White-gloved hand holds ancient artifact known as the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet.

Iraq needs to reclaim its cultural past to develop its future, art historian says

This week, the US agreed to return more than 17,000 treasures to Iraq. Nada Shabout, a professor of art history, joined The World's host Marco Werman to discuss Iraq's stolen cultural heritage. 

The World

Since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, tens of thousands of ancient artifacts and pieces of art have been looted and smuggled out of the country.

This week, the US agreed to return more than 17,000 treasures to Iraq, including an ancient clay tablet containing a portion of the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Related: Germany to return looted Benin Bronzes to Nigeria

The majority of the artifacts date back 4,000 years to ancient Mesopotamia and were recovered from the US in a recent trip by Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi. Other pieces were also returned from Japan, Netherlands and Italy, Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein said in a joint press conference with Culture Minister Hasan Nadhim.

“There’s still a lot of work ahead in this matter. There are still thousands of Iraqi artifacts smuggled outside the country," Nadhim said. 

Boxes containing recovered looted artifacts sit temporarily at the foreign ministry before being transferred to the Iraq Museum, in Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021. 

Boxes containing recovered looted artifacts sit temporarily at the foreign ministry before being transferred to the Iraq Museum, in Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021. 


Khalid Mohammed/AP

Iraq's government has been slowly recovering the plundered antiquities for decades but archaeological sites across the country continue to suffer from neglect due to a lack of funds.

Related: Benin negotiates with France to return precious objects taken during colonial war

Nada Shabout, a professor of art history and coordinator of the Contemporary Arab and Muslim Cultural Studies Initiative at the University of North Texas, joined The World's host Marco Werman to discuss Iraq's stolen cultural heritage. 

Marco Werman: First of all, Nada, how did these pieces get to the US in the first place? Where have they been?
Nada Shabout: Since 2003, and all the looting that had happened — [much] of which was very organized and people knew exactly what they were taking out — it sort of was smuggled through the region, through the UAE, through Jordan at times, and found its way to where it wound up to be.
What was your reaction when you heard the US will be returning these artifacts and this art to Iraq?
To be honest, it was a refreshing piece of news. Returning them is great. But also, this is just a little drop in a bucket full of water. So, this is a good step, but neither resolves the problem of all the looted works, nor does it really actually establish a system for stopping or returning.
So, if it's a drop in the bucket, let's pull back. What has the US war in Iraq done to the country's cultural heritage? And is it just the 2003 invasion and occupation, or do we have to go back to Operation Desert Storm in 1991 to understand the full impact of the looting?
Absolutely. We saw images of looting on TV. We saw the museum, and the late Donny George was the director of the museum, pleading with [the] military to help protect the museum. The Museum of Modern Art and many other museums in Iraq did not even fare any attention from anyone. No protection. So, for example, the Museum of Modern Art, there was a fire and it was practically all destroyed. And then there was large looting and destruction, but a lot of the major works by the major Iraqi artists found their way out. I have seen looted works in New York. I've seen looted works in Amman, in Beirut. And many people actually will show me, many Iraqis at the time who were able to buy some of those works, did, with the intention that they will return it to the country when there is a stable government. Well, of course, that never happened, and now, who knows where these works are.
Have you ever brought this up with the directors of museums when you see these artifacts?
Yes. And in fact, even one time I wrote to Interpol, who were very appreciative of the information, because I know of two works that were being sold [on] the black market in Amman. And their response was that "We appreciate your word[s], but we really need an official intervention. We need the Iraqi government to acknowledge that these works are looted."
So, the 17,000 artifacts and treasures will return to Iraq. But you've written, Nada, that looting and smuggling continues in Iraq. Explain what's going on.
Yes, as a matter of fact, looting does continue and the state of the cultural heritage is not any better than it was in 2003. I'm writing the same things that I wrote in 2003. I am making the same pleas of 2003. The archeological sites are not really well protected. The looting continues. Much of the lost artifacts are not returned. There's no money for restoration. There [has] been no interest in helping the Museum of Modern Art pick up where it is. What I try to do with the Modern Art Iraq Archive website, which was about documenting, was to try to trace. And no one knows, or no one wants to say, where are the works, what were the works. Only the artists who were alive were identifying their own works. And so, there's no sort of organized effort to identify archive documents, as well as, then, try to find these works. And by not returning, or by not even knowing what was looted, the country is deprived of its history. The Iraqi people need to know their whole history — Mesopotamia, the Islamic and the modern. You know, this is a living culture. In Iraq, if you go to Iraq, you'll be treated to a famous way of cooking fish: masgouf fish. That's actually how Iraqis cooked it with the same recipes since the Mesopotamian times.
Wow. So, professor, I mean, to that point, you're from Baghdad. Your career is devoted to art and Iraq's own rich history. Tell us a bit more about what Iraqis have been deprived of in recent years. Like, what is the one thing that the Iraq museum has sadly been missing that Iraqis should have seen?
So, you know, since the protests that were started in 2019, when we see on TV, the protesters, and their art represented as the contemporary Iraqi art, which is graffiti and reactionary and protest art, which is great, but that's by no means contemporary Iraqi art. That actually denies the heritage of their modernism. If those artists, themselves, are not able to see the heritage in the museum, then they don't really know how they got to where they are now. And what they're doing, and what they're learning, they think it's all new. The sad thing about it is that those artists would have been able to pick up where the modernists, and the other Iraqi artists [left off]. Because Iraqi art, in the region, was quite progressive and recognizable. And in fact, many of the artists of the Arab world studied in the academy in Baghdad. So, this is the heritage that Iraqis are deprived of. How will they know how to move forward if they don't know what their past [was]?
So, what do you think needs to be done to help restore and better protect Iraq's cultural heritage? And, are Iraqi officials active in making this happen?
Some Iraqi officials are. I think things are improving to some point. The problem is, they may be overwhelmed with what they have to be doing. But I know that they have not really put enough resources in documentation and archiving, let alone finding. But, there needs to be a more coordinated effort worldwide. At this moment, it's us, academics, scholars, archeologists, historians who are [making] these efforts.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.AP contributed to this report.

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