We did it!

Thanks to the support of 191 contributors like you, we successfully reached our crowd funding goal on Indiegogo.

The EPIC team's jump for joy
The EPIC team (from left to right): Executive Director Erik Gustafson, Board Member Andrew Morton, Board President Nathaniel Hurd, Fall interns Daniel Young and Joanna Fisher (and her flying scarf), and our chief project advisor Kristien Zenkov. Off camera: EPIC fall intern Christian Chung and 191 contributors who took us across the finish line!

As a result, PHOTOVOICE IRAQ: Picturing Change is 100% funded, and EPIC is now moving forward to implement Iraq’s first photovoice project.

If you shared our project with your friends or donated, thank you for being a part of this amazing achievement.

Here at EPIC, Picturing Change represents another important step toward our long-term goal of establishing a summer youth institute to serve young people and educators from across the region.

The young Iraqis picturing change will help EPIC better understand the needs and aspirations of Iraq’s youth, supporting the development of programs that best serve them. We will also gain valuable knowledge and experience about how to advance innovative ideas in the field of education.

We’ll keep you posted with regular updates here and on EPIC’s Facebook page as we implement this exciting project.

Thank you for being a part of our growing EPIC community.

The art we leave for our kids

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.

Iraqi Artists Paint Security Walls, Sadr City, 2008. Photo: Wathiq Khuzaie/Getty Images. Wall Street Journal.
Iraqi Artists Paint Security Walls, Sadr City, 2008. Photo: Wathiq Khuzaie/Getty Images. Wall Street Journal.

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.

Resilience, Esam Pasha, 2003, Fine Art Registry.
Resilience, Esam Pasha, 2003, Fine Art Registry.

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.


The Story of Newroz and the fabled town of Akra

For those of us in the northern hemisphere, spring has arrived, and that means Newroz (or Nowrūz derived from Persian meaning “new day” or “new sun”), a spring festival of Zoroastrian origin that has been celebrated for over 3,000 years.

Walking among the budding Cherry Blossoms and mating songbirds, there are few arrivals that I welcome more than the grand entrance of spring. My young 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.

The fresh rose of spring (Photo by Erik K. Gustafson/EPIC, Iraqi Kurdistan, March 20, 2010).
The fresh rose of spring (Photo by Erik K. Gustafson/EPIC, Iraqi Kurdistan, March 20, 2010).

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).

The town of Akra, birthplace of the Newroz legend of Kawa the Blacksmith (Photo by EPIC director Erik K. Gustafson/EPIC, March 20, 2010).
The town of Akra, birthplace of the Newroz legend of Kawa the Blacksmith (Photo by EPIC director Erik K. Gustafson/EPIC, March 20, 2010).

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.

The torchbearers make their descent, proceeding to the next signal fire in honor of the legend of Kawa. In the foreground is the old district government building used by Ottoman administrators from 1877 to 1918, and later by Iraqi officials. Today the town and district of Akra is under the de facto administration of the Kurdistan Regional Government (photo by Erik K. Gustafson/EPIC, March 20, 2010).
The torchbearers make their descent, proceeding to the next signal fire in honor of the legend of Kawa. In the foreground is the old district government building used by Ottoman administrators from 1877 to 1918, and later by Iraqi officials. Today the town and district of Akra is under the de facto administration of the Kurdistan Regional Government (photo by Erik K. Gustafson/EPIC, March 20, 2010).

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.

Here are more photos of my 2010 Newroz adventure.

Join the conversation. “Like” us at www.facebook.com/epicusa and tell us how you’re celebrating the arrival of spring.

Happy Newroz dear readers! Newroztan Pîroz bêt!

In the words of one who has lived it

To get a more complete understanding of Iraqi refugees, I turned to a more personal story of an Iraqi who was forced to leave her home. Written by the a young Iraqi woman from 2003-2007, the blog “Baghdad Burning” provides a first hand account of life in Iraq during the chaotic aftermath of the invasion and the journey of an Iraqi family to become refugees in Syria. “Baghdad Burning” is a beautifully written, valuable insight into the struggles faced by many Iraqis, including the struggle of not wanting to leave your home, but finding it unbearable to stay.

We are choosing to leave because the other option is simply a continuation of what has been one long nightmare- stay and wait and try to survive.

On the one hand, I know that leaving the country and starting a new life somewhere else- as yet unknown- is such a huge thing that it should dwarf every trivial concern. The funny thing is that it’s the trivial that seems to occupy our lives. We discuss whether to take photo albums or leave them behind. Can I bring along a stuffed animal I’ve had since the age of four? Is there room for E.’s guitar? What clothes do we take? Summer clothes? The winter clothes too? What about my books? What about the CDs, the baby pictures?

The problem is that we don’t even know if we’ll ever see this stuff again. We don’t know if whatever we leave, including the house, will be available when and if we come back. There are moments when the injustice of having to leave your country… is overwhelming.

Riverbend, as she calls herself, was not the victim of targeted violence. She comes from a mixed Sunni/Shia family and, although her English is impeccable, she resents the US occupation and avoids the soldiers. She struggles with the occupation and her vulnerability in her country.

Females can no longer leave their homes alone. Each time I go out, E. and either a father, uncle or cousin has to accompany me. It feels like we’ve gone back 50 years ever since the beginning of the occupation. A woman, or girl, out alone, risks anything from insults to abduction. An outing has to be arranged at least an hour beforehand. I state that I need to buy something or have to visit someone. Two males have to be procured (preferably large) and ‘safety arrangements’ must be made in this total state of lawlessness. And always the question: “But do you have to go out and buy it? Can’t I get it for you?” No you can’t, because the kilo of eggplant I absolutely have to select with my own hands is just an excuse to see the light of day and walk down a street.

