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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art of resistance, Iraq

Marking Veterans Day 2014: Iraq in Fragments.

November is the month of veterans in the USA. In the light of this year’s Veterans Day, I already posted The Last Letter – A Message to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney From a Dying Veteran by Thomas Young, and The Nature of War, short animated story by StoryCorps. Now I want to present some stories from the Iraqi side, the pieces and debris of Iraqi lives since 2003.

Last couple of weeks, Iraq is all I think about, most of the time. I’ve been reading several books dealing with lives of Iraqi civilians since the invasion of 2003, and that is such a hard read. It weighs a ton, and that ton unavoidably falls on my heart and crumbles it into my feet. I feel so drained and ashamed at the same time – ashamed because I feel so exhausted just reading it, and there are people who had to live through those moments, and many of them did, and many of them didn’t complain.

There is this moment in Hala Jaber’s The Flying Carpet to Iraq, where she, a journalist for Sunday Times, rushes into one of Iraqi hospitals, and among the total chaos, enters one of the hospital rooms. In it, there is a small boy, Ali, eleven years old, and she can see only his face. Seeing her on the doorstep, the first thing he asks is:“Have you come to give me my arms back?

I will never forget that moment. And I shouldn’t forget it.

I’ve also been reading a lot of poetry, mostly poems by Saadi Youssef, great Iraqi poet. Twice exiled from Iraq, Youssef has no plans of going back to his homeland. In an interview from 2007, he said:

„There is a saying in Arabic that is often said in reference to falling in love, but I think of it when I think of going back to Iraq: The first is like sugar, the second like torture and the third will take you to the cemetery. Really when I first returned to Iraq in 1959, it was sweet, like sugar, everything was fine, the ‘58 revolution had made everyone optimistic and I had a good job. Then in 1972, I went back and the first months and the first year was very good, but slowly things started changing until it became like torture. Now it will certainly put me in the grave if I go back.“

SADDAM HUSSEIN SPEECH/Iraq 2003, photo © David Guttenfelder/

One of Youssef’s poems I really love is The New Baghdad, written in 1975.

• • •

The New Baghdad

She comes to me with a bowl of soup

when I am besieged by

fumes of cheap arak.

She comes to me in dusty noons.

And with each sunset night snatches

she comes to me with

an evening star.

 

In the cafes she sits to bitter tea.

In the market she sells cheese

and buffalo livers.

She dusts her used-clothing stores,

searching for bones in a bowl of soup,

for milk to the lips of a child

and a glimmer in a pair of eyes

and something a woman does not yet know

and streets where water never greens.

MIDEAST IRAQ US WAR/Iraq 2003, photo © David Guttenfelder/

• • •

At night

she roams among houses abandoned by the poor

and churches where a muffled mass fades

and huts where poor girls faint.

At midnight

she returns to her enchanted shelter

behind muddy streets,

carrying the bread of the dead,

myrtle flowers,

slivers of buffalo liver

and two bones for a bowl of soup.

 

At dawn she stops by all her houses,

waking all her children,

dragging them to the street,

the thousands waiting to march on Baghdad.

/Translated by Khaled Mattawa/

The last couple of weeks also made me think of the documentary Iraq in Fragments (directed by James Longley). The film was made in 2006, and I think it was one of the first mainstream documentaries that provided viewers with an Iraqi point of view. Also, the work put in it is noticeable – three hundred hours of material was filmed in Iraq over a period of more than two years for this production.Here are some of the captions I took while rewatching the film.

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My favourite moment of the film is one of the last ones, where a Kurdish child talks about the idea of Iraq,  and separation and fighting all the adults are talking about (and witnessing it). I’ve made a GIF, just had to.

How do you do it, really?

