Magnetic Memories: How To Mend That Which Has Been Ruptured?
By Reman Sadani
BAGHDAD 2003 – Filmmaker Abbas Fahdel arrives at the Baghdad Cinema Studios. The rainsacking of government institutions has just taken place. He is accompanied by Sami Qaftan, an established actor in his sixties. They invite us – the viewers – to contemplate the burned state buildings in the surroundings, only to be warned by Sami that the damage on the exterior does not measure up to the damage caused inside.
Sami points to the burned down building of the Department of Film and Theatre (DFT) in the distance. He believes it was set on fire because it is operated by the Ministry of Culture. Fire and destruction are not uncommon in the history of the Department of Film and Theatre. In the nineties, Ahmed Fayadh Al Mafraji, a prominent Iraqi cultural historian and the founder of the archive centre in the DFT, allegedly took documents from the cinema archives to his home and destroyed them all.1Ala Al Mafraji, ‘Mahdi Abbas: on lack of strategies to document the cultural legacy in Iraq’ Al Mada Newspaper, 2021. https://almadapaper.net//view.php?cat=237052
In 1994, a suicide letter was found among Al Mafraji’s belongings requesting that his dead body is left where found. He did not commit suicide, but a few attributed his suicide letter and decision to destruct the paper archive to the dire conditions caused by the trade sanctions which had led Al Mafraji to withdraw from public life and sell his private collection of books. Though it is unclear whether the method of destruction was burning or shredding, all accounts confirm the loss of many documents on cultural production in Iraq that Al Mafraji had gathered over the years.2Ibrahim Khalil Al ‘Alaf. ‘Ahmed Fayadh Al Mafraji and archiving in Iraq’ in Al Hiwar Mutamadin, 2016. https://www.ahewar.org/debat/show.art.asp?aid=531849
To understand the sentiment that the Iraqi discourse on archives got stuck in, I want to return to the scene in Abbas Fahdel’s documentary Homeland: Iraq Year Zero (2015). As Sami enters the dark Baghdad Cinema Studios, he stumbles upon a hat pierced by a bullet. He smiles and clarifies that “it is not a Coalition Forces’ bullet. It’s [from] the revolution of 1920 [against the British].” The prop comes from Mohammed Shukri Jamil’s film Al Mas’ala Al Kubra (Clash of Loyalties, 1983), in which Sami plays the role of Suliman, an Iraqi patriot who leads the assassination of Colonel Leachman.
Sami walks away with the hat, and guides us into other departments. He undusts a flatbed and turns the levers to revive the worn out machine. He unreels a film, suspecting it to be Ta’er El Shams (The Sun Bird, 1991), a film about an Iraqi pilot’s attempt to return home after being captured by Iranian forces during the Iraq-Iran war (1980-1988). After inspecting a few film frames, Sami brings the reel close to his chest, repeating ‘ma’ al asaf’ (it’s unfortunate).
However, the filmmaker is not satisfied. He does not allow us distance and decides to redemonstrate what we had just witnessed, recreating the previous shot once more. Another shot is introduced. The camera shows Sami shaking tangled reels of film as if they were a dead body he wants to bring back to life. He addresses someone off camera asking: “is this Iraqi cinema? Is this where it ends up?” The dramaturgy of this shot captures the 2003 moment. It expresses a tragedy and a sense of helplessness in the face of what unfolded following the US-led invasion of Iraq. It evokes a familiar poetic image of al wuquf ’ala al atlal (standing at the ruins), which the filmmaker repetitively tries to capture as if he is seized by a perpetual lament. This offers a glimpse into the way in which the Iraqi discourse on archives fixated on a sentiment of loss since 2003, whereby one stands at the ruins with nothing but recollections.
