Education and Culture under the Iraqi Monarchy (1921–1958)

Education and Culture under the Iraqi Monarchy (1921–1958)

The early years of nation-building experienced an unfolding panorama of literary and artistic currents. The history of education, too, contributed its fair share of development to the emergence of progressive politics in the country, especially with regard to women’s issues.

Thanks to the burgeoning publication of countless autobiographies of the monarchist era, ranging from political (and sometimes self-serving) accounts to a genre of urban literature that can only be termed as stories of the city, we are now in a position to substantiate the political histories with a more nuanced view of Iraqi educational and cultural activity during the period of the monarchy.

Education and Its Impact on Women

The development of education for Iraqis of both genders began even before Iraq came under British rule, but because a public education was a complete novelty for females, it affected women perhaps more than men. By 1921, 21 schools for girls were in operation throughout the country, with an attendance of 2,500.

The Dominican Sisters opened up a girls’ school in Baghdad with almost 1,000 students; though most of their pupils were Christian, a number of Muslim girls began to attend as well. In 1924, meanwhile, some schools were assigned the task of opening a training class for women teachers, especially in Mosul and Baghdad. In that same year, several secondary schools for boys were opened, but girls had to wait until 1925, when the fi rst American private high school for girls was opened, under the auspices of the churchsponsored United Mission of Mesopotamia (Longrigg 1953, 169).

By 1950, tremendous strides had been taken in the education both of men and women. The fact that instruction was free and primary education was made compulsory undoubtedly accelerated the process. Nearly a third of the 6,000 primary teachers in government schools were women, as were a similar proportion among teachers at higher levels (Longrigg 1953, 390).

In 1950 alone, it was estimated that 200,000 children were being educated in Iraq, a statistic that went some way toward countering the nationalist parties’ slogans that the Britishinfl uenced educational system in Iraq was elitist. High school graduates could apply to enter a range of schools such as the Law School, the Engineering College, the Royal College of Medicine, the College of Agriculture, and several schools of arts and sciences and the fi ne arts.

Education did prepare women to meet different expectations, but for a long time, it barely made a dent in their social emancipation. In the early 1920s and 1930s, becoming secular in Iraq was a diffi cult proposition for girls as well as their families, especially when it meant a direct attack on fundamental symbols of tradition, the head scarf (hijab) and the black cloak Iraqi women wear when they step outside of the house (abaya). And in the popular perception of the time, the education of girls went hand in hand with the lifting of the veil.

The struggle over the lifting of the hijab and abaya consumed a ferocious energy, on the part of those opposed to its withdrawal as well as on the part of others who fought for its extinction. “The revolution over the hijab,” as one Iraqi woman phrased it, consumed a great deal of ink and paper, because it was mostly fought out in the embryonic Iraqi press.

Among the chief detractors of the hijab and abaya were two very famous Iraqi poets, Jamil Sidqi al-Zahawi (1863–1936) and Maruf al-Rusafi (1875–1945), who went head to head with the “reactionary” group of scholars, editorialists, and newspaper columnists in the mid-1920s to hammer out a feminist charter, calling for the eradication of the hijab and abaya because it was “a false guardian” and imprisoned women in fear. In any event, the social and religious custom of wearing a hijab and abaya was discontinued over time, and by the 1940s, most Iraqi women (in the cities, at least) went bareheaded to their schools, universities, and offi ces.

Poetry and Free Verse

In order to understand the transformations in Iraqi culture throughout the period of the monarchy, we must begin with poetry, that indispensable window onto the Iraqi soul. As early as the 1920 revolt, poetry was used to express confl icting emotions. Using traditional form and structure but expressing new themes,

Iraqi poets unleashed a torrent of revolutionary rhetoric that stirred their audiences to national unity. In classical Arabic poetry the meter (wazn), which was codifi ed in the eighth century, is based on the length of syllables. Each line (bayt, sing.; abyat, pl.) is divided into two half-lines (shatrayn).

The rhyme (qafi a) is basically determined by the last consonant of a word, and it is the pronunciation, not the writing, of the word that counts. Lebanese scholar Philip Hitti in 1936 describes the effect on the audience as follows: “No people in the world, perhaps, manifest such enthusiastic admiration for literary expression and are so moved by the word, spoken or written, as the Arabs.

Modern audiences in Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo can be stirred to the highest degree by the recital of poems, only vaguely comprehended, and by the delivery of orations in the classical tongue, though it be only partially understood.The rhythm, the rhyme, the music, produce on them the effect of what they call ‘lawful magic’ (sihr halal).” (quoted in Chejne 1969, 5).

On the one hand, one of the most famous poets of the revolt, Muhammad Mahdi al-Basir, wrote and declaimed his poetry in public spaces (usually mosques), becoming famous for poems about national sacrifi ce and the notion of al-watan (the homeland or nation), that all-encompassing category that upheld a higher ideal than that espoused by narrow sectarian or ethnic divisions (Tramontini 2002–03, 175).

On the other hand, the poet Sayyid Habib al-Ubaydi al-Mosuli used poetry not only to celebrate the nation but to promote an aggressive anti-Westernization, going so far as to accuse the British in Iraq of being “an enemy dressed like a friend . . . [who] is nothing but a fraudulent intruder” (Tramontini 2002–03, 178).

Leslie Tramontini believes that this two-sided articulation, or what she calls an “us/them” dichotomy, was prevalent throughout the nationalistic poetry of the 1920s. One of Iraq’s greatest poets, Muhammad Mahdi al-Jawahiri (1900–97) refl ected that duality throughout his long life but also surpassed it to become the voice of countless generations of Iraqis, aspiring through him to capture, in the words of Saadi Simawe, the “holy trinity . . . [of] homeland, liberty and beauty” (Simawe 1997, vii).

