Memory of Loss and Future in the City of Sulaimânî 

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Dawn in Sâlâr Majeed’s 12 m2 Atelier:

Fazil Moradi


Based on a research trajectory lasting from 2012 to 2015, I particularly focus on the persisting memory of the Iraqi Baʿth Party, and on memory formation in the post-Baʿth city of Sulaimânî in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. In order to do so, I discuss how the Museum of Amn-e Sûrekeh, a past Baʿthi prison, is transformed into a visual home of memory, remembering rather the al-Anfâl and the chemical bombardment of Halabja. It is argued that the Museum forces the Kurdish nation to introduce itself, as memory in graphical terms, which is an intervention suggesting that human beings should have to form visual memory as a way of witnessing extermination, pain, suffering and visual memory of genocide. In a first step, I allude to memory writing in the respective constitutions of the post-Baʿth Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government, to the traces of ancient Iraq, and then travel through the shared memory of the inhabitants in the post-Baʿth Caffé 11 and in the pre-Baʿth Public Teahouse, covered by photographic imagery, trying to bridge generations. In doing so I discuss the erasure of memory in the city of Sulaimânî. I conclude with how Sâlâr Majeed, a painter and once an inmate in Amn-e Sûrekeh, speaks about the impossibility of rendering public memory of the violence under the Baʿthi order that does not leave him, and how he insists on the importance of graphic display to prevent memory loss, and to stand for responsibility and justice in an abstract and ever-evolving future.


The Preamble to the Iraqi Constitution of 2005[1] does not only introduce the “Iraqis” to a different history and memory but also evolves as another memory. It opens with the sacred formula, which as an act of memory declaration demands reiteration, “In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate”, followed by “We have honored the children of Adam.” It is then stitched as follows: “We, the people of Mesopotamia, the homeland of the apostles and prophets, resting place of the virtuous imams, cradle of civilization, crafters of writing, and home of numeration.” In the Preamble, ancient Mesopotamia becomes the original homeland of religious figures, which precedes the “cradle of civilization.” In fact, knowing that this constitution is a modern and effective form of state-nation(-state) writing, the country’s Islamic religious figures desperately used the Islamist members of the drafting committee to turn the Republic of Iraq, into the “Islamic State of Iraq.” The act of naming is also an act of memory/nation control that is at the heart of the modern state-nation(-state) identity and its political appeal.

Although the Preamble of the Constitution[2] of Kurdistan Region opens with the same Islamic sacred formula, it proceeds differently, “We, the people of Iraqi Kurdistan have been oppressed for decades by a dictatorial regime which monopolized all kinds of power. A regime that deprived us of freedom and all those natural rights God bestowed upon humans.” In this Preamble, Iraq emerges as a contested world between colonial powers that have successively denied the historical injustice against the Kurds, and their God-given rights, freedoms, and right to self-determination. The reference to Islam as the official religion is made prominent in both of these constitutions, though. However, the point is that the history of countless acts of violence in Iraq brought along countless memories, but the Islamic and the Baʿthist still remain as the most dominant memories in the country.

As a post-British/colonial promise of liberty, progress, and well-being of the “Iraqi nation”, Baʿthism did not only introduce a different collective and individual memory but also became another layer in the history and memory of violence in Iraq. The “Cradle of Civilization” is the name that still reverberates in memory of those with a sense of knowledge about the ancient history of contemporary Iraq. Moreover, the history of violence in Iraq also underlay a history of grand cultural achievements, which remains invisible in today’s everyday life in the country. All of ancient Mesopotamia remains as a selection of artifacts contained within the walls of the Iraqi National Museum. Walter Benjamin’s[3] statement that suffering is inevitably linked to cultural achievements is applicable to the ways in which Iraq as peoples and a modern “nation” and state has evolved. Since the rise of the Sumerian civilization around the fifth millennium B.C.E., the country has been subjected to consecutive acts of violence, wars and conquests. As Edwin Black puts it, “The quality of mercilessness in Iraq’s history is limitless in all its dimensions.”[4] The Sumerian civilization and culture came under the reign of the sixth Babylonian King, Hammurabi, who allegedly protected all that remained from numerous acts of violence against Sumerian civilization. In addition, he was able to introduce another memory, separating “free man” from “slave”, carved into an index-finger-like, tall stele with cuneiform script, known as the Code of Hammurabi[5] in around the second millennium B.C.E. The original Law Code is located in the Louvre Museum in Paris, France, and a replica is preserved in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, Germany, and one in the Iraqi National Museum, which survived the 2003 American and British invasion that shuttered its collection. The National “Museum has remained open since February [2009] for VIP tours and school groups.”[6] The restriction is imposed as a form of protecting the remnants of ancient Mesopotamia or the Museum from the annihilating advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) that has visually cleared the area under its control from the history and memory of ancient Mesopotamia.

 After Hammurabi’s death, Babylonia gradually came to fall under Assyrian rule where Nebuchadnezzar II made Babylon a renowned city of the ancient world.[7] Assyrians, in turn, were not immune to various conquests from Iranian Emperor Cyrus the Great in 539 B.C.E., Macedonian Emperor Alexander the Great in 331 B.C.E., the Sassanid Empire,[8] the conquest of the Arab Muslims, and the Islamic expansion. The Muslims radically transformed it into “Abode of Islam”, as they subjected its peoples to forced conversion, thus introducing a new and lasting memory that has gradually rendered obsolete both history and memory of pre-Islamic Iraq. Nonetheless, contemporary “Iraq” and “Iraqis” have also experienced the exterminatory violence of the Mongolians, Ottomans, British, and the United States, which have, in principle, contributed to memory eradication and memory writing.[9] Another exterminatory wave of violence against memory in Iraq emerges as the trace of the colonization of Iraq in 2003,[10] which manifests itself in what has come to be known as “Islamic State.” It has introduced many Iraqis, and above all Êzîdîs, to a comprehensive Islamic memory that clearly draws the line between the abode of Islam and that of the non-Islamic, i.e. “abode of war.” The so-called “Islamic State” does not censor its cleansing violence, whether it is the burning of libraries, the destruction of the museum in Mûsel, the eradication of ancient sites, or the extermination of Êzîdîs.[11] It has, therefore, come to give birth to a new visual memory of Islam and Muslims, which modern archiving media have spread worldwide. The ancient and evolving history of Iraq exudes an inseparable connection between violence and memory, i.e. memory is either imposed through violence or is an outcome of violence. In what follows, I return to the city of Sulaimânî and discuss how this connection of memory-violence-memory is manifested, and how post-violence memory is formed and produced.

Memory in “Post”-Baʿth Sulaimânî

It was in early July 2012 that I sat together with Gorân Bâbâ ʿAli at “Caffé 11” in Sulaimânî. He is a Kurdish novelist who had just returned from Amsterdam to revisit the post-Baʿth Kurdistan Region, but also to talk about his latest novel titled “The Man Who Was a Tree.” Caffé 11 had a remarkable reputation and just emerged as an enclave of autonomy for certain people, e.g. musicians, painters, novelists, photographers, journalists, political activists, public intellectuals, and college students. People, male and female, were attracted by the simple complexity of the place, as it represented a world beyond Islamic conservatism that has come to engulf the entire region since 2004. Also, it was a space of great interest for those who visited the region from other countries. Caffé 11 belonged to a young but prominent photographer, Jamâl Penjweny, who had covered the inside walls with paintings, photographs, including some of his own photographs. The place was not meant to be a site of refuge but also a challenging photographic gallery, visually narrating the violent history and the ongoing violence in Iraq. Among Jamâl’s best known photographic works is “Saddam is Here.” It displays Iraqis, female, male, shepherd, soldier, physician etc., each holding a life-size image of Saddâm Hussein’s face, which trans-forms their ordinary faces as it covers them and turns Saddâm’s facial image into a hunting memory of violence in Iraq. Another way that people at Caffé 11 narrated “Saddam is Here” was that every Iraqi desired the return of Saddâm Hussein and his reign of oppression and fear due to the ongoing destruction of culture, intellectual life, economic, political and social infrastructures, the visible geographical demarcation of Iraq, (south/Shīʿīts, central/Sunnīts and north/Kurds), and the everyday violence experienced by women, children, men, and minorities. Those I met spoke of how the post-Baʿth Kurdistan Region, which has come to stand as an island in the memory of the majority of the Kurdish population, and as a historical dream of self-determination because of historical violence, is turned into a neoliberal dream of money-making and a world of rampant consumerism. Discussions normally ended up in statement such as, “It is the age or reign of money in Kurdistan.”