A discourse of loss however is insufficient to explain the ongoing failings of Iraqi public institutions to devise a strategy for archiving audiovisual material and offering the public access to them. While some of the audiovisual archives were completely damaged in 2003, others were removed from public institutions during lootings or self-initiated rescue operations. According to Ali Al-Shalah, member of the Board of Trustees of the Iraqi Media Network, looters targeted the archives of the State Radio and Television building, the Department of Cinema and Theatre, and army and state newspapers like Al-Thawra and Al-Jumhuriya.3Mustafa Sa’doun, ‘Stolen Iraqi Memory’ in Al Arabi Al Jadeed, 2019. https://www.alaraby.co.uk/ذاكرة-العراق-المنهوبةآمال-مفقودة-لاستعادة-أرشيف-الإذاعة-والتلفزيون What remains unclear is what audiovisual material has been returned to public institutions since 2003, what remains displaced and what is currently held in each institution. While researching the lootings, I came across only one committee that was formed in 2003 to investigate the theft of the Radio and Television archives, yet their findings were never published.4Mustafa Sa’doun, ‘Stolen Iraqi Memory’.
The interviewees of this text include Mahdi Abbas, a film historian and VHS collectors like Ali Sadik and Marwan Ali. They unanimously use the term ba’thara (dispersal) to describe what characterises Iraqi audiovisual archives today – a condition of separating and moving apart at different intervals across a wide space without order or regularity. It particularly describes the predicament of institutional audiovisual archives, and points beyond the mayhem of 2003 to an ongoing institutional failure to retrieve, maintain and give the public access to the contents of the archive.5Ala Al Mafraji, ‘Mahdi Abbas: on lack of strategies to document the cultural legacy in Iraq’. It is worth noting that a few private collectors have emerged since 2003. They allegedly have original archival material relating to film, television and performing arts yet the provenance of the material is unknown, raising speculations about the collectors’ connection to what was displaced from public institutions in 2003. Besides the often unknown circumstances under which the collectors acquire this audiovisual material, what we have here is also an issue of privatisation where the archive has become a commodity. In this way the archive is cut out of circulation and is subjected to deterioration due to unsuitable storage practices in private collections.
Nonetheless fragments of Iraqi audiovisual material dating to pre-2003 have surfaced over the years in cyberspace, circulating across social media platforms and communication apps. The digital clips range between excerpts and complete material of film, television and performing arts such as music, dance and theatre plays. For the purposes of this text I am mostly interested in the YouTube channels of individuals such as Ali Sadik, Marwan Ali, Dureid Abdulwahab among others who regularly publish content they refer to as ‘archival’ from their own private collections of VHS tapes.
While satellite dishes were completely banned under Saddam Hussein’s rule (1979-2003), the state owned four channels. To fulfil daily programming demands, state media relied heavily on local productions, such as films, drama, theatre plays, music and shows. Saddam Hussein saw the media as one of the revolutionary democratic means for “enlightening, informing the people and acting as a surveillant.”6Saddam Hussein, Democracy is a Comprehensive View of Life, Republic of Iraq
Documentary Series No. 61, 1977, p. 8. Yet just like his modern predecessors, Saddam inherited the difficult task of creating a unified sense of national identity, and concealing the inorganic succession of power by staging a sense of historical continuity. Saddam’s Project for the Rewriting of History came to present a vision of national identity and local heritage as a fusion of pan-Arabism and Iraqi nationalism which derives its glory from the country’s Mesopotamian history – a glorious past that most Iraqis would relate to regardless of ethnicity or religion.7Negar Azimi, ‘Saddam Hussein And The State As Sculpture’ in On Democracy By Saddam Hussein (ed. Paul Chan) 2012, p.97. Cultural production and history writing were therefore deployed “to create a new and convincing vernacular” for a heterogeneous community.8Negar Azimi, ‘Saddam Hussein And The State As Sculpture’, p.96.
