art of resistance, Israeli - Palestinian conflict, Palestine

(Interview) Samar Hazboun On Living And Working Under Occupation.

samar1/Before The Wall, image © Samar Hazboun/

Born in Jerusalem and raised in the West Bank, Samar Hazboun, who uses photography as a tool to tell stories, first explored photography while pursuing a degree in International Relations in Prague. I first got to know her through her wonderful project Palestinian Women and after that tried to follow the work she did throughout the years.

Most of her projects have focused on women’s rights, particularly in the Middle East. As she says it herself, her authentic interest in political expression through art and her personal relationship with the Palestinian case has led her to successfully fuse subject matter and medium into a budding practice of photojournalism. Many of us who follow her work are thrilled she managed to do that.

I was lucky enough to catch Samar this month,  establishing a virtual relationship between Zagreb and Jerusalem – we’ve talked about her inspiration, life under the occupation, and joys and sorrows of the work she does. With her honest smile and wise insights, Samar proved to be exactly the kind of person I would imagine behind the work she creates – the work which is always filled with depth, thought and empathy.

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How did you start taking photos, what inspired you to take the camera and make it your world?

I was born and raised in Palestine, and then went to study abroad. I wanted to study photography, but my parents weren’t really encouraging for fear of not being able to earn a living with it. So, I didn’t study photography and I am actually happy I didn’t. I still ended up doing photography in my free time. For me, it began as a healing journey. I was very depressed and had a lot of emotions I didn’t know how to deal with it.

Growing up in Palestine, under the occupation and witnessing its violence, had a lot to do with it. I had a lot of stress, tension, and I began isolating myself a lot. Somehow, when I got a digital camera, I started taking self-portraits and photos of different things in the house, it was like a therapy. So that was when and how my relationship with photography was born.

Was there a moment, a photo or a project, that made you feel like what you are doing is important – not just to you, but also to other people? When you felt the power of it?

Because of how it all started, in the beginning I took a lot of self-portraits. I had my first solo exhibition in Jordan and there was a lot of people and media attending. That was one of the moments when it struck me – why are we doing this? Why are these people looking at the photos of me and my emotions? It’s not important. I felt kind of sad, because at the end of the day I am someone who has a good life, when you compare it to other people’s lives.

So I understood the power that photography gave me and I decided to use it in a different way, in a way to allow other people to express themselves and tell their stories. And really, for me storytelling is all I care about now with photography.

What was the first project you did after realizing that?

The first project I did was actually an experiment, I wanted to do something with people and see if I’d be able to actually do it. That’s how Palestinian Women came to life. I wanted to find answers answers to questions people often asked me. They often say to me “you don’t look like a Palestinian” or they ask me “what are Palestinian women like?”. Situations like that made me do that project.

I wanted to show how we are diverse as women, as human beings. You can’t really define a Palestinian woman, the same way you can’t define a Croatian woman. Your experience in life is what shapes you. So I started looking for women in Palestine, that are from all kinds of background and do all kinds of things. I’ve photographed a minister, a doctor, a footballer, a housewife, a circus performer…

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The project dealt with stereotypes about Palestinian women and Arab women in general. Do you think the situation has changed during the last couple of years when it comes to that? Are Palestinian and Arab women in the mainstream western media still presented in one–dimensional manner?

I think it has changed, Palestinian women have done really well lately. They’re present and vocal, they’re breaking taboos and stereotypes, being the teller of your own stories is really what changes the narrative. I really hope that the situation in the region doesn’t take away from that progress, that it won’t remove the focus from the positive things that are happening and exist in the region.

People who have never met Arab women have a certain idea about them, and it’s very tricky to talk about it without falling into stereotypes.  For me and for other artists dealing with such issues, we have to be very careful, because we don’t want to be looked at as something different, exotic, or victims even. We don’t want to be represented as one thing only. Yes, we live in a male dominated society, but I’ve lived in Europe and saw that that is not just an Arab issue, it’s a global problem for women.

