Yesterday, I blogged about a the power of art to overcome boundaries. I wrote that art has the power to unite people, even from different backgrounds and that we all feel the need to share our stories.
Today, I am happy to report about a group that perpetuates the idea that literature and drama have the power to bring us together.
Shakespeare Iraq: a troupe of college students who simply love Shakespeare. Based out of the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani, the group is made up of actors from all over Iraq, including Arabs, Kurds, Sunnis, Shias, Yazidis and people who aren’t religious at all.
Believe it or not, the works of William Shakespeare enjoy a healthy following in Iraq (not too surprising actually). What began as an appreciation-type club was quickly overrun by the students’ passion for live performance (the best way to experience Shakespeare, or so I am told). Last June, they made their dream a reality: an English-language Shakespeare production, not on a campus or in the Green Zone, but in a public theater, the first public performance of Shakespeare ever in the country!
“We tried to pick scenes that examined identity and what happens to people of different identities when they clash, fall in love or just misunderstand each other.” Said the troupe’s teacher, Peter Friedrich. Such themes turned out to have wide appeal and drew an audience of some 600 people. ”It was like a hockey game, that’s how loud it was,” said Friedrich, referring to the impassioned cheers at the finale.
Their daring performance caught the attention of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, one of the top Shakespeare groups in the world, and they were offered a week-long slot in the OSF’s Green Show! The Green Show, which emphasizes community, collaboration, and commitment, features highly talented actors from around the country and attracts a variety of admirers, outside the stereotypical “theater types.” Check out The Green Show’s blog to see an archive of videos from last season!
Despite their incredible success thus far, Shakespeare Iraq needs help getting to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival! Once they’re there, OSF has promised to cover their expenses, but in the meantime, Shakespeare Iraq needs to raise $3,000 per student to cover their travel expenses, that’s $30,000.
*Update:They did it! Shakespeare Iraq has reached their goal of $30,000 and will be attending the Oregon Shakespeare Festival from July 3rd – 8th!!! For updates and more information, you can visit their fundraising page or their facebook page. We could not be happier for them and look forward to hearing more good news from these talented individuals! – From all of us here at EPIC, BREAK A LEG!
Without a doubt, my fondest memories of adolescence come from art class. In art class, surrounded by laughing friends, the smell of clay and paint, and the gentle voice of my art teacher, I felt I could truly relax, unwind, and express my thoughts. To this day, art remains a core interest of mine. Knowing this, it will probably come as no surprise that I started college believing I wanted to teach art.
Well, life had other plans for me, but art will always remain one of the lenses through which I experience the world and tell my stories. Lucky for me, I’m not alone in that.
As First Lady Michelle Obama said recently:
“The arts are not just a nice thing to have or to do if there is free time or if one can afford it. Rather, paintings and poetry, music and fashion, design and dialogue, they all define who we are as a people and provide an account of our history for the next generation.”
However, I prefer the way Kermit the Frog phrased it:
“How important are the visual arts in our society? I feel strongly that the visual arts are of vast and incalculable importance. Of course I could be prejudiced. I am a visual art.”
Michelle Obama has a point though, when she says that the next generation of artists must always be supported. Iraq is a country with a rich cultural and artistic heritage (I’ve blogged about this before), with achievements stretching from the relics of ancient Mesopotamia, to medieval times when Iraq’s cities were world-renowned centers of poetry and philosophy, through the abstract expressionism of the 20th century. That is a lot of generations of artists who were educated, mentored, and encouraged to excel artistically. Saddam patronized many of the arts, but only for his own glorification. Free expression was stifled. Then decades of war and economic sanctions caused many artists to emigrate and diminished the value of art within society.
Although freedom of expression and the prestige of art are making a comeback, in a country where economic recovery is slow and unemployment is staggeringly high, many artists, especially students and teachers, complain that they do not get the proper resources and financial support from the government.
Never the less, artistic vision, like a disease, tends to stick with you. To demonstrate the truth in this, I like to point to artists like Esam Pasha, a self taught Iraqi artist who lived his dream of being a painter throughout war, sanctions, and dictatorship. In 2003, Pasha earned himself worldwide fame for being one of the first artists to take down a mural of Saddam and repaint in to represent the history of Iraq.