In Al That Al Jareeha (Wounded Essence), Selim Matar writes that Iraqi national identity has been ‘brittle’ throughout the modern history of Iraq due to the way in which national history got divided by successive regimes into several periods with no coherent links, which ultimately excluded many sects and ethnicities in society.9Selim Matar, Al That Al Jareeha: Ishkalat Al Hawiyya Fi Al ‘Iraq Wa Al ‘Alam Al ‘Arabi (Wounded Essence: Problems of Identity in Iraq and the Arab World), 1997, p.127-128. Matar expresses that while Iraqis may share similar habits and practices in their day to day life, they lack a common historical affiliation.10Selim Matar, Al That Al Jareeha, p.363. He cautions that as the community struggles continuously to access their spiritual and material heritage due to ruptures, erasures, displacements, their heritage becomes stranger, more mysterious and more sacred.11Selim Matar, Al That Al Jareeha, p.284
One of the last televised coverages in 2003 was a program titled Ma’arekat Al Hawassim (The Decisive Battle) documenting the efforts of Iraqi forces to combat the US-led invasion. Shortly after, television broadcast blacked out completely during the fall of the government, resuming a few months later with a four hour program consisting of daily reports on life after the fall, local songs and news headlines authored by US officials.12‘Iraqi TV Resumes With A trial Broadcast Under American Supervision’ in Al Jazeera, 15 March 2002. https://www.aljazeera.net/culture/2003/5/15/التلفزيون-العراقي-يستأنف-بثه As the trade sanctions were lifted, satellite dishes found their way into Iraqi households giving people access to regional and international content for the first time ever. While official archives were displaced from institutions and the main source for the dissemination of Iraqi cultural production (i.e. state television) stopped, Iraqis were cut off from the pre-2003 era. This created a gap between the past and the present, challenging Iraqis’ ability to position themselves in time or in relation to a memory that guarantees continuity between the past and the future.13To articulate the rupture that the Iraqi community experienced in 2003, I paraphrase a line from André Habib, Survivances du Voyage en Italie, p. 74, cited by Ghadda Al Sayygh in ‘‘An Ba’dh Al Mafaheem Al Taqwfiqiyah’ in Kalamon, 2011. http://www.kalamonreview.org/articles-details-112#axzz7ot4bQhug. This tremor in historical continuity disrupted the transmission of knowledge and experience.
In 2016, Ali Sadik Al Amily uploaded an episode of the show Al Layla Layltak (Tonight is Yours 2000) onto YouTube. He originally taped it for a relative who features in the show. Following the success of the first post, Ali published most of his own collection of VHS tapes which mainly consisted of pre-2003 television shows and music videos as well as commercial home releases of Iraqi films and cartoons. He quickly became a community manager of a popular social media page called ‘Ali Sadik Archive.’ To meet growing public demand, Ali now buys what’s referred to as sharwa – big batches of VHS tapes from flea markets. The tapes mostly come from Iraqi households and are sold by a network of secondhand dealers in Al Maydan, Bab Al Sharji, Souq Mraidi and Souq Al Haraj in Baghdad. When talking to Ali’s partner however she complained to me that along with tapes come dead cockroaches due to poor storage conditions. Hearing this Ali shrugged and described instead the extreme joy he feels when he can extract four to five usable clips from a batch of hundreds of tapes. He is amazed that these tapes survived the extreme climate of the country when many are past their lifespan expectancy.
Ali believes that the establishment of Al Shabab TV (Youth TV) in 1993, which was a TV station owned by Uday Saddam Hussein, prompted households to tape more often due to the variety of its programming. When Iraqis had no access to any international productions as a result of the trade sanctions (1990-2003), Al Shabab TV served as a source of entertainment. Although reasons for taping vary, I am particularly amused by the thought that much of the Iraqi television content surfacing online was taped for leisure, to be consumed outside of official broadcasting hours and when free from commitments such as work. At the same time, a few of the tapes point to the labour of women. Marwan Ali, a VHS collector I interviewed, tells me of a few football matches he published which were recorded regularly by a woman for her partner to watch after work.
The archival content found online is incomplete. It offers fragments of what personal collectors allowed access to so far. A title song of a show could be uploaded but not the full episode, and if a few full episodes were to be found, their chronology may not be discernible. Being a big fan of the musician Ismael Al Farwachi, Ali tells me that he always dreamt of finding Ismael’s music video Shma’na Enti? (Why You? 1994). Three minutes and seventeen seconds were all he could find in 2019 and it was not until 2022 that he managed to find the full clip. The two versions of Shma’na Enti? are published on Ali’s channel pointing to different stages of him gathering content. In fact the clips had been recorded from two different sources. The short clip is a clean copy while the complete one has the logo of Al Shabab TV and on-screen messages from those who requested the song including the names of the people they dedicate it to.
