My Facebook Pages Got Caught in a Culture War

/ 19 Sep 2018

My Facebook Pages Got Caught in a Culture War

When I decided to create my Facebook pages on Mesopotamia and global art in 2009 I thought they would be around for a long time. I was wrong.

I started the pages to share my passion for art, archaeology, literature and philosophy. The pages’ audience grew slowly but for me, it was not the quantity but the quality that mattered as I shared photos, quotes and observations with new friends. My pages have helped me connect with people around the world: a doctor in the United States, a pharmacist in Norway, a scholar in South Africa and an engineer in Basra, Iraq.

On my Mesopotamia page, I created a library devoted to tracing Iraq’s history. It began with the first prehistoric settlements—pottery and the Neanderthal caves of northern Iraq where human beings placed flowers on their loved ones’ graves—and extended through the discovery of the first known writing system by the Sumerians and the rise of the Akkadian, Babylonian and Assyrian empires. I tried to highlight the less-known periods of Iraqi history, too, such as Iraq under the Seleucid and Sassanid empires in which Christians, Mandaeans and Jews co-existed in pre-Islamic times. The page attempted to represent all of Iraqi culture, so I did my best to find and translate Arabic and Syriac manuscripts.

Al Hussaid Zaydoon, a young petroleum engineer in Erbil, wrote to me. “People might think that it is impossible to tell the story of history on one Facebook page,” he said.  “Yet Gilgamesh—through Mesopotamia—was able to show me . . . the way of thinking of the first farmers, the rising of the most ancient cities, the most ancient gods and the most creative myths, the evolution of civilization.”

Modern Iraq was given a prominent place on the Mesopotamia page, too. There were albums for each Iraqi city and various Iraqi religious and ethnic groups. The aim was to bring people together to discover each other’s cultures, emphasizing the similarities rather than the differences. The page’s mission, apart from spreading knowledge, was to spread humanity and national unity. I wanted to show my homeland in a way other than the way people see it on the news.

On the global art page, I intended to introduce art—especially Western art—to an Arab audience. I shared paintings by Marc Chagall, Ivan Aivazovsky, Salvador Dali, Da Vinci, Bartolome Esteban Murillo, Monet, Frida Kahlo and sculptures by Michelangelo, Francois Girardon and Mark Antokolsky. I also created albums for contemporary Iraqi artists to introduce them to an international audience.

The philosopher Frederick Nietzsche once said that without music, “life would be a mistake.” I introduced classical music and ballet to 33,000 friends around the world, as well as music from Iraq and other parts of the Middle East, France, Spain, Italy and the Anglo-Saxon world. I wanted to bring people together through that supreme international language. I subscribe to Victor Hugo’s sentiment: “Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent.”

To spread free thought, I started sharing selected quotes by notable authors, philosophers, novelists, artists and politicians from people from many different epochs and cultures. I wanted my friends to benefit from human experiments with thought throughout history.

I was spending hours a day working on my pages, even during my academically demanding days in medical school. Some friends told me I was wasting my time. But the feedback I received from others encouraged me to keep posting.

Through the pages, I met archaeologists who had worked in Iraq—non-Iraqis who enjoyed sharing their stories about the time they spent in Iraq before the 1990s. I also met elderly Iraqis in exile who waxed nostalgic when they saw the photos and stories I shared. Online, I met the late Bahnam Abu Al-Soof, a famous Iraqi archaeologist who asked me to create an archive on his website.

Despite the secular nature of the pages, I respected all cultures, and noted the special days of all religions. This approach was not effective in preventing some people from blaming the pages for spreading Western cultural values and secularism. That same objection led extremists to try to close another famous Arabic page called, “I Believe in Science” after a large number of people reported it as inappropriate. “I Believe in Science” was restored after a petition drive by supporters.

On January 7, shortly after I acknowledged Iraqi Army Day and sent greetings to Orthodox Christians celebrating Christmas, my account was shut down without warning. Facebook sent me a message saying my account had been disabled, with all related pages and groups closed, after receiving numerous complaints. And away went more than five years of work organizing albums, translating material and cultivating fans.

I was heartbroken.

The complaints targeting my account claimed that I was a “fake person” despite the fact that my pages are linked to my mobile number, contain correct personal data and lots of personal albums. I sent Facebook official documents—a copy of my passport, a bus card with a photo and my medical degree. I wrote Mark Zuckerberg.

I still haven’t heard back. I am not sure who my enemies are, but I have written many critical articles about what the Islamic State has done to education.

Shutting down my pages is insane, considering that pages promoting violence and hatred remain online while pages devoted to culture and art are blocked because of an organized campaign borne out of illiteracy and extremism.

I won’t surrender to this. While I wait, I am creating another page. It has already attracted 300 friends. Meanwhile, old friends from around the world have sent messages asking what happened. They expressed solidarity and help.

My work might be lost again. But I take heart because I know you can blow out a candle but it’s hard to extinguish a fire.

 




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