Cultural Glimpse

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Tag: Arab American National Museum

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.”

A Nostalgic Walk through the Arabic American National Museum

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I visited the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn last week with some friends and colleagues. Although I had been to the museum many times since it opened in 2005, to attend conferences, watch movies and concerts, and to participate in forums, this was the first time I took a tour of this three-level, 40,000 square-foot building. The experience was quite nostalgic for me, especially after walking through the second floor, called Living in America.

Our tour guide, Petra Al Soofy, said that every person who took this tour, regardless of their background, at the end of the tour said, “That’s the same story my family told me.”

The land people came from is different but the story of immigration is basically the same.

“This community is a very vibrant, successful immigrant experience,” said Hassan Jaber, chief executive officer of ACCESS, a nonprofit organization which started the museum project. “Before 9/11, Arab Americans were individually successful. After 9/11, that shifted completely and a debate arose of why is this happening to us in our name and how do we correct this, how do we care for each other and deal with issues that affect us on a daily basis. It became more urgent to find our place in society and to tell our story.”

Many organizations, such as the Jewish Federation, were very supportive of the museum and helped it come to fruition. This type of support and the staff’s hard work and optimism has led the museum to recently be accredited by the American Alliance of Museums, which is truly impressive since only 6 percent of the America’s 21,000 museums are accredited.

“The Japanese American museum was one of our strongest supporters,” said Petra. “They helped make this museum happen because, given what they had gone through, they saw that history was repeating itself.”

One exhibit on the second floor had various size luggage, or trunks, from different eras and personal items that people brought along like a pair of beaded shoes from 1923. Photos of people’s journey and pictures of their naturalization papers were framed on the wall. Rana Abbas, director of communications and marketing at ACCESS, pointed out a long list of names of the Arab Americans who died on the Titanic, two of whom were her relations.

We learned about the first Arabic speaking slave, captured probably in 1511 when Portugal invaded his city in Morocco. He was brought to the U.S., where he eventually became a famous healer, interpreter and explorer.

There were endless fascinating stories about this community, including on how Arabs ended up being classified as “white” but they are too many for me to recount in this post. My friends and I agreed that we needed to have a second tour to fully digest the stories available at the museum. We then took a nice stroll to Sheba restaurant where we enjoyed a delicious Yemeni cuisine.