In The Withdrawal of Tradition Past a Surpassing Disaster Jalal Toufic applies a quantum theory of time to propose that we live in “a block universe of spacetime, where nothing physically passes and vanishes, but where occasionally things [i.e. tradition] withdraw[s] due to surpassing disasters.”14Jalal Toufic, The Withdrawal of Tradition Past a Surpassing Disaster 2009, p.73. In a surpassing disaster, certain texts, moving images, musical works, paintings, buildings as well as “the holiness/specialness of certain spaces” withdraw immaterially despite surviving collateral damage.15Jalal Toufic, The Withdrawal of Tradition, p.11. In response, individuals may engage in detecting the withdrawal, resurrecting what became withdrawn or abolishing tradition altogether if they cannot resurrect a thing.16Jalal Toufic in an Ashkal Alwan seminar blurb, 2014 https://ashkalalwan.org/program.php?category=4&id=226 However, nothing can guarantee the origin of what is resurrected. And this uncertainty invites us to contend with ‘the double’ which “insinuates a distance between the one or the thing that has been resurrected and himself/herself/itself.”17Jalal Toufic, The Withdrawal of Tradition, p.30. In the case of Iraqi VHS collections, these magnetic memories are literally ‘the double’ of an original archive stuck at a conjuncture of loss, institutional enclosure and privatisation. This ‘double’ emerges from personal collections bearing glitches, faded hues and receding details that mark passages of time, revealing an informal archival resource that had been created in parallel to the institutional one.
The 2003-moment in Iraq which saw the collapse of the Baath party, an invasion and a rushed attempt to form a new government amid a hasty process of de-Baathification, resulted in a rupture in which the transmission of knowledge and experience was disrupted, widening the gap between ‘pre’ and ‘post’ 2003 Iraq. I believe that the ongoing institutional negligence of audiovisual archives in Iraq induces their immaterial withdrawal. It indicates that the authority is unable to integrate, into the present, what survived from pre-2003. For example, in 2020 the US returned to Iraq Baath paper archives which included personnel files of party members and citizen reports, which were originally removed by Coalition Forces in 2005.18Michael R. Gordon, ‘Baath Party Archives Return to Iraq, With the Secrets They Contain’, in The Wall Street Journal 2020. https://www.wsj.com/articles/baath-party-archives-return-to-iraq-with-the-secrets-they-contain-11598907600 Despite hopes for the paper archives to serve as a ‘historical resource’ for reconciling societal divisions, it was received by several Iraqis as a ‘reckless’ move.19Kanan Makiya in ‘Baath Party Archive Return to Iraq’. As such, government officials decided to store the documents in a secret location due to doubts over the country’s readiness to face its past especially when national reconciliation is yet to take place.20‘Return of Baath Paper Archives Triggers Old Wounds’ in Rudaw 2020. https://www.rudawarabia.net/arabic/middleeast/iraq/110920202
I am unsure where else to go with Jalal Toufic’s conception of The Withdrawal of Tradition, but I find myself returning to the potentialities of ‘the double’, and particularly to what Jalal articulates as a ‘distance’ between the resurrected thing and its essence. In a presentation of The Withdrawal of Tradition, Walid Sadik draws attention to the Arabic term ‘esti’naf’ (to start again) directly followed by the question: ‘how do you mend that which has been ruptured?’ Walid does not give a definitive answer but implicitly proposes a practice of “convers[ing] over the gap.”21‘Walid Sadek representing Jalal Toufic’ Lecture presented at Festival International de Film et Vidéo de Création. Beirut, 5 March 2006’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tKpmHB9Taig
A few instances of conversing over the gap can be seen in Ali Sadik’s Youtube channel. In the comments on a recently published music video titled Mahad Hichalak (Nobody Told You, 1994) by Khalid Al-Iraqi, an audience member thanks Ali for the video describing it as a ‘beautiful memory,’ while someone else points out the physique of the musician, stating that most youth were thin in the nineties due to the conditions of the sanctions. Another person recalls that the leather jacket, which the musician wears, was expensive at the time. Someone else lists other songs by the musician and drops Ali a request to find them. Two other people speculate about the video’s production date, concluding that it should have been 1994. The interactive nature of social media invites audiences to exchange personal and collective memories, providing valuable insights into viewership habits and the affective quality of archival material.
