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No Map, But Trenches

(Fig 1) Map of The Trenches.1 Imaginative map of Iraq by Malallah, 2021 generated from mobile photograph of trenches at the site of Nipper in December, 2018 and the archaeological map of Iraq produced by Iraq Mudīrīyat al-Āthār al-Qadīmah al-ʻĀmmah, 1967.

(Fig 2)

(Fig 3) Drilled (punching) Map (imaginative maps of Iraq), Hanaa Malallah, 2019.

(Fig 3) shows two maps of Iraq generated from the 1967 antiquities map of Iraq (Fig 2). These three maps are part of the first exhibition of our project: Coexistent Ruins: Exploring Iraq’s Mesopotamian Past Through Contemporary Art shown at SOAS /Brunei Gallery/ London, winter, 2022. This research paper began as part of the exhibition.

The research paper we call No Map, but Trenches is offered here as a work that hovers between artwork and scholarship. The task of research and writing proceeds in tandem with the production of the visual work. Both are forms of visual communication in images and words, visual forms that present concomitant thought. These unified layers of visuality are hypothetical presentations that do not substantiate, but rather propose a thesis. They are theoretical propositions for the testing of the reasonability of assumptions. It is a proposition to be perceived by the senses. Our image-text research is a tool with which we dig deeper into the imperial past. The overlapping and interlacing of visual and textual practice is a double means of communication with viewers/readers of the work, a work which steps towards the reframing of the past.2

This textual/visual work concerns the actions and the processes of digging to acquire ancient artefacts and to bring other resources—especially petroleum—to the surface. By means of both archaeological and artistic imaginative maps (fig. 2 & 3) we visualize the way in which our research addresses the act of digging Iraq/Mesopotamia for treasures. This processes of digging and drilling, for extracting natural and cultural resources, has bulldozed the Iraqi present, and dissociated the present inhabitants from their land. It created a ruination tied to an imaginative geography and the narrative structuring of historical time.3 We point to how this dispossession and dislocation of artefacts and oil has shaped the map of the Iraqi present; it is as if it were a map of a large trench. Ruins and trenches of wars and archaeology form a palimpsest of destruction, both cultural and environmental. As Bernhardsson stated, “From the formative years of the Iraqi state (to date) … Archaeology was but one of the many hats that adorned (the Western) politician’’.4 We see the interest of oil as another and bigger hat. These are the traces of colonial-imperialist violence that we map, both in our art and in our research. It is a distorted map, a map of Imperial ruins (fig. 3). We figuratively “treat [Iraqi ruins, archaeological and oil maps] as symptom and substance of history’s destructive force’’.5

The derelict land of Iraq, the easternmost province of the Ottoman Empire which the British came to call Mesopotamia, became alluring to the West particularly as a land for digging and collecting in the nineteenth century. Archaeologists, diplomats, politicians, and those searching for natural resources all participated. They dug first for its ancient artefacts, and then for its petroleum. In 1811, Claudius James Rich, the Resident of the British East India Company in the Pashalik of Baghdad, travelled to Babylon and began digging there. During his time in the Pashalik, he also picked up numerous ancient artefacts and manuscripts and took them for his own. By the 1840s, Paul Emile Botta, the French Consul in Mosul, and Austen Henry Layard, the British statesman, began large scale excavations near Mosul in the north of Iraq, when the sculpted palaces of the ancient Assyrian kings were dug up, tunnelled through, dismantled, and taken to London and Paris and then to other locations in Europe and North America. These Orientalist adventures became standard procedure for nineteenth century archaeology in Iraq. Mesopotamia became a locus in which the west saw its own origins, the place of the birth of civilization that was then passed to Greece and Rome, and from there to its rightful place in Modern Europe, entirely bypassing the inhabitants of the east. They saw the east as the accidental location of this past. The acquisition of antiquities found in this land, was thus justified as the removal of the remains of their own past. A scramble for the past ensued in which the Louvre and the British Museum competed in a race for the acquisition of Assyrian and Babylonian antiquities.6 As Stratford Canning, the British Ambassador to the Sublime Porte in Istanbul said, “M. Botta’s success at Nineveh has induced me to venture in the same lottery, and my ticket has turned up a prize… there is much reason to think that Montague House [The British Museum] will beat the Louvre hollow”.7 The French and the British wrote explicitly about the need to be the first nation to “discover” ancient sites in Mesopotamia, and to amass the largest amount of antique material and best pieces for their museums. This early era of digging for antiquities resulted in massive disruption and dislocation of antiquities to the imperial museums.

