art of resistance, Iraq

Jamal Penjweny | Remembering Iraq’s Jews.

islamic-jewish-a1/art © Jamal Penjweny/

Iraqi-Kurdish photo artist Jamal Penjweny’s newest project envisions a new chapter in the history of Iraq’s Jews, written about on Mashallah News. It’s another great project by Penjweny.

In less than four years, from 1947 to 1951, most of Iraq’s Jews left their homes and moved to Israel. Their presence in Iraqi society has since been forgotten, intentionally or unintentionally, by many. But one man in Qal’at Saleh, a small town in south-eastern Iraq, keeps the memory alive.

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That man is the school manager, Ahmad – he kept the names, school records and photos of Jewish students. Penjweny writes about Ahmad’s mission:

“The memory of the community may be fading away, but some Iraqi Jewish names have not been erased. They are still here, recorded in the school books in Qal’at Saleh, along with their grades and their black and white photos. Portraits of children, once five feet high and 10 years old, who are today in their mid-60s, possibly living somewhere in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv or Haifa. Most of them probably do not know that in this small town in south-eastern Iraq, Ahmad is still keeping track of their names.”

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Read the full story and see all the photos on Mashallah News.

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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 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

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

The Book To Read: Late For Tea At The Deer Palace.

Tamara Chalabi’s Late For Tea At The Deer Palace: The Lost Dreams of My Iraqi Family was the book I was really struggling with. It’s not because the book is poorly written or hard to read (quite the opposite), I was struggling with my inner thoughts and my own opinions of the people Chalabi wrote about, which were (most of the time) in contrast with the picture Chalabi painted throughout the book. But that is exactly why I wanted to read it and why I feel the need to write about it.

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/Late For Tea At The Deer Palace by Tamara Chalabi/

My first reservation towards this book stemmed from the fact that Tamara’s father is Ahmed Chalabi, who helped US government in launching war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq (for more about him, you can read Aram Roston’s book The Man Who Pushed America To War: The Extraordinary Life, Adventures and Obsessions of Ahmad Chalabi). After years in exile, Ahmad Chalabi entered Baghdad in 2003 as a would-be president of the new Iraq but he never reached that goal. In Late For Tea At The Deer Palace, Tamara Chalabi trys to stand outside her father’s shadow. In the first pages of the book, she writes:

“Everybody asks me about my father. He has been labelled a maverick, a charlatan, a genious. He has been named as the source of supposedly faulty intelligence that led America into the war in Iraq. He has been called a triple agent for the Us, Iran and Israel. But this is MY story.”

Still, the whole story of Late For Tea At The Deer Palace is based on memories of Chalabi family, so keeping a distance from certain aspects of her father’s story and his character was just impossible. The history of the Chalabi family is quite amazing. Pre-Saddam, the Chalabis held high rank: they were prominent Shia Muslims, part of the wealthy power elite, occupying positions of prestige and responsibility from the Ottoman Empire to the time of the national government. The Deer Palace was the nickname for the Chalabi mansion in Baghdad. Chalabi writes:

“The magnificent dining table could seat twenty-four, and was used for official receptions Abdul Hussein [Chalabi] held for personages such as the King, members of the Cabinet, official foreign visitors or the British High Commissioner.”

For the most part, the Chalabis were loyal to Nuri Said, the long-time British puppet who’d been part of Lawrence’s Arab Revolt in 1917 and who, until 1958, was the power behind the Iraqi throne. When the monarchy  was toppled in 1958, they fled to London.

The main character of the book is Bibi, Ahmed’s mother, a matriarch who’s quite spoiled and a snob, but also very fierce and determined in controling the lives of the others in the family. Her royal status was always extremely important to her, and the event that might illustrate this the best was when the family temporarily relocated and had to live without servants, in an apartment in London. Bibi was enraged to see her husband, Hadi, making baklava for the family, telling him she “didn’t marry a confectioner.”

chalabi family/The Chalabi Family, photo via NY Times/

It was so hard for me to relate to these people and to feel any kind of compassion. Tamara’s writing is gripping, captivating, but her main characters were just not that easy to identify with. I felt more sympathy towards their servants who were shortly mentioned from time to time. I didn’t have the same experience when reading Jung Chang’s Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, although the story was also from the perspective of a privileged family and a person who was part of the elite. In Chang’s book I felt a deep awareness of that fact (being privileged fact) and the great modesty of her family, while in the story of Chalabis – there is not a lot of that, and that makes it a little repulsive.