Unlike Culture Café, which was located in the same street, Caffé 11 had become a rare “public” forum in the city, which in turn had transformed into a world with an unanticipated political, economic, religious, and cultural shift. Although the Kurdistan Region differs as one moves from one city to another or from one village to another, every city, district or sub-district, and every village is entrenched in memory of pain, loss, suffering, resistance, and a world of hospitality. The seminal poem, “The unknown soldier”,[12] of Abdûllâ Pashew was a recurrent memory at Caffé 11 as the discussion touched on memory of the Kurds under the Baʿthi order:


If someday a delegate comes to my land,

Asks me:

“Where is the grave of the unknown soldier here?”

I will answer:


On the bank of any streams

On the bench of any Mosque

In the shade of any home,

On the threshold of any Church,

At the mouth of any cave,

In the mountains,

          on any rock

In the gardens,

 on any tree

In my country

On span of land,

Under the cloud in the sky,

Don’t worry,

Make a slight bow,

And place your wreath of flowers.

Narrating the entire Kurdistan Region as evidence and/or a monumental testimony of violence and death, the poem commands and translates transmission: the narrator embodies memory of suffering, and as first-hand witness narrates/testifies to her/his own victimhood and, at the same time, that of the homeland, Kurdistan. The city of Sulaimânî, however, has come to be called by different names. The Prime Minister Nechirvân Bârzâni announced the city as the “Capital of Culture” of the Kurdistan Region in June 2013. But there is another name, shâry halmatou qûrbâny, “the city of struggle and sacrifice”, narrating another memory of the city, which leans on a distinctive landscape, where luminous hills connect it to other districts and villages. The names insist on two memory trajectories, one related to the cultural and intellectual life, and the other on memory of collective violence and resistance, which is also made the city’s memory. The naming of the city as a repository of culture, suffering, and resistance embedded in historical violence stands at the heart of the post-Baʿth memory formation in Sulaimânî.

The focus on Sulaimânî is particularly significant in relation to debates surrounding the question of memory in post-Baʿth Iraq, which is the city’s most intense period of transformation. Like other cities in the region, e.g. Êrbîl/Hawler and Dohûk, also Sulaimânî has been subjected to a master plan, which is the political promise of designing and constructing a highly “developed” city with a “modernist” vision. The master plan directed from above stands almost in complete contrast to the memories of the inhabitants. Intellectuals and artists who experienced the formation of the new city to be coupled with the loss of memory constantly criticized the imposed plan, but only among themselves. For many residents the city is just experiencing an increasing construction of hotels, supermarkets, shopping malls, cafés, restaurants, and mosques. The construction of the two biggest malls, Majdi Mall and Family Mall, is underway. The former is already established in Êrbîl, and the latter in both Êrbîl and Dohûk. What can be found in these malls are exclusive clothing brands, restaurants, cafés, and supermarkets. There is neither a bookstore nor liquor store. The owner of Endeshe[13] bookstore, perhaps the biggest bookstore in the region located in Mawlawi – name of a Kurdish poet- street in Sulaimânî, told me, “unfortunately our people is not as interested in reading as they are in other things.” Translated books into Sûranî Kurdish from Plato to Hanna Arendt and from Fyodor Dostoyevsky to Gabriel G. Márquez, and Iranian novelists and poets such as Forough Farokhzâd, Sohrâb Sepehri and Ahmad Shâmlou could be purchased in the bookstore, where a separate room was dedicated to novelists, poets, activists, and others to give talks and discuss different topics. I spent time with a group of students who would meet regularly at another bookstore, Ghazal Nous, discussing different novels, and in particular Kurdish literature. In fact, these students knew more about world literature than about Islam, which has engulfed the entire Iraq. Bakhtyâr ʿAli as an evolving Kurdish novelist and poet was popular among these students and had gained a prominent reputation is the city. Yet, for many young people it is rather the shopping malls that represent redemption from non-modernity. Mainstream media, politicians as well as intellectuals constantly repeated the modernization of the city as a Kurdish “civilizing mission.” In doing so, they have come to claim a memory as opposed to that of the Baʿthi order, which lingers on in the region. Furthermore, social, economic, political, and historical shift in both the region and the rest of the country are configured without any reference to pre-Islamic history and memory. What is manifest is a translation of Baʿthi state practices that proved successful, at least for a while, coupled with loss and denial of Sumerian/Babylonian/Assyrian aestheticism, art, and architectural concept. Ancient Mesopotamia is poorly contained within the walls of the Sulaimânî Museum, which is rendered almost invisible by the surrounding construction of new hotels, cafés, and restaurants. Art, too, remains outside of the public realm, i.e. what can be encountered are statues of male poets, politicians, and writers placed in different parks. In other words, art is reduced to the preservation of a memory of names of Kurdish poets and politicians. When I asked artists in Nâdy Mâmoustâyân, “Teacher’s Club”, where teachers go to drink, eat, smoke water pipe, and talk, whether they could imagine a naked male or female statue or sculpture anywhere in the city, or elsewhere in the region, they laughed at me. The clubs, including that of the engineer’s club, are sites of memory for the generation that is fading away. The number of millionaires is not clear but I could hear that there are more than two thousand, e.g. Fâruq-i Mallâ Mesafâ was a recurring name. Fâruq/Faruk had already secured a place in the public memory and memory of the city. He has completed his “Faruk Medical City”, and some people would speak of him as the owner of a newly constructed shopping mall, “City Center.” No one could tell with certainty how the millionaires have come into being, and how much of the city do they own. It was not uncommon to hear that high-ranked politicians of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) constituted the ruling elite in the city, as the party commands oil revenues and all foreign investment in the city: they buy land and build hotels, private clinics, hospitals, restaurants, and cafés and then register them under other names, just to make sure that the population does not suspect them to be corrupted politicians. There are also obvious cases, e.g. the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani is openly discussed as Dr. Barham Sâlih’s property, a high ranked member of the PUK and former prime minister of the KRG.

The erection of skyscrapers, shopping malls, hotels and gated communities, e.g. German Village and Pak City, amongst others, are imposed as the paradigmatic signs of modernization/civilization in the new city. This move forward goes hand in hand with the number of mosques that has reached more than fifty by now. From being less than half a million in the 1990s, the population is now moving towards two million. It has the atmospheric effects of tens of thousands of cars that have come to colonize every aspect of life in the city, which looks like silhouettes of a spider net. People, not only those who escaped the pervasive terror of the previous Iraqi state’s Baʿthi order but researchers, university lecturers, archaeologists, primary and secondary teachers, political advisers, journalists, NGOs, and oil and infrastructure companies from other corners of the world, were coming to make a fortune in the region. To be fair, this was considered an unprecedented historical encounter/memory. Those who could and were eligible, wrote in independent newspapers such as Âweneh and Hâwelaty, and discussed racism, gender inequality, corruption, art, and the need for new social policies. The city has undergone profound shifts. From being a Baʿthi-controlled town, it had expanded into a city with two public and three private universities and a population that encompassed people from Southeast Asia to North America. Due to the ongoing political and economic paralysis in other parts of Iraq, the Arab population of the city has further increased. Wealthy Arab Iraqis easily purchased apartments and many had founded private businesses. The city was confronted with, amongst other things, how to adjust the education system to demographic changes. This remained a concern for the Arabic-speaking population that refused to send their children to Kurdish-speaking schools. Furthermore, the city was furnished with local NGOs and individual activists, from those dealing with the rights of children to those addressing (equal) rights of women and those dedicated to the understanding of the history and memory of the Kurds in general.

Some people expressed their dissatisfaction with how some places were turned into leisure parks, which they conceived of as places of memory and, at once, of forgetting. They meant that the places that are now turned into parks should have been kept as they were: “Why would you turn a historical site into a park. Only a crazy person would do that”, a frequent visitor decried in Mother’s Park, which he wanted me to see. The park had previously been a Baʿthi prison. Forgetting and memory writing were inevitable parts of the master plan.

