Cultural Glimpse

Enjoying diversity

Month: October, 2015

Iraqi Americans: The Lives of the Artists

Iraqi Americans the lives of the artists FRONT for Amazon

Artists have a story, a story that affects their pallets. In Iraqi Americans: The Lives of the Artists, I wanted to honor artists of Mesopotamian ancestry by giving them the opportunity to share their incredible stories themselves rather than risk having others to do it for them, as was the case with Layla Al Attar.

Layla Al Attar died in 1993, along with her husband, after her house was bombed by a US missile. Iraqi news announced that she was killed since she was responsible for creating the mosaic of George Bush Sr.’s face on the steps of Al Rashid Hotel, over which Iraqis and people from all over the world walked on upon entering. Unfortunately, she is remembered more so by how she died rather than by her incredible talent and the way in which she lived her life. Worse than that, many misinterpret the play 9 Parts of Desire by Heather Raffo to be based on her life.

Like Al Attar, the 16 artists in this book are not victims, but victors over their lives, following their passions and finding ways to showcase it despite any and all challenges.

This book is available in print and as an eBook

Counterpoint: Religious Intolerance Serves No One

Religious Tolerance

This opinion piece was originally published by The Chaldean News a few days ago

Many of our people, like Californian artist Paul Batou and Chicago attorney Wisam Naoum, have compared the genocide of the Christian Iraqis to that of the Native Americans, who recount how an estimated 80-100 million of their people were wiped out by disease, famine or warfare imported by white men carrying crosses who came here to find gold and to own new land. Those who survived were forced to convert to Christianity and to abandon their traditions and their native language.

Yet, we don’t see Native Americans protesting against our churches in the prejudiced manner we’ve protested against mosques. They keep their ancestral memory and lessons alive through storytelling and ceremonies, not hate speech.

Native Americans mainly blame politics and greed, not religion, for what happened to them. They’re not the only ones with this viewpoint. Ariel Sabar is a Kurdish Jewish author whose father was from Zakho. Currently a professor of Hebrew at UCLA, Sabar is a native speaker of Aramaic and has published more than 90 research articles about Jewish Neo-Aramaic and the folklore of the Kurdish Jews. In his book, My Father’s Paradise, he describes the old community in Zakho:

“Muslims, Jews, and Christians, Judaism, Sufi mysticism, Bahaism, and Yezidism flourished alongside one another and extremism was rare…. Muslim, Jew, and Christian suffered alike through the region’s cruel cycles of flood, famine, and Kurdish tribal bloodshed. They prospered alike when the soil yielded bumper crops of wheat, gall nuts, and fragrant tobacco. In important ways, they were Kurds first and Muslims, Christians, or Jews second.”

Sabar also blames politics and greed, not religion, on the mass exodus of 120,000 Jews from Iraq in the 1950s. Some of Sabar’s accounts are similar to what occurred last year with ISIS’ Christian genocide. If we were to research history, we would see that political greed is at the root of most invasions, massacres and occupations.

If we choose to have a one-sided memory, we will never be able to have a dialogue with other cultures, ethnicities and religions, and yet that’s what democracy is about. It’s the reason this country has such great potential and why people risk their lives to come here.

We remember the 1933 Simele Massacre but we forget the 1991 Gulf War, the unjust UN-imposed sanctions that were enforced on Iraq for more than 12 years, and the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, all which caused the deaths of millions of innocent Iraqi civilians and a refugee crisis for which the world is today paying the price. The Arab world looked upon these wars and sanctions as Christians’ war against Muslims. During that time, many in Iraq began labeling Christians “Bush’s people” and terrorists were easily able to recruit extremists.

Despite all this, Saddam did not permit Muslims to use hate speech against Christians. Batras Mansour, a refugee I once interviewed, said, “I haven’t seen a day of peace since the war. During Saddam’s regime in Iraq, we experienced much better days. Back then, no one could say a wrong word to us Christians.”

Mansour told the story of how an imam spoke against the Christians over the microphone. After he was reported to authorities, the mosque was circled by four cars. The imam was taken away and no one saw him since.

So was Saddam more intolerant of religious hate speech than we are?

Over the years, I have interviewed dozens of people from the Catholic religious order. They never blamed Islam for Iraq’s current situation. In my recent book about the lives of Iraqi American artists, most of the artists expressed nostalgia for the Iraq that was once unified.