Unavoidably, there is a complex sense of nostalgia that surrounds these archival clips.22I use the notion of ‘nostalgia’ here to refer to ‘a yearning for a different time’ as understood by Svetlana Boym in The Future of Nostalgia, 2001. During the interviews, Marwan Ali and Ali Sadik both describe to me that their fascination with Iraqi music was the impetus to collect more VHS tapes, with Ali expressing how a song could take him back to a childhood memory that reduces him to tears. A documentary film titled Al Bo’d Al Rabi’ (The Fourth Dimension d. Victor Haddad, 1983) that depicts everyday life in the eighties receives touching comments on Ali’s YouTube channel. Audiences describe an irretrievable time and a sense of disbelief over the deterioration of the country. A few people reflect on their present, drawing comparisons along changes in architecture, mobility, cultural production and economic growth, pointing to the failures of the current Iraqi government. Others express Baathist sentiments while the rest point to aborted dreams and possibilities due to the leadership of the Baath. In the case of other clips, differing political views quickly escalate into conflict, which Ali Sadik and Marwan Ali curb by turning comments off or steering away from political content altogether.
Ali Sadik’s creative contributions are another instance of conversing over the gap. Among the published archival content on his channel, you find original covers of classic Iraqi songs performed by Ali himself on an acoustic guitar.23See Ma Nsaitak 2022, Yali Rihti (2022), Droub El Safar (2018). In another example, Ali edits together found material to create a music video for Ra’ed George’s song Law ‘Endi Hadh Wyak (If I were lucky), to which audience members respond by recounting the original music video.
It is rather exciting to witness how viewership can stimulate a conversation across the gap where the archival comes in contact with the personal. I would like to borrow from John Akomfrah to articulate what is unfolding here. “One begins to understand that embracing the archival is not so much about finding the past or somebody else’s past, but instead the beginnings of self or the beginnings of one’s own claim on that past.”24John Akomfrah, ‘Memory and the Morphologies of Difference’ in Politics of Memory: Documentary and Archive (ed. Marco Scontine and Elisabetta Galasso) 2017, p..29. Akomfrah expands the idea to suggest that in invoking memory, the archival opens a passage through which individuals come in dialogue with their culture to find themselves.
As to the sustainability of VHS collections, there are a few infrastructural challenges at hand. Secondhand dealers are demanding higher prices for tapes due to growing demand, while collectors struggle to provide the necessary storage conditions. Technology tends to be a challenge too since the taped content is processed using old devices which are no longer in circulation and are difficult to maintain. On the other hand, collectors have started to explore other dissemination possibilities like selling to private television stations such as Dijla Zaman, as their dependency on social media makes them vulnerable to hacking as well as intellectual property and copyright issues. Yet, in the vast and hidden infrastructure of the television channel, collectors are no longer credited for their work. The channel only publishes what is clean, complete, and does not run the risk of aggravating the status quo.
Lastly, it is important to acknowledge that while television archives extracted from VHS tapes are wonderful windows into cultural productions in Iraq, they point to what had been excluded from production or distribution in the first place. However, I conclude this text freed from the urgency to work against the forces of loss and dispersal, having accepted them as inherent conditions to archives as well as the Iraqi community’s complex relation to the past. When Iraqi national history is fragmented and historical affiliations are divergent, official archives serve as only one possibility toward accessing the past, sparing us from waiting for the institution to maintain the archive or create it in the first place. Just like the VHS collectors, I shift my attention to personal collections and alternative claims on the past. Yet I recommend more efforts to be invested in exhibiting archival content in offline spaces to facilitate communal revisions of the past. I hope to explore this strand further in future research. In addition, I hope to locate the labour of women in processes of generating, collecting and preserving personal and institutional archives.
I wish to express my gratitude to Ali Sadik Al Amily, Marwan Ali, Isra Al Kassi, Maysam Saadi, Mounir Salah, Ammar Arradi, Mahdi Abbas, Nour El Safoury, Mowaffaq Safadi, Iskandar Abdallah, Ziad Turkey, Hassan Blasim and Yasir Kareem for their insightful interviews and suggestions.
Reman Sadani is a moving image artist, creative producer and researcher based in London. She is the recipient of the 2020 JFVU Film Awards. Her films have screened in London Short Film Festival (London), Pavilion (Leeds), Safar Film Festival (London), Mizna Arab Film Festival (Minneapolis), Open City Documentary (London), Aesthetica Short Film Festival (York), Arab Women Film Festival (Rio de Janeiro), MoMa Modern Mondays (New York), Jerwood FVU Film Awards (London).