The city suffers from extreme climatic conditions: summer and winter are the longest seasons of the year. For this particular reason, air-conditioning has become the technique of resisting and surviving the summer heat. People usually get two to three hours of rest in the afternoon and then descend into the city in the evening. Winter is cherished by some who like the white snow that covers the mountains surrounding the city, and hated by others who dislike the cold and rain that disrupts their small businesses, e.g. female and male vendors just on the same street as Endeshe bookstore. There is also what can be called small mobile currency exchange, where one can exchange e.g. USD, Euro, Swedish krona, and Iranian tomân. This currency exchange businesses, including those who live on polishing shoes, are operated by men between 15 and 45, and are all affected by winter. In fact, none of the women and men living on street business considered post-Baʿth Kurdistan to have offered them a radically different life. A woman selling vegetables told me, “The only good thing now is that we do not need to fear Saddâm’s police (Shûrteh).” Seen from their micro and macro analysis, the transition where they could experience respect for their human and economic rights had no end in sight. How the so-called “ordinary” people make a living, talk about their memory of the Iraqi Baʿth party, or what they have to say about love, which appears to be the topic of the today’s young generation engrossed in the age of virtuality,[14] speaks of a marginalized or almost entirely invisible world. Like anywhere else, death remains the property of God or medical science. Yet, the numbers of those who die and kill others in traffic are just unbelievable. This has partly to do with lack of proper roads, and with drivers who refuse to accept any morality of driving. Corruption and the construction of new roads are inseparable. Whenever people hear the governorate of the city announcing new construction projects, they repeat two different phrases, “It is like the Kirkûk railroad” and “It is like the Halabja train.” This memory is based on the promise of constructing a railroad connecting Sulaimânî to Kirkûk, which never materialized, and the still unfinished plan of a railroad connecting Halabja and Sulaimânî. In fact, almost everyone is occupied with putting up with the new political shift in the new city. A persistent theme during discussions I was involved in was the dominant interest in money and the dominant aim in urban life of how to make as much money as possible and as quickly as possible. Of course the possibility of traveling to and experiencing other worlds is reserved for the rich or those who have returned from other parts of the world and are accustomed to traveling, and the pleasure of talking about what is best for the city is reserved for self-announced painters, scientists, university lecturers and, above all, politicians and their journalists. People fuse politicians with journalists, as major satellite TV stations belong to different political parties. These figures do not enter the public realm physically, and feel safer in their own newly erected spaces. The city is divided along lines of wealthy/poor, intellectual/non-intellectual, educated/uneducated, old/young, man/woman and so forth. As a result, respected painters, singers, and novelists remain indoors or only interact and move in certain elite spaces. They do not want to hang around in public spaces of the new city either. The moderate rich and the elite spend their evenings in the increasing number of cafés, newly built restaurants, and bars dominated by men. Among the current generation the passion of engaging in aesthetic and critical thinking and acting accordingly is replaced by the transient pleasure of consumption and a love that plays out within the field of materializing affection. Those engaged in studying social sciences, the arts, education, Kurdish language, literary studies, philosophy, archaeology and history have to rely on their social and political networks to find a job. The experience is rather different for those studying engineering, petroleum and energy, economics, journalism, and political science: as for employment, they rely on the KRG, political parties, and political networks. The city still needs to adapt to what is taught at its universities, which has resulted in politics of dependency and frustration and, in consequence, many young people leave the region. This trend continues as hundreds of young people joined recent waves of migration that have overwhelmed many countries in Europe.

Things are different for the old generation, as they are faced with two opposing worlds, the hunting memory of past violent experiences and the alienating shock of the new city, thus representing their loss of a once familiar world. They rather stick to common games, such as playing cards and domino at the remaining teahouses. As Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o puts it, “When a bird in flight gets tired, it will land on any tree.”[15] For this generation, the most famous teahouse in the city is Châîxâney Shaʿb, “Public Teahouse”, that was constructed in early 1950s, where seeing a woman is a “miracle.” People can be found standing before photographs that mobilize memory and remember irreplaceable and singular historical moments. Unlike Caffé 11 and the hall of the Kurdish Heritage Institute, where an image of Adela Khan occupies a specific space, the walls of the public teahouse are predominantly covered by male photographic images. Adela was a ruler of Halabja during the early twentieth century, and was a respected person among the British colonial officials.[16] The Heritage Institute, with offices in Diyarbakir, Dohûk, and Sulaimânî, amongst other, archives old Kurdish songs and music, which it then produces anew and disseminates in the region and other parts of greater Kurdistan. It is respected as an archive to prevent the loss of cultural memory.

The framed photographs in the teahouse almost entirely consisted of male activists, respected figures, artist, singers, novelists, poets, politicians, a Dutch female journalist who upon her own testimony is buried in the city, including a photograph of Danielle Mitterrand with crossed arms and a smile, and with the caption “Mother of the Kurd.” This is where captions can be solely symbolic and deceptive.[17] Each photograph is a trace that bears witness to and stands in for a name, a person, a biography, a history, a political ideology, resistance to suppression, music, poetry, the arts, morality, national identity, Kurdish political history, and a memory. It remains as a rare graphic journey through death, memory and history of the place itself, the city and the Kurds and their struggle for a sovereign political system and an independent Kurdistan.

I asked the friendly middle-aged owner whether he thought the exhibition contributed to a specifically gendered memory. He responded, “It really does. Together with other females, we tried but obviously women do not feel comfortable here. You need to understand that we have not really been free to think freely and our history is a history of killing and outright repression. Therefore, those who have visited and even defended us, and have engaged in preserving our culture and language have been mostly men. That is why we remember them here.” The teahouse and its name stand at the heart of the history and memory of the city, i.e. without the teahouse and its name, the inhabitants and especially the frequent visitors would feel as if they were strangers. Like other places or locations that are now about to be erased as they are endangered by the realization of the master plan, or those that have already been destroyed and replaced by new buildings, it is the capsule of memory and history of the city.

Life has changed in the city, and changed very radically, people would repeat in Châîxâney Shaʿb, a name consisting of a Kurdish word, Châîxâne, “teahouse”, and an Arabic word, Shaʿb, “people/public. The name is preserved, as it is how people remember the place. The master plan of building the city anew but also local interest in turning old brick houses into concrete block buildings with a temporary façade have come to render most of the frequent visitors of the teahouse as Arendian Heimatlosen,[18] without home. The city they once knew is disappearing. My frequent visit to the place and the people and images helped me to have some close conversations with the elderly. In fact, the frequent visitors easily engage in discussions about genocide, international and Kurdish politics, poetry, art, films, philosophy, and the future of the city. What captured me most was the thought that elderly visitors of the teahouse were living through their last days in the city. Their relationship with or rather attachment to the place and the images that had converted the inside walls was striking as through their narration the city they knew appeared to me as completely virtual or dead and remained as images in their memory. Their narration did not display any interest in the city that was in the making, as it revolved around and was encapsulated by the memory of how the Baʿthi institutions controlled their mobility and forced them into either adhering to the party or live a life in surveillance. This, they told me, forced many people to leave the city and join the Kurdish resistance, and thus stood on an opposing political plane than those who stayed. They memorized that the teahouse also functioned as a discreet space of Kurdish political activity, starting in the 1950s. Adjacent to the teahouse and facing a traffic square, a huge photo of sheikh Mahmoud Barzinji with a Kurdish turban at the center of another old photo of the square was installed on the rooftop of a bakery store. He stands for the colonial memory, and is remembered for his resistance against British colonial rule, and the claim to an independent Kurdistan under his rule.[19] Instead of satisfying British colonial expectations as their governor in 1918, he mobilized resistance against them and was, therefore, captured and exiled to India.[20] While discussing this part of the history of the city with Gorân in his apartment in London in October 2015, he told me that the British took his great-grandfather too, sheikh Mâref, never to be seen again. Gorân said, “I remember that whenever my grandmother mentioned his name she would cry.” This has motivated him to visit the National Archives in UK and search for a trace of his great-grandfather. He also remembered Arthur Harries and his epithet, “Bomber,”[21] who had carried out indiscriminate bombing in Kurdish populated areas. Furthermore, the resistance against the British colonial order had reached a level where Winston Churchill declared, “I am strongly in favor of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes [to] spread a lively fear.”[22] This preceded the use of chemical bombs during the Second World War, the Shoah, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and that of al-Anfâl chemical bombings in Balisân Valley, Gûptapa, Askar, Jaffâyetî Valley, Sewsînân, and Halabja. At the east of Takiya, where after his return from exile Barzinji fought his last battle against the British, a monument with a statue of him surrounded by a garden with British colonial cannons is assembled in his memory. All these abovementioned villages and the Barzinji’s monument have now become sites that guard and remember acts of violence as an unfinished past.[23]