Riverbend’s voice evolves with every passing year. At the beginning of the blog, every trial of life in an occupied country brought a fresh sense of heartbreak. By the end of the blog, every offense and injustice renews her outrage. She loves her country, but every post is thick with hatred for Iraq’s new status quo.

Here we come to the end of 2006 and I am sad. Not simply sad for the state of the country, but for the state of our humanity, as Iraqis. We’ve all lost some of the compassion and civility that I felt made us special four years ago. I take myself as an example. Nearly four years ago, I cringed every time I heard about the death of an American soldier. They were occupiers, but they were humans also and the knowledge that they were being killed in my country gave me sleepless nights… I actually felt for them… Today, they simply represent numbers.

The author only wrote one post about her new life in Syria, published on Monday, October 22, 2007. In it, she describes the unfamiliar mountain that towers over her new life, the surprise of finding so many Iraqis in Damascus, and the cultural shock of regaining a long-lost sense of security.

The first weeks here were something of a cultural shock. It has taken me these last three months to work away certain habits I’d acquired in Iraq after the war. It’s funny how you learn to act a certain way and don’t even know you’re doing strange things- like avoiding people’s eyes in the street or crazily murmuring prayers to yourself when stuck in traffic. It took me at least three weeks to teach myself to walk properly again- with head lifted, not constantly looking behind me.

As a refugee, Riverbend’s new life comes with both pros and cons. Yes, she is safe, but she lacks legal status. Legally barred from working, her family lives off of their savings and is constantly threatened with expulsion from Syria, back to Iraq.

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.

With ever worsening conflict in Syria, it makes you wonder what might have become of Riverbend and her family in Damascus. Like many Iraqi refugees, they may be caught in a dilemma: remain in Syria and be caught up in a conflict like the one they escaped from, or return home to a still-unstable Iraq. As Riverbend herself mentions, if they were to return, there is no guarantee that her house would still be available.

Riverbend is unfailingly proud, hopeful, and independent: she never gives up on herself, Iraq, or her fellow Iraqis. Riverbend’s blog takes you on a journey through the life of one who has lived through, in her own words, a nightmare. Despite all the loss, fear, and injustice that she has experienced, her journey ends on a note of hope. I’d like to tell you about it here, but if I did I would be depriving you of the experience of Riverbend’s blog. So if you want to know what it is, you’ll just have to read it yourself.

In my next post, I will discuss the refugee admissions process for those who wish to relocate to the United States, problems, and some of the proposed solution set forth by some of our partners.

Celebrating the History of a Nation

As a self proclaimed art & history nerd, there are few things that make me as ecstatic as the discovery of new objects of historical significance (I was obsessed with the Staffordshire Hoard for weeks and don’t even get me started on Anglo-Saxon decorative arts). Which is why I’m writing this in celebration of my fellow art & history lovers in Iraq and the successes of the National Museum in Baghdad, which recently opened a new exhibition on cuneiform writing.

When the museum reopened permanently in 2009, Iraqis, eager to learn about their history, teach their children, or just enjoy going to a museum flocked to the site. Students of Iraq’s past have a wealth of history at their disposal. Not only was Iraq the birthplace of civilization (Mesopotamia, 3000 BCE) but it was also home to dozens of empires over the millennia. Please see this ridiculously cool video! All of part of what we now understand to be Iraq was at one point controlled by Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Macedonians, Romans, Byzantines, Sassanids, the Umayyad Caliphate, Seljuks, Mongols, the Ottoman Empire, and finally Imperial Britain.Iraq’s National Museum holds the largest collection of Mesopotamian artifacts anywhere in the world. After the disastrous looting of the museum following the American invasion in 2003, having lost roughly 15,400 artifacts and works of art to looters, the museum experienced a near-miraculous revival. About 8,500 of the looted artifacts have been recovered in an inspiring display of international cooperation involving numerous organizations and individuals.

Man standing next to relief sculpture of winged genie and servants bearing cups
Man standing next to relief sculpture of winged genie and servants bearing cups

But to the lovers of art, and even the casual appreciators, the National Museum of Iraq is more than a museum; it employs hundreds of people in its day to day operations, provides funding for archaeologists to resume excavating, resources for students, inspires and educates kids, and contributes to the character and grandeour of Baghdad. After all, what would Washington, DC be without the National Gallery, Florence without the Uffizi, or New York City without the Metropolitan Museum of Art? (I’m not picking favorites, those are just the only cities I’ve lived in.)

And since I once wrote a paper on the figural decorations at the palace of Ashurnasirpal II (King of Assyria 883-859 BCE), I’m going to include some pictures.

Lamassu: Neo-Assyrian period, reign of Ashurnasirpal II, Excavated at Nimrud (ancient Kalhu), northern Iraq. Alabaster (gypsum), Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC
Lamassu: Neo-Assyrian period, reign of Ashurnasirpal II, Excavated at Nimrud (ancient Kalhu), northern Iraq. Alabaster (gypsum), Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC

This 13 ft tall sculpture depicts a creature known as a Lamassu. In industry terms we would refer to him as “apotropaic,” intended to ward off evil. Lamassu have alternately the body of a lion or bull, the wings of an eagle, and the head of a man. The stylized beard indicates age and wisdom, while the six-horned headdress indicates a magical or supernatural status. Lamassu have 5 legs: they were meant to be viewed frontally, standing proudly and imposingly, or from the side, from where they would appear to be striding forward. All around the body of this creature are cuneiform inscriptions praising the king’s greatness.

You can see some of this art for yourself with the National Museum’s interactive virtual tour. Although only part of the museum is currently open to visitors, the unceasing efforts of the museum staff have already taken this museum back from the brink of ruin, I expect great things from them in the future and I can’t wait to visit.