Cultural Glimpse

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Tag: Chaldeans

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.  http://www.chaldeannews.com/bridging-worlds-the-art-of-qais-al-sindy/

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 QaisSindy.com.

Another Arabian Wedding in America

I love weddings, but as my responsibilities at home and work increase – as do the weddings invitations that arrive to our doorsteps – I have found myself often complaining about the beautification process required to attend these events. Then I get to the banquet hall and I am grateful to be a part of such beautiful celebration.

Yesterday, my husband’s nephew got married and I enjoyed the wedding so very much that I wanted to share one moment of it with the rest of the world.  So enjoy!IMG_4067 - Copy

Memoirs of a Babylonian Princess

Memoirs of a Babylon Princess

I have finally started reading Memoirs of a Babylonian Princess, a book written 200 years ago by a woman from Telkaif in northern Iraq, my ancestors’ once Christian town which was overtaken by the Islamic State in the summer of 2014. The fact that this little gem of a book, and its author Maria Theresa Asmar, were practically buried into oblivion among its own people is quite disturbing to me, to say the least.

I first learned about Memoirs of a Babylonian Princess when I had to cover a story in the summer of 2012. Emily Porter PhD, an Iraqi-British artist, author and activist, had traveled from her hometown in Great Britain to do work at the Metropolitan Museum of Arts in New York regarding Asmar’s memoirs. She gave a lecture at Shenandoah Country Club about this memoir, and like Porter, I was amazed that few, if any, people in our Chaldean community had heard about this 720 page book.

Porter had stumbled upon this book when she was searching through a friend’s library.

“I found a book about Telkaif that briefly mentions Memoirs of a Babylonian Princess, followed by the criticism that Maria Asmar exaggerates in her work,” said Porter. “I thought, over 700 pages of a memoir, written by a woman from Telkaif in the early 19th century, and all this person has to say about it is that the author exaggerates in her writing?”

Maria was no ordinary woman, either. She traveled alone to Europe, the Middle East and other parts of the world. She met with Queen Victoria and even dedicated her book to the queen. She set up a school for women in Baghdad and welcomed western Christian missionaries, who then bribed the Turkish government to give them the licence for the school and forbid Maria to carry on with her project. Left frustrated and angry to have been treated this way by fellow Christians, she sought sanctuary with the Muslim Bedouins. She set about recording their daily lives, everything from the weddings and celebrations to their assaults on other tribes.

As I read her memoirs, I am in awe of the rich material it contains and of the beauty in Maria’s literary voice. I also find it interesting that while her work was neglected by her own community, in Great Britain and even in the United States, it has received a much wider and respectable recognition.

ISIS Continues Targeting Christians

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My friend Nahren sent me the following report:

It is being reported by my journalist friends in Khabour that ISIS has started using the Assyrian Christian hostages as human shields including the children against the Syrian Military. It is confirmed that the amount of hostages right now are 217 and the difference from the original amount were hiding in red zone areas until they made their way back to their families and were identified. However, ISIS is requesting a ransom of $100,000 per Assyrian Christian hostage. The Sheikhs are trying to demand for their release through consistent communication and the sheiks claim that the 217 are still alive. Many Americans and non-Assyrians have attempted to drive into the Northern Part of Khabour which is under the Kurdish occupation. They were turned away even with permits from the KRG.

It is also reported by numerous sources that as some of the civilians made their ways back to their homes, they found that the Kurds completely have taken over their homes and properties. They were told that their homes did not belong to them anymore. Journalists and media are not permitted in the area anymore and witnesses have confirmed that they were allowing only Kurdish civilians to enter through the border. Furthermore, it is reported that the Kurds are already attempting to convert the Assyrian Christian village names into Kurdish names (it’s confirmed that 2 to 3 villages have already been changed).

I asked Nahren, who with other activists demands international protection, why the Iraqi minorities have not yet been helped. She explained part of the problem.

“Our own people are so divided in organizations, political parties, churches and so forth,” she said. “The day our people (Assyrians, Chaldeans and Syriacs) will unite like we used to be, I promise that Nineveh will rise with an amazing power that will be distinguishable in the world.”

Which reminded me of the famous Pogo quote, “We have met the enemy and it is us.”

Starting Point: Find Your Place in the Story

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When I signed up for “Starting Point”, a ten week bible study class, I was not sure why I signed up. All I knew was that the past sixteen months of going to Freedom Christian had taught me quite a bit about the religion I was born into, the religion of my ancestors, and I wanted to honor this religion by learning more.

