BAGHDAD — Although more than 10 years have passed since the transformative events of 2003 in Iraq, the fate of the Iraq Museum remains a mystery. News of it has all but disappeared. It is known to open its doors to diplomatic missions, but most Iraqis have never been inside the museum, which has been undergoing construction work, which has itself raised questions. Although there are workers in the museum, and although it was officially reopened in 2009, the museum remains closed to the public. With its director, Amira Edan, sometimes outright refusing to speak to the press, the museum is shrouded in mystery and secrecy. This is where my story of the museum began and enigmatically ended.
Every time I pass by the museum, I feel the urge to go inside and see the antiquities, artwork and other items displayed there. I am overwhelmed by a burning desire to see the museum’s doors opened wide to visitors. It has been 10 years since the museum was vandalized following the US-led invasion. When I look at the museum’s facade, I stare at it with the eyes of a citizen who has a bond thousands of years old with the museum.
While standing in front of the new building one day, I suddenly remembered that I am a journalist. My job necessitates that I search for answers to questions that often perplex me. I immediately decided to go to the museum and ask the questions I had on my mind. I was certain I would be warmly received, but I stood waiting at the door of the director for far too long. I had notified her secretary of my business there and the importance of getting an interview with Edan. It turns out that waiting is part of every job at this museum, and visiting journalists are treated like any other employee. While I waited, various employees entered and left her office, one after the other. Then came my turn.
The secretary entered the director’s office to tell her that I was waiting to talk with her. A few minutes later, the secretary returned with disappointing news that decimated my optimism: “You must get an official letter from the journalistic institution you work for as well as a statement from the Ministry of Tourism allowing you to interview the director.” Having neither document, I expressed my surprise and objection, especially since I had wasted time waiting.
Nevertheless, I decided to do what they asked of me. As I walked over to the Iraqi Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, I recalled clauses from the Journalist Protection Law, the right to access information and freedom of press, in addition to other matters aimed at ensuring respect for journalists. Before entering the Public Relations and Journalism Department, I saw posted signs that read “Journalism is an important element to promoting tourism.” This gave me renewed optimism. I entered to find a nice employee who kindly asked me to show her my professional ID and my personal status card. She took both IDs and disappeared.
A few minutes later, the employee reappeared and asked me to write a petition addressed to the director general of public relations and media requesting his permission to interview the museum director. She also said that I must state the aim of my interview and provide the questions I intended to ask. Intrigued, I took pen and paper and drafted the petition. Shortly thereafter, the lady handed me the letter of permission signed by the director general. I left the ministry and re-read it several times, while repeatedly asking myself, “What kind of press obliges a journalist to submit questions and show them to an official to obtain approval for an interview?” Perhaps any questions other than straightforward ones would be deemed unacceptable. In any case, I contented myself with the document I had.
The next day, I returned to the director’s office. The secretary was not there, so instead I talked to another woman there who seemed not to care about assisting me. I talked to yet another person, who told me to wait for the secretary.
The secretary never appeared. I waited for more than 30 minutes, during which I saw a man going in and out of the director’s office several times. I took the opportunity to introduce myself and gave him my petition for an interview. He went into the director’s office and immediately returned to tell me that the director does not talk to the press. His words set me off.
“What did you say?” I retorted.
He replied, “She does not talk to the press.”
“Repeat what you just said. I’m having trouble understanding!” I said. He reiterated that Edan does not give interviews because she is very busy. He also said she would send me to other people.
I shouted, “She has no right to do this. She is a government employee and she has to give interviews to the press. If she refuses to talk to the press, then why did she make me go through the trouble of providing her with an official letter from the Ministry of Tourism?”
My raised voice drew the attention of the staff. I told them, “I am a journalist. The people in charge here ought to answer the questions I have to ask. They have no right to refuse to see me.” One man tried to calm me down, telling me that some of the other employees could provide me with useful information.
The man then escorted me in search of the person in charge of the restoration department, but we did not find him. We then went to meet with a woman who, the man said, could help us with information about her department. I asked her if she would have a problem with her photo being published. She said yes. I expressed my regrets, and we left the room.
We went down the stairs to a courtyard, where the man invited me to take a seat. I asked him to try once again with the director, reminding her that I am a journalist and that it was her duty to meet with journalists and respond to their questions.
He said, “I don’t think she will agree to this. She has a lot to do. She is in charge of 18 museums dispersed across Iraq, not to mention her responsibilities at UNESCO.” I was surprised by this line of argument.
I responded, “This justification is not convincing, especially since the Iraq Museum works under the banner of the Ministry of Tourism, which touts the slogan that the media is an important component in promoting tourism. This is not to mention the fact that I am an Iraqi national, and I am very interested in knowing what has become of the Iraq Museum after 10 years. I do not believe it is anyone’s property. I also want to give a clear picture of this important museum to the world.” My words fell on deaf ears.
In the meantime, the media director was seen passing by. The man called her over and told her my story. She sympathized with me and went to the director’s office to try to get her to talk to me. I sat, waiting.
Thirty minutes later, the media director returned, shaking her head, a sign of rejection. I stood there, overwhelmed with frustration and pained. I looked at the entrance to the halls only a few meters away, but in my confusion and anguish, they seemed miles in the distance. I was convinced that there was something wrong in the museum. Had this not been the case, the director would have welcomed me, shook my hand and allowed me to shed light on the place. It was as simple as that.
Before I left the premises, I gave the media director the letter of approval for the interview. On my way out, I could feel the disappointed looks of the Sumerian, Assyrian and Babylonian statues at my back.
I had wanted to ask Edan about her statement in 2010, when she talked about the rehabilitation of 90% of the museum according to international standards. What has become of the other 10% of the museum in the last three years, as we have heard that the actual renovation did not exceed 70%? What exactly did she mean when she said that the museum requires governmental and international support to be readied to receive visitors.
I wanted to ask her about the artifacts that have been restored over the past 10 years and about her previous warning that some of the monuments and objects were subject to damage due to ongoing power outages. I wanted to learn more about her complaints about the lack of security guards and janitors at the museum.
I wanted to ask her why the museum receives diplomatic delegations from Arab and foreign embassies but refuses to allow entrance to average Iraqis? Why does the museum not open its doors to students so they can learn about the history of their country? Does she still think re-opening the museum is a risk in light of the security situation.
I had questions about reports in the local media claiming that antiquities have been stolen and smuggled out of the country with the help of government officials. Have some of the museum’s manuscript records and coins been damaged?
All of these questions were left unanswered, because the director of the museum refused to talk to the press.
The Iraq Museum is one of the oldest museums in the Middle East and was home to some 200,000 rare antiquities from Mesopotamian civilization before the looting in 2003.
By Abduljabbar Alattaby
Translated by Pascale Menassa.
Assyrian International News Agency