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Iraq's cultural icons left by wayside without Saddam's support

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Inspired by Iraq's ancient cultures, Firyal Kilidar built a fashion design empire in Saddam Hussein's era.

She based her work on gowns and tunics depicted in artifacts thousands of years old, then used her collection to tell Iraq's history through its attire. Though not a commercial venture, her government-funded House of Fashion traveled the globe putting on cultural shows. In her heyday, she managed 120 seamstresses, models and other workers.

Now she and lots of other artists and designers employed by Saddam's Ministry of Culture are struggling to find futures in Iraq.

Kilidar's good life ended April 10, when looters who ransacked her offices burned her collection to light their way. Her daughter and son-in-law, disguised as looters, later saved the few costumes that survive.

Today, Kilidar's skeleton staff occupies a small section of the former House of Fashion's basement. The Ministry of Culture, which oversees her agency, has moved into the rest of the building, since its headquarters was trashed by looters. There's no money.

"This is a very old country; very civilized," she said. "That culture and history must be saved, but I don't know what's going to happen."

In her old office upstairs, the newly appointed minister of culture, Mufeed Muhammed Jawad, has high hopes.

"I want to change the everyday life in my country," Jawad said. "I hope someday to see cultural activity around me every day, everywhere."

His small budget for the next two years, however, will go mainly toward restoring the war-damaged offices, museums and exhibits. He's told former ministry employees and artists to be patient.

In the past, hundreds of those artists got no government help because they weren't Baath Party members or Saddam supporters. Jawad hopes to weed out the ministry officials who had barred them.

"We need to clean the ministry of those responsible for the problems and suffering," he said. "Not to be unjust, but to help those who were victims of Saddam."

Salem al Dabbagh, 60, a well-known Baghdad painter, isn't expecting quick changes.

"It's going to take a whole new generation of people used to living under freedom before we see the expression from artists," he said. "Freedom is not being able to say Saddam is bad. Freedom is something you feel."

Like many artists, Dabbagh used to earn a salary from the Culture Ministry. Though he also was able to paint for himself, his government job was to paint propaganda posters critical of United Nations sanctions and to create large murals that glorified Saddam's government.

Now that Saddam is gone, so is Dabbagh's government support. He also lost about $10,000 worth of artwork during the looting. On balance, though, he thinks he's better off.

"What you have in your head is more important than money," he said. "We can do what we want now."

According to Jawad, there was some furtive freedom of expression under Saddam.

"Despite 30 years of terror and oppression, there were people doing it underground. Writing, painting," he said. "They were already fighting the regime through their symbolic works."

It's hard these days for Kilidar—with what remains of her fashion collection stored on shelves in a basement bathroom—to have much hope.

But she does. She hopes she and her children can put together a new show and travel next year. Perhaps even to America.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): IRAQ+CULTURE