It made me think of Riverbend and one of her last blog posts, when she and her family escaped from Iraq to Syria. In October of 2007, she writes:

“By the time we had reentered the Syrian border and were headed back to the cab ready to take us into Kameshli, I had resigned myself to the fact that we were refugees. I read about refugees on the Internet daily… in the newspapers… hear about them on TV. I hear about the estimated 1.5 million plus Iraqi refugees in Syria and shake my head, never really considering myself or my family as one of them. After all, refugees are people who sleep in tents and have no potable water or plumbing, right? Refugees carry their belongings in bags instead of suitcases and they don’t have cell phones or Internet access, right? Grasping my passport in my hand like my life depended on it, with two extra months in Syria stamped inside, it hit me how wrong I was. We were all refugees. I was suddenly a number. No matter how wealthy or educated or comfortable, a refugee is a refugee. A refugee is someone who isn’t really welcome in any country- including their own… especially their own.

We live in an apartment building where two other Iraqis are renting. The people in the floor above us are a Christian family from northern Iraq who got chased out of their village by Peshmerga and the family on our floor is a Kurdish family who lost their home in Baghdad to militias and were waiting for immigration to Sweden or Switzerland or some such European refugee haven.

The first evening we arrived, exhausted, dragging suitcases behind us, morale a little bit bruised, the Kurdish family sent over their representative – a 9 year old boy missing two front teeth, holding a lopsided cake, ‘We’re Abu Mohammed’s house- across from you- mama says if you need anything, just ask- this is our number. Abu Dalia’s family live upstairs, this is their number. We’re all Iraqi too… Welcome to the building.’

I cried that night because for the first time in a long time, so far away from home, I felt the unity that had been stolen from us in 2003.”

Until 2011, Syria was a new home for hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees. But, for the last couple of years, many of them (like Riverbend) had to escape from Syria together with hundreds of thousands of Syrians who became refugees and remain the greatest, yet often overlooked, victims of horrendous conflicts rampaging their countries.

In her comic The Waiting Room, Sarah Glidden showed the struggle of Iraqi refugees who were trying to make Syria their new home.

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397E8trfQFOCffZ5tETAMA/images via Cartoon Movement/

Now many of them are refugees all over again. And new refugees are made every day. Yes, they are being made, they are being created. All of them – the children who ask for their arms and legs, mothers weeping for their murdered children and husbands, families who will never see their homes again, worn out people desperately looking to find their memories and dreams in the sea of nothingness… All of it is made by the dreadful machinery of war, machinery cruelly imposed on many and fueled by the background interests of  the (very protected) few, coated into the language of propaganda which associates courage with warfare, and change with violence.

When will it stop? When does it end?

How do we stop it? How do we end it? That is the main question for this Month of Veterans.

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art of resistance, Iraq

Al-Mutanabbi Street and the Healing Power of Poetry.

Manuscripts really do not burn. Seven years after the explosion of al-Mutanabbi street in Baghdad, the famous street of poets and booksellers is slowly recovering. I already wrote about the coalition of artists working on ‘An Inventory Of Al-Mutanabbi Street’, a project to “re-assemble” some of the “inventory” of the reading material that was lost in the bombing.

Today, I decided to gather photos and experiences from al-Mutanabbi street, before and after the bombing, to try to feel the atmosphere of this legendary street. Jason Florio in his photo essay Baghdad Café (Orion Magazine, 2003) observes how:

“Throughout the Al- Mutanabbi district, the restaurants are full, the fruit stands are fully stocked, and the red double-decker buses rolling by seem oddly familiar. There are no armed militiamen at intersections. No tanks grinding up the asphalt on Sharia Raschid…

The Sh’ah Bander and other nearby cafes are a haven from sanctions that have left many intellectuals driving Taxis for Dinar instead of punding keys of Crown typewriters. There is little money in Baghdad at all, even less for the purchase of words, but their passion for writing has not been dissuaded by the lack of financial renumeration. ‘We don’t need a full stomach, but we need to write’, says Wajeeh Abbas, who writes for next to nothing for the weekly magazine al-Itihad.

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/all images above © Jason Florio/

Here is the feature from the Radio Free Europe /Radio Liberty about the revival of al-Mutanabbi street in 2010. Poets are gathering again, reciting their poetry, celebrating love and life.