One of the most important things for good photography is earning the trust of the people you are taking photos of. How did you manage that, is there a certain process you go through with people when you start a project, or do you find it different every  time?

I think it really depends on what you want to do, but I know that for me it goes really slowly, because I need the time, I want to take the time, and give the time to people. I don’t want to just come somewhere, take a photo and leave. I don’t know how to do that. When I do that, I’m never happy with the result. So, I really like to spend time with people, and the most time I’ve spent with people is when I did a project about women who were sexually abused…

That was the project Hush, right? Those are such delicate issues, and it is captured so well in your photos. Was it hard to get the women in shelters to open up to you, how was that experience?

I spent two months working on that project, the first month I was just going to the shelter without my camera. I was going there on a daily basis, spending six to seven hours with the women, just playing games, doing workshops, talking about everyday things, having them ask me questions too…

I created a sort of friendship and then, when I came back with my camera, it didn’t feel strange, it didn’t feel like I was taking something from them, it was a mutual relationship. They started telling me their stories without me even asking. So, yes, trust is very important.

And also – you really need to be genuine and interested in what you want to do, and in what people have to say. With Hush, the reason why I wanted to do it is because sexual violence is a big problem that nobody wants to talk about, in our society the honour of the family often depends on the woman and that is why it is such a sensitive issue.

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I was really tired of people not wanting to talk about this subject. The main thing for me was that these women are often blamed for the violence done to them, you know “it’s her fault” kind of a thing.  The project was a real challenge, it took me a year to get a permit to enter the women’s centre and I faced a lot of problems – some of the women who worked in the shelter didn’t want to do their shifts when I was there.

I needed to make sure I didn’t reveal anything about the location of the shelter, the architecture of it, and so on. A lot of challenges, but I managed it somehow.

How do you cope with all the challenges? For some projects, even in regular conditions,  it takes away so much time and energy, and in Palestine, under the occupation, I assume it’s much worse – due to all the restrictions and inability to plan things ahead. How do you manage to stay motivated, to keep on doing the work you do?

I think the main thing that I remind myself of is that it is a project, and not a product. At the end of the day, I know it is a project and it will take me a long time to finish it. And you have to come to terms with that because if you want to work on a project and finish it in a month or a week, I don’t think it is going to work, you might be disappointed. You have to have it in your mind that it is an ongoing thing, a learning experience.

For example, I did a project Beyond Checkpoints, about Palestinian women who were forced to give birth on Israeli checkpoints. With this project it was even more challenging because I was trying to portray a story that was from the past, something that already happened, but there was very little visual evidence left from these crimes. I had to travel long distances around Palestine to find women and manage everything. When I think about that, I don’t know how I manage to continue and motivate myself…

Believe me, sometimes I just sit and cry, but then I get up and continue because I love the challenge. With every project that I’ve done I didn’t feel like I am repeating somebody’s work, I felt like I was doing something new, like I was paving the way. It’s like learning to walk, you need to fall many times to find your balance and do it properly.

Women are often in the focus of your projects. They are also in the focus of the project Before the wall. Could you tell me more about that project and do you think some of these generations will also live to be the in the phase without the wall?

I really hope they can be the people living without the wall, I hope we will witness the fall of the wall in the near future. Before the wall was an answer to this situation where the wall was presented as a sort of indifferent thing – nobody really knows why it is there, nobody understands what it really does to people.

I felt intimidated by the way all of this was presented and I thought to myself – ok, the wall is here and the people who are supposedly the terrorists, which the wall prevents from moving from one side to another – are also here, so I might as well put them in front of the wall and photograph them.

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I wanted to show how it is really sad because this was the last generation of people before the wall was closed off completely, built. I wanted them to be dressed as plain as possible to show the contrast between them and the wall, to show how small and fragile they are against the wall. All the people affected by the wall are regular civilians, going about their daily lives, and the wall prevents them from doing that.

