art of resistance, Iraq

Nawar Tamawi’s Instagram Guide To Iraq.

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Meet Nawar Tamawi. Tamawi always hated the way Hollywood portrayed Iraq – either as an eternal warzone or a desert full of camels and belly dancers. He started taking pictures, as a way of fighting against these narrow (mis)conceptions about his country.

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Tamawi says instagramming allowed him to explore Iraq in a way he hadn’t done before – “through the vintage alleys of Baghdad, the ancient streets of Babylon, holy sites in Najaf and Karbala, the old citadel in Erbil, and to the tip of Mesopotamia, where the rivers Tigris and Euphrates meet in Shatt Al Arab, near Basra.”

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He has set a goal for himself to capture the beauty of all eighteen provinces of Iraq – unfortunately, some of the places he wants to visit are still largely dried out and neglected. He writes how life in Iraq is getting more unbearable, day by day.

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Tamawi writes:  “More and more, I feel like an outsider in my own home. There’s constant chaos and uncertainty. People’s opinions aren’t respected. I don’t want to be part of a herd that is walking through its days with no control over anything that is happening around it.

Nowadays, I notice that I’m pulling out my phone camera less frequently. I feel that presenting Iraq in a beautiful light is disingenuous, that I’m fooling the audience. I feel like Iraq is fading away, overpowered by violence and sectarianism.”

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Tamawi is honest about his doubts, his fears. Still, he says that, when he looks at the photos taken so far, it gives him comfort – “but all the pictures are real, and when I look back at my shots, there is something reassuring in them, that a different Iraq is possible. That is why I take pictures of Iraq.”

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Tamawi also recommends some other Instagram accounts that you need to follow to see Iraq in a way most media outlets refuse to show. Read more about it here and be sure to go through and follow Tamawi’s Instagram profile.

//all photos © Nawar Tamawi//

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art of resistance, Iraq

The Book To Read: The Librarian Of Basra.

librarian/image © The Librarian of Basra/

Here is a real-life hero story. Alia Muhammad Baqer was the chief librarian in the Al Basrah Central Library in Basra (Iraq). Baqer saved around thirty thousand books from destruction during the Iraq War, including a biography of Muhammad from around 1300.

Her story inspired two children’s books, one of them being The Librarian of Basra by Jeanette Winter (illustrated by Winter in bright acrylic and ink). It might be presented as a children’s book, but this lovely story is out there for everyone.

The book is written in a simple style and it’s very easy to understand, but the story it describes is not a simple one – it took a lot of courage to do what Alia Baqer and her friends did.

Baqer worked at the library for fourteen years.  As the war spread out, she tried to make sure books from the library would be safe, but the government officials denied her requests that the books be moved to safety. That is when she started to smuggle books out of the library.

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Soon after the 2003 invasion Basra was suffering from a humanitarian crisis in which residents lacked both water and electricity. The city was suffering, its people were suffering. Not long after Alia smuggled most of the books, the library was also destroyed.

Her new mission at the time was to raise funds to rebuild the library. The library was rebuilt a year later and she was reinstated as chief librarian.

One thing you could say is missing from this book is showing the sides involved and responsible for the war – that is not represented. It definitely doesn’t want to burden children (and adults) with US involvment in the war.

Some people would say that’s a good thing – beacuse it shows a war story, and all war stories are alike and show how wars never work, how they destroy societies. That is the most important thing, I guess.

On the other hand, you could say there needs to be an awareness, a burden of responsibility, for this is a war that is still going on, and it is a war that didn’t just happen. Our lives are political (and politicized) from an early age, and we do not need to run away from that fact or protect children from it.

I am also aware of that fact that more people enjoyed this book without the political stuff in it, because it makes them feel better and it doesn’t open the space for criticism, anger, doubt, protest. This book could have given more if you look at it that way.

Still, I appreciate it for introducing me to Alia Baqer, a woman who thought about more than her own safety and well-being in the worst of conditions. She thought about the future, did something heroic for the land of uncertainty that is tomorrow.

• • •

Previous The Book To Read:

A Hand Full Of Stars

Palestinian Walks: Notes On A Vanishing Landscape

Night Draws Near

The Hakawati by Rabih Alameddine

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art of resistance, Iraq

The Option Of Last Resort: Iraqi Refugees.

ira8/photo © Gabriela Bulisova/

There is something special about Gabriela Bulisova’s photography. She documents wars, conflicts, exiles. Her subjects go through tragedies, they are extremely vulnerable and extremely powerful at the same time. Like the countries they come from, they are war-torn. Like the countries they come from, there’s more to them than just war.

