Cultural Glimpse

Enjoying diversity

Month: November, 2016

Kai Mann interviews me for her Talk Show

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The wonderful Kai Mann interviewed me during the summer about my experience as an Iraqi-American and as a former apprentice of Lynn Andrews’ school. The one-hour episode was recently released and, watching it, I’m reminded of the power of love, faith & spirituality. We cannot depend on anyone else to bring us these qualities because they are truly within.

Kai’s message, “We are all connected by our humanity.”

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Iraqi Folklore Party

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My husband and I attended a party the other day that was hosted by Beth Nahrain Community Club, a new club that I recently wrote about. It was lovely to see the people who are all connected through heritage and bloodline meet in one banquet hall, together celebrating their folklore dances and costumes that span from various villages in northern Iraq  – something that, unfortunately, people who are still living in our ancestors’ ancient land are not able to do.

Some of the people at the party ran into relatives they had not seen in decades. Beth Nahrain seeks to solidify the bond and spirit of friendship and fellowship among the shareholders, their families and friends. Its founders are working with various Iraqi Christians organizations and/or groups (Chaldeans, Assyrians, and Syriacs) in an effort to coordinate resources for the betterment of the community. The goal is to preserve customs, traditions, and social values.

“We wanted a club that would accommodate all families without discrimination or an attempt to dominate one group over another,” said Sammer Tolla, senior loan officer at Security Mortgage in Sterling Heights. “The main goal is for our families to feel they have a place where our community could safely gather and get to know each other, and also for the new generation to meet and know each other. We want to start programs for the young people so they can take leadership roles.”

Sammer says that there was a private club in Baghdad, with a pool and various social activities, where Christian Iraqis gathered called Al Mashriq. Many had their wedding receptions and other celebrations there.

“If we don’t start now, I don’t think our children would do it at all,” said Shawki Bahri. “Once we establish it, they will do a better job carrying it forward because they are mostly open-minded and well-educated. They will be able to incorporate their professions, skills, and knowledge into this community.”

Watch this short video of the party:

Here’s an article I wrote about this club which was published by the Chaldean News: http://www.chaldeannews.com/efforts-to-add-eastside-club-gaining-steam/

 

What We Carried: Fragments from the Craddle of Civilization

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Samir Khurshid and Jim Lommasson at the first What We Carried exhibition in Portland, 2011

What We Carried: Fragments from the Cradle of Civilization is an ongoing project currently on view at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan and the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie, Illinois. The exhibit includes photos and writings chosen from over 250 Iraqi and Syrian refugees of the objects they carried to <!–more–>America, such as abayas, Barbie dolls, coffee cups, Qurans, platters, milk cans, rugs, and flip flops. Some of the actual objects that refugees carried to America from their homeland are included in the exhibition.

Renowned freelance photographer and author Jim Lommasson of Portland, Oregon started this project as a way for Americans to meet the people who have been displaced and demonized in the media.

“It’s a bridge building project,” Lommasson said, explaining how it came about. “I was horrified that we invaded and occupied Iraq. One of the questions I wanted answered for myself is: what did the American soldiers feel about the war in Iraq?”

Believing in the power of pictures, and the idea that photography can change lives, Lommasson used his artistic talents to tell stories he hopes can bring about peace. In 2007, he created a traveling show and book about American troops called Exit Wounds: Soldiers’ Stories – Life After Iraq and Afghanistan.

Lommasson asked the soldiers how they felt about the war in Iraq. He was surprised that the vast majority of soldiers he interviewed admitted that the war was a mistake. Many had regrets, became anti-war activists, and some wanted to go back to Iraq as civilians and help rebuild the country.

“They wanted to tell us cautionary stories,” he said, “that we should not be so gullible for our leaders to bring us to war. Many said, ‘If foreigners came to our cities and neighborhood and started kicking in doors, we would do the same to them as the Iraqis did to us.’”

He realized that the consequences of war are horrific for everybody, so he thought that he should not only interview soldiers who fought in Iraq, but the affected Iraqi people, too. Lommasson sat down an Iraqi woman, who is now an academic in Portland. During the course of their interview, he asked her what she thought about the U.S. invasion of Iraq. She answered, “I thank America for getting rid of Saddam Hussein, but did they have to destroy the whole country to do that?”

That statement stuck with him, and it suggested a new project. Lommasson felt that people needed to hear from those “others” affected by the war. He soon learned that Iraqis, whether they came before or after 2003, shared universal stories.

Poet Dunya Mikhail brought with her a folder of stories written by her friend, famous Iraqi author, Lutfiya Al-Dulaimi, who now lives in Jordan.

