Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Baghdad In Images


This was one of only two times I saw Americans in Baghdad. A convoy passes through Abu Nawas street. I was taking photographs of a sculpture of Shahrayar and Abu Nawas at the park as they sped past. The police officer warned me not to photograph them.

The second time was at the airport. A plane full of KBR employees (probably from the embassy) heading to DUBAI. The only time I was at an airport and the line-up for "foreigners" was longer than that of "locals". I mean LONG.


An Iraqi humvee at an Iraqi-controlled checkpoint. The soldier told me not to take photos despite the fact that there was no sign reading "NO PHOTO". The blast walls are painted with images of Ancient Sumerian Gods and Goddesses.
They protect the French Cultural Centre of Baghdad.

Checkpoints in Baghdad are useless. They pass a metal and explosives detector by your car every couple of blocks. Some of their detectors don't even work. If they catch a signal, you can get off with simply saying you have a metal filling in your tooth and a bottle of perfume.

Then we ask ourselves how these car bombs go off in a city that is littered with checkpoints.


Remains of a car bomb left as a souvenir.


I was re-aquianted with Haifa Street as I was forced to walk through it alone to get to the Ministry of Culture. The roads were closed due to tightening of security after the Ministry of Justice was bombed in October. It is (was) right up the street.

(This is Not Haifa Street- January 2009. By me)

He wasn't there to protect me. But I made it through just fine.


The Ministry of Justice, in case we forgot what a double car bomb looked like.
A daycare centre on the bottom level exists no more.


The "Rusafa" electricity control centre.
I bet their employees work 2 hours a day, just like the electricity in Baghdad.


Goodbye Baghdad.

I hope to meet you again one day where the streets don't need armed men to protect them from other armed men.



2Pac is alive! He's in Baghdad chilling with Jesus, Avril Lavigne and Beyonce!


Its hard to believe that I was in my soul's land only fourteen days ago.

"Black Gold" somewhere between Baghdad and Basra

I wrote this on the plane flying over Iraq on December 9, the day following the quintuple synchronized explosions that rocked the city and left 150 mother's grieving, and 450 more tending to their wounded loved ones. How many more died of their injuries?

(...) How a group of human beings could choose to blow up hundreds of people is absolutely unbelievable and undefendable. What has happened to my country? How can I ever return after enduring such intense fear? Those who can overcome such fear are strong. I see my family and those around me, with nerves made of steel. They found my state of shock shocking.
I don't believe I have the strength to endure the utter destruction that unfolded in Baghdad on that black day more than once in my life. My people have endured hundreds and expect to endure hundreds more.
This makes me spoiled. And This makes the people of Baghdad a forgotten tribe, forced to fend for themselves.

Forced to Normalize the Abnormal.

On T.V., we watched members of parliament give their "thoughts" about the explosions.
E M P T Y words. Thoughts never stopped innocent people from being murdered on a day-to-day basis. Nor have "thoughts" ever stopped criminals from murdering the innocent.

Abu Ahmed is the name of the man who drove me around Baghdad most of the time I was there. His daughter, Ola, was injured in the blast near AlZawraa. She is in grade 1. All the windows in her school shattered, and she was injured in her head with glass and required stitches.
There are over 1000 students in the school. If they were not injured physically, can you imagine the psychological trauma that they suffered?
Abu Ahmed's daughter told him that she does not want to go to school anymore.

The elementary school is near the Institute of Fine Arts. The target for the bombing.

My cousin was telling me a story.
When her own daughter Nadine was in grade 1, an American rocket hit her school, broke through the roof of her classroom and got wedged into the ceiling fan.
All the students ran out of the classroom with the teacher.
Nadine was left alone in the corner of the classroom, with the unexploded rocket staring down at her head, crying hysterically in a daze.

That day, she too told her mother that she does not want to go to school anymore.

She is in grade 6 now.

Even the children of Iraq are stronger than me.


Monday, December 07, 2009


December 07, 2009
Baghdad, Iraq

Today was my second visit to the Ministry of Culture. I met with the editors of Tashkeel, a magazine that is both produced and printed in Iraq about Iraqi modern and contemporary art.

I learnt much today that I very much want to share with the world, but it will require more time and dedication to my writing to truly give an detailed account of my impressions and my learnings at the Iraqi Museum of Modern Art. I had great privilege today to not only visit and view the works, but also to talk frankly with artists and writers that work within the Iraqi art scene. The experience I had there today and the information I received from these good people will affect me in my own practice forever, on many levels.