The great thing about Bulisova’s photography is that she manages to capture the internal struggle – longing, desperation, sadness, void. It’s in the faces and movements of the people she portrays, but also in everything around them – light and the absence of light, unclear lines, shadows.

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In her series The Option of Last Resort Bulisova follows the stories of Iraqi refugees in United States. Why such a name for the project? For people who seek refugee status in America, the U.S. government offers resettlement as the “option of last resort” for the most vulnerable refugees.

“The masses of people displaced by the war in Iraq have become invisible and insignificant, overshadowed by other war-related events. Many of the displaced were the brains, the talent, the pride, the future of Iraq. Many of them, stigmatized by unforgettable violence, will never return to their homes”, Bulisova writes.

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Many of these refugees dreamed of America as a promised land, but the reality turned out to be very different from that. Once in the United States, they encounter the intricate, challenging, and often disillusioning process of transitioning to life in America.

“Many feel abandoned by the country they helped and risked their lives for; many are unemployed and facing dire financial crises; many yearn for the embrace of family and friends left behind; and many wish they could return home. Still fearful for their own safety and the safety of family members in Iraq, many refugees asked that I not reveal their faces or names”, Bulisova writes.

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“I want to feel like a human being again” is a sentence you can hear refugees repeating. It made me think of so many other refugee and exile stories – captured in stories, poems, novels. The same thought is present in all of them. Human being. To feel like a human being.

But for many – it just doesn’t seem to happen. There are no changes. They are, like Nadia Anjuman wrote – “lost in a sea of darkness, emptied of the thought of time, that eternal pit”. They are asking, like Mahmoud Darwish asked – “are we to remain like this, moving to the outside, in this orange day, only to touch the dark and vague inside?”

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In 2015, the escalation of armed conflict across the central governorates of Iraq, and the constantly changing security situation, resulted in new and secondary movements of internally displaced people across central Iraq and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

UNHCR reports that newly displaced people in Iraq find their limited financial resources quickly depleted by the increasing costs of accommodation and basic foods. The number of Iraqis seeking refuge in other countries is still rising and it will not stop, atleast not considering the (political) solutions we have so far.

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It makes me think of Riverbend, again and again. “In 2003, we were counting our lives in days and weeks. Would we make it to next month? Would we make it through the summer? Some of us did and many of us didn’t.

Back in 2003, one year seemed like a lifetime ahead. The idiots said, ‘Things will improve immediately.’ The optimists were giving our occupiers a year, or two… The realists said, ‘Things won’t improve for at least five years. And the pessimists? The pessimists said, ‘It will take ten years. It will take a decade'”, she wrote in 2013.

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Years went by, more than a decade passed. Iraq Body Count still counts the bodies, they still have a lot of work to do. The website says: Tuesday, 29 December: 36 killed. Monday, 28 December: 65 killed (30 children executed in Qayyarah).

Civilian deaths are almost doubling every year. What will the new year bring us? What will we bring to it? What will we do with all the possibilities? Can we make people feel like human beings again?

//all photos © Gabriela Bulisova//

For more on this and her other projects, visit Bulisova’s official website.

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art of resistance, Iraq, Syria

Iraq to Syria, Syria to Iraq.

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//photos © Moises Saman/Magnum Photos//

Eight years ago Riverbend escaped from Iraq with her family, searching safety in Syria. Upon her arrival to Syria she wrote:

“Syria is a beautiful country – at least I think it is. I say ‘I think’ because while I perceive it to be beautiful, I sometimes wonder if I mistake safety, security and normalcy for ‘beauty’. In so many ways, Damascus is like Baghdad before the war – bustling streets, occasional traffic jams, markets seemingly always full of shoppers… And in so many ways it’s different.

The buildings are higher, the streets are generally narrower and there’s a mountain, Qasiyoun, that looms in the distance. The mountain distracts me, as it does many Iraqis- especially those from Baghdad. Northern Iraq is full of mountains, but the rest of Iraq is quite flat. At night, Qasiyoun blends into the black sky and the only indication of its presence is a multitude of little, glimmering spots of light- houses and restaurants built right up there on the mountain. Every time I take a picture, I try to work Qasiyoun into it- I try to position the person so that Qasiyoun is in the background.”