Randa Razoky said, “I once painted a painting of mosque, churches, and Mandaean men baptizing women by the river, where the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers flow. This painting represents an Iraq of diverse religions which no longer exists. We lost that Iraq.”

Maybe We can get that Iraq back if we open our hearts and re-learn to co-exist. Otherwise, true peace will never find a home within us.

Bridging Worlds: The Art of Qais Al-Sindyor

Al Sindy Photo

This article was originally published by the Chaldean News a few days ago. It’s about Qais Al-Sindy, one of the artists in my upcoming book, The Lives of the Artists.

Chaldean Qais Al-Sindy studied engineering at the University of Baghdad and though he excelled in his classes, he soon discovered that the field was not for him. After graduating, he applied to the Academy of Fine Arts, telling the administration, “If you force me to be a Baathist, I will study outside this country and you will lose me.”

It worked. They made an exception to Al-Sindy’s non-Baathist affiliation and enrolled him. In 2004, he graduated with an MFA from the Academy of Fine Arts. His thesis was on Christian paintings from all over Iraq. This led him to take a big tour of Iraq to visit all the monasteries and different cities from Zakho (in the Kurdisan region) to al-Faw (a marshy region in the extreme southeast of Iraq).

“It was dangerous to travel, especially since I did not have a sponsor,” he said. “I paid from my own pockets and drove my own car. Because I speak English very well, I managed well at American checkpoints. I received harassment from the insurgents and extremists, but at that time, it wasn’t very severe. I managed, but I did leave the country shortly after graduating.”

Al-Sindy, who began painting at age 14, has held art exhibits all over the world. His work has drawn so much attention that six books have been published about it by various venues, including the Kuwait Cultural Center and the Iraqi Cultural Center in Washington, D.C.

“I don’t do anything else in this world except for art,” said Al-Sindy, who resides in California. “If you are able to do the art that you like and find a way to sell it, this means that you believe in yourself.”

Al-Sindy, whose work includes painting, videos and installations of objects designed to make a point, is known to engage audiences in his art. An example of this is the “Mamdooh” series.

“After I left Iraq, I lived in Jordan, where I taught art in the architectural department,” he said. “One day I heard that one of my dearest friends in Iraq, a talented portrait artist named Mamdooh, suffered injuries as a result of a car explosion that injured and killed many people. He was transferred to the hospital where he struggled against death for one week, then died.”

This led Al-Sindy to do a series of four paintings. The first one is a portrait of Mamdooh in an expressionist style that focuses on his appearance. The second is a ghostly figure with transparency like his character, full of hue colors. It is the moment that Mamdooh suffers and dies. In the third painting, he brought some ashes and charcoal from the ruins of the car that exploded and drew Mamdooh using those ashes. That means Mamdooh is gone. The fourth painting is a pure blank canvas.

“Everyone is well aware that it’s prohibited to touch the artwork in galleries and museums,” Al-Sindy said. “But in this, I came up with something new to complete the fourth painting. I asked the viewers to wipe their hands on painting number three. Of course, now their hands are stained with charcoal and ashes. They want to clean their hands, but I ask the crowd to wipe their hands on the blank canvas, on painting number four. The fingerprints on the canvas mean that you’re a participant of this crime in Iraq.”

Al-Sindy said this was his way of getting his audience to participate in the message he wanted to deliver: It is up to us to make this world the best place to live in.

He showed the series in more than 10 countries and the fourth piece, the blank canvas, is now covered with more than a thousand people’s fingerprints.

“Everyone wants to show that they are responsible for us not having peace in this world,” he said. “The frames are cracked and damaged because they toured many, many countries. I kept it as it is.”

Al-Sindy has also produced an 11-minute documentary about the burning of the Iraqi library called “Letters Don’t Burn.”

His latest project, called “The Bridge,” showcased the work of 47 premier and emerging Arab, Persian and Jewish visual artists around the theme of what “bridges” us to each other. The show opened in Paris in February and has been seen in England, Egypt and other countries.

The idea was to collect stones and bricks and, instead of using them to hit each other, to build a bridge out of them that would start a cultural dialogue between different countries.
“This would help create love,” he said, “because if I love you I will not fight you. If I love you, then I will put my hands with your hands and we will build something together. All the problems in this universe are the result of us not loving each other. People’s desires for opportunism, greed, for looking out for themselves and not each other, are the reasons we don’t have universal peace.”

View more of the artist’s work at