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Lady Liberty

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Monday, June 28, 2004

The Instant Rehabilitation of a Saddam Portraitist (Updated)
posted by Bathus

In his report on the transfer of sovereignty, Associated Press writer Tarek el-Tablawy includes the following quote to buttress his assertion that "the response [to the handover] in Baghdad was mixed":
"Iraqis are happy inside, but their happiness is marred by fear and melancholy," said artist Qassim al-Sabti. "Of course I feel I'm still occupied. You can't find anywhere in the world people who would accept occupation. America these days, is like death. Nobody can escape from it."
I am always suspicious of these man-on-the-street-type of quotes, which reporters too often use selectively as a device to interject their own opinions. Indeed, the above quote was the only one the AP writer used to illustrate the "mixed" reaction in Baghdad.

Don't get me wrong. I don't doubt that reaction to the handover was mixed in Baghdad, a city of millions. The issue I am exploring here is not whether opinions on the handover were "mixed," but whether the sole quote the AP writer chose to use to illustrate the presence of mixed opinions fairly represents those mixed opinions.

Being married to an artist and having had considerable experience of artists, who--on political matters generally hold opinions representative of their fellow artists and no one else--I was immediately suspicious of the implication that a quote from an artist could be representative of broader public opinion.

So I did some quick internet research on Mr. Qassim al-Sabti, the artist the AP writer presents as the sole example of Baghdad's "mixed" opinion on the transfer of sovereignty.

It turns out that for many years now the delightful Qassim al-Sabti (whose name is variously transliterated as Alsabti, al Septi, etc.) has owned and operated Hawar Gallery, widely described in Western press reports as "the best known" art gallery in Baghdad. As a pre-war report from peacenik Nathan Mauger inadvertently discloses, al-Sabti and his artsy pals did quite well under Saddam's patronage:
Saturday, Sept. 28; Baghdad

Back in Baghdad, the Voices delegation attends a dinner party given in our honor. It is in the courtyard of the house of a wealthy Iraqi art gallery owner. The art dealer, Qasim Alsabti, is incredibly articulate and enjoys hosting dinner parties. Last week there was a party for the Baghdad CNN bureau here.

We meet several prominent Iraqi artists Qasim has also invited. They speak excellent English, they're fluent in French, they have email addresses. Their drivers wait outside.

Qasim says more people were expected, but no one is going out any more because they are worried about the war.

Fish roasts over an open spit and I drink a glass of Arak, an Iraqi alcohol made from licorice. It's hard and clear, but when water is added it turns white. One of the artists raises a toast for world peace.
You might wonder how Mr. al-Sabti managed not only to survive but to flourish, yet still follow his muse as a working artist and art dealer during all those terrible years. One writer suggests al-Sabti survived and prospered under Saddam by remaining "notoriously apolitical":
Qasim is notoriously apolitical, which allowed him to run his gallery during Saddam's reign as a central meeting place for artists, collectors, diplomats (during the sanctions, UN personnel played a vital role as collectors and as a cultural lifeline to the West) and the general public. He freely admits to once painting a portrait of Saddam and says, "Look, no person was forced to do this thing, my dear. But the money! I took my friends out to dinners for weeks on the payment."
Fair enough, I suppose. One can't fault an artist if he is able, without actively doing harm, to find a way to pursue his art under an oppressive regime. More than that, al-Sabti's gallery was, so we are now told, a veritable "cultural lifeline to the West" during those tortured years. (We are heartened to learn that some of the UN muckabouts who skimmed billions from the Oil for Food Program might have put that money to good use buying art from al-Sabti.)

The problem is that al-Sabti is not so "notoriously apolitical" as his apologists claim to justify his soft collaboration with Saddam's regime:
To be sure, not everyone at the Hewar felt reborn, especially among the customers over 40, who remembered the good old days of government-sponsored awards and competitions, lucrative commissions for portraits of Father Saddam, and extra pocket money from spying for the Mukhabarat. "Under Saddam, we could do any kind of art, as long as it wasn't political; things were much better then," Septi, the owner, said nostalgically. . . .

Because of the despot's beneficence to artists -- advocates of government arts funding, take note -- support for the tyrant runs deep there. The same can't be said for the country as a whole.