Art and cultural production in Iraq is not dead, despite the waning pulse line of the city's cultural life. Today I met people that work with a passion for the arts and culture of Iraq in environments and conditions that are... unfit. Stifling. Isolated. Underfunded (if funded at all). Dangerous. But they persevere, and for that, all of us who work in the fields of art and culture must applaud them.


The employees at Tashkeel have done a good job in archiving the works at the museum both on paper and digitally, and have a humble library. However, they need books, and resources to connect them to the world.


Although the magazine is produced and printed in house, they currently have no where to sell the copies. Hundreds of copies are sitting in the office, away from the eyes and minds of Iraqis and non-Iraqis alike to take in the fruit of their labour.


As I meditate on what I learnt today, I encourage my readers to read some of Dr. Nada Shabout's writings about the events that unfolded at the museum after the fall.

On related note, I had the pleasure of viewing more of the museum's collection of Iraqi art. My eyes devoured what was left of the fantastic pieces after the looting of 2003...





(Suad Attar, 1975)

I am madly in love with the works of Mahood Ahmed (below). I cannot describe the power that his works have over me.



Sunday, December 06, 2009

A Sore for Sight, Eyes

December 06, 2009
Baghdad, Iraq

A practicing artist in Iraq today is one to be applauded. The daily struggle for electricity, gas, petrol, food and money leaves little time for artistic practice, let alone inspiration and access to materials. I went to the Ministry of Culture today and asked myself what they were doing inside their offices. There are many employees. There is little cultural life in Baghdad.

On the way to the Ministry of Culture we passed many sites of devastation. Al Beit al Iraqi, once upon a time a gallery and cultural center, is a sad site. The owner, Amal al Khudhairy, shed her tears publicly after an American "smart" bomb destroyed one of Baghdad's most treasured cultural spaces in 2003. It remains gated and vacant, with the sign whispering stories of Iraq's cultural past.


I stood below the Freedom Monument yesterday and I tried very hard to feel free.
What used to be called King Ghazi Square became Tahrir (Liberation) Square in the mid-50's. Lucky for the Americans, they didn't have to rename one of Baghdad's most remarkable landmarks after they claimed "Camp Victory" in 2003.
A bomb ripped through a building a stones throw away from the Freedom Monument some while ago. I don't know what I would have done had Jawad's Selim final masterpiece been scathed by the attack... how many hearts would have broken? How many sculptors would retire their tools? How many painters would burn their brushes?


The most disturbing part of my day was driving past what remains of the Ministry of Justice. Bombed only a few weeks ago on October 25th, on a day that became known to media consumers as "Bloody Sunday", at least 132 people lost their lives in that attack. I cannot express my sorrow and sympathy to those who lost their lives or their loved ones, nor can I speak more about the utter devastation of the site. I was left speechless, and will let the pictures do the same to you.


No one should have to witness or endure such murder, and tragic destruction. No one.


There is so much symbolism in this city that is unexplainable. To bomb the Ministry of Justice, with the statue of King Faisal I unscathed only meters away. His grandson, King Faisal II, was killed on July 14, 1958 in Abdel Karim Qasim's Military coup.


What used to be Saddam's Center of Modern Art became the Iraqi Museum of Modern Art after the fall in 2003. It is now the Ministry of Culture. Only the ground floor is used as exhibition space, currently holding 4 different exhibitions. The first was a joint exhibition of a father and his daughter from Karbala. Another exhibition was of a body of work by an artist called Karim Al Amery.



I imagined these artists in their studios, or their homes, working in candlelight as the electricity cuts off throughout the night. I imagined their tools, and how and where they buy their materials, where they find their sources and their inspiration. I imagined these artists' pride in having exhibitions in their native land, and wondered what their aspirations are to exhibit outside of Iraq.
I respect these artists.

As I was on my way out, I noticed a darkened room. I asked the man in charge of showing me around if I could enter, and he allowed me in.
Nothing can describe the joy I felt as I immediately realized that I was standing in a room filled with paintings and sculptures by Iraq's "Ruwad" (Pioneers).


Naziha Salim, Mohammed Arif, Shaker Hassan... their works in front of my eyes. My eyes went cross-eyed (inchiqalit, as we say) on a painting by Saadi al Kaabi, and another by Mahood.