Whether the current master plan moves toward an anticipated future or liberates anyone depends on where one is and whom one asks in the city. Sulaimânî, however, represents a world where everyone is required to embrace a new memory/mode of existence, which some defend, some resist, some deny, and others just leave for a better life, which they try to find in other parts of the planet earth, e.g. Europe, Asia, the Middle East and North America; Africa and South America are not on the list. The attraction, if not obsession, for things to rely on such as cars, preferably land cruisers, a concrete block house, a job, which people struggle to accomplish through family members and social networks (wâsteh) or political affiliations, and fashion cloths, have become the way for men and women to settle down and give birth to the coming generation. At best, the city is encouraging a material habitus[24] that forms the memory of the new inhabitants, meaning the current and coming generation(s). If the Kurdish struggle in the early 1900s-1990s specifically targeted self-determination as its ultimate goal, the KRG is generally divided between those who enjoy the new economy and those who suffer displacement as they are turned into clients, depending on their monthly salary of $400-500. The expansion and threat of the Islamic State has led to more problematic economic dependency in the region. Political parties and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in particular, have translated the KRG into a victim, claiming to be fighting on behalf of the Kurds against destructive political economy in Baghdad and the threat of the Islamic State against the Kurds. By withholding the power of economic life of almost the entire Kurdish population in the region, the Kurds are claimed to remain in danger without the KRG, as most of them are employed in the public sector. [25] The statements such as “we do not have money” and “we all need to help the KRG and the Pêshmerga, “Before Death”, to fight the enemy have delayed and, at once, postponed the payment of salaries of hundreds of thousands of people in the public sector. This started in 2014 and was extended into 2015.

In Sulaimânî, a cup of coffee costs between $4.36 and $5. It does not matter anymore whether one is a Kurd or not; what matters today is political affiliation. The memory politics of party membership during the Baʿthi state are repeated and stand at the heart of the new political and economic dispensation in the entire region. The division along colored memories, mainly green representing the PUK and yellow representing the KDP, has left the entire region and its population with a divided memory. This division along color is furthered and sustained by different satellite TV channels, newspapers, radios, Facebook, Twitter, online websites of the two respective political parties, and marked by telephone companies, e.g. Asia Cell belonging to the green territory, and Korek Telecom to the yellow territory. The border between yellow and green is also marked by checkpoints that are inherited from the Baʿthi order. From 1992 until 2006, the region was divided between these two political parties, with different political dispensations, military forces, and educational systems. Due to recent political disagreement regarding the presidency of the KRG, this division is once again under discussion. Masʿoud Bârzâni has been president since 2005, and has been continuously asking for extension, which the Change List states to be unconstitutional and representative of “dictatorial order.” The KDP suspended the KRG Parliament as it had deployed a military force that prevented the President of the Parliament, a member of the Change List, to cross the former KDP-PUK border and forced him and his entourage to return to Sulaimânî. The act was as much exercise of KDP political and military power as declaration of the Parliament and Êrbîl, the Capital, as KDP territory. The prime minister of the KRG, in turn, took upon himself the right to force some ministers of the KRG, member of the Change List, to leave the capital to Sulaimânî. This political shift that has once again elevated past memory of party politics, is emblematic of an ever-evolving political transition in the region.

Memory of the Baʿthi Order

During the reign of Baʿthism, the city, its history, and its infrastructure were transformed into a Baʿthi order with a Stasi-style bureaucracy of control. The inhabitants had to forget their pre-Islamic and colonial memory, about being a legal subject, and about human dignity. They had the choice of being either a party member and working for the preservation of the Baʿthi order or living in a state of denial of rights and subjugation. The Iraqi Baʿth Party, as an iteration of the Nazi order and the bureaucratic practices of the German Democratic Republic[26], configured a state that aimed at controlling the entire history of Iraq by forcing its “members” (the Iraqi population) to embody a Baʿthist memory. People I talked to at Culture Café, Caffé 11, and the public teahouse, would recall their memory of a name, Malâzem (Second Lieutenant) Mohsen, who would arrest, torture and kill anyone he would suspect fighting the Baʿthi order in the city. I was told that people at the time used the word Qelyshâyewe (possible translation, earthquake) to refer to the arrival of the Second Lieutenant at a specific part of the city. The name, Qelyshâyewe, according to Gorân Bâbâ ʿAli, dates back to 1970s, describing catastrophic acts of the Iraqi state. It is now remembered as a name that had invoked the omnipresent and spectral[27] fear of the Iraqi state and police, and been turned into an immediate evacuation alarm of life/death. The Baʿthist police and other institutions of control had become independent ruling authorities of imposing and enforcing the established political order as the law in the country.[28]

At this stage of the city’s history, representing the Baʿthi order was characterized by a general atmosphere of everyday violence, fear, humiliation, and control. It had been subjected to a “sociocidal” plan of the Baʿthist state, which – borrowing from Keith Doubt – entailed a “coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of the essential foundations of society.”[29] Its inevitable effects incorporate destruction and control of the social, e.g. “solidarity, identity, family, social institutions, self-consciousness” where “distrust and bad faith become the dominant orientations of human beings living together.” In the city of Sulaimânî, the Baʿthi order did neither imply developing the city into a complex and cohesive urban setting, nor establishing infrastructure and institutions conducive to the well-being and self-realization of the population, nor erecting aesthetic public buildings and art schools, nor independent universities or departments of history and archaeology. Instead it established a sophisticated bureaucratic control of social, cultural, political, and economic life of the entire population, and their transformation into Baʿthists or opponents that should be eliminated.

People would speak of the sacrifice of the city and the destruction of all that had historical meaning to the city and its inhabitant. The entire city had been left at the whim of the Iraqi national police, Mûkhâbarât (Intelligence Service), ʿAmn, (Secret Security), and Estikhbârât (Military Intelligence). Amn-e Sûrekeh, “Red Security”,[30] prison, parts of which still carry a façade ripped by bullets from 1991 Kurdish uprising, has been turned into a museum testifying to the Baʿthi state’s crimes of genocide and practices of extreme punishment of the Kurds. It stands as a graphic and visual translation of the Baʿthi carceral institutions, extreme surveillance, and irremediable punishment, as the prisoners’ public and private life was forged and mashed, and where torture onto death, murder, and rape was carried out with total impunity. Those deemed to be a threat to the Baʿthi order had to be transferred to other prisons, e.g. Abû Ghraib where as “condemned bodies”[31] they were either killed or subjected to lasting torture, rape, and everyday degradation. To transpose a single line of Aimé Césaire’s Return To My Native Land, the prison compound tells of those “who know the humblest corners of the country of suffering.”[32] Amn-e Sûrekeh was composed of six buildings including isolation and torture chambers, administration offices, secret interrogation rooms, isolation and collective cells for men, women, and children, and torture chambers, all marked by a wall that separated and protected it from the rest of the city, and served as a northern panoptical compound for the Iraqi Secret Security.

Embedded in the Baʿthi political apparatus, these efficient institutions practiced an “art of punishment” that rendered destruction of the condemned body fundamental to defend the Baʿthi order, which expected the Iraqi nation to memorize and speak the new Baʿthi language. The Intelligence Service multiplied its informants and was unceasingly working to convert as many Iraqis as possible into Baʿthists. At the same time, the Secret Service made sure that non-Baʿthists were controlled, e.g. through calculated destructive punishment such as forcing the detained person to sit on an empty Pepsi/wine/whisky/arak bottle, public rape of men and women inside the prisons, hanging by wrists, flogging the soles of feet with lengths of electric cable, and interrogation at night as a way of preventing the detainee from sleeping. Some prisoners had rather been subjected to multiple forms of torture to extract information, i.e. the person had to sit on a bottle – anally penetrated – coupled with unexpected slaps in the face, and electric shock. The Baʿthi order was violently inscribed onto the body of the condemned person so that it could be remembered infinitely.