The wall is just one of the horrible aspects of the occupation. The other aspect you’ve dealt with in your work are Palestinian children imprisoned by Israel, shown in your project Detained: Confessions of Palestinian Children. How big of an issue is this in Palestine and how hard it was to talk to children about their experiences?

I was really surprised when I did this project – that there were so many children imprisoned by Israel. I thought it was going to be hard to find them, but there are so many of them! The hardest thing was getting them to open up about their experiences, there were many who couldn’t talk about it, children who were so traumatised by what had happened to them that at the age of ten or twelve they would still wet their beds and would not be able to speak properly. Children who isolated themselves, had nightmares…etc.

Many of the children I met weren’t included in the project. They simply couldn’t talk about what had happened to them. You can’t force somebody into telling their story if they are not comfortable or confident about it, or if you feel like it might traumatise them even more. So I didn’t push, I let it go. Although many of these stories were not in the project in the end, they were still an important part of my experience.

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In connection to that, could you tell me what are the worst things occupation brings to your everyday life, emotional states it evokes? How would you summarize it, what would you share as a message to people – about occupation and the state Palestinian people live in?

To be honest, I feel sorry for the occupier. They will wake up one day, when it is already too late, and realize that what they’ve done is beyond destroy other people’s lives. I can’t imagine myself being a soldier or a person who’s occupying another person, or someone who took somebody else’s house, or kicked the family out of their land, or burned somebody’s trees.

At one point Israel and its people will wake up to question their actions and it will be an ugly feeling. Palestinian people will live and they will survive, we’ve been through a lot. In the end we are the ones who suffer the injustice, and not the ones doing the injustice – and I think that is something that with time will be even more clear to the outside world.

Is there any sort of a cooperation that you did with Israeli artists and photographers, is there a dialogue on that level?

I don’t think these things are as beneficial as they might seem, at least at this point. It’s hard to work on projects when we are not equals. Some things need to change before that happens.

I am always fascinated by the Israeli society – nowadays, when you have internet, when it is easy to be informed and get more sources of information, you would expect them, and that would be my dream, to just take the hammers and tanks and destroy the wall. You would expect them to say – enough with this bullshit, we don’t want this anymore.

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Could you tell me something about your inspiration – when it comes to Palestinian artists, authors, musicians, filmmakers? Is there anybody you really love and get your inspiration from?

That’s interesting. I love a lot of filmmakers and authors, and we have a great art scene growing constantly. But my inspiration always comes from the people I meet doing my projects, people with everyday struggles, people who barely survive but still keep on doing it.

People I met while working on my projects are really my biggest inspiration because they went through so much. I now started working on a project with the Syrian refugees and that has been so important to me, life-changing and inspirational. I was in houses of people that have no water, no furniture, nothing to offer me to drink, yet their generosity is beyond descriptiom.

These are the moments that change you and make you look at your life in a different way. And that is essential – the way your work reflects on you, and how it makes you more emphatic.

I actually wanted to ask you what you are working on at the moment, so tell me more about that project, it sounds really intimate and important to you, but it could also be important to many people, especially with all of what Syrian and other refugees face today.

I’ve received a grant from the Prince Claus Foundation, the grant is called Culture in defiance. My project is called Past preserved. I’m meeting with Syrian refugees who fled the war and we’re trying to recreate  the photos they’ve lost and preserve the memories they have from their past.

All of them left Syria without any photographs and the main idea is to find an object that holds a memory very dear to the person and also to photograph them the way they would like to be photographed, not as refugees.

At one point they were like you and me, and yes – at this moment they are refugees, but they are also much more than that, and they deserve to be seen as who they are, not as who the war has made them.

//all photos © Samar Hazboun//

For more on Samar’s work, visit her official website.

