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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art of resistance, Iraq

Electrify Baghdad – Let there be light.

Nedim Kufi is an Iraqi-Dutch visual artist. He was forced to leave  his hometown of Baghdad in 1990 following the chaos of the First Gulf War. He is currently participating in 3D artistic visualization and environmental design for architectural projects in the Netherlands and Germany. He works with mixed media ranging from paper and flowers to earth and ceramics, in order to develop a close relationship between the disciplines of printing, etching, sculpture, and design. With his frequent use of grids in his artwork, Nedim draws on the Islamic tradition of repetition and patterning.

His project Electrify Baghdad (2008) is an amazing video work. Kufi digitally manipulated a Google Earth satellite view of Baghdad at the time of the “Shock and Awe” terror attacks in 2003. During the course of the attack, the city experienced major black-outs as a result of failing electrical systems. The explosions of bombs and missiles looked like brief pulsations of light. We could see that every neighborhood was targeted. The radar scans and military helicopters sweeping across the screen were signs that the city was under military surveillance. Towards the end of the video, as the city descends into total darkness, the artist “relights” the city transforming it into a brilliant tapestry of many points of light. Metaphorically, not only is Baghdad brought out of the darkness but also into the light of the Spirit. Electrify Baghdad is an absolutely beautiful video that communicates the artist’s profound spiritual orientation. And – it brings hope.

asssElectrify Baghdad, Nedim Kufi

Kufi has done some great projects, and I’ll be sure to write more about his work sometime in the future. In the meantime, see more at Iraqi artists in exile (StationMuseum).

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