By Maya Chiodo
For many U.S. college students, hearing mention of Iraq evokes images of soldiers, oil, refugees, and destruction. In 2003, the United States invaded the country and American soldiers remained there for roughly eight years. Those soldiers and the combat that surrounded them dominated U.S. media coverage, leaving little room for the stories of Iraqi civilians and the hardships they endured during and after the occupation.
Now, 15 years after the invasion, several departments at UC Santa Barbara came together for a symposium to flip the script and reframe U.S. perspectives on Iraq. “[The goal is to] re-orient us towards Iraq in order to overturn these reductive and insufficient representations of human beings,” said organizer Mona Damluji, a professor in the Film and Media Studies Department.
The two-day event, called “Iraq Front and Center” was held earlier this month to create a space for interdisciplinary conversations, bringing together guest speakers from the diverse perspectives of novelist, journalist, filmmaker, and doctor.
The event began by bringing together student and faculty groups from a number of disciplines, such as Middle East Studies and Religious Studies, to hear New York University professors Sara Pursley and Sinan Antoon speak on the history and contemporary culture of Iraq.
Interdisciplinary Humanities Center Susan Derwin said the intimate setting of the McCune Conference Room fostered timely discussion on current issues relevant to Iraq – such as the impending appointment of Gina Haspel as CIA director, despite her support of torture.
During the first-day afternoon reception, the UCSB Middle East Ensemble performed different rhythms which ensemble director Scott Marcus said were specifically Iraqi in origin.
Later, the Carsey-Wolf Center presented the film Life After the Fall in the Pollock Theater, which included a discussion with NPR correspondent Leila Fadel and Iraqi novelist and NYU Professor Sinan Antoon. Fadel said the most important element in telling stories from Iraq is to portray them accurately and give them a human lens. “[Journalists should work on] creating mosaics and pictures of humanity that are real, that can be related to, and that also don’t dismiss or whitewash what is actually happening,” she said.
The two-hour long film exemplifies this style of narrative as it documents 14 years in the life of one Iraqi family, starting with the fall of Saddam Hussein. The film showed the family dancing and eating dinner together juxtaposed with footage of the family members’ distraught and confused by ongoing terrorist attacks in their city, Baghdad. Throughout the film, the point of view remains that of the civilian.
The symposium attracted a strong showing of faculty and staff members, as well as some graduate students, and a few undergraduates whose attendance counted toward certain courses. These students came mainly from the Global Studies, Religious Studies, and Middle East Studies departments.
Organizer Damluji noted that undergraduate students grew up during the U.S. occupation of Iraq so that generation tends to view Iraq exclusively through the lens of war, and it is time to broaden those views. “This symposium is an opportunity to offer a lens -- a historical lens and a critical lens -- on that status quo, to help with some paradigm shifting of what has just become normalized in the way we talk about or don’t talk about Iraq,” she said in her opening remarks.
On the final day, Dr. Omar Dewachi, co-director of the Conflict Medicine Program at the American University of Beirut, spoke on the relationship between war and drug-resistant bacteria. In his closing comments, Dewachi mentioned the generally-held belief among scholars that cultural traditions in Iraq have been lost, due to both physical and social destruction. He asserted that further research is needed within the country, from all disciplines. In this way, the U.S. view of Iraq may be able to transcend a perspective that has been framed only by war and conflict, Dewachi said.
Maya Chiodo is a third-year student at UC Santa Barbara, majoring in Environmental Studies and planning to minor in Professional Writing. After reporting this event in the Writing Program's Journalism for the Web and Social Media course, she went on to be hired as a student assistant for the Interdisciplinary Humanities Center (IHC).