Each week, people in the group talked about their story of faith, and then through a book, CD, and conversations with the pastor and his wife we explored many subject matters, particularly the role God has played in our story up until now. Thought-provoking questions were raised and ways of becoming more intimate with God were discussed. Everyone’s courage in sharing their stories, in proclaiming how their faith changed their lives, touched and inspired me.

Through the process, I began to see my place in the story, remembering my grandparents who lived in the then Christian village of Telkaif in northern Iraq. My maternal grandfather Tobia went to church every morning at 5:30am, before he had breakfast and began working on his farm. He went to church a second time in the evening, before dinner. I remembered my people, the Chaldeans, who were one of the first in the Middle East to embrace Christianity and I reflected on the persecution they have had to endure for hundreds of years, especially in the last ten years. I looked at my relationship with Jesus, and saw how his energy lived on from one generation to the next – in our case, for two thousand years. He was in our blood.

“I know the story Jesus has had in my life throughout the years,” I said when I shared my story with the class. “Now, through the Bible, I want to read about his story.”

So while the class ended today, my story in this journey is just beginning.

Is Woman a Bar of Soap or a Piece of Dough?

Women

I received a chain email that read in Arabic:
A woman is like a bar of soap. Her touch is soft. Her smell is pretty. But if you press on her, she bolts out of your hands. And if you step on her, you’ll slip and break your bones. My advice? Treat your bar of soap nicely. Long live my country’s bars of soap!

The brother of the sender responded, also in Arabic:
A woman is like dough. The more you knead her, the tastier she comes out. So my advice is to knead your wife, put the dough in a warm place, and trust in God!

I always found it interesting that men, the gender that for thousands of years has been the cause of most of society’s pitfalls are the ones who try to define women, the gender who gave birth to them and raised them. And don’t give me the story of Eve and the apple she ate. Let’s look at the atrocious wars, holocaust, massacres!

Many societies have thrived as a result of powerful women. Enheduanna of ancient Iraq was the daughter of Sargon of Akkad. She is the world’s first recorded writer. She was a high priestess in Ur of the Chaldees until after her father’s death, the new ruler of Ur removed her from power. Kubaba, a Sumerian Queen in ancient Iraq, is the world’s first recorded woman ruler in history. She was said to have reigned peacefully for one hundred years.

Matriarchal communities existed in the past, and there are a number of them surviving today. The biggest difference between them and patriarchal communities is that where women rule, there was and is no need for violence. When men are able to master how to run the show without killing each other, then they can begin to describe what a woman is really about.

Cooking All Night Long

I’m beat. For the first time today my sisters taught me how to make kubba Hamuth, an elaborate staple of Iraqi-Jewish cooking. Kubba hamuth is meat stuffed dumplings that we freeze in large quantities and later cook in a savory soup. It took five women hours to make this food. Unfortunately, my mother was not able to help, but she was there watching and making remarks.

With my mother’s health recently deteriorating, it dawned upon me the importance of cooking the food that has been passed down for ages from one woman to another. Women of kin would often gather and knead the rice with meat until it becomes like dough, then stuff it with meat and onions. They made various traditional foods and afterwards, shared a meal – today for instance, we ate dolma (stuffed grape leaves and other vegetables) and an Indian dish I prepared. Then we had watermelon and white cheese.

Though right now I am really exhausted, the experience was oh so lovely! I can’t wait for the next traditional dish we prepare and freeze. More importantly, I can’t wait to pass on these recipes to my children.

Kubba

The Cost of Picking Grape Leaves

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One day years ago I discovered outside of a Barnes & Noble bookstore a fence covered with grape leaves. I hurriedly got into my vehicle and informed my mother and sisters of my finding. That same day, we all squeezed into my minivan, empty plastic grocery bags in our hands, and drove to the back of the store. My daughter sat in a stroller and watched – she must have been a year or so – as we excitedly picked the grape leaves.

We were plucking away when a tall man dressed in professional clothing suddenly appeared from around the corner. He was the manager of the bookstore and he hesitantly approached us and asked what we were doing. He looked a little nervous. We had all been dressed in black because my aunt had recently passed away and we were in mourning for forty days. Obviously the sight of us frightened the store manager, so we explained that during summer we picked grape leaves, enough to last throughout the winter, to make an Iraqi dish called dolma (a pot of stuffed vegetables). He said that was fine, but if we could just inform someone in the store next time we decide to pick grape leaves so that they wouldn’t be surprised by our sudden presence.