His thirteen-foot tall mural, complete with yellow, orange, and purple paint swirling around images of doves, traditional Baghdadi architecture, and the sun rising over a sky-blue mosque, came to symbolize a crystalline break between past and present, despair and hope. He purposely avoided black paint in this piece because “we needed color, after all those years of suffering.” He named the mural “Resilience.”
I firmly believe that art has the power to bring us together and unify us. I was reminded of this recently, while reading a blog written by poet Faris Harram, explaining why he believes that the right words might bring Iraqis together again. Because he is a poet, he said it better than I ever could:
“Poetry can play a distinctive role in the rebuilding of our nation. It can create a safe, spiritual environment that opposes hatred and vengeance. Today almost all of Iraq’s cities hold at least one poetry festival. These kinds of festivals unite Iraqi poets, regardless of religious sect or ethnic origin. Poems are recited in the morning and in the evening the poets gather in hotel lobbies, in playgrounds or on the streets, and carry on with their attempts to rebuild Iraq through words and the spiritual nature of poetry.
The poets do all this as though they are oblivious to what is really going on in Iraq.”
The arts need to be protected, provided for, and, above all, nurtured. After all, what are our memories of childhood without embarassing photos and fingerpaintings? How do we get to know another culture without seeing its history? And who will remember your life if you don’t tell your story?
I believe that where ever your passion may lie, be it painting, sculpture, poetry, or drama, most people have a story they want to tell. If you crave convincing, just watch this video, courtesy of UNHCR, of Sahar.
For those of us in the northern hemisphere, spring has arrived, and that means Newroz (or Nowrūz, derived from Persian meaning “[the] new day” or “new sun”), a spring festival of Zoroastrian origin that has been celebrated for over 3,000 years.
Walking among the Cherry Blossoms and mating songbirds, there are few arrivals that I welcome more than the grand entrance of spring. My 16-month-old son Caleb could not agree more! Indeed, the occasion has excited the hearts of humankind for as long as recorded memory.
According to Wikipedia, the Shahnameh, an epic poem by the Persian poet Ferdowsi that covers the history of Iran and related societies from the creation of the world to the advent of Islam, “dates Newroz as far back as the reign of Jamshid, who in Zoroastrian texts saved mankind from a killer winter that was destined to kill every living creature.”
With the spread of Iranian peoples (speakers of Iranian languages, a subfamily of Indo-Iranian languages) through the Millennia, Newroz today is observed by countries and communities across Central Asia, the Caucasus, South Asia, Northwestern China, the Crimea, and some communities in the Balkans. Each and every one of these celebrations is as rich and varied as the diverse languages spoken by the Iranian peoples, which includes Persian, Pashto, Balochi, and Kurdish. In addition, Zoroastrians are not the only faith community to see Newroz as more than just a holiday. Sufis, Ismailis, Alawites, Alevis, and followers of the Bahá’í Faith also hold the day to be holy, and according to the Encyclopædia Britannica, the Jewish festival of Purim is believed to have its origins in the Persian New Year.
In March 2010, I had the pleasure of traveling with dear expat and Kurdish friends to the fabled hill town of Akra (or Aqrah) in Ninewa (or Ninevah) Governorate. Akra means “fire” in one of the old Kurdish dialects, and the town figures strongly in Kurdish folklore about Newroz.
My journey started at the Sulaimani garage. At the time, I was living in the city of Sulaimani (aka Sulaymaniyah in transliterated Arabic) in eastern Iraqi Kurdistan. With my broken Sorani Kurdish and a little help from my friend Ali Kurdistani over my mobile, I booked a shared taxi (or “taxsi” as they’re known in those parts). Once the car was full, we sped off to Erbil (aka Hawler among Kurdish speakers) via the Kirkuk road, passing oil fields and sprawling neighborhoods of cinder-block houses, many of them built as small palaces in the ironic neo-Baathist style. Since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) have funded construction of homes for mostly Kurdish returnees in a program to reverse Saddam’s Arabization campaign.
In Erbil, I linked up with my expat and Kurdish friends. Our camera-packing troupe included the lovely Italian writer and researcher Francesca Recchia (@kiccovich), acclaimed photojournalist and everyday New Yawker Sebastian Meyer (@sebphoto), the equally talented Kirkuki photojournalist and Metrography CEO Kamaran Najm (@kamaranmw), his comical old school chum Brwa Hijrany, and our wonderful hosts in Akra, Kak Ayad and Kak Safin.
