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An Interview with Esam Pasha

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The idea of being at risk didn’t resonate with Esam Pasha when I interviewed him a week later. On the contrary, he was earnest and positive about his involvement in Deller’s exhibition. On a side note, while my recorded interview with him is fascinating, it never quite materialized into a fully fluid conversation. The constructed situation of an interview seemed to create the same barriers for engagement as the physical space of the gallery had for me a week prior. However, once the tape was off, my questions about the war started flowing. In the end, perhaps I had the kind of engagement Deller had intended after all.
—Beth Capper

d2BC What has been the difference between doing this in the context of the gallery and that of more public space?

EP In the museum people came here to listen. They don’t usually ask and argue as much as people outside. Of course there are a lot of interesting questions and stories inside the museum, but people expect more to follow the pattern of a conference. Out on the street it was more of a back and forth discussion, though in the museum they really created a nice and friendly setting with a couch and seats. Just as though you are sitting in the cafeteria of the museum.

BC Why is it important for you to
be a part of this exhibition?

EP It’s my chance to talk to people, many many people, and see and find out what they are thinking and what questions are on their minds. It helps me to advertise and talk about my country—the place where I was born, grew up and lived all my life—and correct some misconceptions for people about it, and satisfy people’s curiosity for knowledge.

BC Have you found that there are common misconceptions or questions?

EP Yes. There are some common thoughts about Iraq that aren’t true. Many people believe that women are oppressed in Iraq, and this is not the case. More than that, there are a lot of things that people don’t know about Iraq. For example, they don’t know or haven’t thought really that Iraq is a tax-free country. Free education and free healthcare is a right in Iraq. It’s one of the freedoms that you don’t find in many places.

BC In Iraq you worked as a translator. I understand this is a very precarious position to be in.

EP More dangerous than working as a translator for the army was working as a translator for the press, and also as a freelance journalist. That was really dangerous, to be out in the street and talk to so many people with no one to protect you. To work with the American forces, that is an interesting experience. I also wanted to see how people received the soldiers and what questions people had for the soldiers; but the problem is that you are the one talking to people, and their requests or whatever they are asking for, if they don’t get it, they blame you. You’re the good guy if you get them what they want, and the bad guy if what they want doesn’t happen. This work made me see from the inside and very closely how the Americans dealt with people and how people dealt with the Americans. That has really enhanced my understanding of the situation.

BC You have spoken, in relation to painting over the Saddam Hussein mural, about the need to use art to build a more positive future for Iraq.

EP With the mural I tried not to focus on a particular political agenda, but instead I wanted people to pay attention and to remember how beautiful our country is and that the important thing is to rebuild it, and not to argue which view or agenda is right. Whoever gives people electricity right now is the one that I am going to work with. That’s what I wanted to convey to people, and I think that’s what most Iraqis right now are thinking about. They think about their basic needs, which haven’t been met actually since the first Gulf War.

BC Do you see yourself
returning to live in Iraq?

EP If there is a need for me to be there in any useful way. America is my home now absolutely: Right now it’s better for me to stay here but if I could make a real difference in Iraq, then I would definitely be there.

BC How has taking part in this
exhibition affected you?

EP It has made me more patient. There are points that when I used to talk before I understood my audience as though they were Iraqis. I have learned that I have to explain in a better way so that the Americans can understand. Now I don’t expect them to know that much about Iraq so I try to explain almost everything in detail. I feel happy that there are many people that want to know about the Iraqi war and most of them are neutral and open to listening.

BC Do you think they should
come with knowledge?

EP For myself, I want to give the experience of an average Iraqi who lived there. How did I manage to live, what I thought about, what the people that I was talking to in Iraq—what issues concerned us the most. I find that most people who come here—that is what they really want to know about. You can read a book with specific statistics, numbers and everything, but what people are more interested in is the human factor and the human experience, and what people felt. That is easy for me to convey. If it makes sense to me then it will make sense to other people who are average like myself.

Installation view of Jeremy Deller: “It Is What It Is: Conversations About Iraq” at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 2009. Photography © MCA, Chicago. Photographer, Nathan Keay.

One Response to An Interview with Esam Pasha

  1. Omareylisky says:

    Pasha! You are absolutely right! Subject to daily distress, most Iraqis are not allowed the luxury of even bothering with the political process. Their real, pressing problem is the absence of electricity. With summer temperatures reaching 50 degrees Celsius and non-stop power cuts, tempers couldn’t be hotter.
    Pharmacies, hospitals, clinics, need electric to protect medications. People are now using expired or spoiled and tarnished antibiotics. Lack of electricity is causing dangerous life threading problems; wine flue is escalating horribly fast in many cities, including Baghdad the capital.

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