She continues:

“It is estimated that there are at least 1.5 million Iraqis in Syria today. I believe it. Walking down the streets of Damascus, you can hear the Iraqi accent everywhere. There are areas like Geramana and Qudsiya that are packed full of Iraqi refugees. Syrians are few and far between in these areas. Even the public schools in the areas are full of Iraqi children. A cousin of mine is now attending a school in Qudsiya and his class is composed of 26 Iraqi children, and 5 Syrian children. It’s beyond belief sometimes. Most of the families have nothing to live on beyond their savings which are quickly being depleted with rent and the costs of living.”

That was eight years ago. Last couple of years Iraq and Syria have been closer than ever, united under the merciless rhythm of war drums. These charts show the heartbeats of those countries now.

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Eight years ago, Riverbend wrote: “The first minutes after passing the border were overwhelming. Overwhelming relief and overwhelming sadness… How is it that only a stretch of several kilometers and maybe twenty minutes, so firmly segregates life from death? How is it that a border no one can see or touch stands between car bombs, militias, death squads and… peace, safety? It’s difficult to believe- even now. I sit here and write this and wonder why I can’t hear the explosions.

I wonder at how the windows don’t rattle as the planes pass overhead. I’m trying to rid myself of the expectation that armed people in black will break through the door and into our lives. I’m trying to let my eyes grow accustomed to streets free of road blocks, hummers and pictures of Muqtada and the rest… How is it that all of this lies a short car ride away?”

Today, we see refugees from Iraq and Syria crossing endless amounts of borders, risking their lives, traveling across the sea on lousy rafts and so-called boats, walking for weeks and months – and still not managing to find a safe place to lay their head and rest. We see that many of them, for a long time, are not and will not be able to allow themselves to dream, allow themselves to worry about the little moments – like going to work on monday or what to cook for dinner.

There’s no more safety a short car ride away. Baghdad is still burning, Syria is on fire too. And in Jordan and Turkey the word is out – “capacities for refugees full”. After Iraq to Syria and Syria to Iraq, where to next? Who will stop all Baghdads from burning and who will provide the shelter from fire in the meantime?

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art of resistance, Iraq

The Book To Read: Night Draws Near.

tumblr_mxq7ppmmuh1rouua1o10_500/photo © Jehad Nga: Something in the WayIraq, 2010/

I often search for books on Iraq written by reporters who’ve spent a lot of months and years writing, understanding, witnessing – trying to come as close as possible to the truth of it all. Anthony Shadid was one of those reporters.

Shadid was a Lebanese-American writer, a foreign correspondent for The New York Times based in Baghdad and Beirut. He died three years ago, from an acute asthma attack while attempting to leave Syria.

I finally read his book Night Draws Near: Iraq’s people in the Shadow of America’s War. The book was published almost ten years ago, and it might seem I am really late for reading this. The sad truth is that Iraq today is not much different from the one Shadid describes in the book – in it, the night draws near fast and everything is ghamidha, ambigious.

Shadid writes: “Baghdad is a city of lives interrupted, its history a story of loss, waiting, and resilience. In the days before the American invasion in March 2003, the capital scarred by war after war felt torn, aggrieved, and filled with longing for the greatness it once possessed and has never forgotten.”

jead/photo © Jehad Nga/

He is great at observing how the greatness Baghdad once possessed plays a formative role in Iraqi culture of memory:

Rome can still see its past, the magnificence of its ancient empire gracing the modern cityscape. Paris and London, storied cities reinventing themselves as they age across centuries, live in their histories, which surround them. Baghdad, its ancient grandeur utterly destroyed, cannot see its past, its glory. It can only remember. Baghdad’s is a culture of memory, the city that draws strength and pride from the myths to which it continually returns. But the curse of recalling is the reminder of what has been lost.”

This book is a rare accomplishment because its focus is almost entirely on Iraqi people and the way this long war cripples their lives. Unlike many reporters, Shadid doesn’t forget that and doesn’t end up writing a book about himself (which is what many journalists do). He went independently through Iraq, detached from US forces, and on daily basis he asked the Iraqi people how they feel about the state of affairs in their country.

The dichotomy of the war (Washington vs. Baghdad, media vs. reality) becomes very obvious in this book. The war that is at the same time proclaimed a liberation and an occupation, is after all and before all – a war. Shadid notes all the little frustrations of the people – who cannot understand the efficiency of a superpower (US) that can take out their leader in couple of weeks, but is so inefficient in keeping the electricity running.

