought together a range of academic experts who have been involved in this process, to give their personal stories of making knowledge from objects excavated from the city from the 1850s onwards. I have just finished putting together my live-tweets from the event on Storify to make a short summary of the five talks.

We made some great contacts for future Nimrud-related work, and collected a plethora of brilliant raw material for the Nimrud-related resources we're going to be developing on the project website over the coming months.

Thanks to everyone involved in the day: our six uniformly excellent speakers—Joan Oates, Julian Reade, Denise Ling, Kathleen Swales, Paul Collins, and Lamia Al-Gailani—and the engaged and thoughtful audience; Paul Collins (again) for organising the Ashmolean end, Lauren Mulvee for BISI, and fellow-project members Jon, Ruth and Steve.

The next Nimrud-related event we have planned is a free gallery talk I'll be giving on Wednesday 19 June 2013, 1.15-2.00 pm, at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge: "The Genies on the Stairs: who are they and how did they get here?" Not telling you now, you'll have to come along and find out!

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Meeting Gilgamesh

I'm back home in Cambridgeshire now, filling the washing machine and petting the cat. There are still more Iraq posts to come over the next few days, but meanwhile you can read about what I got up to on Monday and Tuesday this week thanks to Jane Moon, blogging about the Ur Region Archaeological Project, which she co-directs. You'll have to read her if you want to make sense of the title of this post!

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Baghdad street scenes

Sunday 7 April

Saad very kindly lent me his car and driving team to take me from INLA to the Iraq Museum and then back to the British Embassy. Here are some shots taken from the car window as we crawled through traffic.

There's surprisingly little construction in Baghdad still (outside the INLA compound), presumably because corruption and insecurity make the costs and risks too high. So the city still looks very war-torn, ten years on, but there's a huge amount of small-to-large-scale enterprise in evidence.

Note the new red double-deckers, which arrived 5 or 6 months ago. (They were quite a feature of pre-war Baghdad too.)

Lots of delicious-looking street food for sale:

A public monument (covered in heritage images), mosque and the railway terminus, all by the Iraq Museum, which is adjacent to a furniture-making quarter. (Traffic was much lighter here, so my photo isn't great.)

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Memory, identity and grassroots democracy at the Iraqi National Library and Archive

Sunday 7 April

(Updated with a few more images on 10 April)

Without memory, how can we know who we are? This is the question that drives Dr Saad Eskander, LSE-trained historian and, since 2003, Director of the Iraqi National Library and Archives.Saad talks passionately of the imperative to locate, preserve and digitise as much as possible of Iraq's documentation so that history will not just remember the oppressors but also the oppressed.

But Saad does not just talk: for the past decade he has also been putting those words into action in many different ways. The books lining his elegant office were once owned by the Iraqi royal family and then passed into the hands of Saddam Hussein. The glamour of their bindings reminds me a little of King George's Library at the British Library. But conspicuous amongst them are a much tattier pile of books lying on their sides, in clear need of rebinding and conservation. These are an important national collection too but had been long neglected because they are written in Hebrew, not Arabic. It's Saad's mission to safeguard all of Iraq's written heritage, whatever its origins.

He takes me on a whistlestop tour of the departments, sleeves rolled up and coffee mug in hand. In one large office, staff are digitising microfilms of state records; in another they are scanning the personal files of those executed or exiled by the Baathists: Jews, Iranians, political dissidents, anyone thought to be a trouble-maker. The dictatorship's passion for bureaucracy at least means that the oppressed have not disappeared entirely without trace. There is at least a little comfort in that thought, and much poignancy in the forlorn photos looking up at us.

A third suite of labs and offices is devoted to the restoration and digitisation of Ottoman court records. They are horribly mouldy, so are stored in freezers before being disinfected, cleaned, flattened and dried. Then they are mounted into books of Japanese paper and scanned. There are Monarch-period documents on the drying racks too. It's this team who trained Mr Kamal's conservation lab in Kerbala.

Another office, another preservation exercise. This team is processing Mandate-period records. I pick one up from the top of the nearest pile; it is a handwritten telegraph despatch asking the reason for the imprisonment of a certain local sheikh. A detailed reply is on the next sheet down. Maps and photographs are stored in a separate office. By and large they need less conservation work.

