Across from Shepherd’s Bush Green, in London, lies a portal to Baghdad.
In a nondescript office building, a spacious gallery and small theatre encompass the Iraqi Cultural Centre – as much spiritual no-man’s-land as homecoming for London’s substantial Iraqi diaspora.
Here the writer Salah Niazi, who translated Shakespeare and Joyce into Arabic, is a regular, as is Adnan al-Sayegh, the poet who first fled Saddam’s wrath in the Eighties, returned, and then had to flee a fatwa from extremists.
At the centre, feminist novelists such as Amira Faisal give lectures on books about girls coming of age in war zones; actresses who were once stars of the Baghdad stage bide their time; and Iraqis of all ethnicities and faiths gather to dance traditional chobi and sing nostalgic songs from a time when their nation was not unravelling.
As the headlines from home scream Isis, this little bubble of non-sectarian, secular culture tries valiantly to keep the flame of Babylon alive.
Director Abdulrahman Dheyab hails from Al-Dhuluiya in Anbar province – a mainly Sunni village with one of the highest per capita number of PhDs in the country – that also sheltered some local Christians under threat from militias. When it was abandoned by the Iraqi army last year, who fled the advance of Isis, villagers were left to fend for themselves.
In many ways, the Iraqi Cultural Centre is as much on the cultural frontline (against not only Isis but also the spiralling post-invasion sectarianism) as the cellist Karim Wasfi who plays heartfelt odes in Baghdad to those who have died at the sites of bombings and IEDs. Wasfi was a guest at the centre last year – one of hundreds of Iraqis as well as Western writers and artists who have been featured here since the centre opened in 2012.
Initiated under the mandate of then Minister of Culture Dr Saadoun al-Dulaimi – a rare secularist in Iraq’s post-invasion political landscape – the centre channels the Iraqi multicultural ideal. It’s an ideal that rather nostalgically resonates with the Seventies, before the reign of Saddam Hussein, before the eight-year war with Iran, 12 years of draconian sanctions and invasion, occupation, civil war and the advent of Isis. It harks back to a time when Baghdad was a thriving cultural centre, when government funds, later drained for the war chest, created new theatres, schools, galleries and public art.
Dheyab and a staff of 10 manage to do some remarkable things on a rather limited budget, from a government in a constant state of flux.
A recent exhibition of Iraqi children’s drawings about peace called Fulfil My Dream (which was organised by the Iraqi Fine Artists Association and originally opened at the V&A Museum of Childhood in March) also includes drawings by local London children that will be sent back to Iraq. And as Isis blows up ancient sites, an ongoing educational project for young people about the Epic of Gilgamesh, organised by the Enheduanna Society, celebrates Mesopotamian heritage and its legacy today.
An evening of musical homage to renowned Iraqi-Jewish maqam singer Saleh al-Kuwaity was organised last December in conjunction with the publication of a book about maqam (Iraq’s sung poetry), produced by the centre’s in-house press (which offers all its books – including translations of Iraqi poets such as Badr Shakir al-Sayyab into English – for free to the public.) Every spring there is a special celebration of Nowruz for local Iraqi Kurds, with a folkloric fashion show, and recent speakers have included the former British ambassador to Iraq, Terence Clark, who spoke about the future of Kurdistan.
And actress Tara Jaffar runs a regular “therapeutic theatre” workshop at the centre, where Iraqis of all backgrounds can transform their stories of trauma into dramatic transcendence.
“When the old Kufa Gallery closed down in 2006,” recounts writer Khalid Kishtainy, a veteran newspaper columnist and regular at the centre who has just written a play about a young British woman who joins Isis, “we needed a place to go”. The vacuum left by the closure of Kufa – a gallery that hosted Middle Eastern and Islamic culture for the better part of two decades in Westbourne Grove – was partly filled by the opening of the Iraqi Cultural Centre.
Actress Ahlam Arab returned to Iraq in 2005 but found that it was “too dangerous” to do theatre work and was limited to filming television dramas. She says the centre “is a place where Iraqis from different backgrounds can come together”.
Writer Samira Al-Mana – whose last novel, The Undecided, set in the waiting room of a Baghdad gynaecologist’s office in the wake of the invasion, was about “Iraqis with clashing ideas about their future” – sees the centre as “a fantastic place to bring Iraqis together to help understand each other and their views”.
For playwright Hassan Abdulrazzak, an Iraqi born in Prague and raised in the UK whose first play, Baghdad Wedding, won rave reviews, “the centre has proved an immensely helpful resource to have as an artist”.
Dheyab opened up the centre as a free weekly rehearsal space for Abdulrazzak’s next project – a series of dramatic monologues including a satirical one by an iPhone-obsessed would-be jihadi called Love, Bombs and Apples (opening at the Arcola Theatre on 21 July)
Dheyab himself, whose directorship will end later this summer, says he hopes that the centre will continue to “show the reality of Iraqi culture”.
It’s a culture that was once conflated with the image of Saddam Hussein, and now Isis, and yet one that is far richer and more nuanced than any pantomime bogeyman conjured by media caricatures.
“We want the international community to understand our culture, which is the real strength of Iraq,” says Dheyab. “The centre is a bridge.”
It’s also the quickest way to travel to an idealised Iraqi past, and a reimagined future.