Panel of experts discuss the impact of war on Iraqi culture

Six professors and experts used their personal experiences in Iraq and their respective areas of expertise — archaeology, art history, human rights, law and education — as a lens through which to discuss aspects of today’s Iraqi culture at a panel Tuesday evening.

The talk was the third in a series of University-sponsored “Iraq Beyond the Headlines” panels on Iraq since the war began in the spring of 2003. About 60 students, faculty members and area residents attended the event at Linsly-Chittenden Hall, which was organized by the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations and focused exclusively on cultural issues in Iraq.

Arabic professor Bassam Frangieh, who moderated the panel, said the panel was designed to take the audience “beyond the headlines” and discuss matters of the war that the news media have not covered.

“It’s really to broaden understanding of the current situation in Iraq and in the Middle East and in the world at large,” Frangieh said in an interview before the panel began.

Assyriology professor Benjamin Foster, curator of the Yale Babylonian Collection, touched on the significance of Mesopotamian clay tablets to the history of Iraq. He said the war in Iraq has resulted in the destruction of archaeological artifacts by looters and thieves.

“Clay tablets from Iraq can tell us anything that a human being can think to put in writing,” Foster said. “The destruction of human history — our human history — will be the greatest long-term affect of the Iraq war.”

Kathryn Slanski, a post-doctoral fellow in Assyriology, said she thinks it has taken much courage for Iraqi scholars to engage academically in recent years.

“The world of higher education has not been sheltered from the country’s turmoil,” Slanksi said.

Eckart Frahm, another Assyriology professor, said he thinks Iraq’s archaeological artifacts are important to the history of the world.

“Besides oil, history is Iraq’s most valuable resource,” Frahm said.

Center for International Human Rights Executive Director James Silk said the Saddam Hussein regime had violated Iraqi citizens’ rights and a relationship exists between the laws of war and of human rights. He said reforms in human rights, law enforcement and economic policies can solve this problem.

“It’s easy to observe rights in easy times, and that’s never been the point,” Silk said. “When they matter is when it’s difficult times.”

Karen Foster, an art history professor who specializes in the Middle East, said the wartime destruction of archaeological sites in Mesopotamia is hurting the world’s historical context.

“The murder of Mesopotamia is a global crime,” Foster said.

Discussing her experiences restoring the Iraq Museum, which houses the country’s antiquities, Yale Peabody Museum senior conservator Catherine Sease said the biggest problem she saw was the lack of morale among the museum’s staff.

The panel covered a wide range of issues in the culture of present-day Iraq, and some students said this variety in discussion is an important part of increasing students’ awareness.

“I think they need to hear more perspectives,” Alex Yergin ’07 said. “They shouldn’t just focus on what makes the news headline. People need to look at the full picture.”

Frangieh said Iraq is the “cradle of civilization.”

“There’s no more important topic in the world than Iraq,” Frangieh said. “If we don’t talk about Iraq, what else is there to talk about?”

Professors and experts offer new perspectives on Iraq by drawing on personal experience.
Sophie Perl
Professors and experts offer new perspectives on Iraq by drawing on personal experience.

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