New Iraqi Cultural Center in Washington heralded as fresh start

By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 11, 2010

America's new Iraqi Cultural Center occupies a slice of rented office space above an AT&T store, overlooking a Five Guys and a Hair Cuttery and a bustling Connecticut Avenue in the capital of the country that scuffed and dinged some of Iraq's antique furniture during its 2003 invasion and resulting tenancy. Washington: Capital, also, of Irony.

Guests trickle in Monday evening and are greeted by a wooden reception desk and dune-colored carpeting. "Pretty nice for an office suite," says a woman as she signs a guest book in buoyant cursive: Congratulations on your new start!

The phrase "the new Iraq" tickles the tongues of Embassy Row-ers and State Department officials as they chat and sip Sprite at 1630 Connecticut Ave. NW and murmur about how nice it is to be here at the inauguration of the center, which was conceived by Iraq's Ministry of Culture, shepherded by the Embassy of the Republic of Iraq and installed by a woman wearing a white linen pantsuit and a metal Bedouin necklace.

This is Aseel Albanna, a District-based architect who had four weeks to turn a humdrum, low-ceilinged suite in Dupont Circle into the cultural face of a country that is perhaps most widely known for exploding.

"My biggest battle was over the fluorescent light," says Albanna, who was born and educated in Baghdad and moved to Washington in 1992. "My job was to transfer an office space into an artistic space that will allow us to build in Iraqi heritage. . . . I call this the beginning of a new future."

She raised parts of the ceiling to create a recessed, desert-colored crescent that coaxes the eye into the main room. The place is so new that most of artwork isn't labeled. There's a photo of a gilded bull sculpture from pre-Babylonian times, and of the Al Malwiya Tower in Samarra. Just past a row of potted baby palm trees, a plastic sign that says "Iraqi Cultural Center" is suction-cupped to the front window. Trays of dates, pickled turnips, baked eggplant and lamb are placed on the buffet. The Iraqi flag glows on two flat-screen TVs.

"So it's nice they have this now," says a State Department employee as she sets her drink on a cocktail table.

Iraq's national anthem is played, and VIPs deploy speeches. It's time for Americans and Iraqis to learn from each other, says Jeffrey Feltman, the State Department's assistant secretary for Near Eastern affairs. It's time for people to hear and see the culture over the car bombs, says Iraqi Ambassador Samir Sumaida'ie, who reminds the guests and TV cameras that ancient Iraq was the cradle of civilization, the onetime center of global innovation, the birthplace of the wheel and of writing and of mathematics.

About 15,000 objects were looted from the National Museum in Baghdad in the first days of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The National Library, the National Archives and the Ministry of Culture were destroyed in the ensuing chaos in 2003. The U.S. military bulldozed and trenched the site of ancient Babylon, which had already been perverted to some extent by Saddam Hussein. In 2007, a car bomb demolished Mutanabi Street, the literary heart of the capital. Anarchy and an unstable government have deadened artistic freedoms, says Donny George Youkhanna, former director of Iraq's National Museum and current professor of Mesopotamian archaeology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Youkhanna thinks it's very important that the cultural center has opened in the capital of the United States.

"Culturally educated people will never kill each other," he says in a phone interview earlier Monday. "I am an optimistic man. I believe that whatever happened in the past just happened. It was a kind of destiny. . . . If we have this kind of official good relations between the Iraqi government and U.S. government, let's use it. Why not move it forward? Culture is one of the best ways to do it. "

At the opening-night party, people don't seem to see irony. They say they see progress.

"In the last couple years, we've had well over 1,000 artifacts handed over to the embassy by American customs authorities -- it's been an excellent joint effort and cooperation," says Sumaida'ie. "We want to build on the positive. We don't want to keep harping on the disasters that took place."

Sixty-three percent of Americans ages 18 to 24 could not locate Iraq on a map in 2006, according to a National Geographic poll, and the cultural center aims to fill in the blanks for the public. That will involve poetry readings and live music and displaying modern art and ancient artifacts. One such artifact, the Tabula Rogeriana, hangs near the front entrance. It's a 12th-century depiction of the known world, with Baghdad in the center, and America not yet on the map.

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