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AFP2/al Mutanabbi street in 2012 and 2013, images © AFP/

lynsey addarioSeated near the entrance of the Shahbandar literary cafe , owner Haji Mohammed al Khashali gazes out to Al Mutanabbi street , a centuries old hub for booksellers and intellectuals. A 2007 car bomb near the cafe killed five of Khashali’s sons, whose portraits hang on the wall. /image © Lynsey Addario, After the Storm – Baghdad series/

It feels right to end this post with Taha Muhammad ALi, great Palestinian poet, reading his beautiful poem Revenge.

At times … I wish
I could meet in a duel
the man who killed my father
and razed our home,
expelling me
into
a narrow country.
And if he killed me,
I’d rest at last,
and if I were ready—
I would take my revenge!

But if he turned
out to be on his own—
cut off like a branch from a tree—
without a mother or father,
with neither a brother nor sister,
wifeless, without a child,
and without kin or neighbors or friends,
colleagues or companions,
then I’d add not a thing to his pain
within that aloneness—
not the torment of death,
and not the sorrow of passing away.
Instead I’d be content
to ignore him when I passed him by
on the street—as I
convinced myself
that paying him no attention
in itself was a kind of revenge.

Listen to Taha reading it beautifully in Arabic, and Peter Cole translating it greatly into English. It is a special experience. And do not forget – keep track of Iraq Body Count. Al-Mutanabbi street might be healing, but Iraq is far from being at peace (at last).

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art of resistance, Iraq

Manuscripts don’t burn: Al-Mutanabbi Street, Baghdad.

On March 5th 2007, a car bomb exploded on al-Mutanabbi Street in Baghdad. More than 30 people were killed and more than 100 were wounded. Al-Mutanabbi Street is the historic center of Baghdad bookselling, with bookstores and outdoor bookstalls, cafes, stationery shops, and even tea and tobacco shops. It has been the heart and soul of the Baghdad literary and intellectual community.

In 2010, Beau Beausoleil put out a call for book artists to join ‘An Inventory Of Al-Mutanabbi Street’, a project to “re-assemble” some of the “inventory” of the reading material that was lost in the bombing. The inventory of al-Mutanabbi Street was as diverse as the Iraqi population, including literature of both Iraq and the Middle East, history, political theory, popular novels, scholarly works, religious tracts, technical books, poetry, mysteries; even stationery and blank school notebooks could be purchased on this street, as well as children’s books, comics, and magazines. Arabic was  the predominate language but books in Farsi, French, German, and English were also represented. Because books have their own journeys, ones quite unknown to us, there were also a few books in Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Dutch, or Italian, as well as classic Greek and Latin, Hindi, or Russian.

The coalition asked each book artist who joined the project to complete three books (or other paper material) over the course of a year, books that reflected both the strength and fragility of books, but also showed the endurance of the ideas within them. They were asked to reflect both the targeted attack on this “street of the booksellers” as well as the ultimate futility of those who try to erase thought.

halah1Art, Home, Lands by Oded Halahmy

This project brought me back to my childhood in Baghdad. When Iraqis want to read, the first place they turn to is Al-Mutanabbi Street, a Mecca for all writers, poets, novelists, students and anyone who is thirsty for knowledge. I remember my mother and I would walk from our home to Al-Mutanabbi Street so we could purchase books. From Al Mutanabbi Street we would walk to the Shorjah Market, where we always bought our groceries from the many vendors in the market. I loved to learn, so these trips became food for the mind, for the body and for the soul.”

bolton1What is a book? Poems for al-Mutanabbi street by Ama Bolton

“I wrote the first of these poems after hearing Dr. Saad Iskander on BBC Radio, and later printed it as a broadside for the Al-Mutanabbi Street Coalition. I joined the project because it gave me a chance to do something instead of feeling powerless.”