Digitisation equipment has also just arrived for the Sound of Iraq project, which BISI has helped to fund along with the British Library. The BL have been training sound technicians to transfer vinyl and shellac records of traditional Iraqi music and poetry to digital media. However, INLA hasn't abandoned traditional media altogether; some documents are still being photographed onto film as well as being scanned.

There's a huge foundation pit within the INLA compound, which will before long become a four-storey digital library. A recently completed archive building will house the ongoing digitisation work and receive visiting researchers. But the aim is to put all of the material online too, so that it can be accessed free from anywhere in the world.

The library, which is currently full, will then expand to gradually fill the existing building. As a copyright deposit library, it has a right to a copy of every book and periodical published in Iraq. It also publishes three or four journals of its own and runs an exchange programme with institutions in other countries. The library catalogue is online, and the reading room welcomed over 20,000 visitors last year. A dedicated children's library has just been built and is currently acquiring its first stock of books (below).

All this activity, and it's not even 9am yet! Saad knows all his employees by name, because he has hired them all personally and takes a close interest in their welfare and personal development. There are two nurseries onsite, as well as a canteen. The majority of the technical staff are women (Sunni and Shi'a, Arab and Kurd) and Saad urges them to be independent, critical thinkers--at home, as well as at work. The staff themselves hold annual elections to choose departmental heads, and selected Saad's own office team from amongst themselves.

INLA also puts on cultural performances and exhibitions. Most movingly, Saad has just received a large white box in his office, which he opens once our tour is over. Inside are all the original artworks from the international anthology, Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here, put together in commemoration of the bombing of the Baghdad booksellers' market in 2007, and which has also toured as a performance and exhibition. Soon it will return to the street which inspired it, which Saad tells me is now thriving again.

Monday, 8 April 2013

Leaving Baghdad

I'm now in Baghdad airport (free wifi!) waiting for a flight to Basra. From there I'm going straight to the Ur Regional Archaeology Project's dig at Tell Khaiber (where they have a newly discovered cuneiform tablet waiting for me to decipher!) and heading home to the UK on Wednesday.

I've had a marvellous time in Baghdad, and will write soon about my visits to the Iraqi National Library and Archive (INLA) and the Iraq Museum yesterday. Upload speeds aren't fast enough here to post photo-based stuff. So for now I just want to say a heartfelt thank you to my hosts here, both personally on behalf of BISI: the British Embassy and British Council Iraq; and INLA's director, Dr Saad Eskander. All of them have gone out of their way to make my time in Baghdad both enjoyable and highly productive (not to mention safe!).

Saturday, 6 April 2013

From Green Zone to Green Zone

I left Nejef at 5.15 on Thursday morning, driving up to Baghdad with kindly engineer Dr Faris of U.Kufa. He had an appointment with the Ministry of Higher Education, I was heading to the British Embassy in the International Zone. As we drove through the lush date-palm groves on the banks of the Euphrates I felt a pang of regret that I hadn't been able to spend longer in this loveliest of Green Zones before moving on to the next.

Because my travel arrangements had been rather ad-hoc and last-minute (despite my best efforts to get everything in place before I left London, we inadvertently created a bit of a problem for the Embassy, who needed to arrange a secure pick-up for me outside the IZ. In the event, no security team was available until 1pm, so I had several hours to kill in Baghdad.

We reached the outskirts just after 7 and promptly hit one of Baghdad's legendary traffic jams. Most of the vehicles surrounding us were little white open-backed trucks, driven by men in traditional grey or beige dishdashas and black-and-white keffiyahs and laden high with lettuces, cucumbers and tomatoes. Occasionally we saw two or three cows tethered in the back instead. It soon became apparent that they were heading for one of the many wholesale markets on the edge of town. Once we had passed the last of these the traffic moved freely again. (As is my idiotic wont, I'd left my camera in the boot of the car. I'm good at this.)

During my last trip, there was always joky banter with the officer on duty; this time we were simply waved through without stopping (although some grungier cars and taxis did get searched). At one checkpoint the guard barely glanced up from the messages on his mobile phone; at another, the concrete blast barriers were adorned with a plethora of pot plants.

