A burden or not, Iraq remains a part of us that governs our relation to others. A quest to know what Iraq constitutes in us and what we represent in the whole picture has always been so interesting and intriguing for me. Whatever yields from this quest is always being put to test, if not disbelief and self-subjected ridicule. The whole notion of Iraqiness, if you like, is still fluctuating between nostalgia and theory. Nostalgia as in our parents and grandparents remembering their lives and the events they witnessed in early twentieth century; and theory as in the search for an Iraqi identity after 2003. So really, is there such an identity?
Heritage is what we could begin with. But instead of it being imposed on us (as the case has been always), why do not we identify it ourselves on the condition that we can relate to it. Our ears and heads got tired from the same old “cradle of civilization, crafters of writing, and home of numeration”. Politicians and governments pick and mix what they like from this history to the extent that our perception is now filtered through built-in sectarian and ethnic values, as well as political tendencies. What is supposed to be a shared history and cultural heritage is nothing now but an inheritance under conflict, misuse and neglect. However, hope remains as tasty as our masgoof, kabab Iraqi and khubuz-il-tanoor, which ironically represent a strong bond between Iraqis despite their differences.
The British Museum has some of the finest pieces from Mesopotamia. For example, the Assyrian reliefs displayed there are in a remarkable condition that we can see details within details. The other interesting fact is that the reliefs range in topics depicting different aspects from lives of not only Assyrians but also Babylonians, Chaldaeans and Aramaeans and others. Beyond the history of war scenes, royal authority and records of achievements, exists a rich visual narrative that we can relate to from an emotional and social aspect. An example is the date-palm tree (النخلة).
The date-palm tree is so significant that it never disappears from the background in our culture, not mentioning its presence in the foreground of several aspects of our heritage. The date-palm tree is shown in many of the reliefs in the museum. Although it was not that abundant in scenes from events in Assyria but it was a religious symbol related to royalty as in the Sacred Tree. Then, we see the date-palm tree again in battle scenes from Babylonia, and most importantly in scenes from Assyrian conquest in southern Mesopotamia against tribes living in the marshlands.
We could relate to the date-palm through religious context such as that it was mentioned in the Holy Quran 21 times, about 300 times in al-Hadith al-Shareef, as well as in the Bible before that. Political history also relates us to it when we remember the images of burnt and severed millions of date-palm trees in the aftermath of 1991 uprising as a result of Saddam’s brutal retaliation against the people. From a more personal aspect, we could all relate to it as a feature in our material culture as a nation. However oversimplified this might sound, but do not we all appreciate palm-dates in a special way and have our own preference of its types? Did not most of our families plant their own date-palm tree in at least one of their residences over the years in Iraq? Did not exports of date-palms generate substantial revenue for Iraq in the 1980s, and now most date-palm orchids are deteriorating because of countless reasons that make us all sorry.
If we identify the link and relate to it, we make the heritage, and it is this heritage that gives our identity its substance.