And you would be wrong if you think that al-Sabti dropped his apolitical stance only after Saddam was removed from power. Before the war, al-Sabti was quoted thusly:
The conversation shifts to the impending war. Qasim says if the US attacks he will sit with his Kalashnikov and wait in his house, "because this is my home and no one will take it away from me."
To get the full flavor of al-Sabti's "apolitical" stand, read a September 2003 interview, in which he stated:
. . . We know the Americans' dirty plans. With their first steps inside Iraq, they took care of the Ministry of Oil only. I saw many American soldiers ask the looters to enter the centers of culture, the libraries and museums. The soldiers invited them with foolish smiles, allowing them to do anything inside these centers - to loot, to destroy, to burn. Believe me, this was a bad decision. Iraqis discovered a new kind of cowboy. These cowboys were taking an interest in petrol only. This is what happened during the war.

. . . . You know we need a strong man in government, especially for the police and the security. . . .

. . . .

. . . . the first thief in this world - Bush - has looted the whole country. The boss is America, you see, and it heads something like a big mafia. The Arab countries helped America destroy this country - Jordan, Egypt, Qatar, Kuwait. Really, it is good to give the Americans a good lesson, to show them the truth - that Iraq is not easy. I mean that they will pay with blood from the future of America in this land, at last.

. . . . My message is love, peace and justice. But here I am talking about American politicians, not the people. Always there is distance between the people and the politicians, like Iraqis and Saddam Hussein. They said to this world that Iraq is a dangerous country and that Saddam is a terrorist - many lies. Until now, nobody can find anything dangerous, only poor people who have lost 30 years of their lives.

. . . .

Of course, I don't believe in Saddam either, in his regime. I hated that time. I am happy when I look at my boy now because I can hope that my boy will not become a soldier. I can help him to learn computer skills or do something else.

Before the war, in the Saddam regime, we as artists had freedom to do any kind of art.
Yes, this artist who thrived under Saddam is the man whom an Associated Press uses as the sole representative of "mixed" opinion in Baghdad!

Al-Sabti's most recent "apolitical" artistic venture at his Hawar Gallery is (you guessed it!) an exhibition on Abu Ghraib:
"The Americans behaved in an incredibly revolting manner," Sabti said. His exhibit shows the body of a woman under a white shroud smeared with blood between the thighs. "She was raped and murdered," he said.
In addition to being "apolitical," al Sabti's art is also subtle.

Yet contrary to what you might think from reading most press reports, some Iraqi artists do disapprove of al-Sabti and his Abu Ghraib exhibit:
. . . . "I am against it, because none of these artists did anything to show the exactions perpetrated by Saddam Hussein," said 28-year-old sculptor Haidar Wady.

"Being against the Americans has become the trendy thing. But they brought us freedom. Just imagine for one moment if they had gathered here to depict Abu Ghraib in the time of the dictator. What's more, these works are really ugly," he added.
I suspect that under Saddam's regime Haidar Wady did not fare so well as al-Sabti.

UPDATE: I'm scheduled to appear on the internet talk show "Cam & Company" at 2:40 Eastern Time today (Wednesday, June 30th) to discuss the al-Sabti piece. You can watch and listen at:

Also I want to thank Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit for linking to this post. (If you happen to be one of the four people in the world who don't yet know about Instapundit, you need to surf there right now!)

posted by Bathus | 6/28/2004 01:34:00 PM
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Post a Comment

Blogger lostingotham said...

One wonders whether our intrepid AP journalist has ever set foot outside his favorite gin-joint.

9:50 PM, June 29, 2004  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I hit your blog via Instapundit and will bookmark it.

That's one excellent piece of investigation.

Hearty well-dones all around.

Craig Howard (didn't want to bother with sign up procedure)

11:34 PM, June 29, 2004  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Also didn't feel like logging in, but wanted to say that I too am suspicious of these "man on the street" interviews that purport to take the pulse of a society of 25 million by interviewing one person. Thanks for the solid research on this fellow the AP quoted, and I will also check out your blog. Good luck with the blog and look forward to reading you. Jason J., Philadelphia.

11:40 PM, June 29, 2004  
Blogger KC said...

I had just finished reading your post, then I read the latest at (which happened to be the author's latest article in the NY Daily News, and here's the same artist quoted:

"But others were too bitter to celebrate.

Qasim Alsabti, who runs the Hewar Art Gallery, waxed poetic when he said today was “like yesterday, like tomorrow.”

“There is no sense of happiness because of the death still walking the streets,” he said, alluding to the precarious security situation in the capital. “I still have no guarantee that I can go out even 100 meters.””

This same author recently asked in a blog post, "why is there such a widespread feeling that the media, as it’s all lumped together sometimes, is worthless?"

11:50 PM, June 29, 2004  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wonder if they AP will acknowledge this fact, or will they just move on to the next anti-American accusation.

At least the AP is better than Reuters, which isnt saying much.

12:19 AM, June 30, 2004  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

great fisking!!!

