Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Culture Clash

Too often we measure the cost of the Iraq invasion in dollars and deaths, but we forget about the country's cultural heritage. In 2003, when the tanks rolled in, the U.S. protected one treasure only -- the oil wells. The statues, museums, parks and cemeteries were left unprotected to be damaged and looted.

John Curtis, an archeologist and historian, tells the story of Who Stole Iraq's Priceless Treasures:
The source of my dismay is evident: as an archeologist and historian, I’m aware of what is at stake. But why should anyone else care? Iraq is rightly referred to as the cradle of civilisation. It is where writing was invented, the first cities appeared, and Mesopotamia – the land between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates – was home to Sumerians, Babylonians and Assyrians. The Iraq Museum was one of the richest museums in the Middle East, if not the world, and housed a magnificent collection of treasures from ancient Mesopotamia.
The cradle of civilisation has been looted, but don't worry, the U.S. government has plans to build the American Dream in its place with the help of Ride and Show Engineering (RSE), a company founded by designers and engineers from the Walt Disney Company. Yep, say good-bye to Iraqi culture and history. Say hello to Disneyland!

Of course, I think the whole idea is obscene. Iraq is in the middle of a civil war, and we think they need more entertainment. Entertainment that is an integral part of war propaganda. Entertainment designed to cut youth off from their own reality. Entertainment to mold a pro-American view of the world. Entertainment to depoliticize. Hmm now that I think about it, that's exactly what pop culture has done in the U.S.

Let's not kid ourselves that this is all for the Iraqi people. It's mostly for the benefit of the American profiteers. Llewellyn Werner, one of the sponsors of the project, pitched his Disneyland idea in Baghdad:
After explaining skate…boarding, Werner tells the assembled Iraqi business and government men, “I’m a businessman. I’m not here because I think you’re nice people. I think there’s money to be made here.”
He sounds like a bit of a jerk to me, but at least he's being honest and not prattling on about democracy and justice.

Because, on the topic of justice, I'm not sure there is anything we can teach Iraq. We certainly don't set an example. In a recent LA Times article titled Blackwater shooting highlights a U.S., Iraq culture clash, the private military contractor can't understand why they can't pay off victims' families, and they conclude it's some weird cultural thing:
Deputy Chief of Mission Patricia A. Butenis told him that she was sorry for what had happened, Abdul-Razzaq recalled. She gave him a sealed envelope. It had his name written on it. Abdul-Razzaq pushed it away.

"I told her I refuse to receive any amount," the auto parts dealer said. "My father is a tribal sheik, and we're not used to taking any amount unless the concerned will come and confess and apologize. Then we will talk about compensation."
Confessions and apologies are not an odd request. Americans might be obsessed with money, but we still understand social justice. Iraqi culture is not incomprehensible, and we should stop acting like it is.

I wonder if Baghdad Disneyland will have "It's a Small World."

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