A middle-aged man who guided me through Amn-e Sûrekeh prison, which he called “Museum of Amn-e Sûrekeh”, told me that thousands of Kurds were imprisoned, tortured, killed, died and disappeared. The transformation from prison to museum represents a radical shift: the museum is now a resting place of audio/visual and photographic exhibitions covering other events rather than that of the prison. In fact, the term museum does not appeal to the inhabitants of Sulaimânî, as the name Amn-e Sûrekeh is solidified in their memory. The shifting of the name also represents a certain shifting of memory. This visualized memory, however, renders irrelevant the memory of the (pre-)Babylonian era that remains inscribed on clay tablets, artifacts, sculptures, and a replica of Hammurabi’s Code of Law preserved in the Sulaimânî Museum. Amn-e Sûrekeh lays out the Baʿthi order as perpetrators and the Kurds as victims both audio/visually and photographically. The first building[33] is a photographic installation that remembers the victims of the chemical bombardment in Halabja, where enlarged photographic images of the unordinary deaths of children, women and men illuminated with red lights are exhibited. They are found in the former isolation cells and torture chambers. In this context, photographs are expected to preserve memory and provide an unequivocal graphic evidence/testimony to the history of Kurds subjected to chemical bombardments of the Baʿthi state. Moreover, Halabja became internationally renowned through photographs that insist on being unforgiving and unforgetting as well as unambiguously testifying to the exterminating effect of modern advanced science, i.e. chemical weapons.[34] In fact, photographs are acknowledged as clear evidence/testimony, persevering past violence in the region, e.g. the photographic museum that preserves only portraits of the victims of the chemical bombardment in Bâlîsân Valley in Sheixwasân; the permanent photographic exhibition at the Anfâl Center in Dohûk; and the horrifying photographic exhibition of the fallen victims of the chemical bombardment in Halabja Museum.

The guide told me that the photographs in the Museum of Amn-e Sûrekeh were “the truth about what had happened to the Kurds in Halabja.” The second building, “Hall of Mirrors” is another artistic and cultural remembrance consisting of a narrow hallway covered by “182000” pieces of mirrored glass. Each piece is taken to memorialize a fallen victim of al-Anfâl operations, and the ceiling of the hall is dotted with “4,500” glimmering lights, each reminding visitors of a destroyed Kurdish village. The small pieces of mirror reflect gazing viewers before they end up in the interrogation room, which has been turned into an (ethno-)museum illustrating, as the guide told me, “the interior belongings of a rural Anfâl family”, including a Kurdish wedding dress commemorating a woman who had lost her husband during al-Anfâl after just one day of marriage. The third building, “Anfâl Hall”, is yet another combination of names and portraits of women, men, and children who have been killed or still remain without a trace as well as a photograph of the infamous fort of Nûgra Salmân with textual narratives and maps of al-Anfâl operations. Moreover, an exhibition on exhumed and disintegrated clothes, shoes and other personal belongings of those massacred and then buried in mass graves is placed at the heart of the wall. They appear to be hanging graves and are covered by glass illuminated by red lights. The photographs of Saddâm Hussein and his associates, who were tried in the course of al-Anfâl trials at the Iraq High Tribunal in Baghdad between 2006 and 2007, are placed at the wall just next to the entrance.[35]

Although there are detailed photographs and audiovisual recordings of the Kurdish collaborators (referred to as Jâhsh, donkey’s foal) in the region, none can be observed at the Anfâl Hall, a name that disregards the meaning of Anfâl which literally means “spoils.” In fact, the repetition of “Anfâl” has come to embody the preservation of remembering the Baʿthi order as well as the representation of genocidal acts. Nevertheless, the building also includes a room filled with photographs to commemorate the mass exodus after the Kurdish uprising in 1991, where also a BBC report from the time is continuously rescreened. The fourth building portrays the Kurdish weaving culture with an exhibition of different carpets, dresses for males and females, ornaments, and photographs. It also has a weapons room with an information sign saying: “We neither manufactured these weapons, nor feel proud exhibiting them. In fact, those who threatened our existence used these [weapons]. We also admit that these very weapons helped us achieve our freedom.” The fifth building is the cellblock that remembers the everyday brutality in Amn-e Sûrekeh. Traces of handwritten names and comments are found on the walls of a collective cell. In order to make them readable, the comments are rewritten, translated into English and Arabic, and placed under the original handwriting. One of them reads as follows: “My name is Muhsin, in a corner of this prison cell. I was captured at home, only fifteen years old. They changed my age into eighteen to be executed. Thus I said to my mother and father that the Baʿthist are going to execute me. We will never meet again.” The writing in these three languages is meant to convey the memory of Kurdish suffering. It is worth noting that during my short meeting with Fâek Rasûl in 2014, who is based in Vienna, where he also runs the Kleine galerie, I found how through his artworks he has returned to exploring the life of political prisoners in the Baʿthi prisons in Kirkûk and in the city of Abû Ghraib. While in prison with charges of political activities against the Iraqi Baʿthis order, Fâek gradually evolved into the prisoner who turned the prison walls into tombstones, on which he inscribed the names of the prisoners. He had done so with bones that he would collect from the occasional meals of cooked meat they were given for lunch or dinner. Fâek continues his existentially meaningful relationship to his memory of unimaginable Baʿthi violence through art. Art, indeed, has become his way to resist violence in general; this was marked by his exhibition “Kunst gegen Gewalt”, “Art against violence”, in the gallery in June 2014. Together with his partner, Tâniâ Raschied, who is also photographer, he had retuned to Kirkûk in 2007, searching for the prisons where he had been detained and tortured. They manage to find one of the prisons, which had been turned into a residence. Tâniâ would explain to me how they found Fâek’s inscription of his own name on of the walls of the now residence. She said, “People where living there where Fâek and many others had been tortured. We did not feel good about asking them to remove everything from the walls. They had also painted over and renovated the walls. On one of the walls Fâek’s name was waiting for us.” Being engaged in a project of “spuren aus Kurdistan,” “traces from Kurdistan,” Tâniâ photographs what they had found, the name, to also document traces of Fâek Rasûl photographically.[36]

Nonetheless, in Amn-e Sûrekeh some renovated collective and isolation cells as well as torture chambers surprise visitors with life-size sculptures of Kurdish male prisoners; one is hanging by his wrists from the ceiling, while another one has his right hand cuffed to the wall, which forces him to stand on his feet; a third one has his feet fastened to a thick piece of wood and held up by two prison guards, while another guard beats the soles of his feet with an electric cable; yet in another cell, there is a sculpture of two terrified children, and another one of a woman standing with a child as if electrified for life. The sculptures incorporate both a generational and gendered memory, displaying men as agents of resistance, victims, and those the state had feared and thus punished. In contrast, women and children are excluded and treated as a separate group of victims. The image of men as resistance fighters combined with that of women as mothers and caretakers has come to dominate cultural and memorial iconography, e.g. the statue of a woman holding a child in her arms at Mother’s Park, the statue of a woman looking into the sky with her bare hands placed on her chest at the symbolic cemetery in Halabja, or that of a woman holding a child at the Anfâl Monument in Chamchamâl.[37]

The museum guide explained to me that women and children were treated badly, but that they were mostly used as sources of information on their suspected husbands, fathers, and brothers: “If Secret Security would suspect me as someone working with any opposition political group then they hunt me down, and if they would not find me they take my wife and children and hold them as hostage until I deliver myself.” In doing so, state institutions transformed hunted husbands, fathers, and brothers into persons accountable for the imprisonment and torture of women and children. Between the first and fourth building, a range of archived weapons that the Iraqi Baʿthi state possessed, such as Russian tanks, artilleries, East German military trucks, American military Jeeps, and mortars, amongst others, are on display in the courtyard. A photographic exhibition, arranged by the German NGO Haukari,[38] Association of International Cooperation in 2012, portraying survivors and relatives of the victims of al-Anfâl holding photographs of family member(s) killed and disappeared during al-Anfâl cut through the exhibited military armament (Fig. I).


Fig I. Amn-e Sûrekeh: photo by the author, 2012.

The Museum also includes a building, which previously functioned as a kitchen and resting place for prison guards and officials. It is now turned into a restaurant and café as well as a hall where workshops are organized or people are invited to give a talk. In front of the building a British horse-drawn carriage used for military transport in 1917 in Iraq is on display. The museum is made to serve as a monumental visual evidence/archive/testimony to the horrific Kurdish experience and memory under the Baʿthi order. It relegates memory in terms of graphic display to a domain of visibility. Thus, as a site of visual memory, the museum is an affirmation of loss that recalls insistence on remembering, resistance against genocidal political systems, and consequently rewriting the memory of extreme violence. As such Amn-e Sûrekeh is geared towards the future. A future that remains to come, in which rights, the well-being, self-realization, and integrity of street vendors and other inhabitants are moved beyond violence, fear of death, and humiliation. Amn-e Sûrekeh writes/preserves/produces a selective memory that is less about the past than it is about the future, i.e. it visually opens up a certain memory of the already committed Baʿthi violence as a condition of a future that is always evolving yet never complete. In other words, Amn-e Sûrekeh insists that there can be no future without photographic imagery to remember, preserve, write, and produce memory/history visually. Therefore, their display cannot be explained away as mere “photographs and artwork” because they carry a memory/history and, at the same time, a future anterior, “Acts of extreme violence and genocide will have been committed.”