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P.S. Happy New Year! ♡

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art of resistance, Lebanon

The Book To Read: The Hakawati by Rabih Alameddine.

blog_OP_bubbles_hakawati/illustration by Ayloul, for the article ‘The Hakawati, a story in pieces‘, The Outpost magazine/

“A hakawati is a teller of tales, myths, and fables. A storyteller, and entertainer. A troubadour of sorts, someone who earns his keep by beguiling an audience with yarns. Like the word ‘hekayah’ story, fable, news, hakawati is derived from the Lebanese word ‘haki’, which means talk or conversation. This suggests that in Lebanese the mere act of talking is storytelling.”

Lebanese writer Rabih Alameddine has had a good number of notable works by now, but this is his first book I (finally) managed to read. The rain was pouring most of the days last week, so I sat on my little balcony, letting myself go where Alameddine takes me. It was a good journey – I was bewitched and wanted more with every page.

In its essence, The Hakawati is an hommage to all the great storytellers of the Arab world and the art of storytelling itself. It is a story about the magic of stories and it was done so well it became magic in itself. And really – where would we be, what would we know, how would we feel – without stories? There’s no life, no memories, no history without stories. Like Alameddine writes:

What happens is of little significance compared with the stories we tell ourselves about what happens. Events matter little, only stories of events affect us.”

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/The Hakawati, photo via Leonard Shoup/

The Hakawati is a mixture of stories that unravel throughout the book –  it is a historical novel and a family saga, and an impressive short story collection told at the same time. It takes its inspiration from everywhere – old Arab folktales, the Bible, the Qur’an, modern Lebanese storytellers, etc.

Music also pulls its strings here – particularly the oud, an instrument that was so important for Osama (the main character). And there’s more than one reference to the great Umm Kalthoum and the notion of tarab – known in Arab music as a musical ecstasy, the merger between music and emotional transformation.

The book is also a sort of a love letter to Beirut and Lebanon. Which doesn’t mean their relationship is perfect – like all great lovers, they went through a lot of turmoil. Osama returns to Beirut after many years in America to stand vigil at his father’s deathbed. The Beirut he finds is a shell of the Beirut he remembers, but he and his friends and family take solace in the things that have always sustained them: gossip, laughter, and – stories. Alameddine writes:

“Like all cities, Beirut has many layers, and I had been familiar with one or two. What I was introduced to that day with Ali and Kamal was the Beirut of its people. You take different groups, put them on top of each other, simmer for a thousand years, keep adding more and more strange tribes, simmer for another few thousand years, salt and pepper with religion, and what you get is a delightful mess of a stew that still tastes delectable and exotic, no matter how many times you partake of it.”

You’ll come to know the diversity of Beirut through this book – there’s Elie, the neighbourhood bully and a militia leader, Osama and his half-Druze family (his mother is Christian and his sister Lina too), Jewish childhood friend Fatima, and a lot of other striking characters.

They are all lost – being the young generation during the Lebanese civil war – like their lives have been on hold for too long and now it’s hard to press the play button again. But if there ever was and is comfort, it is found in stories. Osama digs through the stories of where he came from – at times it is to know that he was and is at all, and at times it is to know where he can go or that he can go (on) at all.

And that is the beauty of stories – no matter how lost you are, you can always find your place and your people there. It is the eternal shelter –  you can just sit there and wait till the storm passes.

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Previous The Book To Read:

Anti-Arab Racism in the USA

A Tale of Love and Darkness

Afghanistan, Were God Only Comes to Weep

Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh

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art of resistance, Egypt

BuSSy: A Place For Untold Gender Stories.

bussy svjedočanstvo

BuSSy is a performing arts project that has been slowly changing Egypt for the last ten years. It aims to empower men and women to express themselves and talk about the things that are “not to be talked about”. Through storytelling, they raise awareness about social issues that are crippling Egypt nowadays. To find out more about BuSSy and their efforts, I talked with Nadia Elboubkri, BuSSy’s project manager.