“Although there’s an age gap between us, we were friends in Iraq,” Mikhail said. “Once she wanted to throw out this file in the garbage. I said, ‘What are you doing? Why are you throwing this out?’ She said, ‘What would I do with it? They’re already published.’”

Mikhail asked if she could have the file and Al-Dulaimi easily gave it to her. The file came along in the one suitcase that Mikhail brought along with her to America. While at a conference in Jordan last summer, Mikhail met with Al-Dulaimi and showed her the file she’d held onto for twenty years. She said to her friend, “You can keep it or let me keep it. But if you let me keep it that’s even better because they want to place it at a museum.”

Al-Dulaimi thought Mikhail was joking.

“The irony is that she wanted to throw it away and now it ended up in the museum,” said Mikhail.

Rafat Mandwee, a tour guide at the Arab American National Museum, also had from Iraq a blanket, which was over a hundred years old and previously owned by his great grandmother. He also brought a tin milk container, which was used during the 1950s and 60s. After the milk finished, people used it to store water.

“Some of the items people brought with them, like diaries, were sensitive material and too dangerous to bring out during Saddam’s time,” said Mandwee. “If they were caught, they would have risked their life. This required a lot of strength and courage on their part.”

“When you leave, you often leave under the veil of darkness and the things that you bring, you lose more along your travel, depending on your travel path,” Lommasson said. “It’s not really about what people brought, but what they left behind – their memories, cultures, education, families.”

Exit Wounds and What We Carried have traveled to universities, galleries, and museums. They have become books that have been embraced by the participant communities.

What We Carried will be going to Nebraska next where there’s a large Yazidi community.

Lommasson feels that this project is creating a new and unique language to tell stories.

“I wanted the American public to know the consequences of our government and the consequences of ignorance. George Bush told people to just go to the mall. We can’t just go to the mall,” said Lommasson. “We have to become aware and educated. The efforts we do – we have little effect moving the big picture, but we can have an effect on one-on-one relationships.”

This article was written for, and originally published by, Arab America http://www.arabamerica.com/78783-2/

Ibsen, Iraqi Style: The Latest from Heather Raffo

I originally wrote this article for, and it was published by, The Chaldean News  http://www.chaldeannews.com/ibsen-iraqi-style-the-latest-from-heather-raffo/

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The story of a Chaldean refugee family living in New York is examined in Noura, award-winning Iraqi American playwright and performer Heather Raffo’s latest work.

The play, directed by Joanna Settle, was presented as a staged reading on October 7 as part of the Arab American National Museum’s Global Fridays program.

“You are part of our development process,” Settle told the audience of about 100 people. She had also directed Raffo’s well-received one-woman play 9 Parts of Desire. “It’s somewhere between a reading and a staging. This version is tonight-only. It’s critical that you’re here and that you share what resonated with you.”

The play was a re-imagining of A Doll’s House, written by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen in 1879. That famous work is about everyday, ordinary people, with an emphasis on women’s rights.

Raffo’s Noura incorporates the stories and experiences of Iraqi Americans who must tackle such issues as assimilation, nostalgia, shame, exile and love. The play’s contemporary characters include Noura, played by Raffo; her husband Tariq, who adopted the American name Tim (Peter Ganim); their 9-year-old son Yazen, who takes the name Alex (Logan Settle Rishard, the director’s son); a Sunni doctor and family friend named Rafa’a (Piter Marek) and Maryam (Dahlia Azama), a 26-year-old Chaldean who’s an orphan and was raised at a convent in Iraq.

Noura and Maryam stayed in contact through Facebook, and Noura even helped her financially until Maryam arrived to America. These multifaceted characters come together for Christmas at Noura’s house where unknown truths and past shame and hurts are revealed.

Noura is an educated woman, an architect, who now tutors math. Tariq was a surgeon in Iraq, but when he arrived in America he had to work in a restaurant kitchen. Now he’s working in the ER. After right years in the U.S. the couple still struggles to assimilate. Tariq wants Noura to let go of her attachment to Iraq and the sorrow she feels for what the Islamic State has done to Mosul.

“You should be grateful we are in a place where we can reinvent ourselves,” he tells her.

But Noura is afraid of letting go of that connection, afraid she will lose her identity if she does so. She also feels guilty. She says, “I don’t want to reinvent myself … They never asked what part I played in f_ _ _ing up my own country.”

Through unique and realistic monologues, and plenty of humor, the characters beautifully brought the Iraqi American experience to life and they made the audience consider the question of “Who am I?”