As “truth” and “evidence” of the horrific memories of Kurds, however, the memory on display also stresses the post-Baʿth political translation of memory in the Kurdistan Region in general. Today, both the KDP and the PUK have become a safe haven for Kurdish collaborators whose photographs are not on display and whose names are not inscribed on the entrance wall just like that of Saddâm Hussein and his associates. In consequence, they are offered total impunity, which denies al-Anfâl survivors persistent demand for legal justice, i.e. the trial of Kurdish collaborators. The articulation of “what is past”, as Walter Benjamin puts it, “does not mean to recognize ‘how it really was.’ It means to take control of a memory, as it flashes in a moment of danger.”[39] In this light, the displayed memory or photographic installation does not just reduce and manifest but homogenize a selective visual repetition of the memory of loss because it both produces and visualizes the memory of loss of historically constituted social organizations as well as meanings of family life, culture, identity, place, civic security, cities, towns, villages, and agriculture. To repeat, although integrated into the political domain, the bedrock of visual inscription of memory remains irreducible and insists on how visualization itself acts in absence of the Kurdish political parties, and beyond political control.

Amn-e Sûrekeh, a “Stonehearted Beauty

While in the middle of a conversation with Gorân about his book, which narrates the metamorphosis of a tree into a naked male hunted by a young photographer, who claims to have seen a mobile tree, a man, Sâlâr Majeed, dressed in a white shirt and grey Kurdish pants with long hair behind his neck in a redemptive and unruly manner entered the Caffé 11. Gorân’s novel is remarkable in that it deals with various aspects of the city of Sulaimânî. By visiting different parts of the city at night, the traveling tree stores in its memory and at once renders public the various social and political acts it witnesses. What it testifies to ranges from the Kurdish political configuration in the aftermath of the Baʿthi order to the falsification of votes during regional elections as a sign of overrated democracy. It travels through the political dispensation in the region to the streets and neighborhoods that are foreign to trees. During the day, the tree transforms into a naked man who has to hide because the social and religious moors reject nakedness. Before being seen, the tree has entered into the memory of inhabitants, religious leaders, politicians, Kurdish Secret Security, and police. The Secret Security and police also hunt the young and poor photographer, who in turn is hunting the tree and wants to prove that such a rootless and traveling tree exists in the city. His only way to do so is to photograph the tree. They accuse him for spreading harmful rumor. At the end the police capture the naked man, and transfer him to the police station, where he transforms into the tree. Although no one claims to know why, people outside of the station insist on killing the naked man. They overwhelm the policemen and enter the station and hack apart the entire tree. No one knows why the other is engrossed in cutting and keeping a piece of the tree, which is imagined to be “holy” as some cut pieces for conservation while others just aim at the total eradication of the tree. More importantly, the tree and its elimination becomes a site where collective memory is being redefined. Those who act on the basis of an imaginary threat are neither the police, nor the young photographer or the involved physician. They all try to protect the tree/human, but “ordinary” people who embody and demonstrate an uncompromisingly retaliatory memory, which leans on violence rather than hospitality. Therefore, what is imagined as a threat to memory order can exist only as a “secret.” An old gardener who arrives at the scene quite late manages to take a branch of the tree, which he then plants in a public park. This becomes his and the photographer’s secret. The novel ends with the young photographer, who no longer practices photography, sitting together with his beloved before of the tree that has grown. He informs her about the tree and asks her to promise to keep it as a secret.

Before leaving the elite space, Sâlâr returned and offered us cigarettes, “You will need these in this place”, he expressed with a smile. We asked him to join us. He did not resist. The discussion shifted as he asked me about my stay in Kurdistan and the research that had brought me to the region. This was a difficult question but, at the same time, it was impossible to deliver an immediate response. I found myself as the photographer in Gorân’s novel and had to testify to prove my stay in the region. I already carried within me the memories that survivors of al-Anfâl had shared with me, which I then attached to other memories I had collected from “genocide” studies. “I am dealing with the complexity and multiplicity of the ultimate declaration of Iraqi Baʿthi order, al-Anfâl operations. I mean al-Anfâl was embedded in the political power and the capacity to declare the order of the Baʿthi state and at once the future existence of the Kurds”, I responded. I went on explaining that in mobilizing her/his resources for reversal, the researcher tries to forestall a possible translation or articulation of “acts of genocide” as merely stable and tangible, and produces an ethnographic snapshot, a monograph. The understanding of the Baʿthi order as unwavering authority over mortality figured throughout Gorân and Sâlâr’s respective narrations. Sâlâr listened very carefully and intervened by saying that he was interested in hearing someone’s point of view that had not experienced what s/he is researching. He added that he cared about what I did, that he carried the “scares of the Baʿth party”, and that his memory of pain and suffering manifested itself in his abstract paintings.

I became more interested in Sâlâr’s memories and thoughts on visual repetition of al-Anfâl, chemical bombardment of Halabja, and in particular his own memories of Amn-e Sûrekeh, where he had been jailed for almost a month in 1989. As a painter, he is respected for working out the connections between his own individual, family and social life, artworks, aesthetic commitments, and the unparalleled shifts in the region. I started visiting him and staying at his respective homes in Sulaimânî as well as in Hâwâr, where his parents had lived. Located outside of Halabja and bordering Iran, Hâwâr is a holy village for the Kâkʼees, a non-Muslim religious minority in the Kurdistan Region. Sâlâr has turned his parents’ home into a small photographic museum of the village and a gallery for his own earlier artworks. In Sulaimânî, Sâlâr would sleep late and wake up at dawn. He shares his sleeping room with his artworks. Dawn was an ever evolving future, and thus never complete. It was, therefore, a moment for Sâlâr to set forth to face a wholly unpredictable future as an “abstract world”, as he put it. Dawn as the future/an abstract world would usually start before he had had a cup of his specific tea of incredible taste, freshly made warm bread, and organic Kurdish yoghurt. Dawn would always start at his approximately 12 square meter atelier. It was in his atelier that he sought comfort and distance from his own memories and that of the world he inhabited (Fig. II).


Fig. II. Early evening, Sâlâr Majeed showing me (an) un/finished piece of art inside his 12 sq.m. atelier, in the city of Sulaimânî. Photo by the author, May 20, 2015.

 Some people, who have expressed the feeling of being disarmed by Sâlâr’s abstract painting and aesthetic sympathy, have confined and fixed Sâlâr as “the abstract, the crazy man, the feminine painter without a university certificate, the homosexual, and the womanizer.” Startling in its abstractionist and unforeseeable effects, his artwork relies on a highly sophisticated intervention in the always-evolving future: “The instant of starting and finishing an artwork is hard to identify. I assume the viewers do not care much about this either. The composition of brush, the colors, the canvas, embodied memory of different techniques, and me in this tiny place speak of my history, memory, and an intervention in the world in general and in this city in particular”, he conveyed in Sûrâni Kurdish. In most of his artworks, one cannot help but to find it highly difficult to relate to, as they refuse to relate to the world in which we are socialized and continue to lead a constantly evolving life, i.e. a memory that guides and at time commands us: “I cannot identify them either but I can tell that every line and color in my artworks carry memory of pain and suffering.” Unlike the enlarged photographs inside the first building of the museum, his lines and choice of colors refuse to make pain and suffering visible to the viewer. In emphasizing painting itself as a process that creates a world of its own, Sâlâr is determined that it is not his task to embed memory of loss in painting: “Whatever I tell you is inadequate and essentially something else than what I am working on. I paint and you do not and that is a great thing [he laughed]. What I do is not discursive.” He preferred to remain committed to non-discursive art, which for him is to complicate memory of loss and suffering by rendering it impossible: “Art cannot be planned, structured, or shaped according to certain philosophical ideas or historical or social events.” He would tell me that at that particular instant of painting, he could neither observe any emotional intensity nor memory of suffering, torture, and injustice in Amn-e Sûrekeh, and that those who have seen his artworks are of different opinion. As he remembered, “Once a Swedish journalist published an article about my artworks and me. She wrote that the lines in Sâlâr’s painting represent the iron bars of the prison that enclosed him in Iraq. And she was really right in what she had written. This was how she saw the works I showed her. When I revisited the works I showed her during the interview and saw, lines after lines, faces behind lines, people behind lines and so on. I started to look at them through her eyes.”