ruffRabii by Donna Ruff

“My book is both a lament for lives lost and a testament to the enduring nature of books and learning. Formally, the work is like a book- but its pages tell a visual story of grief. The names of those who died in the bombing are written on the ribbon that winds through pages of cut away text blocks. These names represent only a few of the many thousands of Iraqis who have lost their lives in the war.”

szujewska3The Iraqi BookSeller by Laurie Szujewska

The Iraqi Bookseller is inspired by The Bookseller’s Story Ending Much too Soon, an article written by Anthony Shadid for the Washington Post Foreign Service on March 12, 2007 . Shadid’s story is a personal account of the Mutannabi Street bombing told through a reminiscence of his friendship with Mohammed Hayawi, a bookseller on the street. It is intended to be both a remembrance of Hayawi and a tribute to Shadid’s poignant story of his friend.”

martin1Not a straight line by Emily Martin

“My intention with Not a Straight Line was to recreate the movements of someone browsing on Al-Mutanabbi Street. The book is comprised of 10 linked Coptic bound books with one line of the text in each of the books. To read the book the viewer must find their way along the linked books that turn this way and that way much as a meandering street would. The text I wrote is one of defiance, the written word can be damaged but will always prevail.”

woodd1Manuscripts don’t burn by Dan Wood

‘Manuscripts Don’t Burn’ is from the novel ‘The Master and Margarita’, written in the 1930’s by Mikhail Bulgakov, the soviet writer and satirist. The line is spoken by the devil to a writer who had destroyed his own work, which then magically reappears. It has been interpreted through the years as a testament to the writer and artist’s perseverance through oppression, and became somewhat prophetic for Bulgakov’s own life.

These are only couple of book artist featured in Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here. To see more, go to Book Arts  and Al-Mutanabbi Street.  For more on impressions of Al-Mutanabbi street, read an essay by Lutfia Alduleimi. Here is an excerpt:

Before I was born in al-Mutanabbi Street, I was no one. I could deny the documents that made reference to my birth on a particular day of the year or a certain province of the country. I was a mere small woman without a place in this world. Then I was born on al-Mutanabbi Street the day my first book was published–A Passage to the Sadness of Men. I had discovered as a girl of nine the richness of the story through 1,001 Nights in a room that girls were forbidden to enter, and I was determined to become the contemporary Shahrezade. This young girl had no future, except perhaps to become a woman set aside to live a pointless life among quiet, forgotten women. But Shahrezade, the first woman to use the magic of imagination to narrate the tales of the East, plucked me out of my time and visited upon me the spell of dreams and tattooed a shining mark on my forehead, setting in place my destiny, as had the gods and goddesses of old:  Go to the place of books. You will be one of those women who narrate stories, one of the daughters of Shahrezade.”

And do read the above mentioned article The Bookseller’s Story, Ending much too soon by Anthony Shadid for Washington Post. Here is an excerpt:

Unlike the U.S. soldiers who die in this conflict, the names of most Iraqi victims will never be published, consigned to the anonymity that death in the Iraqi capital brings these days. Hayawi was neither a politician nor a warlord. Few beyond Mutanabi Street even knew his name. Yet his quiet life deserves more than a footnote, if for no other reason than to remember a man who embraced what Baghdad was and tried to make sense of a country that doesn’t make sense anymore. Gone with him are small moments of life, gentle simply by virtue of being ordinary, now lost in the rubble strewn along a street that will never be the same.

After his death, I thought back to our conversation on that summer day. As he often did, Hayawi paused after an especially vigorous point and dragged on his cigarette. He ran his hand over his sweaty cheeks. ‘Does this look like the face of 39 years?’ he said, grinning. He then knitted his brow, turning grimmer. ‘We don’t want to hear explosions, we don’t want to hear about more attacks, we want to be at peace,’ he told me. He always had dark bags under his limpid eyes, whether or not he had slept. ‘An Iraqi wants to put his head on his pillow and feel relaxed.’

Iraq Body Count for yesterday, 21st of August, is 36 civilians killed, August casualties so far – 1,017 civilians killed. Documented civilian deaths since 2003 vary from 127,685  to 142,924.

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