In two hired taxis, we drove north from Erbil passing various townships and villages as we cut across rich farmlands, fields of yellow flowers, and rolling green hills under the distant gaze of the snow-capped Zagros mountains. As we drove, the clear blue horizon was interrupted here and there by black columns of smoke rising from burning tires on hill tops. Around these fires were knots of young men getting their pyromania fix. It was still somewhat early for the family celebrations around the bonfires that would come later in the evening.
Kamaran told me the story about how tires became a fuel of choice for Newroz fires as an act of defiance against Saddam Hussein’s tyranny. Unfortunately for health and environmental reasons, the practice is now tradition.
The tradition of setting torches and bonfires ablaze is part of one of the founding folktales of Kurdish identity: the story of Kawa the blacksmith. Here’s a link to Mark Campbell’s telling of the legend.
In his Newroz message, the KRG representative to the U.S. Qubad Talabani (@qubadjt) offers this short summary:
According to Kurdish myth, Kawa the blacksmith lived with his people under the tyrannical rule of Zuhak. Zuhak’s evil reign caused spring to no longer come to Kurdistan. March 20 is traditionally marked as the day that Kawa defeated Zuhak after which he is then said to have set fire to the hillsides to celebrate the victory leading to spring returning to Kurdistan the next day. For thousands of years since that legend, Newroz has been a symbol of resilience, highlighting the fact that nations cannot be annihilated by tyrannical regimes.
As such, the holiday celebrates the deliverance of the Kurds from a tyrant and the welcome return of spring.
The Newroz legend of the blacksmith Kawa has its roots in Akra, our destination. The town is located at the northeastern tip of Ninewa, which is part of the disputed territories under the de facto administration of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). It is also within 20 miles of Barzan, putting it squarely within the heartland of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).
After an hour and a half drive across beautiful landscapes and raucous conversation over a soundtrack of traditional Kurdish music, our taxis turned onto the shoulder of the road and parked on the outskirts of Akra. Built into the foothills of the Zagros Mountains with cross-cutting streets and stair step buildings, Akra evokes MC Escher’s woodcut of the Italian hill town Morano, Calabria. Predominantly Kurdish with a significant Assyrian minority, Akra has a modest church and half dozen mosques, their minarets punctuating each neighborhood. The largest mosque stands near the central square and former administrative building of Ottoman days.
We made the remaining journey by foot, entering the town’s interior of steps and narrow alleyways. Throughout most of the city’s interior, the only traffic is that of pedestrians and occasional donkeys.
We dropped our bags off at Kak Safin’s sister’s house, and set off to explore the jubilant city. Already, the singing and dancing had begun, and M-80 fire crackers were being thrown haphazardly about. On the ascent to one of the signal fires, we came across a large rooftop of a dozen or more Barzani Kurds dancing in traditional tribal dress as one of them sang. They wore shirts and baggy pantaloons (tan or dark colored) that billowed as they moved up and down in cadence, cummerbunds, and red and white patterned turbans (or jamadanis) thrown casually over their shoulders. Traditional Kurdish folk dancing is similar to dabke with participants linking hands and dancing in a circle. The final dancer at each end usually waves a handkerchief. In this case, each man waved a large flag, one for Kurdistan and the other for the KDP. The genuine enthusiasm of the dancers and the simple joy of motion were contagious, and the moment one of the dancers noticed me bobbing along to the beat, there was no backing down. Soon I was pulled into the line and dancing (somewhat out of step) with Sebastian there to capture the moment forever. One snapshot has me in descent as a blast of air puffs my shirt outward, making me look almost as ridiculous as if Hans and Franz joined the Rockettes.
From there we walked back down through the town and up to large overlook of the public square and mountains to the north, and the smaller green foothills and valleys to the south. This was where the largest crowd gathered for the best view of the evening’s festivities, while Peshmerga standing watchfully on guard.
One of the main attractions was a campy outdoor theater performance of Kawa’s epic battle against the snake king Zuhak. As the sun set on Kawa’s triumph, Akra’s first signal fire was lit atop a nearby mountain. From there, a procession of torch bearers ran zig zag down the mountainside and through town to the next summit, lighting a second signal fire. This was capped off with a fireworks show that brightened the dark recesses of the town and the hearts of every young onlooker.
From the second summit, the torchbearers reentered town and went directly to the public gathering, cutting across the applauding crowds and igniting a third massive bonfire. Many in the crowd were snapping photos on their mobile phones or joining hands with each other in dance. On stage, singers kept the dancers joyously in motion.