Sâlâr was captured at his home at 2a.m. and imprisoned for “9 months, and 4 days” in 1989. He remembered the place, the time and the date. He had been detained in Amn-e Sûrekeh for almost a month, transferred to the Secret Security prison in Tikrît, and then to the General Secret Security Directorate in Baghdad. He narrated what he remembered:

I remember that there were about 100 men contained within two rooms, facing each other. To me, they were actually cages made of iron bars: the two walls facing each other were made of iron bars. This was all I could see during the time I was detained there. At the moment they needed me for interrogation or anything else, they made sure that I was blindfolded. I remember, too, those early mornings when I would wake up and look around at those confined within these cages. People appeared as if they were all dead corpses. It really scared me. In fact, the most terrifying was the fear, the fear of what will happen next. At night, you could just not escape the helpless screams of those who were ruthlessly tortured. We all heard those screams of pain and suffering. This was how they tortured us. Those people’s screaming and helplessly begging not to be tortured in the torture cell still remains as voices in my memory. I never saw them but I carry their screaming voices. They disturb me. As if it was me who was responsible for what they went through. You know, there were many cells. Children and women had separate cells. You could not see them. You were always blindfolded outside of your cell.

I did not experience much torture in Amn-e Sûrekeh, as my case was not clear. I was accused of having supported the Kurdish opposition and of having transported guns to the Pêshmerga. They were right, but they could not prove it. I had read and heard much about the Baʿth prison system and modes of interrogation and, therefore, knew how to defend myself. At prison it became almost like practicing what I already knew. The prison in Baghdad was different. They would not care much about what I was accused of. They subjected my body to everything destructive they had practiced for years. You know, it was common sense in Sulaimânî that, ‘There is no return from Amn-e Sûrekeh.’ At the moment they transferred me to Tikrît and then to Baghdad, I lost hope of return.

In fact, Sâlâr would narrate his memory of those days as though he was describing a photograph that contained the entire Baʿthi order. Sâlâr’s insistence on aesthetics as a calling for the future i.e. a way to resist what hunts him and the Kurdistan Region, made him to resort to performance art. He insisted that it is the only possible way for him to share his memory of fear and inexplicable pain: “Every time I see the outside wall and certain parts of the building [Amn-e Sûrekeh], I can smell the sweat of torture, and of death, and hear helpless people screaming under torture. I also remember how after the uprising of 1991, almost all those who worked at the prison were killed and their dead corpses were piled up on top of each other and left in the sun for days. To me, it is a place of stonehearted beauty, and a place of absolute fear.” He said that the beauty laid in how they became each other’s only soul in the entire universe, which helped them to survive the stonehearted acts of the torturers. Sâlâr also carried the pain of seeing how the torturers were turned into victims. Therefore in his narration and memory of violence he moved beyond the perpetrator/victims narrative, as he had observed how the victim is also a potential perpetrator. It was only through performance art that he attempted to share his memory, which to him resists closure as well as transmission. Therefore, an artistic intervention was imperative. The viewers, he said, were the participants, and had to fill in a prison form, obliging all information about occupation, residence, political affiliation, marital status, how many children and so forth, and leave all personal belongings such as money, watch, marriage ring, cigarettes etc. They were then blindfolded and dragged by a person through the prison for twelve minutes. “I was the first person in the city to jail both the Director of the Secret Security in the city of Sulaimânî, and Judge Qâder, but only through art. Some participants were confused; they did not know whether this was real or fictional. It became clear to me that people still carry the fear of the Baʿthi prison. The aim was to show how beautiful freedom is, and how beautiful it is to see with your own eyes, to be free from torture, death, smell of death, and indefinite confinement. I wanted to show how beautiful it is not to be deprived of the fresh air that every human needs to live.” The performance art is rather an intervention in the future where human body, from eyes to toes, is seen as an aesthetic configuration and thus appreciated. He repeated many times that aesthetic should not be used to “duplicate suffering but to resist it.”

To him artwork is capable of offering a shelter or transforming life as something not in need of violence. He contended that artwork is “like a massive mountain that stands still, with no concern for the viewer or the artist who has created it. And in employing language one creates one’s own mountain with words. I do not interpret with words; that is why I paint.” For an exhibition arranged in memory of the Kurdish renowned poet Sherkou Bikas, he had also produced two pieces of art. He narrated while in the exhibition, “some people told me strange things about my works, and I am glad that they did, otherwise it would have been a catastrophe” (Fig. III). He told to me how he came to produce the nameless artworks, which deal with the aesthetic nature of writing and producing poetic works: “I knew that Sherkou always used pencils for writing his poems. Thus, I had the idea of using the pencils and did spend time writing with the many pencils I had bought. The thought was born as I was sharpening a pencil. I found out how beautiful its worn surface is. You can see that they resemble butterflies. I love butterflies. They are not harmful like humans or scorpions.” In one of Sâlâr’s exhibitions, August 24, 1992, Sherkou leaves a note for him, which he has preserved. Sherkou writes (in Sûrânî Kurdish), “Art speaks with its own language, which is closer to that of magic, literature, imagination and the worldview of various stories […]. In this exhibition the past returns only to enlighten our future.”


Fig. III Photo by the author, taken during an exhibition at Sardam in Sulaimânî, September 10, 2013.

With his taste of color and artworks Sâlâr continues to allow the past to reoccur only to the extent that the future is not compromised. Yet, he cannot and refuses to control interpretation. Among many others present at the exhibition in 2013, a person asks him to “explain” what he means by these two artworks: “she told me, are you referring to the current journalistic chaos in Kurdistan, where people are writing whatever they like? I told her, trust me these are no longer my artworks.” It is clear that Sâlâr deliberately uses the backside of the framed canvases, where the pencils and the worn surfaces reside and lead separate lives. In fact, the artworks allow for a range of interpretations, each of which can make a separate intervention in the world of art and the evolving future. I had learned and remembered that Sâlâr’s interventions are connected to universal themes, and my own reading of these works was interrupted by such memory. Sherkou Bikas was obviously neither the only poet to write poetry, nor the only person who wrote with pencils. Therefore, these works simultaneously mark the history and importance of writing and aesthetic conceptualization; if poets use pencils to write, then the artist explores its sovereign beauty. I asked Sâlâr whether he himself saw something different in the artworks, and if he had made them in the memory of a poet, why then did he deny them captions? He responded:

Does a flower need a caption to tell us what it is about? Is it possible to have a caption for a painted red rose? Can the red rose bear witness to beauty, as the word “flower” might bear witness to the existence of language? I say that beauty as well as suffering has nothing to do with words. You can ask, whether it is the intention of the red rose to stand for beauty and spread a singular and untranslatable smell? Is it the intention of a lover who is writing a letter to her/his own beloved to teach the world how to love? No, at that particular moment of writing, the lover is so entangled in her/his own situation that the world does not even exist. It is like when the poet Sohârb Sepehri says, ‘maybe it is not my task to understand the magic of the red rose, but rather to swim in its beauty.’ He also has another line, narrating how the sudden landing of two men on moon disturbs the loneliness of the moon. I do not want to know anything about the moon, I just love to look at from a distance and wonder about its incomprehensible beauty.

It is just as a “painted red rose”, that the photograph/light-writing[40] remains open and available for continuous translation or suspension. This enforces the argument that the photographer’s intention as well as caption[41] should not function as the main supplement for reading/interpreting photographs, as reading/seeing a photograph is an instant of both witnessing and repeating what the photograph bears witness to and represents, i.e. stands-in for. In the same vein, Sâlâr defended the visual exhibitions at Amn-e Sûrekeh. “I remember that some journalists from a Dutch TV station where making a report about Amn-e Sûrekeh. I helped to make things easier for them. They asked a girl, really a child, about why she is visiting the museum, and she said, ‘because it is important to know what happened to my grandparents.’ I turned around as I could not hold my tears.” He considered aesthetic and visual conceptualization to already be a future intervention, facilitating the process of recognition and remembrance of the horrific suffering and, at the same time, the universality of the right to live. In this formulation, photography and art are thought to constitute a process of displacement, rendering visible and audible the violence visited upon the Kurds so that they anticipate future as they continue to produce memory: “because it is important to know what happened to my grandparents.” They are rendered as fragmented instants of dissemination of memory of a nation and a nation of memory.