3:12 AM, June 30, 2004  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This should be the subject of, say, a 60 Minutes expose. But what do you think are the chances of THAT?

7:37 AM, June 30, 2004  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I also added you to my blogmamrks today. Thanks for doing the AP's job.

9:01 AM, June 30, 2004  
Blogger Ken Ashford said...

So . . . even though you think he spoke the truth, we should be skeptical of the veracity of al-Sabti's opinion, because al-Sabti is not "apolitical"?!?

Adeimantus, YOU'RE not "apolitical" either. It doesn't mean you are incapable of expressing your own opinion honestly.

Or is your point that we should only take stock in the opinions of Iraqis who have never expressed a political feeling in their entire life? Does such an Iraqi even exist?

Get a grip!

9:23 AM, June 30, 2004  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The prior poster misses the point. The point is not that AP solicited a comment from someone with strong opinions. The point is that they printed a comment from an adherent of the prior regime as if he were just an average man on the street.

10:37 AM, June 30, 2004  
Blogger humboldtsquid said...

I'm the guy you quoted as saying that Qassim is "notoriously apolitical", and I'd like to defend what I wrote. I'm currently in Baquba, Iraq, and just saw Qassim last week.
What I was trying to convey in the article I wrote about the art scene in Baghdad and Qassim in particular is that no one has clean hands here in regard to how they had to deal with the former regime. Artist's and dealer's crimes and misdemeanors run the gammut, from turning each other in to the secret police (in one case I know of resulting in death), to scrupulously avoiding any behavior which might be considered suspect. In this spectrum I believe that Qassim was far from an avid supporter of the regime. Part of the reason I say this is that he knew many young artists who did have subversive connections or materials that Saddam's secret police would have been interested in and he kept their secrets. I don't know Qassim well enough to say that he's an honorable man, but I don't believe he was Saddam's stooge either. What Qassim loves most is creating a stage for artists - including himself - to shine. He's happy to rub elbows with people of all political stripes and he loves to throw in the provokative comment. Like most Iraqis, he's a patriot, and probably resents the continuing American presence in his country, just as I think he resents the presence of foreign jihadists. I would say that Qassim's views are in fact pretty representative (if more articulate) of a lot of Iraqis, though of course there are also those who more whole-heartedly support the American effort.

12:57 PM, June 30, 2004  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There are plenty of clean hands in Iraq. You just have to use a shovel to locate them.

Anyone who prospered under Saddam was part of the problem.

5:20 PM, June 30, 2004  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The prior poster, is not conveying reality, but instead is demonstrating emotion from reading all the junk presented on front pages of leftist medias (I have difficulty finding at newstands the magasines that are not left bent).

Here is what I do not agree with:
"There are plenty of clean hands in Iraq. You just have to use a shovel to locate them.

Anyone who prospered under Saddam was part of the problem."

These two paragraphs are like the leftist and rightist junk that does not acknowledge that a vast majority of people in the world only talk about politics when they feel a need to and will just say what others around them have already stated.

I find it very interesting when I take on opposing viewpoints in new settings. People are very quick at acting to politics like I do about sports (I do not follow any sports team whatsoever, but pretend I do new settings). When dealing in a subject that you know nothing about, you just listen to what the talk goes and blend in.

Sadly, and unfortunately, politics of tomorrow demands that everyone read 100,000 pages of original political material per year. Yet, who can do their homework adequately. The responsibility of every citizen to know what he or she should responsibly know is becoming impossible. Especially with todays left leaning (9 to 1 left) media. And they all do the Michael Moore show you a picture without the appropriate befores and afters.

5:57 PM, June 30, 2004  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Humboldtsquid (Steve Mumford) maintains that Qassim is apolitical and a patriot.

I read the guy as being pretty opportunistic, which I suppose might be translated as apolitical. Gets the job done in terms of facilitating the Baghdad art scene and his gallery.

But if he is as articulate and intelligent as Humboldtsquid suggests, then shouldn't he balance his statements against U.S. politicians with condemnation of Saddam? What of Saddam misusing the Oil-for-Food program and letting people starve and die of disease while his palaces were built? Or the gross abuses and torture under Saddam at Abu Ghraib? These sorts of issues are among the reasons why people might reasonably question whether 'apolitical' is the right description for Qassim al-Sabti.

Also, the sign of Qassim being apolitical that Mumford relates, seems at odds with love for one's patria: "But the money! I took my friends out to dinners for weeks on the payment [I received from Saddam for painting his portrait]." Whatever one should say about such a commission, that's probably not it.

6:23 AM, July 01, 2004  
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