First stop was Dr Faris's Chevrolet garage, as his car was due for a service. Our route took us right through the city centre, past landmarks both vaguely familiar and completely new to me. We crawled past Zahra Park, caught a glimpse of the Iraq Museum (orange), and happened to cross the Tigris by Sinak Bridge, next to Al-Mansour Hotel (green) where I stayed 12 years ago. Happy to see it still standing; I wonder if it still has the same vaguely louche 70s decor inside?

My room in Al-Mansour hotel in 2001 and the view from the balcony across the Tigris. Even if the decor hasn't been upgraded, I assume that the spooky TV-spy-system-that-cannot-be-switched-off has long gone.

After a leisurely cross-cultural brunch of saj and pizza, the pick-up finally took place on the airport expressway at just after 1.30. I stepped out of the taxi (accompanied by Dr Faris's driver; his car was still in the garage) and much to my surprise was bundled into a bullet-proof vest with a great deal of urgency. In the armoured car (machine-gun on floor) I was briefed on procedure in case of direct attack while an identical car ahead of us waited until the road was clear before pulling out. It was a pretty bewildering few minutes after the super-relaxed pace of the first half of the day.

I received a very warm welcome from my British Council hosts at the Embassy: director Jim Scarth and office manager Ismail Sada. Ismail, it turns out, is from Kerbala and a good friend of my delightful translator Mr Razak (who is chatting to me in the top photo here). It had been Raz's first, trial day working for the Shrines Authority when I was there in October and I was really pleased to hear that he'd been kept on. Ismail was just off home for the weekend, and promised to ring Raz to give him my greetings.

Jim and I had formally agreed ahead of time that I would be responsible for my own transport and security outside the Embassy compound, but this needed renegotiating with the security team once I arrived. That took a while to be resolved, and much to my regret meant that I had to miss my Friday appointment with Dr Munther Malik, head of the Archaeology Department at the University of Baghdad.

My (over-large) body armour offers a different sort of protection to abaya and hijab. The latter are rather more comfortable to wear!

It was rather a surprise to be back on British territory after several days of full Iraqi immersion: Lancashire hot-pot and apple tart on the dinner menu, porridge and fry-ups available for breakfast, and even Pimms at sundown (not, to be fair, a regular event) on my first night here. I have my own secure flat or "pod", surrounded by concrete-filled Hesco bags. Direct attacks are rare now--it is mostly Shi'a gatherings and high-profile election candidates who are targeted, mostly by Iraqi Al-Qaeda--but Jim showed me where a mortar had landed not far from his office last year. We're protected by a large team of Gurkhas as well as the UK security staff. I'm enjoying UK-levels of internet access, and very interesting conversations about Iraq with a whole range of people: not only Jim but also Deputy Head of Mission Robert Deane, defence attaché Paul Baker, and many other knowledgeable and committed people.

This afternoon I've been inspecting the library of our institutional predecessor, the British School of Archaeology in Iraq, which has been in container storage here for several years, and which hasn't been used since 1990. It is kept in locked tin trunks which have let in a bit of dust but otherwise protected the books very well. I'm very grateful to Mark Forrester, Head of Corporate Services here, who arranged for the inspection, and to John Quinn and his team for locating them and giving me access.

Soon my down-time ends and tomorrow I start the next round of visits: to see BISI's good friend Dr Saad Eskander at the National Library and Archives--who has done so much to facilitate the non-Embassy aspects of my visit to Baghdad--and to colleagues at the Iraq Museum, including former BISI visiting scholar Mohammed Kasim Jwad (far right in the top photo here), whom I'm greatly looking forward to seeing again.

Cake and fun at the mathematicians' party

Wednesday 3 April, evening

It so happened that this year's cohort of graduating mathematicians were receiving their degree certificates this evening, so Dr Mansoor and his colleagues very kindly invited me along to the party.

It was an outdoor event, held in the grounds of one of Saddam's former palaces, on the banks of the Euphrates. The building is now managed by the governorate, and used for all sorts of public occasions. It was too dark to photograph the building well, and I can't find any pictures of it online, but this rather blurry Google Maps image shows its extraordinary shape, overall whiteness, and--if you zoom in further--you can just make out the two modernist gold domes on either side of the entrance.