Unlike many of his more revolutionary colleagues, al-Jawahiri remained a neoclassical poet who throughout his life, infused the classical structure of Arab poetry with new themes. A prolifi c writer both of poetry and prose (he became a journalist after a short stint as King Faisal I’s court poet), al-Jawahiri’s works were collected in a diwan (anthology) in 1973, covering 50 years of his poetry.

In 1992, by then an elderly man in his early 90s, al-Jawahiri electrifi ed Jordanian television audiences with a ringing recital of a poem originally written for the then-regent of Iraq, Abdulillah; standing ramrod tall before King Hussein of Jordan, while wearing his trademark araqchin (white skullcap), al-Jawahiri recited the same poem, now in the Jordanian king’s honor, without forgetting a single line or missing a beat.

But was Iraqi verse only about big themes of patriotism, resistance, sacrifi ce, and rebirth? An important school of Iraqi poets thought differently. The pathbreaking works of the poets Nazik al-Malaika (1922– 2007), Badr Shakir al-Sayyab (1926–64), and Abdul Wahhab al-Bayyati (1926–99) still manage to attract an enormous following in the Arab world. Al-Malaika’s fi rst poetry collection, Ashiqat al-layl (Lover of the night) was published in 1947. Since that time, she has become one of the most celebrated poets in the Arab world, principally because she pioneered the writing of tafi la (free verse), a pioneering step in Arab literature.

The structure of Arab verse up to that time had been constrained by classical form and orientation. In addition, al-Malaika was a brilliant critic, who not only wrote rigorous expositions of the works of Arab authors but also translated several Western books into Arabic. AlSayyab, the “Poet of the 1958 Revolution” who had suffered repression during the fi nal years of the monarchy (at one point he was forced into exile in Kuwait), was also a proponent of free verse.

His 1960 book, Rain Song, is considered one of the major works of modern Iraqi poetry. Like al-Sayyab, al-Bayyati was forced into exile in the 1950s, returning to Iraq after the overthrow of the monarchy in 1958. Under subsequent governments, he alternately served as a cultural attaché, was exiled, or was simply a traveler who liked to return home. He published 25 collections of poetry between 1950 and 1998, a good deal of it dealing with his contentious relations with the various Iraqi governments. At the time of his death in Damascus, he was again in exile, having been stripped of his citizenship by the government of Saddam Hussein.

Iraqi Art

A great Iraqi sculptor, Muhammad Ghani Hikmat recalls that had it not been for the support of the Iraqi state in the 1940s, he would never have had the opportunity to travel to Italy to perfect his skills (conversation with the author, Amman, July 2004). His comment and the recollections of many other talented artists from Iraq point to the systematic support granted to artists in the royalist era. As a result of this backing, the fi ne and plastic arts witnessed a rapid development that few Arab countries could match. In fact, even today, Iraqi art possesses a cachet in neighboring countries that verges on reverence.

That the Iraqi government of the day realized the innate genius of several painters and sculptors of the period and sent them abroad to study is only one half of the equation. The other half is that those same artists came back to revitalize the local Iraqi scene, after which nothing was the same. The fi rst and best-known artists of the period, Faiq Hassan (1914–92) and Jawad Salim (1921–61), blazed a path that was followed by several outstanding artists of their generation. Hassan is remembered for his trademark paintings of wild stallions; Salim, for his massive mural in a Baghdad square of the Iraqi people unchained.

After World War II, Hassan and Salim formed a group called la Societé Primitive, infl uenced as they were by French impressionism. Later on, the group came simply to be known as the Pioneers (al-Ruwwad). Among its fl uctuating membership were several great painters of rural Iraq, among them the surgeon Khalid al-Qassab (1924–2004). Artists such as Hassan, Salim, al-Qassab, and Hikmat took inspiration from the light, color, and texture of Iraq itself and reinterpreted the history and culture of their native society in broad strokes and bold shades, exhibiting their works all over the world.


On July 14, 1958, Brigadier General Abdul-Karim Qasim overthrew the monarchy, setting in motion a series of developments that led to the massacre of nearly all of the members of the Hashemite royal family. The survivors were the king’s aunt, Princess Bedia, and the regent Abdulillah’s wife, Princess Hiyam, whose fabled escape from the palace after the slaughter of the royal family is a story still recalled by exiled royalists.

The revolution of 1958 brought to an end 37 years of nation-building that had begun with the initial colonial era followed by a period of independence constrained by both domestic and external factors. Although the new nation-state quickly developed an internal coherence of its own, it was never able to surmount the fatal fl aws that were tacked on from the very beginning.

For reasons of their own, both the British and the nascent monarchy had chosen to rely on a minority of landowners and ex-military offi cials to steer the ship of state, disregarding in the process the diversity and complexity of the Iraqi experience. Although King Faisal I had tried very hard to make of Iraq a state representative of all its people, later governments clung to a narrower vision of what it meant to be an Iraqi.

A unitary state was not a foregone conclusion, but it became so after politicians and military offi cers jettisoned the trappings of the liberal constitutionalist order they had once subscribed to. The issues of Arab nationalism, Iraqi nationalism, and the question of Palestine also added their weight to the legitimacy of the Iraqi state.

Meanwhile, the glaring discrepancies and downright injustices in social, economic, and political conditions paved the way for a revolution of massive proportions so that when it fi nally came, it destroyed a weak, well-meaning state order that had already been hijacked by reactionary elements among the army and the propertied classes.