When and how did the BuSSy project start? What was the motivation behind it?

In 2005, the American University in Cairo hosted a performance of the Vagina Monologues. Many female students felt the performance was daring but irrelevant to Egyptians. And in reaction to that… BuSSy was born! In 2006, a group of female students started The BuSSy project – an annual performance of true stories of women in Egypt. The very first BuSSy performance was a collection of stories submitted by women in response to a flyer that read: “If you have a story about yourself or a woman you know, please pick up a submission form and share it.”
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The monologues, which were written and performed by women, for women, exposed real women’s stories and provided for the first time in Egypt, a space for free expression on issues that society often failed/refused to address.

Despite  being constantly subjected to censorship attempts from both the private theaters and state owned ones, BuSSy was able to carry on and expand further. In 2010 the project developed its scope to include stories of both women and men. Both genders are invited to share their personal experiences during the workshop and later on stage.

In 2012, we began working on a larger scale, instead of one workshop and one performance. We started conducting several workshops around Cairo to produce different performances each year that include stories of both genders. Some of the performances and workshops revolved around specific timely/relevant themes such as harassment incidents during protests and domestic violence.

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You’ve been holding performances on stages all over Egypt for the last couple of years. What are the biggest obstacles you faced on your way?

The issues that BuSSy often discusses in our workshops are often taboo in Egypt, rarely spoken about publicly, and often women are shamed and considered dishonorable if they are sexually violated, let alone if they speak about it in public forum.
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BuSSy gives women a space to discuss these stories, whether anonymously or with their own names… Though many choose to remain anonymous. We hold workshops in cities all over Egypt, and invite women from all walks of life to come and share their stories with us. Then, we put the stories together into a performance, and the women [if they so choose] go on stage and share their stories.
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This all sounds a lot easier than it is… Often we are faced with community backlash – community members heckle the storytellers on stage, some women are forced to hide their identities, we can’t feature some of our storytellers on film, or publish their pictures on social media.
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We are also subject to government censorship. Most recently we were forced out of a government venue [the Cairo Opera House] because a performance we were invited to give there discussed issues that were deemed “immoral” by the government, such as masturbation and sexual education.
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Because of this, we are now crowdfunding for our own space, because we promise a safe and judgment-free environment for our storytellers, and that has become increasingly difficult to find…sometimes we hold workshops in unsafe neighborhoods, or rehearsals in parking lots, and even our own living rooms, because we can’t find a space to work.
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Gender issues are in the focus of your activism. Through your stories, what are the big issues Egyptian women and men face in relation to gender roles and expectations?
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Many of the common issues that Egyptian women and men face are related to the high rates of sexual violence, which has its roots in the occupation of public space and culture-based gender dynamics. A common thread in our workshops is street harassment, and women feeling scared or ashamed to go outside in public, often spending excessive time deliberating about what to wear, where to walk, etc.
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For men, similar issues arise, there exists harassment of males, though it isn’t always discussed. Our workshops help both genders find connections with others who have had similar experiences, and show them they are not alone, which empowers them to step on stage and tell others,thereby raising awareness about the issue.
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Having this space to express often hidden stories from all parts of the society is of incredible importance to many. What were the reactions of people when BuSSy project started and how did it change throughout the years? Were they scared in the beginning? And do you have bigger support now?
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Bussy is fortunate to have a large and loyal support base in Cairo, when we hold workshops and performances they are almost always sold out. However, we still have our fair share of difficulties in addressing the public. Many audience members are shocked during our performances, people have walked out during a show, or addressed us afterwards to tell us their thoughts.
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However, many of our audience members are the opposite too–cheering us on, or wanting to join us in our next workshop and performance. In cities outside of Cairo, because we are very new to them, it takes longer to thaw the ice. Our workshops have been a great way to connect with the community, and after getting to know the storytellers, we find that they also become willing to step on stage and speak about issues that have never been publicly addressed in their communities. They are breaking ground in their communities!
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You’ve mentioned the cooperation with other theatres – private and state owned ones. What was the case most of the times – were they ready to cooperate with you or were there censorhip efforts?
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Ever since it’s birth BuSSy has been facing a lot of difficulties finding spaces to hold the workshops and rehearsals.
We have held workshops and rehearsals in school court yards, garages, flats, public cafe, rented rooms, bookshops…
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For BuSSy to continue to share with the world the remarkable histories of our storytellers, we need a safe and open space to hold our workshops, create other activities that would help sustain the project on the long run, and help it operate independently away from censorship and content-controlling funding – which is commonly practiced by hosting venues.
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It depends on the circumstances, the legality, and the independence of the venue. But, anytime we are asked to submit a script for review or to censor our language, we respectfully decline holding our performance in that particular venue. It is one of our most important principles to share the stories exactly how they are told to us.
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BuSSy is currently crowdfunding to create a space for women and men to speak up about their untold gender stories. What would be your hope and dream for the future?
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Our crowdfunding campaign is not only aiming to acquire our own space to hold workshops and events, but we are also seeking to become self-sustaining within the next few years. We plan to hold regular storytelling workshops, open-mic events, mini-performances, and more in our new space, and hopefully, over time, we can support our own activities, particularly our activities outside of Cairo.
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/all photos © BuSSy/
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The Croatian version of the interview can be found on Libela.
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art of resistance, Iraq