By referring to two different artistic interventions, Pablo Picasso’s Guernica and Francisco Goya’s The Disasters of War and The Third of May 1808, Sâlâr said that these works testify to how the desire to live, resistance to war and its inevitable consequences, and memory, which is not that of the victims, are embedded in painting: “these are incredible paintings and have nothing to do with the events. Therefore, they demand imagination, which makes them imaginary. How can you otherwise feel pain? The best work of art or photograph is a betrayal. Violence is an abstract human reality and cannot be simplified.” The interaction between Sâlâr and some of the photographs of the victims of the Halabja chemical bombardment had made him produce some portraits, which then changed his position. “I came to realize that I am simplifying the extremity of the attacks. I also realized how these photographs fastened in my memory and refused to leave. They have become my responsibility toward violence, and appreciation of the beauty that life is.” The photographs of untranslatable killings that had been imprinted in his memory and transformed into responsibility also insist on the independent claim and openness of photographs. Sâlâr is now teaching at the College of Fine Arts in the city, where he had studied and taught during the Baʿthi order without being a member of the party: “It was impossible to teach there without being a member of the Baʿth party, but I did it.” Lately, he has also returned to the memory of village life and works on lamp oil, architecture, vegetables, and the everyday life in the Kurdish villages, which he remembers in watercolor. It is to “let people know how we lived before.”


Writing and producing memory in visual form by attempting to develop a memory of seeing/reading the graphic display of national memory in the population and all visitors means evolving both in the city of Sulaimânî as well as in the rest of the region. Training in memory seeing/reading at the museum of Amn-e Sûrekeh that renders memory of the Kurds as a memory of pain and suffering, also means learning from the visual or an evolving virtual memory. What is important to remember is that the PUK and within it Hero Ibrâhîm, partner of the former Iraqi President and the standing leader of the PUK, Jalâl Tâlabânî, claim Amn-e Sûrekeh as a political and personal property. Yet, neither PUK nor Hero exhibits equal interest in Caffé 11, the Public Teahouse, and the Sulaimânî Museum as they are assumed to narrate other memories. Since Amn-e Sûrekeh is commonly known as a site of repression and liberation, i.e. the Kurdish uprising in 1991, and a museum of al-Anfâl and Halabja and thus deals with the violence of the Iraqi Baʿthi state violence it is staged as a necessary site of “collective memory.” Herein memory is the memory of a recent and a selective violence.

The point is that the politics at the core of Amn-e Sûrekeh cannot totally control its “photographic performativity”,[42] and what it remembers. The political dimension, i.e. the ways in which the museum has evolved, cannot silence microlevel histories and memories, i.e. the ways in which the cry for, “remember me, do not forget me” plays out in the photographs and portraits of killed and disappeared people or in the hanging graves on the walls at Anfâl Hall, or in the ones held with care and love by survived relatives who are also archived as photographs. Neither can the political dimension silence the macrohistories that are clearly played out in the non-soothing photographs of the victims of the Halabja chemical bombardment in the first building. The Halabja photographs assert a sensation of remembrance and resistance to chemical warfare, as they conserve the inanimate bodies of women, children, and men from passage of time and, therefore, decomposition. By translating the photographs, past/present/future fuse and transform memory into a Sâlârian responsibility toward justice as an evolving and abstract future. It is therefore important to note that neither politics can be assigned as the cause and in charge of the interpretation of visualized memory, nor captions should be given the position to stand in for or represent or supplement photographs or artworks. The museum testifies to how “past” exterminating violence and its memory are converted into and become a visual memory of loss, which in turn translates the violence into an unfinished past and the Kurdish nation into a deferred future.



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[1] Available at:, (accessed, August 10, 2015). This is the link to the Arabic, Kurdish and English version.

[2] The Kurdistan Regional Constitution is undergoing another revision and is, therefore, removed from the Kurdistan Regional Parliament website. The region’s Islamic political parties and religious leaders are struggling to inscribe the Sharîʿah as the essential form of legislation into the coming Constitution. The saying goes as follows: “Qur’an is Our Constitution.” The citation of the Preamble is from the 2006 draft.

[3] Benjamin 1968: 257 f.

[4] Black 2004: xx.

[5] See King 2014.

[6] Available at: (accessed, July 2015).

[7] Rogers.

[8] Foster / Foster 2009.

[9] Baker / Ismael / Ismael 2010; Otterman / Hil 2010.

[10] Gregory 2004.

[11] Moradi / Anderson (work in progress).

[12] Available at: The English translation, which I have accepted, is available at:, (accessed, September 2015).

[13] See,, (accessed, September 2015).

[14] See, Castells 2007.

[15] Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o 1987: 32.

[16] See Minorsky 1945: 78.

[17] See Butler’s critique of Susan Sontag’s insistence on captions and the partiality of photographs: Butler 2009: chapt. 2.

[18] Cited in Derrida 2001: 6.

[19] McDowall 2007: 119 f.

[20] Lawrence 2008: 14 f.

[21] See also McDowall 2007: 180.

[22] Ibid. p. 14.

[23] Cf.Weber 2001: 218.

[24] Bourdieu 1977: 76.

[25] Cf. Callon / Latour 1981.

[26] Moradi forthcoming.

[27] Cf. Derrida 2001: 14.

[28] Cf. Arendt cited in Derrida 2001: 15.

[29] Doubt 2007: 126 f.

[30] The word, red, was used to refer to the color of the prison building.

[31] Foucault 1996.

[32] Césaire 2014: 72.

[33] The numbering of buildings is based on my visit and does not mean that the museum is numerically divided.

[34] Kelly 2013.

[35] On the opposite side of the entrance, visitors can see an amateur painting on al-Anfâl made by Ako Ghareb, the director of the museum. Right next to it, a note points out that the Financial Bureau of the PUK, Ako Ghareb, Parween Babakr Hama Agha, and Shwan Gadr Ma’aruf are the founders of the “Museum of the Anfâl.” The same note shows that constructions began on August 26, 2013 and were completed on November 8, 2014. Ako Ghareb is inscribed on a separate note as the “designer of the museum.” The notes are written in Kurdish, Arabic and English.

[36] See and www. (accessed October 2015).

[37] Judith Tydor Baumel’s astute findings on Israeli and international Holocaust memorial culture render maternal imagery memorials a global question and thus irreducible to a Kurdish phenomenon. See Baumel 1998.

[38] See (accessed July, 2015).

[39] Benjamin 1968: 255.

[40] Derrida: 15.

[41] I endorse Butler’s critique that Susan Sontag’s claim, made repeatedly throughout her writings, that the photograph without captions and written analysis couldn’t offer an interpretation. See, Butler 2009: 66.

[42] Derrida 2010: 5.

Note: This article was first publish, in 2015. ” In 100 Jahre Völkermord an AremnierInnen und die KurdInnen: komplexe Vergangenheit und Nachwirken in der Gegenwart, edited by Ferdinand Hennerbichler, Christoph Osztovics, Maria Six-Hohenbalken and Thomas Schmidinger, 215-243. Wien: Caesar Press.

Author’s Biography: Fazil Moradi has conducted research at the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa in 2008, studying latent and manifest forms of racism, segregation and segregated spaces, racialized skin color, and other practices of exclusion to argue that the post-apartheid “rainbow nation” carries along a sustained racializing legacy of the apartheid state. Moradi has also carried out research on evidential testimony—acts of remembrance, memory making, museums and photographic archive—of genocide in Rwanda, and the first anthropological study of the Iraqi Baʿth state’s genocide (al-Anfāl operations, 1987–1991), focusing on modern state formation, bureaucracy and archive, evidence and memory, evidentiary institution and site, symbols of everyday mourning, justice, forgiveness, forgetting, and visual and aesthetic translation in the aftermath of genocide in the post-Baʿth Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Moradi is an associate at Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, and member of the Research Network, Law, Organization, Science and Technology, Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg. His recent publication is: “The force of writing in genocide: on sexual violence in al-Anfāl operations and beyond.” In Gender Violence in Peace and War: States of Complicity, edited by Victoria Sanford, Katerina Stefatos and Cecilia Salvi. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2016.