The ingenuity and boldness, the confidence and courageousness of these works are unparalleled by any other Iraqi art I have seen, and I so wish that the state of Iraqi art on this native land will one day return to the level of the Ruwad. Because if the Iraqi artists had it once, we still have it, and will have it again. The artistic and cultural heritage that we have is so powerful but sadly it has been disrespected time and time again with the looting of our museums and the threats made to our intellectuals and artists. With so many of our cherished artists living outside of Iraq, art in the diaspora has flourished while art within Iraq became reduced to rubble, with no disrespect to the working artists that remained in Iraq and courageously continued their artistic practice.

Power to the people, through brushes, not bullets.


December 05, 2009
Baghdad, Iraq

I went to visit my aunt in Yarmuk hospital yesterday.
The security guard asks the visitors to put aside guns and cameras while inside the hospital. Pray that my aunt is better soon so that she can leave the dilapidated hospital and return home. The hospitals in Baghdad are not places to be healed, rather, they are places where you can get even sicker and contract diseases from the lack of hygiene.

I have so much to say but it is all broken up. So I will say what I have to say in pieces.

Life goes on.

The palm trees still stand proud.

The Iraqi people carry (too much) pride.

Al Rasheed street is in ruins.

Middle class neighborhoods of the past are now slums.

Saddam ruined this country.

The new generation of Iraqi youth are the hope.

Almost all Iraqis love their country greatly and deeply.

Iraqi real estate is expensive. (?!)

Family is precious.

The past is the past and Iraq will never return to its previous states. It can only create new versions of itself.

Baghdad is enveloped in walls.

There are hints of sectarianism everywhere.

Americans are hiding in their bases and are nowhere to be found on the ground. Only in the sky in their invasive blackhawk helicopters.

The Green Zone and the American Embassy are on prime Baghdadi real estate on a large stretch of the banks of the Tigris but they have obstructed any form of beauty with ugly blast walls that line the whole shoreline.


Saturday, December 05, 2009

Notes From a Dying City

December 03, 2009
Baghdad, Iraq

Despite its reputation as a city of tragedies, Baghdad's pulse still beats on. Movements are slowly unravelling in a city that has been isolated for over 30 years. Blocked from all entry and exit points, the people of Baghdad, tourist-less, own their city. The alleys, the garbage, the dust, the old homes, the palm trees, the monuments the media made famous, are their own.
When its only your eyes that fall on filth, will you clean it or will your eyes become accustomed to the accumulation of decades of dust and dirt? When it is only your eyes that fall on beauty, will it cease to become beautiful or will you try to maintain its charm?
Those are the questions I find myself asking here in Baghdad, five years later.

Despite its reputation as a city of great beauty, Baghdad is still plagued by both random and organized violence, insecurity, and a foreign occupation. Flying into Baghdad, the view from the top was breathtaking. The landscape of the city is ancient. The criss crossing of the Tirgris through a maze of fertile land, a bustling cityscape, and ancient landmarks makes it crystal clear that the land that Baghdad is built on is special on many levels. Special enough to want to invade, and have for yourself.


Destruction defines this city.
Tragedies are plentiful.
The perseverance of the people is highly respectable, especially for those of us that have led relatively sheltered lives in politically stable environments. There is hunger and thirst, but the people are proud. Hunger and thirst both metaphorically and on a real level, of course.

The lack of a tourist experience in Baghdad has created a void too great to try to amend. In the past 25 years as a visitor to my native land, I have never seen a tourist. War tourists, perhaps, or what I find better defined as NGO workers, journalists or activists. War profiteers aplenty, better defined as opportunists with a macabre disposition. But a tourist who chose to travel to Iraq to visit ancient sites, tourist attractions, or cultural events? The closest we have gotten to that is a tourist like me; an Iraqi with a foreign passport who has been denied the chance to regularly visit their native land due to the past 40 years of it alternating between different wars, a brutal dictatorship, US interference, and economic sanctions.

I suppose this feeling comes strong to me right now because I have been a tourist in many of Iraq's neighboring countries in the past five years. I recognize that this is a privilege that not many Iraqi's enjoy. In the recent past, I have been a tourist in the UAE, Lebanon, Syria and Amman. These are countries that thrive on tourism, and the people develop an interaction with their visitors- they learn, they teach, they share, they serve and they grow.

My hope for my native land, at this point in my contemplations, is that one day the doors to this magnificent country will open up to people of all kinds so they can share in the beauty of Baghdad. I want people to see why I love Iraq so much. I want them to recognize that we are all from this land, that it belongs to all of us. The history here is undeniable, but today, there is a chokehold on this little chunk of land in the middle of the east. I hope that the future will loosen the grip of the greedy and give back to the needy, because we all need to see Baghdad before we die. Or yet, before Baghdad dies.