He is perhaps the only young man in the central Iraqi province of Diwaniya to have turned his bedroom into a museum. But possibly this was always going to be on the cards for Hussein Fahim al-Shabani, who boasts that he stores around 20,000 collectible, vintage and antique items in his home now. It is a collection that took literally his lifetime to assemble.
Al-Shabani, 26, says that, even as a child, he was always collecting old things. Exploring his mother’s closet one day he found a small piece of metal with a palm tree engraved upon it. He decided to keep it, and after showing it to his school friends, he asked them to bring him any other similar things they found.
His collection is also important because it acknowledges many aspects of local culture often disregarded by history books, which tend to focus on wars and conflict in Iraq.
Al-Shabani was only ten years old at the time. Collecting antiques continued to be a hobby for him, one he took increasingly seriously as he got older and graduated from university.
“I would go to any markets I could find and would frequently go to the alleys and streets where people sold antiques,” he explains. “I also used social media to find sites where people sold antiques.”
His collection is specialized in anything and everything Iraqi. His room is filled with old coins, old paper notes, documents from the Ottoman era as well as utensils engraved with pictures of ancient Iraqi rulers and royal seals.
“There are also precious stones, old musical instruments, antique weapons and also stamps,” he tells NIQASH proudly, “everything that tells the story of my country from 1900 until today.”
The biggest challenge al-Shabani has had is financial: He has spent his own money to buy the antiques he has collected over the years. Sometimes he was unable to purchase the items he found because of his own modest means.
He has participated in many exhibitions and he has received handsome offers from other collectors, who have wanted to buy his whole collection. But al-Shabani has never sold a single piece because each antique has a special story for him, of how he came by it as well as its own unique history.
“Al-Shabani is expressing his love for his country through the things he has collected,” says Jabbar Ulaiwi Laftah, an art historian at the University of Qadisiyah. “This is shown by his enthusiasm for collecting local artefacts and his willingness to share them with his peers, so that they too can know more about their own heritage.”
Laftah says that al-Shabani’s collection is also important because it acknowledges many aspects of local culture – in terms of art and the economy – that are often disregarded by history books, which tend to focus on wars and conflict in Iraq.
Al-Shabani now wants to gain support to turn his 20,000-strong bedroom collection into a real museum, one that would assist scholars and researchers and possibly even attract tourists. Laftah also thinks this is a good idea, adding that if al-Shabani had been born in any other country he and his collection would have received a lot more attention and support by now.