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Iraq: Culture Minister Asks That Art, Music, Theater Not Be Forgotten (Q&A)

Iraq's interim minister of culture, Mufid Muhammad Jawad al-Jaza'iri, visited RFE/RL's offices in Prague today. Al-Jaza'iri was appointed to serve as minister of culture last September. A member of the political bureau of the Iraqi Communist Party, al-Jaza'iri studied journalism in Prague and worked on the Arabic desk at Czechoslovak Radio during the 1960s and 1970s before traveling to northern Iraq to join the underground opposition to Saddam Hussein. RFE/RL sat down with him to discuss the state of cultural affairs in the country.

Prague, 25 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Baghdad's National Museum of Antiquities was looted after the fall of the city last April. How many of the looted artifacts have been recovered, and what is the state of the museum now?

Al-Jaza'iri: We did lose about 14,000 pieces, archaeological pieces. Until now, we were successful [recovering about] one-third of it. About 4,000 pieces we did get back, and about 10,000 are out of our hands. Now, in the museum itself, it's still very sad because of what has happened. Now, we are trying to use this opportunity to rebuild somehow, to reorganize the museum, and when we open it again it will be in better shape.

RFE/RL: What other cultural sites in Iraq suffered during the war?

Al-Jaza'iri: We did also lose many paintings and many other fine art pieces from the National Gallery of Iraqi Fine Art, called at that time Saddam's Center. [The gallery] was also looted and thousands of pieces -- I mean paintings, sculpture, mosaics and so on -- are now [gone]. We are looking for them. You can find them in souks, in bazaars. They are selling those pieces -- these thieves and these businessmen, if I can say 'black businessmen,' who are trying to make money. Now, we are trying to do our best to get these artistic pieces back.

RFE/RL: What are the most urgent cultural problems in Iraq?

Al-Jaza'iri: There are a lot of problems in all fields of culture. You see, in [Iraq's] culture, like in all other fields, everything is catastrophic. Everything is in a catastrophic state. And we are trying gradually to activate the life in theaters, in the field of music, book publishing, fine arts, and so on. But the tragedy is so big that we need big help from abroad, mainly because our resources are little now, though Iraq is a rich country. Now, we are in a miserable situation after all the wars of Saddam Hussein and after the international economic sanctions, which lasted more than 12 years.

RFE/RL: What is your ministry planning to do to preserve the diverse culture of Iraq's national minorities -- Armenians, Jews, Assyrians, and Kurds?

"We did lose about 14,000 pieces, archaeological pieces.... About 4,000 pieces we got back, and about 10,000 are out of our hands."
Al-Jaza'iri: We do recognize the fact that there's a plurality of cultures in Iraq. There are many nations, there are many minorities, and we have to respect this fact, and we have to create equal chances for the development and for the growth for all these cultures. It doesn't matter if it concerns the Arab majority or should be done for a small minority, such as Armenians. We, the Ministry of Culture, are trying to support all cultural activities in which the minorities are involved.

RFE/RL: How much money is the interim Iraqi government managing to channel toward culture, at a time when the country is focused on much more pressing concerns?

Al-Jaza'iri: Not so much. I can say that the figure is very low. It is a small number if you compare it with other ministries, and that is somehow logical because culture for many people -- for many people in the government and in the [Iraqi] Governing Council -- is not a priority. They don't think that culture is a priority or [that] it is an urgent priority. And we do recognize the fact that security is a priority, that electricity, the water supply and food and so on are the [main] priorities. But in the meantime, we do think that culture is also a priority, and it's impossible to leave it at the end of all these tasks. So, we are asking for more money, but the resources, the initial resources, are limited."