In our view, three contributing factors shaped Iraq into a map of ruins and rubble: archaeology, natural resources and the violence perpetrated to extract and to own them. This became increasingly the case once petroleum became a major factor during the first world war. As one historian puts it, “When the British occupied Mesopotamia during the war, they were in a position to exploit some of its resources, both natural and cultural.’’8

I (Malallah) create these imaginative maps, which have been distorted by punching and scratching locations of actual archaeological sites, a process resembling digging. I see the residual ruins as maps of the present. As for these illustrated maps, neither of us knows for certain if they might qualify as a work of art. But what we do know is that we visualize our research process, and that visualization of the imaginative geography, is a landscape of violence and ruination.

(Fig. 4) Iraqi oil and gas map

(Fig 5) H. Malallah, My Country Map, 2007/8. Many layers of burnt canvas on canvas. The Park Gallery Collection.

In Malallah’s 2007 work (Fig. 5, My Country Map) one can see a map, in canvas on canvas of burnt layers. Deliberately inaccurate, this borderless map explores Malallah’s feeling of being trapped and dislocated by the consequences of the Iraq wars. Cities are positioned randomly, their names burned into canvas, reflecting the destruction and fragmentation caused by the wars. After the 2003 invasion, the occupation forces designated particular areas as safe Green Zones and others as unsafe Red Zones. A red cloth Baghdad city bus map is used to symbolise cities in the west of Iraq, which have seen extreme violence. A fragment of green appears on the upper right. This green is inspired by the colour worn by pilgrims seeking protection. In the drilled map (Fig. 3). Malallah punched each archaeological site, then punched every single location of oil extraction in the map of the modern state of Iraq, a state that was formed by West after the first world war. The result is no map, but trenches, or rather a land that is one large trench that was likewise created by western political and capitalist powers. In short, these persistent diggings and drillings have occurred at the expense of not only the present, but of the future of the people of this land (Iraqis), as well as of the environment and ecosystem.

The maps help us to develop further our earlier work, and to discover a new path in art and research alike. In her scholarship, Bahrani has written extensively about imaginative geography and colonial-imperialist interest in this region, its archaeological ruins and its antiquities.9 Malallah has addressed these issues through art practice. Our joint paper here brings our visual and textual work together, and takes down the boundary between our scholarship and art.

Our approach is also phenomenological in that we consider our physical presence and experience at the archaeological or historical site, and the reality of its tangible existence. This is not just the pleasure of encountering our past physically or experiencing “the material world that carries the traces of (our) past’’ in the words of Colin Renfrew, but keeping our questions about identity alive, the identity and rights of the contemporary inhabitants and Iraqi people that have been largely dismissed. For Malallah, this project is based on her physical, personal experiences and history. She was born in Iraq and had remained there from her birth in 1958 until the end of 2006. She had never left. After the 2003 war and its aftermath, she left, yet continued to visit Iraq frequently. Iraq has never dislodged. Bahrani who was also born in Iraq, continues to work there, and to write about its history from that perspective.

Here we engage with signifier sites on maps in order to evoke our artistic imagination.10 One question that arises is the following: if our imaginative maps are layered and superimposed with maps of digging for oil and gas (Fig. 4) what would that show us? How much land—or what debris—would be left to represent the present nation in comparison with the presence of western corporations and the decades of archaeologists’ activities and their maps. With this question in mind, Malallah illustrated this situation with the imaginative map of Iraq titled, Map of the Trenches. (Fig. 1). What did these archaeologists and extractors of natural resources leave behind? This is what is described in No Map But Trenches.

Digging the surface of ruins and deep into tells in order to reach the great civilizations, and transfer artefacts out the country to western museums dilapidated the land, damaged environments both cultural and natural, and resulted in ruination. Each dig/punch puts Iraqi people into a circle of unsustainable existence. It is unsustainable in terms of living environment, and also in terms of undermining identity by disrupting the ways in which people live with the traces of the past that are all around them. The latter has been a central concern for Bahrani in her fieldwork project, Mapping Mesopotamian Monuments.11

In a letter that Gertrude Bell sent to Lord Cromer in October of 1910, thus before the British invasion of Iraq she wrote: “And you, with your profound experience of the East, have learnt to reckon with the unbroken continuity of its history. Conqueror follows upon the heels of conqueror, nations are overthrown and cities topple down into the dust, but the conditions of existence are unaltered and irresistibly they fashion the new age in the likeness of the old…Where past and present are woven so closely together, the habitual appreciation of the division of time slips insensibly away’’.12

