What Happened in Baghdad Podcast

Kamel Saeed, an emerging UK-based Iraqi creative, presents a fascinating audio journey of discovery into the creatives that once called the Iraqi capital home. This new podcast series is being exclusively launched as part of Liverpool Arab Arts Festival 2021.

With guests including artists, writers and scholars, Saeed offers listeners a glimpse into an extraordinarily rich period of world history by exploring the lives of just a few of the creatives that have played a part in the story of Baghdad – and continue to do so to this day.

Said to have been crushed to death by a collapsing pile of books, Al Jahiz (776-868) was an Iraqi bibliomaniac, eccentric, and prolific writer of some 260 books. His magnum opus, Kitāb al-Ḥayawān (كتاب الحيوان) ‘Book of Living Things’ is an unusual encyclopaedia, largely unknown in the West, illustrating and describing over 350 species of animals. His distinct style of prose ‘magnified the trivial so that it became important and diminished the important so that it became trivial’. Over a millennia later, his work is still enjoyed across the Arab-speaking world.

This episode of What Happened in Baghdad is commissioned by Liverpool Arab Arts Festival and co-produced with the Whitworth, The University of Manchester. The series is made possible with funding from Arts Council England.

Illustration: Noura Andrea Nassar

Future episodes

Episode Two: Abu Nuwas

‘Pour me seven, back to back’ and ‘There’s no surgeon like the glass’ aren’t exactly titles to poems you’d expect from an Arab poet. Then again, Abu Nuwas wasn’t your average poet. The Arab-Persian Abu Nuwas (756-814) is one of the most divisive yet irrefutably gifted Arabic poets. Having mastered and advanced every genre of contemporary poetry, he went on to pioneer five more. A libidinous hedonist and an alcoholic with an obsession with wine, a fifth of his whole poetic output is dedicated in praise.

Illustration: Noura Andrea Nassar

Episode Three: Al Maarri 

The blind Arab poet, philosopher and writer Al Maarri (973-1057) was a vegan before it was cool. An outlier, he held other unorthodox views for his time: he was irreligious, a rationalist and a pessimist. His poems are at once beautifully lyrical and philosophically profound. Testimony to the universal appeal of his work, his influence spans continents: a translated copy of his poetry was found in Franz Kafka’s library, and he was one of Khalil Gibran’s dearest poets.

About the presenter

Kamel Saeed was born in Baghdad in 1997 and was educated there until the age of 9, when his family fled war in 2006. After arriving in the UK, he learned English and completed his primary and secondary education. He went on to study English Literature, graduating in 2018. Since then, he has interned at English Heritage and The Collection Museum, Lincoln, and has been consulted on diversity and inclusion within the cultural sector. What Happened in Baghdad evolved out of independent research he has undertaken into early Islamic civilisation and draws on his own Iraqi and Arab heritage.

About the guests

Hanouf Al-Alawi works at the British Museum leading a national programme that co-curates youth cultural projects. Before joining the British Museum, she worked at the Natural History Museum as a Learning Volunteer Engagement Manager, recruiting and training diverse volunteers who deliver engaging and inspiring object-based learning to children, youth, and adults. Prior to this, she worked at Kew Gardens as an Education Officer, managing a pioneering project that co-curated with pupils and their families, school museums that represented the pupils cultural diversity. Before moving to the UK, she worked in the Middle East developing and delivering pioneering projects that improved access to and quality of education for children and youth.

James E. Montgomery is Sir Thomas Adams’s Professor of Arabic, Fellow of Trinity Hall, at the University of Cambridge, and an Executive Editor of the Library of Arabic Literature. His latest publications are Loss Sings (2018), a collaboration with the Scottish artist Alison Watt, ‘Antarah ibn Shaddād: War Songs (2018) – and a translation – with Sophia Vasalou, and The Philosopher Responds: An Intellectual Correspondence from the Tenth Century (2021). His translation of Ibn al-Muqaffa’s Kalīlah and Dimnah: Fables of Virtue and Vice, with Michael Fishbein, will be published this autumn.

Bryony Dunne is an Irish artist and filmmaker based in Athens, who traces the overlaps between documentary film, cinema, photography and the natural world. She develops research-driven projects to explore the power dynamics and fantasies of control that humanity projects on to nonhuman others and nature; oftentimes, she uses fact-based fictions and hypothetical futures to build these interconnected narratives.