Newroz remains the oldest continuously celebrated spring festival in the world, and Akra is one of the best places to see a distinctly Kurdish celebration of that sacred day. Moreover, when you see the drab terrain of the region transform into an explosion of color (bright greens, yellows, and dots of red and purple), you can understand what all the fuss is about, and even find yourself moved to dance a jig or two.
Today the Education for Peace in Iraq Center (EPIC) remembers what happened in Halabja 24 years ago today.
Halabja is a Kurdish town on the very northeastern edge of Iraq 8 to 10 miles from the border with Iran. It stands at the base of the mountainous Hewraman region which stretches across the Iran-Iraq border.
Last fall I joined a couple expat and local friends of Metrography‘s Kamaran Najm for an unforgettable day trip to Halabja and the neighboring village of Hawar. It is a truly beautiful area rich in culture, folklore, and natural heritage. Sharing a full spread of lunch with a family, walking through the walnut and pomegranate groves of Hawar, napping along a babbling mountain stream, and enjoying songs and drinks with men on the roadside, it is truly hard to imagine that such an idyllic place could be the setting of such a terrible crime. Yet what occurred in Halabja 24 years ago today remains the largest scale chemical weapons attack directed against a civilian-populated area in history.
It happened in the final months of the Iran-Iraq war when Iranian forces held the town and followed two days of conventional artillery attacks by Iraqi forces. What came next was no ordinary military maneuver, but rather an operation that sought to annihilate the entire population.
In the early evening of Friday, March 16, 1988, the attack began with indiscriminate bombs and napalm. Then the munitions changed. Eyewitnesses reported 14 bombings in sorties of 7-8 planes and columns of “white, black and then yellow” smoke billowing 150 feet upward. The smoke was a toxic mix of nerve agents Tabun, Sarin, VX, and mustard gas, and it seeped into homes and bomb cellars.
As many as 5,000 people were killed and many thousands more died from related injuries, toxic exposures, and birth defects.
We must never forget the victims and surviving families of Halabja, and ensure that such weapons are never used again. In Iraq and the Kurdistan Region, we must also work to consolidate lasting peace and a future where no government can ever again commit genocide and crimes against humanity.
Terry Lloyd of Britain’s ITN was among the first reporters to witness the terrible aftermath. Lloyd was later killed in 2003 when he and his team got caught in crossfire between the Iraqi Republican Guard and U.S. forces. You’ll have to disregard the two mistakes made by the narrator at the beginning of this broadcast.
For Iraqis in Syria applying for refugee status in the United States, the uprising brings renewed threats of violence and has indefinitely delayed their application. After closing the U.S. embassy in Damascus on January 16th, the embassy fast-tracked about 300 “visa ready” refugee applications, however, the vast majority of applicants are left in limbo. Immigration officials have warned that Iraqis who return home will be penalized because their return would undercut their claims of being at risk.
Closing the visa office in Damascus has meant no staff to conduct the in-person interviews – a necessary step to complete the application. According to an article by the New York Times, the U.S. government has declined any makeshift adaptations suggested by refugee advocates, such as conducting interviews by videoconference. “They are caught between a rock and no place,” said Becca Heller of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, who added, “A simple solution to that would be to agree to conduct interviews by videoconference.”
Imagine being one of Iraq’s most vulnerable refugees in Syria. Your choice is this: remain in Syria and face escalating violence, including the possible risk of targeted violence, or return to the threats you faced in Iraq and lose your refugee application.
A recent report published by Al Jazeera English tracks several Iraqis that have been forced to return to Iraq due to devastating instability in Syria, as well as one man who was the target of violence because of his Iraqi nationality. You can watch the video here.
The List Project recently published a similar report, illustrating the alarming lack of options available to their clients in Iraq, most of whom had been in the final stages of their application process. They have also received reports of threats and violence against Iraqis for fear they are somehow instigating violence or providing arms to the anti-government forces.
Currently our clients are hiding in their homes or apartments most of the time because they fear to go outside. They are asking what will happen to them if things get worse in Syria and whether the United States has any special solutions. They feel lost and are losing faith that they will be assisted.
For these particularly vulnerable Iraqis, it is urgent that the U.S. find ways to resume processing refugee applications, conduct interviews by videoconference, and dedicate more personnel and resources to this cause. For Iraqis facing deadly violence for the second time in their lives, we should be doing more to help.
