On the second floor of the Imperial War Museum in London, on a back wall near the stairs, is a large tiled eagle from Baghdad. Its caption is simple: “Built into the wall of a German residence facing the Tigris. Removed on the order of Lt General Sir William Marshall, commander-in-chief of the Mesopotamian Expeditionary Force after the capture of Baghdad, 11 March 1917.” Below, in the ground floor atrium full of polished, 20th-century military hardware—much of which never actually saw combat—is a car destroyed in Baghdad in 2007. The car’s title, “Baghdad, 5 March 2007”, refers to the day a suicide bomber drove a truck down Mutanabi Street and blew it up, killing 38 people and injuring over 100 others.
Mutanabi Street is Baghdad’s book souq, a centre of literary trade and activity since the time of the Abbasids, the Islamic dynasty that founded Baghdad in the 8th century. Modern Mutanabi Street is home to bookshops, a busy Friday book market and al-Shahbandar, a storied café that opened in 1917. Down the street from al-Shahbandar is the Serai, the former administrative officers of the Ottomans, who ruled Baghdad from the 16th century. In the Serai in 1921, the British crowned Faisal as the first king of the new mandate state of Iraq. In 2008 the restored book market on Mutanabi Street reopened, but without cars and with fewer book stalls.
The artist behind the twisted and flattened mass of rust-colored metal is Turner Prize winner Jeremy Deller, who insists that the car is not a piece of art but an exhibition, a statement on the spike in civilian suffering in combat in the last century. In an atrium of war machines, none of which show any damage from battle, and all of which targeted civilians in some capacity, the car-bombed chassis changes the subject. This is what war does to civilians in cities—not what it looks like off the assembly line.
A place like the Imperial War Museum operates somewhere between memorial and exhibition; its objective is not jingoism, but not pacifism either. National pride is represented in the weapons and artifacts of the world wars, especially those from the Battle of Britain. In such an environment, “Baghdad, 5 March 2007” is a warning against extending patriotism to the present. Joint British-American adventurism and cooked intelligence led to the 2003 invasion and occupation; at that time, the legacy of Britain’s first foray in Iraq, seen in the floor above the destroyed car, was firmly ignored. Barack Obama may have declared Operation Iraqi Freedom over last year, but nearly 50,000 American soldiers remain. Sectarian violence continues, even if the media has moved on, drawn back only when the bombs are big enough. The car succeeds as an exhibit because it forces you to remember where it is from and how it got here; it doesn’t let you forget Iraq.
On a stand next to the Baghdad car is a pamphlet recounting its journey to the museum. In 2007, a Dutch curator arranged for the car to be shipped out of Iraq for an anti-war rally in the Netherlands. Subsequently, Deller took it to America for an exhibit called “It Is What It Is: Conversations About Iraq”, which began at the New Museum in New York, where gallery visitors could talk to one of 33 “experts” on Iraq, including soldiers, refugees, scholars, artists, and journalists. “The car was really a conversation piece”, Deller said in an interview then. “It’s a way to get people talking, and get them agitated maybe.” Then Deller and two of his experts—an American soldier and an Iraqi artist—left for a three-week road-trip across the country, with the car in tow on the back of a trailer, with a white sign that read “This car was destroyed by a bomb in a Baghdad marketplace on March 5, 2007.” The conversations continued, and Deller’s performance—which this ultimately was—remained vague, somewhere between education and protest. But not art, he insisted. And most critics agreed. The car is not a found object, even it is on display and has a sculptural quality, a kind of aesthetics, to its ruined frame. It is a conversation piece, a jarring artifact from Iraq brought home.
The conversations that the car is now sparking in the Imperial War Museum are very different from those in America. It’s not only about national amnesia, or trauma, or ignorance about Iraq. In the atrium is a broader dialogue about war. And in a space whose mission is to honour the past while illuminating its horrors, the Baghdad car is firmly in the present, a warning of where we are. A century ago, 10% of all casualties in conflicts were civilian; today it is 90%. In the two months leading up to the Mutanabi Street bombing, 90 Iraqi civilians were being killed every day. These and other statistics accompany the car in the atrium in London. Three weeks before the attack, the much-publicised surge began—20,000 additional American soldiers into Baghdad to protect civilians and stem sectarian violence. The cultural cost is high, too: 25% of the book collection in Iraq’s National Library is lost—either stolen or burned; 60% of its archives have disappeared. The looting of Iraq’s celebrated National Musuem has left its collection depleted, much like the bookstalls on rebuilt Mutanabi Street.
There is a brief history of “Britain and Iraq” in the literature accompanying the car: how British interest in the Ottoman provinces of Mesopotamia during the First World War “lay in its importance as a route to India and its oil reserves”; how Britain was awarded the mandate over the new state of Iraq by a League of Nations that honored European colonial claims over wartime promises to Arab nationalists; and how a 1920 revolt, crushed by the Royal Air Force, pushed the British to install Faisal, who had briefly been proclaimed king of Syria before the French expelled him. The San Remo Conference had, after all, given them the mandate over Syria. With Faisal at the throne, living in the empty rooms of the former Ottoman Serai, the British governed Iraq from above. “At any sign of trouble, British aircraft dropped warning leaflets, then bombed villages” reads a page in a booklet next to the car. “This only increased hatred of the British.”
The salvaged car provokes conversations about all this history, but it cannot say everything. For one, there is the German tiled eagle upstairs—removed from a home in Baghdad by the victorious British general in 1917. Prior to the First World War, Baghdad had been the target of competing imperial schemes—including those of Germany, which fostered close ties with Istanbul and planned to connect Baghdad to Berlin via railway before war broke out. For Germany, control of Mesopotamia would disrupt Britain’s dream of linking Egypt to India while fulfilling unrealized colonial ambitions. Baghdad, like much of the pre-war Middle East, was seen by the European powers as geography to be won, another prize in a colonial contest whose end was, in fact, only a generation away.
The tiled German eagle and the bombed Iraqi car are two artifacts from Baghdad, 90 years apart, one a product of historic, imperial competition and the other of the continued hubris of war, dressed up by “democracy” and “food and medicines and supplies and freedom”, as George W. Bush said three months before invasion. Iraqis have paid for it all.
Frederick Deknatel is reading for an MPhil in Modern Middle Eastern Studies at St Antony’s College, Oxford.