The Ministry of Culture
James P. Mullaney
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Buy *The Ministry of Culture* by James P. Mullaney online

The Ministry of Culture
James P. Mullaney
Thomas Dunne Books
304 pages
May 2007
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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"Outside these walls exists another world, a very dangerous one, and I do not have all my strength to face it again just yet," says American journalist Michael Young as he sits in his room at the al-Rashid Hotel in Baghdad observing a city on the edge, the mayhem and chaos seeming so close and immediate, reaching in from the far edges of this great metropolis.

To be sure, what was once a flourishing, grandiose city is now a burnt-out and decaying slum of poverty struggling to hold onto the hem of its beautiful memory. It is 1984, and the Iran-Iraq War rages on endlessly. Its religious schisms, border disputes, and political differences echo on throughout the land, altering the course of Iraqi history and straining Iraqi political and social life.

Michael has arrived in Baghdad to cover the hostilities, hoping to report on some of the action directly from the Iraqi front lines. But while in the capital, Michael also plans to meet with his beautiful girlfriend, Daniella Burkett of the London Times, who is also in Iraq, intent on following in the footsteps of her award-winning journalist father.

Meanwhile, mural artist Ibrahim Galeb al-Mansur, encouraged by his father, Hassan Jaffa, the head curator of the Baghdad Museum, secures a job working for the ministry of culture, commissioned to paint the giant murals of Saddam Hussein seen throughout Baghdad and the surrounding towns.

As the cold, hard stare of Saddam with his "dark, cavernous eyes" watches from every street corner and public building, Ibrahim continues to paint, blind to the ultimate purpose of his great pieces of artwork - after all, all this sensitive young man is interested in is painting.

One night, five members Iraqi Republican Guard suddenly burst in on Ibrahim when he is with his girlfriend, Shalira, in their first intimate setting together. The incident brings on a lingering rage that begins to grow stronger inside Ibrahim, eating away at his soul.

Craving the satisfaction of retribution, Ibrahim finds himself drawn to the parties of the current anti-Baathists, finding support in their subversive political activities controlled by his father-in-law, Yusuf. To Hassan, however, the matters of the republic are of a sober nature, and he fears that if Ibrahim acts on his feelings, taking on the Baathist regime will not be without serious consequences.

Michael is escorted by his government-appointed minder to the one of the zones where an Iraqi victory has already been declared. Here Michael comes face-to-face with the horrors of the war, forced to see the wounded and dying, the bodies scattered about in grotesque poses, littering the landscape as far as the eye can see.

At times both mesmerizing and dizzyingly repellent, drenched in the blood of Saddam Hussein's countless victims, The Ministry of Culture is a powerful evocation of a place on the edge, steadily being torn apart by violence and passion with a government that supervises and directs all its activity, eliminating from the culture all public and private displays of disloyalty or anti-Baath sentiment.

In this world, the artistic and political collide. The Baath regime lurks in every corner and down every street, making sure that the visiting Westerners see only what the president wants them to see in this violent, fragile, war-torn state overcome by fear and suspicion, a country forever running in circles and mired in countless contradictions.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at Michael Leonard, 2007

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