All that being said, I still think this is an important book and I would recommend reading it. It offers ‘the other side of the story’ on many levels, primarily two: privileged elites versus ‘regular’ masses and exile versus motherland. It is a well-told saga and a whole century of Iraqi culture and history is at times greatly woven into the story. Chalabi writes:

“Does exile ever really end? Rather than being a physical separation from a place, I believe that it is essentially a state of mind. It grows and evolves, taking on a life of its own. To have an inheritance of exile is a never-ending journey between myth and reality. Part of my coming to terms with Iraq entails accepting a reality that was built on an old dream; the dream of another home.”

• • •

Previous The Book To Read:

A Sky So Close by Betool Kheadiri

My Happiness Bears No Relation To Happiness

Suad Amiry & The Absurdity of Life Under Occupation

Sohrab Sepehri & The Water’s Footfall

and more.

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art of resistance, Iraq

The Book To Read: A Sky So Close by Betool Khedairi.

Betool Khedairi is an Iraqi novelist, born to an Iraqi father and a Scottish mother. She grew up in Iraq, and later on moved between Iraq, Jordan and United Kingdom.  A Sky So Close is her first novel, written more than a decade ago. The book has been published in numerous languages, from Arabic to English, Italian, French and Dutch.

729570-gf/French edition of A Sky So Close/

This novel is about Iraq as much as it isn’t about Iraq – it is a story about the freedom and imagination of childhood, about the complex struggle between identities, cultures and traditions, abour racism and shadows wars cast on societies long after they’re finished. Khedairi tells the story in a simple, unpretentious way, offering a fresh look on childhood in the Iraqi countryside in the 1970s. She writes:

“In the vast expanse everything was bigger than me. Even the way you looked at me, across the breakfast table, when I called my mother ‘mummy’ instead of calling her ‘youm’ or ‘yumma’ in the Arabic way. I only felt I was my true size when I was with Khadija, this person was the only creature in the world who made me feel that there was something or someone, as small as me. I made her even smaller. I called her Khaddouja – ‘Little Khadija’.

She was my world. She was everything that came in the second half of the day. A world that spread between our farmhouse and her father’s hut, by the banks of the Tigris River, in our little village twenty miles south of Baghdad. Zafraniya, it was called – ‘Land of Saffron.’ That was where the apricot trees grew. Vast acres of graceful trees , their upper branches entwined. When the sun starts to sink over the apricot farm, their shadow fall as complex patterns of light and shade on the ground underneath. The youthful branches stretch out in all directions. Their sharp twigs seem like fingers, entangled in handshakes, exchanging bunches of white flowers. Each spring I wish that the flowers would last forever.”

We get to know about adolescence issues and coming of age during the long Iraq-Iran war, which changed the country beyond retrieve.  It was a state of chaos, a chaos people got used to with time. Khedairi describes the situation:

“The war has been dragging its heavy feet from the day the first military communique was issued. The ages of those called up for compulsory military services have been extended to both younger boys and older men. Calls have gone out for more voluntary contributions. Laws forbidding travel abroad have become more numerous and varied. Foreign magazines have disappeared from the shelves in bookshops. Imported good have been replaced by local produce.

Pharmacies have been banned from selling conraceptive pills in an effort to increase the populationnand replace losses at the battlefields. The television natters with promotions encouraging marriage and early conception. In a new trend called ‘mass weddings’ large halls are hired out, complete with all varieties of foods and sweets. Couples are married there en masse. Each couple takes their turn at cutting the gigantic white cake, using a knife decorated with colored ribbons.”

The story continues with protagonist’s migration to England, some years before the first Gulf war, when, as she writes; “events in my homeland were no longer considered newsworthy by the world’s radio stations.”

The book is not a masterpiece, but a rather enjoyable and fair account of one’s life between East and West, war and peace, survival and death.

• • •

Previous The Book To Read:

My Happiness Bears No Relation To Happiness

Suad Amiry & The Absurdity of Life Under Occupation

Sohrab Sepehri & The Water’s Footfall

and more.

 

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