Throughout the book, we meet Iraqi people, different people with different backgrounds (social status, education, religion), and see how all their lives became similiar – reduced to war. We meet, for example, fourteen-year-old girl, Amal, who kept a diary starting around the beginning of the war. We see how she changes with time, how war changes her.

Shadid alo explains how fundamentalist used the growing hatred of America and found a way to appeal to young people – mostly desperate, without work and sense of purpose (and future) in life. At the same time when I read this book, I was also reading The Sirens of Baghdad by Yasmina Khadra, and it is just incredible how similiar these books are in their atmosphere – although Khadra’s book is a work of fiction.

Night Draws Near is a truly important book – for all of us to understand, for all of us to bare witness. That is the fair thing to do, that is the least we can do.

Through its storied history, Baghdad has had many names. Its medieval Abassid rulers knew it as Medinat al-Salam, the City of Peace. I hope it returns to that.

• • •

Previous The Book To Read:

The Hakawati by Rabih Alameddine

Anti-Arab Racism in the USA

A Tale of Love and Darkness

Afghanistan, Were God Only Comes to Weep

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art of resistance, Iraq

Dunya Mikhail: Tablets.

dymaxion/artwork by the amazing Hayv Kahraman/

The following is a poem Tablets by the great Iraqi poet Dunya Mikhail. I am posting it together with the great artwork by the Iraqi artist Hayv Kahraman. Coming from Iraq, both of these great women have dealt with otherness, with being a refugee, with giving and leaving a part of yourself (forever). See it in their work, acknowledge it, respect it, remember it.

.

She pressed her ear against the shell:
she wanted to hear everything
he never told her.
.
A single inch
separates their two bodies
facing one another
in the picture:
a framed smile
buried beneath the rubble.
.
Whenever you throw stones
into the sea
it sends ripples through me.
.
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.
My heart’s quite small:
that’s why it fills so quickly.
.
Water needs no wars
to mix with water
and fill up spaces.
.
The tree doesn’t ask why it’s not moving
to some other forest
nor any other pointless questions.
.
He watches tv
while she holds a novel.
On the novel’s cover
there’s a man watching tv
and a woman holding a novel.
.
blowing1
.
On the first morning
of the new year
all of us will look up
at the same sun.
.
She raised his head to her chest.
He did not respond:
he was dead.
.
The person who gazed at me for so long,
and whose gaze I returned for just as long . . .    
That man who never once embraced me,
and whom I never once embraced  . . .    
The rain wrecked the colors around him
on that old canvas.
.
He was not with the husbands
who were lost and then found;
he did not come with the prisoners of war,
nor with the kite that took her,
in her dream,
to some other place,
while she stood before the camera
to have her smile
glued into the passport.
.
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.
Dates piled high
beside the road:
your way
of  kissing me.
.
Rapunzel’s hair
reaching down
from the window
to the earth
is how we wait.
.
The shadows
the prisoners left
on the wall
surrounded the jailer
and cast light
on his loneliness.
.
Homeland, I am not your mother,
so why do you weep in my lap like this
every time
something hurts you?
.
Never mind this bird:
it comes every day
and stops at the branch’s edge
to sing for an hour
or two.
That’s all it does:
nothing makes it happier.
.
House keys,
identity cards,
faded pictures among the bones . . .    
All of these are scattered
in a single mass grave.
.
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.
The Arabic language
loves long sentences
and long wars.
It loves never-ending songs
and late nights
and weeping over ruins.
It loves working
for a long life
and a long death.
.
Far away from home — 
that’s all that changed in us.
.
Cinderella left her slipper in Iraq
along with the smell of cardamom
wafting from the teapot,
and that huge flower,
its mouth gaping like death.
.
Instant messages
ignite revolutions.
They spark new lives
waiting for a country to download,
a land that’s little more
than a handful of dust
when faced with these words:
“There are no results that match your search.”
.
The dog’s excitement
as she brings the stick to her owner
is the moment of opening the letter.
.
We cross borders lightly
like clouds.
Nothing carries us,
but as we move on
we carry rain,
and an accent,
and a memory
of another place.
.
How thrilling to appear in his eyes.
She can’t understand what he’s saying:
she’s too busy chewing his voice.
She looks at the mouth she’ll never kiss,
at the shoulder she’ll never cry on,
at the hand she’ll never hold,
and at the ground where their shadows meet.
.
• • •
.
This poem was translated by Kareem James Abu-Zeid.
All of the artwork (paintings and illustrations) is by the amazing Hayv Kahraman – visit her official website for more. For more on the poetry of Dunya Mikhail, visit her official website and the Poetry Foundation.
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art of resistance, Iran, Iraq, Israeli - Palestinian conflict, Syria, travel

Time Travel Booth: Middle East by Inge Morath.

