Iraq conversation without Jeremy Deller

I pretended I was a tourist as I approached the rusty hulk of an exploded car parked on a flatbed towed by an RV. They were parked in front of the National Constitution Center, across from Independence Mall. The RV was labeled with a web site,, and “It is What it is.”

A terrorist bomb destroyed this car in Baghdad
A Philadelphia hansom cab passes behind this car destroyed by a terrorist bomb in Baghdad.

A small group of people stood near a kiosk, with newspapers (from Iraq) and fliers, listening to two men answer their questions.

Someone handed me a flier explaining the project by artist Jeremy Deller, involving a cross country tour of the car and RV from New York to LA. Along the way, discussants would talk about what Iraq is like with anyone who asked.

Artist Esam Pasha in front of the National Constitution Center
Artist Esam Pasha in front of the National Constitution Center

Here in Philadelphia, Jonathan Harvey and Esam Pasha were the men available for conversation. Harvey, 32,  is a military reservist recently returned from Iraq. And Pasha, about the same age,  is an Iraqi artist who sought asylum here in 2005.

Jonathan Harvey, an army reservist recently returned from Iraq
Jonathan Harvey, an army reservist recently returned from Iraq

I did not know what Deller looks like, but I don’t think he was out there on the sidewalk.

A group of children left as I arrived. For the next half hour, however, I stood around with a nun and several not-so-young folks, listening to the two men answer questions. The two did not seem to have any political agenda other than to put a human face on the war and on the people of Iraq.

The listeners didn’t have a lot of turnover. Occasionally someone left and someone else arrived. But mostly people just stood and listened.

A bystander (above, wearing a jacket with a UPenn split “P”) asked why I was taking notes. When I explained, he said he was the reservist’s father.

Jonathan Harvey and Esam Pasha speak to a crowd on the street, including Harvey's father Paul, wearing a Penn jacket.
Jonathan Harvey and Esam Pasha speak to a crowd on the street, including Harvey’s father Paul, wearing a Penn jacket.

A lightbulb exploded. Harvey? Are you Paul Harvey, I asked, suddenly having enough information to figure this out: Jonathan had made a comparison between life in Baghdad to life in West Philadelphia. My son, Alex, went to school with one of the Harvey girls. And every summer at the pool, I saw passels of Harveys. Paula Harvey, the mom, had served as our pool membership chair.

I looked around and there she was! You must be thrilled to have him back, I said. And Paula said she hadn’t know exactly when he’d come home. She nearly had a heart attack when he walked in the door, in the midst of Thanksgiving Dinner. Something to be thankful for!

I noticed a microphone clipped to Pasha’s shirt. A young man with a camera was circling. I wasn’t sure if his video was part of the documentation.

Here are some bits of what Pasha and Harvey said.

Pasha: “Nobody in their right might prefers Saddam.”

The kiosk talbe was filled with Iraqi newspapers, fliers and other reading materials
The kiosk talbe was filled with Iraqi newspapers, fliers and other reading materials

Harvey: “It’s parallel to Northern Ireland and the British,” he said of the welcome the Americans received when they first arrived in Iraq. But as conditions deteriorated, so did the hostility to the armed presence.

Pasha: “The [American] soldiers learned to appreciate the culture.”

The nun: “There’s good people everywhere.”

Harvey: “We’re so connected.” He talked about Deller’s two maps at the New Museum in New York. One map was the U.S. The other was Iraq. American city names were traded with Iraqi ones on the two maps.

The RV for Deller's road trip.
The RV for Deller’s road trip.

Pasha: Iraqi citizens were the biggest factor in turning the situation around for the better. “They didn’t want them [Al Quaida] anymore.” They didn’t want Syrians staying in their houses.

Harvey: [on the benefits of having ordinary citizens invested in supporting the peace] You know who belongs in your neighborhood. And you’re getting paid to do this–it got them invested in peace and stability. You gotta feed your family, one way or the other.”

Someone asked where the car had exploded.

Pasha: “The car exploded on a street that was popular with artists and poets and intellectuals.” The street had been a book market, and Iraq, he said, is a country of readers.

Pasha (right) and Harvey talking.
Pasha (right) and Harvey talking.

Harvey: The Sons of Iraq formed as a reaction to events like this in market places. [Sons of Iraq is a group that includes Pasha].

Pasha: “Iraqis were used to keeping neutral to survive under Saddam.” They would be punished for their politics. He explained that that neutrality allowed the terrorists to gain a toe hold. When the insurgents became too dangerous for them, however, the citizens dropped the neutrality and turned against them.

Pasha: Said he was hopeful that paintings will be returned to the National Gallery.

Harvey: “Insha’Allah.”

Pasha: [on returning to Iraq] “I just put my roots down here. It would be hard to go back.” He curated Iraqi Phoenix, an exhibit here of Iraqi artworks.

Harvey: There’s a lot of internal displacement (of Iraqis, who could not stay in their homes and old neighborhoods).

Pasha: I’m afray if it stays like this, there will be massive segregation–people living only near their own kind of people. I believe Iraqis would know best what’s best for Iraq.

The Harveys told me their son didn’t give a lot away to them. They had learned more about Jonathan’s stay in Iraq here on the sidewalk than they had since his return. I asked if he lived in Philadelphia. No, Alaska.

Deller’s project is presented by Creative Time and the New Museum. In addition it had two local tie-ins–a conversation of Harvey, Pasha and Deller at Slought, and also the conference on curating and activism at Moore College of Art today.