Magnetic Memories: How To Mend That Which Has Been Ruptured? by Reman Sadani is also accessible as PDF. Click below to download.
- 1Ala Al Mafraji, ‘Mahdi Abbas: on lack of strategies to document the cultural legacy in Iraq’ Al Mada Newspaper, 2021. https://almadapaper.net//view.php?cat=237052
- 2Ibrahim Khalil Al ‘Alaf. ‘Ahmed Fayadh Al Mafraji and archiving in Iraq’ in Al Hiwar Mutamadin, 2016. https://www.ahewar.org/debat/show.art.asp?aid=531849
- 3Mustafa Sa’doun, ‘Stolen Iraqi Memory’ in Al Arabi Al Jadeed, 2019. https://www.alaraby.co.uk/ذاكرة-العراق-المنهوبةآمال-مفقودة-لاستعادة-أرشيف-الإذاعة-والتلفزيون
- 4Mustafa Sa’doun, ‘Stolen Iraqi Memory’.
- 5Ala Al Mafraji, ‘Mahdi Abbas: on lack of strategies to document the cultural legacy in Iraq’.
- 6Saddam Hussein, Democracy is a Comprehensive View of Life, Republic of Iraq
Documentary Series No. 61, 1977, p. 8.
- 7Negar Azimi, ‘Saddam Hussein And The State As Sculpture’ in On Democracy By Saddam Hussein (ed. Paul Chan) 2012, p.97.
- 8Negar Azimi, ‘Saddam Hussein And The State As Sculpture’, p.96.
- 9Selim Matar, Al That Al Jareeha: Ishkalat Al Hawiyya Fi Al ‘Iraq Wa Al ‘Alam Al ‘Arabi (Wounded Essence: Problems of Identity in Iraq and the Arab World), 1997, p.127-128.
- 10Selim Matar, Al That Al Jareeha, p.363.
- 11Selim Matar, Al That Al Jareeha, p.284
- 12‘Iraqi TV Resumes With A trial Broadcast Under American Supervision’ in Al Jazeera, 15 March 2002. https://www.aljazeera.net/culture/2003/5/15/التلفزيون-العراقي-يستأنف-بثه
- 13To articulate the rupture that the Iraqi community experienced in 2003, I paraphrase a line from André Habib, Survivances du Voyage en Italie, p. 74, cited by Ghadda Al Sayygh in ‘‘An Ba’dh Al Mafaheem Al Taqwfiqiyah’ in Kalamon, 2011. http://www.kalamonreview.org/articles-details-112#axzz7ot4bQhug.
- 14Jalal Toufic, The Withdrawal of Tradition Past a Surpassing Disaster 2009, p.73.
- 15Jalal Toufic, The Withdrawal of Tradition, p.11.
- 16Jalal Toufic in an Ashkal Alwan seminar blurb, 2014 https://ashkalalwan.org/program.php?category=4&id=226
- 17Jalal Toufic, The Withdrawal of Tradition, p.30.
- 18Michael R. Gordon, ‘Baath Party Archives Return to Iraq, With the Secrets They Contain’, in The Wall Street Journal 2020. https://www.wsj.com/articles/baath-party-archives-return-to-iraq-with-the-secrets-they-contain-11598907600
- 19Kanan Makiya in ‘Baath Party Archive Return to Iraq’.
- 20‘Return of Baath Paper Archives Triggers Old Wounds’ in Rudaw 2020. https://www.rudawarabia.net/arabic/middleeast/iraq/110920202
- 21‘Walid Sadek representing Jalal Toufic’ Lecture presented at Festival International de Film et Vidéo de Création. Beirut, 5 March 2006’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tKpmHB9Taig
- 22I use the notion of ‘nostalgia’ here to refer to ‘a yearning for a different time’ as understood by Svetlana Boym in The Future of Nostalgia, 2001.
- 24John Akomfrah, ‘Memory and the Morphologies of Difference’ in Politics of Memory: Documentary and Archive (ed. Marco Scontine and Elisabetta Galasso) 2017, p..29.