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This item is taken from PN Review 151, Volume 29 Number 5, May - June 2003.

`They brought word of what is likely to be reckoned as one of the greatest cultural disasters in recent Middle Eastern history,' said the New York Times. `They' are the Museum officials who finally, on Saturday 12 April, got through to the press corps in Baghdad. To the liberation of the ancient Parthian collection of the Museum at Mosul can be added the liberation of the contents of the National Museum of Baghdad. As I write this, news is coming in that the National Library is in flames. These events are as irreversible as the destruction of police and military files which looters made it their first business to accomplish, just as soon as the streets were `free' and American and allied forces had taken over.

Maybe, like oil, antiquities belong by rights to the people, and in Mr Rumsfeld's mind this looting was understand- able, even justifiable, the people repossessing what was theirs and expressing (as he said after the first day's looting, before the armed mob got to work on the hospitals) their new-won freedom. A freedom, pro tem, from schools, hospitals, running water, electricity, food. All this will be remedied in time. You can't make an omelette without breaking eggs, a State Department chef reminded reporters. The trouble with the destruction of records, political and historical, is that memory goes with it, and memory cannot be so restored. Any more than justice can be asserted by packs of playing cards with the faces of `most wanted' Iraqi leaders, distributed to the troops, and to the press: guilty until proven guilty. The Queen of Hearts is calling the shots.

The pillaging of the National Museum began on Thursday, 10 April 2003. One helpless guard said that hundreds of people had been coming with carts and wheelbarrows to take away the collections, including artifacts from Ur, Niniveh, Babylon. They continued almost unhindered for two days. The museum's deputy director estimated that 170,000 items had been stolen or destroyed. `The Americans were supposed to protect the museum. If they had just one tank and two soldiers nothing like this would have happened,' he said. Many of the looters seemed to be from the poor districts where anger at Saddam Hussein was greatest, but others were middle-class and appeared to know exactly what they were looking for.

Well, there were more important priorities and properties - e.g. the oil fields - than a bunch of old pots and statues and bricks with indecipherable writing on them. The museum, re-opened only seven months ago (it had been closed since the 1991 Gulf War), housed pieces from ancient Babylon and Niniveh, Sumerian statues, Assyrian reliefs and 5,000- year-old tablets. There were also gold and silver items from the graves of Ur. Iraq, ancient Mesopotamia, has thousands of archaeological sites going back over 10,000 years. It is here that agriculture first flourished, and cities emerged, and the numbers that go with administration were developed; and also the strange little symbols which stand for sounds and become the basis for the phonetic alphabets of the world. Here the first libraries were collected, the first surviving epics composed, and written down.

We cannot, the New York Times says, take what officials reported to journalists as gospel. Perhaps some of the museum's antiquities `had been locked away for safekeeping elsewhere before the looting, or seized for private display in one of Mr Hussein's myriad palaces'. We are back to blaming the monstrous, ousted president for American misjudgements. The New York Times concedes: `What was beyond contest... was that the 28 galleries of the museum and vaults with huge steel doors guarding storage chambers that descend floor after floor into unlighted darkness had been completely ransacked...Nothing remained, museum officials said... from a museum that had been regarded by archaeologists and other specialists as perhaps the richest of all such institutions in the Middle East.'

One element of Arabic culture that impresses visitors to the Arab world, or anyone who passes a mosque or a Muslim site, is the art of calligraphy, though `calligraphy' is an inad- equate term to describe the versatile beauty of the weave of Arabic inscriptions. On stone or tile or paper, Koranic texts are set down in a fabric of design striving to be worthy, in subtlety and complexity, of the holy Word itself. Because of religious prohibitions on figurative depiction, for centuries the artistic spirit has found expression in the art of `lettering'. During some of the reports of the Second Gulf War, what arrested attention was the domes and minarets of mosques declaring their witness.

Robert K. Logan, an authority on modern lettering art in the West, declares: `It is only by studying both the medium as a "message" and the messages that the medium transmits that a full appreciation of cultural and historical processes can emerge.' 1 We have remarkable artists working within our culture, from anonymous Mediaeval scribes to present- day lettering artists. In this issue of PN Review we celebrate the work of Stephen Raw, considering his `medium as "message"' and inviting readers to his major exhibition at the Lethaby Gallery, St Martin's College of Art and Design, London, 12-31 May. Stephen Raw has been associated with Carcanet for more than twenty years and was responsible on two occasions for re-designing PN Review, though he is not responsible for the current text-rich grid. His comments in the catalogue centre-spread in this issue illuminate the art and symbolism of letterforms.

Many years ago Stephen Raw and I visited New York. Travelling with him meant seeing the city in an entirely new way: the palimpsests of old signs showing through the new, the fire-escapes making their suddenly comprehensible messages against the red and yellow brick, the giant sculptural letters: one had again the sense of a profound connection between letterforms and architectural forms; a sense too of the harmony when these two arts complement one another. One was aware of how civically degrading poor lettering can be.

There is, I feel, a marked Arabic influence in some of his pieces, not only in his choice of colours, but also in the working of surfaces with words, as in the Eavan Boland piece illustrated here. To be in the presence of the pieces themselves is to see language differently. `Requiem', which appears on the cover of this issue, was affected in its execu- tion by the events of 11 September, as he points out in his commentary. He has worked texts by Ashbery, Paz, Sisson and others; also, most notably in this exhibition and at this time, by Wilfred Owen.

1 R.K. Logan, The alphabet effect: New York, St Martin's, 1986, pp. 24-5.

This item is taken from PN Review 151, Volume 29 Number 5, May - June 2003.

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