In another letter held in her archive, a private letter that she wrote to her mother, Bell said that she was shocked to see the mess that the British archaeologists had left behind.13 At the same time, it is clear from numerous comments made by Bell, and from remarks made by other British colonial officers in Iraq, that antiquities were regarded as trophies of war.14

The role of archaeology and collecting in this ruination and disregard of the contemporary inhabitants of the land is ongoing. Bahrani has experienced this and seen it occur often. This also became clear to Malallah when a chance occurred in 2018 December that led her to meet a guard who worked at Ur, and to make a video showing a device left at the excavation site. The device was under sheets of white cloth which cover the excavation trenches. It seems to have been installed by the archaeologists before they left, without informing the guards. This decision shocked and surprised the site guards (Fig. 6). It indicated that the archaeologists, seeing Ur as their own site, felt no need to communicate with them. The implication is that the ancient sites of Iraq do not belong to the people of Iraq. Today, the idea that they are global cultural heritage has been turned to mean that they belong to everyone else, but not to the people who live with them, in them and around them.

(Fig 6) Hollow map, installation view from our exhibition at Brunei Gallery/ SOAS/ London from January through March 2022.

The main question for all of us is why? What is the reason for this enduring process of ruination? Which map of Iraq is us, is ours? We presented a hollow map (Fig 6) illustrating our idea in a prediction map of Iraq, after all the digging for oil and artefacts, a map of pillage.

(Fig. 7) Stills from documentary video, 2018 at Ur, Iraq.

  1. The term trench is used here because it references both war and archaeology.

  2. This paper is one of a series of our co-authored papers; see:

  3. Zainab Bahrani, “Conjuring Mesopotamia: Imaginative Geography and a World Past” in L.M. Meskell ed, Archaeology Under Fire, London: Routledge, 1998, pp. 159-174; and Z. Bahrani, “Iraq: Creative Destruction and Cultural Heritage in the Warscape” in The Routledge Handbook of Art and Heritage Destruction ed A. Gonzáles-Zarandona et al. (London: Routledge, 2022).

  4. M. T. Bernhardsson, Reclaiming a Plundered Past (University of Texas Press, 2006) p. 95.

  5. Paraphrasing Ann Laura Stoler, Imperial Debris (Duke University Press, 2013) p. ix.

  6. Zainab Bahrani, “Untold Tales of Mesopotamian Discovery” in Zainab Bahrani, Zeynep Celik, Edhem Eldem, Scramble for the Past: A Story of Archaeology in the Ottoman Empire, 1753-1914 (Istanbul: Salt, 2011), pp.125-155.

  7. Quoted in Stanley-Lane Poole, The Life of the Right Honourable Stratford Canning, vol. 2, 1888, p.149; F.N. Bohrer, Orientalism and Visual Culture, Cambridge University Press, 2003, p. 56; Z. Bahrani, “Untold Tales of Mesopotamian Discovery” in Bahrani, Çelik and Eldem, Scramble for the Past, Istanbul: Salt, 2011. P. 134.

  8. M.T. Bernhardsson, Reclaiming a Plundered Past (University of Texas Press, 2006) p. 87, our emphasis.

  9. Zainab Bahrani, “Conjuring Mesopotamia: Imaginative Geography and a World Past” in L.M. Meskell ed, Archaeology Under Fire, London: Routledge, 1998, pp. 159-174; “The Aesthetic and the Epistemic: Race, Culture and Antiquity” in The Graven Image, 2003, pp. 13-49; and most recently, Z. Bahrani, “Iraq: Creative Destruction and Cultural Heritage in the Warscape” in The Routledge Handbook of Art and Heritage Destruction ed A. Gonzáles-Zarandona et al. (London: Routledge, 2022).

  10. Colin Renfrew, Figuring it Out (London: Thames and Hudson, 2003) p. 44.

  11. This project was initiated in 2012 is ongoing. It can be accessed in Arabic, Kurdish, Turkish and English.

  12. Gertrude Lowthian Bell, Amurath to Amurath, (London: MacMillan and co, 1911) p. vii-vii.

  13. M.T. Bernhardsson, 2006, p. 63.

  14. For the documentation regarding the classification of antiquities as trophies of war in the first world war see M.T. Bernhardsson, 2006, chapter 2.

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