art of resistance, Iraq, Syria

Iraq to Syria, Syria to Iraq.

moises

//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, Yemen

Yemen: The Melody of Our Alienation.

max pam/image © Max Pam, Ramadan in Yemen (1993)/

“What could I say about Yemen that did it justice. I tried in my journal to work it honestly. I tried with 60 rolls of black and white 120 film to translate the experience. That hot, spare and beautiful Ramadan.

No eating or drinking anything between sunrise and sunset. The faithful waiting for the moment. The cannon booms from the mosque in the afterglow of the day. KABOUMMM and a frenzy of quat buying, tea drinking and food eating begins in the suqs and squares and oases and towns all over the country. Everyone happy, elated laughing and joking sitting down together as one nation.

And you know what, people always wanted me to share and be part of their Ramadan, their community, their Yemen. I travelled all over the country with them. To Shibam, Taizz, Al Mukallah, Sanaa, over the desert, by the sea and into the mountains. The shared taxis were always a half past dead Peugeot 405’s with sometimes 10 or 12 people jammed in.

The 92 pages of this book give my version of that unforgettable Ramadan month. An experience freely given to me by the generosity of Yemeni people.”

That is how Max Pam described his experience of Yemen twenty-two years ago, summed up in his journal Ramadan in Yemen.

Twenty-two years later in Yemen, at least 120 people are dead after Saudi-led airstrikes pummeled a residential neighborhood in the western port city of Mokha late Friday. It was the deadliest wave of bombings since the U.S.-backed campaign against Houthi rebels began in March. The strikes hit a housing complex for power plant workers, flattening buildings and sparking fires that spread throughout the neighborhood and burned alive women, children and elderly.

One of the Mokha residents described the onslaught: “There were continuous airstrikes without any breaks. And we have no military men, no devils. We don’t even have gunmen around here. We couldn’t get to our children. There were some 20 bodies that I pulled out with my own hands and counted. Who is to blame for this?”

The ceasefire took effect Sunday night at midnight, but within hours both sides said the other had resumed attack.

As Yemeni poet Abdulaziz Al Maqaleh asks in The Melody of Our Alienation: “Has nonsense become common sense? Has the non-rational become rational?”

His poem comes to my mind because it is a beautiful act of devotion and hope in these bad times for Yemen. But, it also comes to my mind because the title The Melody of Our Alienation illustrates the position of the outside world towards Yemen (and not just Yemen) perfectly. All these wars and conflicts played to the tunes of our alienation – from the rest of the world, from ‘others’, from anything and everything that is not Me, Myself & I.

Watch and listen. In the end, The Melody of Our Alienation is a reminder that no matter how strange the city of Sana’a (and Yemen in general) feels now, its people are not strangers in their own city. It is their city. It is where they belong. It is where they will make a difference as agents of peace.

“Sana’a.. Even if she slept on its sorrows for some time. Even if she caved in and the numbness took too long. Her morning shall revolt in the face of darkness. And certainly… The rain will one day wash away her drought.”

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