Last year I asked my Iraqi-American neighbor, who was throwing away his perfectly good grape leave into a garbage bin, if I could pick them. He said, “They’re all dead.” They were not, but I let it go and since then have been buying jars of grape leaves.

Today I was at my friend’s home. She told me of a man who shot a woman picking grape leaves somewhere near his house. Another man was picked up by a police officer who asked him, “What are you doing?”

The Iraqi man did not speak English and motioning with his hands towards his mouth he said, “Food! Food!”

The police officer, feeling sorry for this man, took him into his car and drove to his house where he gave the Iraqi man ten dollars, thinking he did not have money to buy food and thus was eating leaves.

People – if you see someone picking grape leaves, it is okay! God created everything in this world to be used, not be wasted or just sit there and look pretty.

Chicken Blaster, A Birthday Wish

I thought I was a deprived little child who never got to celebrate her birthday or attend any of her friends’ birthdays because my parents wanted to save on a few bucks. Or given that I was the 11th of 12 children, they were sick and tired of celebrating birthdays. Turns out that people don’t normally celebrate birthdays in the Arab and Muslim world – though they do it a lot in the movies. Many Muslim scholars and clerics consider the celebration of birthdays a sin, as it is an innovation of the faith. While others have issued statements saying that it is permissible, mostly Muslims (and Arabian Christians) adopted the custom after they migrated to the United States.

Even many modern rabbis do not endorse the celebration of birthdays. Origen in his commentary “On Levites” writes that Christians should not only refrain from celebrating their birthdays but should look on them with disgust. Jehovah’s Witnesses and some Sacred Name groups also refrain from celebrating birthdays, believing birthday celebrations are portrayed in a negative light in the Bible and have historical connections with magic, superstitions, and Paganism.

Wow, I had no idea! Good thing I did not research this information as I prepared for my daughter’s seventh birthday – although maybe it would have been a good thing if I had. I’ve been consumed the whole week planning a Chuck-E-Cheese birthday party. When I asked my daughter why she chose Chuck-E-Cheese, she said, “Because I want to go inside the Chicken Blaster and the only way you can do that is by having a celebration there.”

“What is a chicken blaster?” I asked. She repeated, so again I asked, “What is a chicken blaster?”

She laughed and repeated it one more time, only louder. “A ticket blaster.”

“Oh.” My daughter’s front tooth has recently fallen out so her pronunciation is not that clear and given I’m getting older, neither is my hearing. Still, I’ve continued since then to call it a chicken blaster.

Birthday celebrations began as a form of protection, to keep the evil spirits away. The Germans are given history for starting celebrations of children’s birthdays. The song “Happy Birthday to You” was composed by two sisters, Mildred and Patty Hill, in 1893.

Whatever their history, for all those who never got to celebrate a birthday, it’s not personal – it’s just religious.

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From Paris to Sterling Heights

Last Tuesday, I was visited by three people who were so French, they caused my mind to wander to and linger in Paris. This Tuesday, my mind has returned home, so I will write about my hometown of 20 years, Sterling Heights, the fourth largest city in Michigan.

A little over sixty years ago Sterling Heights was a rural Michigan township with a population of 4,000. It was organized in 1835, two years before Michigan became a state, and it was originally called JeffersonTownship. The name was changed to Sterling in 1838. Some say the community was named for Azariah W. Sterling, a settler; others say it was named for Sterling, New York. By the 1880s, the township had become thirty-six square miles of well-developed and prosperous farms, with a mere 1,000 residents. Today the population is nearly 130,000.

Prior to 1784 there is little written history about the area that is now Sterling Heights because the Indian tribes who lived in villages along the ClintonRiver or came through here on hunting expeditions did not keep written records. The first white settlers along the Clinton were captives of the Chippewas who had been freed or escaped after years of wandering with the tribes.

Sterling Heights was ranked the sixth safest city in the U.S. in 2006 and currently boasts more movie screens than any other Michigan City.The August 2006 issue of Money magazine listed Sterling Heights as No. 19 on its list of the 90 “Best Small Cities” to live in.

Another attraction? Eminem lived here briefly between 2000 and 2001. And a phenomenon? After twenty years of living in this city and over ten years of living in nearby neighborhoods, I can still screw up directions to get to certain places.