As the conflict in Syria escalates, hundreds (if not thousands) of noncombatants are getting caught in the crossfire, including refugees from Iraq. According to UNHCR, Syria hosts one of the largest urban-based populations of refugees and asylum-seekers in the world. As many as one million are Iraqi, representing the largest population of displaced Iraqis outside of Iraq and comprising a large majority of Syria’s refugee population.
Having survived a precarious way of life, working odd jobs and dodging deportation, Iraqi refugees now find themselves caught in a situation that increasingly resembles the one from which they escaped.
Why have so many Iraqis sought refuge in Syria above other neighboring countries? According to a report released by the Brookings Institution, until the end of 2007, Syria had no visa requirements and Iraqis could come and go across the border freely. They were able to enroll their children in Syrian schools, and allowed many of the public services available to Syrian citizens, including access to health care. Furthermore, the cost of living in Syria had been lower than other neighboring countries, allowing a family to survive for longer on their savings. Interviews conducted by the authors of the same report have also revealed that Syrians have a better reputation with Iraqis than other Arabs; a kind of brotherly affection or high esteem. Iraqis have also been encouraged by the refugee communities in Syria and the prospect of keeping ties to their homeland.
There have been two waves of Iraqi refugees into Syria in the past few decades. The first wave came in the 1970s to the 1980s. Then, refugees were mostly those who had fallen out of favor with Saddam’s regime. The border was closed throughout the 1990s in political response to the actions of the Iraqi government and was only reopened in 2001 for trade purposes. The reopening paved the way for the second wave of Iraqi refugees, which began trickling in in 2003, but flowed in earnest in 2006, following the rise in sectarian violence. By 2007, the Syrian economy was crushed under a weight of as many as 1.5 million refugees, in a country of only 22.5 million people!
At the start of the influx, Syria had had an open door policy for refugees. By 2007, Syria was facing an economic crisis, much of which was blamed on refugees. The cost of rent, groceries, and transportation rose dramatically. Syrians faced extra competition for jobs, many of which were lost to Iraqis who were willing to work at a lower wage. Demand for government subsidized goods and services also rose dramatically, putting significant strain on national finances. But, despite these dramatic increases, the actual effect of Iraqi refugees is difficult to gauge, as Syria struggled with many of these problems for years prior, and because Iraqi refugees often brought money into the country.
For more information on the friction resulting from the surge of refugees, please watch this video by Refugees International.
Since 2007, Iraqi refugees have faced increasing restrictions on their entry and mobility within the country. Legally barred from working, if Iraqis could find work, it was often unreliable. Most simply lived off their savings with some help from charities and public assistance. An article by Reuters from 2007 shared the struggles of Iraqi refugees who had fallen into ‘the poverty trap.’ Another article by IRIN, also from 2007, states that many Iraqis had been forced back because of their financial and legal circumstances, i.e. they had run out of money or had been deported by Syria. However, according to an article by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, as of 2010, most Iraqis in Syria were still unwilling to voluntarily return home because of the still unstable security situation, low levels of aid to returnees, extremely high unemployment, and the loss of their homes in Iraq, which they were forced to abandon when they fled Syria.
More than 7,500 people have died since the regime of President Bashar Assad launched a brutal crackdown against protesters last March, and the number of retuning Iraqis has risen.
In a recent NPR article, Zeena Ibrahim, a 33-year-old pregnant mother of two voiced the feelings of many returning Iraqis when she said “It is better to die in our own country than to die abroad.” Zeena returned with her husband from Damascus, where they have lived since 2006. Her husband used to be in the Iraqi army, but after receiving repeated threats and attending funerals almost every day for fellow soldiers, the couple decided to flee to the safety of Syria.
For some, like Zeena and her family, return to Iraq has been the answer. Others still believe Syria to be safer than Iraq, however, according to The List Project, the Syrian government has tried to blame the uprisings on Salafis and foreign elements, claiming that Iraqis are bringing weapons into the country and arming the anti-government protesters. Iraqis have reported to The List Project that they have received threats from the Syrian populace. Similar reports have been made to NPR, describing Iraqis in Syria being targeted with violence, being killed or robbed, and having their neighborhoods plastered with threatening graffiti since the start of the conflict. Those who are unable or unwilling to leave remain in their homes and try to keep out of harm’s way.
To learn more, we recommend the International Rescue Committee as an important resource, advocate, and resettlement agency for Iraqis in crisis.