About the Author: Aaron Snipe is a Foreign Service Officer with the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Muthanna, Iraq.
Not long ago, one of my superiors in Baghdad sent a tasking memo to our Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT): the Ambassador is considering coming to Muthanna. Why should he come to your PRT? A fair question. We circled the wagons and came up with a few important points. In 2006, Muthanna became Iraq's first PIC (Provincial Iraqi Control) Province, when authority shifted from the Coalition Provisional Authority back into Iraqi hands. Muthanna remains Iraq's least economically developed province and unemployment is high. But, despite those facts, there has been a sustained peace and stability province-wide. After some deliberation, Baghdad notified us that the Ambassador was interested in coming for a visit. There were, of course, political meetings he would need to attend, but as the Public Diplomacy Officer, I was focused on public diplomacy: what were the events I could plan that would best highlight our good work here in Muthanna? I wanted time to plan, so I suggested to the embassy that the Ambassador come in late February. I had some good ideas for a visit, but I would need some time to pull it all together. Baghdad responded with a date: January 10. Ugh. That wasn't much time.
Before the impending visit was on any of our radars, a cultural program that might just dovetail with the Ambassador's trip was already in the works. A few months earlier, the PRT, in cooperation with a local NGO, organized a luncheon for a group of female Iraqi artists. Part of my job as Public Diplomacy Officer is to share U.S. culture and values with Iraqis, but it's also to support Iraqi efforts to preserve their own culture. We asked the women to bring in examples of their work, and we hung their paintings along the walls of the meeting hall. Very few of the women had had formal art training. Painting was a hobby for all, a creative outlet for some, and an escape for others. Their artwork spanned the spectrum of their life's experiences. Some paintings were colorful and bright, while others were dark and depressing. All documented the lives of women in Muthanna.
We chatted with the women about doing a larger gallery showing. Would they be interested in holding a multi-city art exhibition if I could get the funding? They were thrilled with the idea. What began as a meeting with a stoic group of Iraqi women with canvases in hand, ended in a beehive of excitement with ideas flowing freely. Here was a demographic that seldom had the chance to speak out. Their art resonated with me deeply, and I was committed to finding a way to help these women tell their stories.
I went back to my office that evening and immediately began to work on a proposal. In no time at all, my proposal was approved (who says the Federal Government moves at a glacial pace?), and I was busy working with an NGO to purchase art supplies and canvases for each of the exhibit participants. The artists would paint submissions for an exhibit that would show in Muthanna's three largest cities, Samawa, Rumaytha, and Khider, sometime in the spring. For the artists, it would be the first time most of them had ever displayed their art publicly. One woman told us that she had painted for years, but feared no one would ever see her work. Another woman, considerably older and pointing to a young woman next to her, proclaimed, "I am here for my daughter-in-law! I told my son, 'he must support her dreams!' So I am here to make sure she has a chance!"Read Aaron's next entry about the art exhibit in Muthanna.