IRAN. Yazd. 1956. Offerings in a Zoroastrian chapel.

IRAN. Yazd. 1956. Offerings in a Zoroastrian chapel.

Chris Boot, a former director of Magnum Photos, wrote the following lines about the great photographer Inge Morath:

Inge Morath was, above all, a traveller. Her approach to a story was ‘to let it grow’, without any apparent concern for narrative structure, trusting in her experience and interests to shape her work rather than in an editorial formula. She unsentimentally made pictures that were guided by her relationship to a place. These relationships were invariably intimate and long-lasting; she regularly revisited the places she chose to photograph and learned the relevant language… Similarly, her photographs of people are born of intimacy without sentimentality.”

Yes, Morath was a traveler, an observer of lives and places. Many of her travels included Middle East. Here are some of the photos she took around the region in the 50’s and 60’s.

IRAN. Tehran. 1956. In the market. Stalls with old books, gold teeth, samovars, and water pipes.

IRAN. Tehran. 1956. In the market. Stalls with old books, gold teeth, samovars, and water pipes.

IRAN. Tehran. 1956. Industrial landscape outside Tehran.

IRAN. Tehran. 1956. Industrial landscape outside Tehran.

IRAN. 1956. Near Rasht. Kurdish shepherd.

IRAN. 1956. Near Rasht. Kurdish shepherd.

IRAN. 1958. Public bath near the Caspian Sea.

IRAN. 1958. Public bath near the Caspian Sea.

IRAN. Tehran. 1956. Street musician performing.

IRAN. Tehran. 1956. Street musician performing.

IRAN. Yazd. 1956. View taken from the Minaret of the Mosque.

IRAN. Yazd. 1956. View taken from the Minaret of the Mosque.

IRAN. Isfahan. 1956. Photographer on the sidewalk of the Maidan-i Shah.

IRAN. Isfahan. 1956. Photographer on the sidewalk of the Maidan-i Shah.

IRAQ. 1956. Gypsies dancing in a camp near Catesiphon.

IRAQ. 1956. Gypsies dancing in a camp near Catesiphon.

IRAQ. Near Baghdad. 1956. Ruins of the Palace of Ctesiphon.

IRAQ. Near Baghdad. 1956. Ruins of the Palace of Ctesiphon.

Refugee camp. 1960.

Refugee camp. 1960.

JORDAN. Palestinian refugees at Muascar Camp near old Jerusalem. 1960

JORDAN. Palestinian refugees at Muascar Camp near old Jerusalem. 1960

DEIR EL BALAH (The Monastery at the Sea) Camp in Jabalya near Gaza.This is one of the best camp schools for refugee girls.They wear self made uniforms, desks have been made by refugee boys in the carpentry shop. In the background girls are having a sports class, behind the schoolyard, are the mud huts of the camp.

DEIR EL BALAH (The Monastery at the Sea) Camp in Jabalya near Gaza.This is one of the best camp schools for refugee girls.They wear self made uniforms, desks have been made by refugee boys in the carpentry shop. In the background girls are having a sports class, behind the schoolyard, are the mud huts of the camp.

LEBANON. Beirut. 1956. St. Simeon's beach. People rent small houses at this Mediterranean beach and many inhabitants spend their weekends and lunch hours there. Beirut was the only place in the Middle East where girls can go and sun-bathe in bikinis.

LEBANON. Beirut. 1956. St. Simeon’s beach. People rent small houses at this Mediterranean beach and many inhabitants spend their weekends and lunch hours there.

SYRIA. Palmyra. 1956.

SYRIA. Palmyra. 1956.

 

//all photos © Inge Morath/The Inge Morath Foundation/Magnum Photos//

• • •

For more on Inge Morath, visit The Inge Morath Foundation and Magnum Photos.

Previous Time Travel Booths:

70’s and 80’s Sudan by Abbas Habiballa

Palestine, First Intifada

20th Century Syria

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