We drove there along the riverside road, a sort of corniche lined with outdoor restaurants and brightly lit cafes, clearly the centre of Kufa's nightlife. Lots of smartly dressed young persons and their proud families were pouring out of the carpark, clutching elegant white invitation cards.

I was given a seat in the front row, next to the Dean of the Faculty, with Dr Nazera and Dr Mansoor beside me. It was the perfect place from which to observe the occasion, a mixture of student-led jollity and silliness with formal ceremony. Much wild dancing from the young men to left of the stage, lots of jokes and skits and spoof videos (from both sexes) on stage. The graduating cohort call themselves "The New Numbers" (in English) and for the more serious parts of the evening wear slim-fitting academic robes banded with green, plus large mortarboards which nevertheless perch somewhat precariously on the girls' hijab.

Particularly supportive family members are presented with roses by grateful students. The Dean makes a speech (which I'm afraid no-one much listens to). Teachers also get certificates and thank-you gifts, presented to them individually by the students. Dr Mansoor gets an especially loud cheer when he goes up to receive his. "I've got a pile of them this high now", he whispers on his return.

The governor of Nejef arrives half-way through the evening to present the awards. "He's standing for re-election", my hosts whisper, "Politicians are the same everywhere." But later they also tell me that he's done a lot of good for the city and they rather like him. He's yet another UK returnee. It seems as though our Iraqi refugee programme, resented though it sometimes was at the time, has turned out to be a significant factor in post-war capacity building.

Both Nejef and Kufa are drowning in electioneering posters, in fact, for the local elections later this month. Enormous, brightly coloured, featuring the candidates' portraits (male and female) and their candidate numbers festoon all the main streets and bridges. My hosts are much amused by one woman standing for election who is using her husband's photograph instead of her own. "Who are we actually supposed to be voting for? Why doesn't he just stand himself?". (Here's a nice report on election posters from Al-Ahram newspaper but no pix unfortunately.)

It's just as well there have been group photos taken earlier in the evening, however, as the governor's team of minders, together with the local film crews, make it impossible for us to see the actual moment of presentation. Each graduand emerges from the huddle beaming, though, clutching not only their degree certificate but also a box containing high-end smartphone.

Finally, the governor starts to cut the fancy cakes that have been the centre of my fascinated attention all evening (them and the Christmas-tree decorations). More photos, of students, families and teachers in various combinations, and then it's finally time to go home, full of cake, coca-cola and optimism for the New Numbers and the rest of their generation.

Friday, 5 April 2013

Fishy business

Wednesday 3rd April, afternoon

I first had masgouf in Baghdad before the war, in a restaurant on the Tigris. Then it was barbecued outside and took almost forever—lots of grumpy jokes about how the Sumerians must have out while waiting for their fish to cook. It's a big delicacy here in the south, though in Kurdistan last May I was told that Kurds never eat it (not quite true, I've since discovered). It's really delicious, though somewhat dangerous as it always comes fully boned. (Siham says there's a saying here that you haven't eaten fish until you've bitten bone. She also says that it's not the one thing to drink water with it, though I did. It is the done thing, however, to follow up with delicious melt-in-the-mouth dates; did that too!)

So it was a real treat to go to a traditional masgouf restaurant here in Kufa, as the lunch guest of Dr Akeel Abd Yasseen. The restaurant surroundings are pretty basic, but it's the real deal, and all the cooking is done in the public courtyard. There's always food in the oven, so waiting times are minimal.

Live fish are kept in the tank and scooped out as needed. There are two wood-fueled tannours for baking the fish, and one for cooking the bread.

The fish are halved lengthways, gutted and wrapped in foil. Then they're flattened between large metal tong-like instruments and inserted into the tannour. Some people like the innards and eggs too, but they're always baked separately, with onions and tomatoes.

Bread dough is left to prove under a cloth and then expertly flipped around in mid-air to stretch it out. Then the baker slaps the dough onto the inside wall of the tannour using a cushion-like oven-proof thing (my vocabulary is failing me here!) and pulled out again once the air bubbles start to burst.

Siham's family were potters by trade, until her grandfather's time, and made tannours like these. I wonder who, if anyone, is making them now?

I explained to my hosts that I was making scientific photos of traditional craft practices; they laughingly insisted I photograph the traditional cashier too.

And then we ate it!

Next up: that evening's graduation party.