What We Carried: Fragments From The Cradle of Civilization.

What We Carried: Fragments from the Cradle of Civilization is a photography project by Jim Lommasson. Through photography, Lommasson asked Iraqi refugees to share an item that accompanied them during their immigration to America, and to express what it means to them. Going through this powerful collection of images, I thought of one Waltz With Bashir moment – “Memory takes us where we need to go.”

144“The picture on the phone is my house in Baghdad. This means home for us. This phone has all the numbers of our friends and relatives in Iraq as well as pictures.”

765“I want to ask my country ‘Iraq’ when we will get some rest. Shall we spend tears on our current circumstance or should we cry for the past. We have been carrying our miseries for long time on our chests. Strangers from around the world occupied our land and they kill our people for a very cheap price. We are tired, we are tired and we want to get some rest.”

980“My best friend Sheema’a. She means a lot to me and was the closest person to me I couldn’t leave her photo behind.”

11Many times simple things seem nothing to others while it means everything to you. A scarf, not a fancy once or so special this one might seem. I take it with me where ever I travel. A scarf is all what I have now of my soulmate whom I lost my smile and happiness since I lost him. (it belongs to my killed brother). Not such along story, again sectarian war took my brother like so many other Iraqis. Whenever I take this scarf in between my hands, I close my eyes and hug it close to my heart. Thinking about it as it used to embrace my beloved brothers neck and chest. Wish I was a scarf (this scarf) so I could be as much as I can close to the one I lost!”

12344“Without ‘Nana’ (means mother in Trukmani language) there would be no Samir. When I was drawing on the walls, cabinet, doors, clothing and other things in my house my mother was spanking me and beat me so hard. That’s motivated me to be an artist. We lived such a difficult life with all aspects and my family struggled a lot financially plus the wars and injustice that we have been through. My mother was so kind and patient with everybody all the time and I learned from her how to be patient and honest with everything. This is my mother’s gift to me and I’m carrying it with me everywhere I go because it’s giving me the strength and patience that I need. In 2006 and just before I left Iraq my mother gave me this gift and asked me to carry it with me all the time because it has the name of Allah ‘God’ and this will protect me and give me patience and strength.”

56“This Holy Qur’an is opened on the page that has Alnaas verse, and this verse means a lot for me because it’s the verse of protection.”

/all images © Jim Lommasson/

For more on Jim Lommasson and What We Carried: Fragments from the Cradle of Civilization, visit Lommasson’s blog.

 

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