The play came out of a three-year grant workshopping with Middle Eastern women, both Muslim and Christian, on Ibsen’s A Doll’s House in New York City.

“I was inspired to do a story off of their stories,” Raffo said.

Born to a Chaldean father and an American mother, Raffo grew up in East Lansing and went to school in Ann Arbor. She holds a BA from the University of Michigan, an MFA from the University of San Diego and she also studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London.

“I was connected in spirit to my Chaldean heritage, but my identity was an American,” she said.

Raffo visited Iraq as a child in 1974 and then later in 1993. At age 20, she experienced her first war on television, a war between the two countries that she loved. She’d never seen her dad so distraught watching television.

“Out of that came a big need for me to bridge the two cultures,” she said. “As an artist, I was the perfect bridge for Americans because I look like them.”

Raffo has produced numerous works that portray Middle Easterners’ perspective, women in particular. She has taught and performed at dozens of universities and arts centers both in the United States and internationally, engaging students about the politics and arts of Iraq and about her own experience as an Iraqi-American playwright and actress.

“I realized as an artist, especially an actor, your job is to be a conduit of a story, that I had a role to play – saying what wasn’t being said.”

At the same time, she wondered if she would be viewed as a fraud for writing an Iraqi story.

“Who am I to write an Iraqi story?” she asked herself. “I’m a blonde woman.”

But as her Iraqi self emerged to the forefront, she realized, “My inner workings always knew I’m Iraqi.”

She has since used her talents to help Middle Eastern women reveal their own feelings and stories, and she has mentored many young Middle Eastern women.

The audience who viewed Noura was made up of various Middle Eastern backgrounds and they were particularly touched to watch a play that did not stereotype their community but gave it an honest, unique and original perspective.

One audience member expressed his desire for the communities here in America to unite the way that the characters of Noura do on the stage.

“I don’t want our communities to be divided,” he said. “I want good relations between all religions. In America, we’re seeing all the democracy that we didn’t have in the Middle East, and we can teach our kids that.”

The Healing Circle

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Exactly a year ago today I sat in front of Lynn Andrews during what’s called the Healing Circle as she brought me to the very place she took me to the first time we talked four years prior – Baghdad. The city which I thought I had let go of, which I wanted to put behind me, kept pulling me in its direction. What did this city want from me? Why wouldn’t it let me be? Or what did I want from it? Why did I keep holding on?

Those questions were finally answered and that part of my story finally released. Healing Wisdom for a Wounded World: My Life-Changing Journey through a Shamanic School (Book 4) is the fourth and final of the four-book memoir series of my apprenticeship in Lynn’s school. One major lesson I learned in this school is that you can create a new interpretation that takes you out of your past and into the present and a new future. You do that once you identify the story that is running your life. You release that story and are then able to pursue your dreams while enjoying healthy relationships and living a sacred family life. In this school, through the ancient teachings and with the help of my wise teachers, I used my storytelling abilities to change my narrative and, since then, I’ve helped others transform their lives by changing their own narratives.

For over two decades, medical practice has increasingly recognized the significance of what’s come to be called “narrative medicine” to the person’s healing. Narrative medicine is a wholesome medical approach that recognized the value of people’s narrative in clinical practice, research, and education as a way to promote healing.

A number of medical schools such as Columbia University now have Narrative Medicine master’s program. Columbia states on their website that “The effective practice of healthcare requires the ability to recognize, absorb, interpret, and act on the stories and plights of others. Medicine practiced with narrative competence is a model for humane and effective medical practice. It addresses the need of patients and caregivers to voice their experience, to be heard and to be valued, and it acknowledges the power of narrative to change the way care is given and received.”

Since I graduated from Lynn’s school a year ago, I’ve watched various discussions about shamanism, what it is or isn’t, who is considered a real shaman and who isn’t. I just observe and listen and think of how I entered into a shamanic school not knowing what shamanism was, not knowing who Lynn Andrews was, but wanting to change my story. It was toward the end of the second year that I googled the word shamanism and learned, for the first time, its real definition. This was not a matter of ignorance, but of innocence, of trusting God to lead me in the right direction.

Available on Amazon

Paperback: https://www.amazon.com/Healing-Wisdom-Wounded-World-Life-Changing/dp/1945371943/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1477997035&sr=8-3&keywords=Weam+Namou

eBook: https://www.amazon.com/Healing-Wisdom-Wounded-World-Life-Changing-ebook/dp/B01LYMYLRR/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1477997102&sr=8-1&keywords=Weam+Namou%2C+eBook