Cultural Glimpse

Enjoying diversity

Tag: Iraqi Americans

Legendary Iraqi-Born Author and Publisher

 

IMG_7857 (2)I’ve been freelancing for the Chaldean News for about ten years. Oftentimes when I interview people, they’ll ask me, “Is the publisher of this magazine the son of Fouad Manna, otherwise known as Abu Jibran?” I’d say yes and they would then list Abu Jibran’s wonderful qualities and mention his accomplishments and contributions as a writer and publisher. Their descriptions made me want to one day meet him in person.

Well, yesterday I had the honor of doing that. We met at the Chaldean Community Foundation and then taking advantage of the pleasant weather, we walked the short distance to Ishtar Restaurant for lunch. For approximately three hours, this legendary and kind man shared with me some of the most fascinating stories, starting with his childhood.

Fouad Manna was born in 1936 in a Christian village which had 96 homes, 500 residents, and no schools. It was during a time when families easily and naturally shared one big home. In his case, there were three families, each with about seven to eight kids. For the most part, they lived off the land, through agriculture or herding. Everyone worked, even the children. But Manna wanted something else. He wanted to go to school.

“I went up to my mom and said, ‘I want to go to school,’” he said and she and her husband helped fulfill his desire. They registered him in a school that was two miles away in walking distance.

He continued in this educational path, and after graduating, studied journalism for a year. One day a man was pushing a three-wheel cart, selling used books. A book that stood out for Manna was by an author named Khalil Gibran. He was drawn to this book and decided to buy it.

“Reading Gibran’s book mesmerized me,” he said. “I felt an immediate connection with the author. It was as if he knew my thoughts and feelings.”

After that, he searched for more books by Gibran and read each one several times.

At the age of twenty, Manna also began his writing career by working for one of Iraq’s newspapers. This was during the Hashemite Kingdom which he describes as “The best government Iraq ever had. Every government that has come since then has been worse and worse.”

During this period, a writer could write whatever they wanted as long as they did not attack the government. The Kingdom of Iraq was founded on August 21, 1923 under British administration and following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the Mesopotamian campaign of World War I. It was established with King Faisal I of the Hashemite dynasty receiving the throne.

After the Hashemite Kingdom’s overthrow on July 14, 1958, the new government closed all the newspapers associated with the Kingdom and arrested the editors-in-chief. Manna eventually continued to write in different papers until 1963, when the Baath Party came into power. They too closed newspapers, but they did something entirely different with the editors-in-chief.

“These people were gone, just disappeared,” said Manna.

This reminded me of the Mural of the Revolution in one of Baghdad’s famous squares. The Mural is located on the other side of where the Freedom Monument stands and it depicts, among other beautiful things, a woman whose hands extend upward as she holds peace doves. In 1963, when the Baath Party began to come into power, they considered certain art dangerous, so they removed the doves and left the woman’s hand empty.

Manna realized that he could not live under this type of government, especially not given his writing profession. “Journalists have to address the negativities of the community, to shed light on it,” he said.

So he prepared to leave for America. He arrived to the United States on January 11, 1969 and he has since then made an incredible legacy for himself and his family. His story is uplifting and the lessons he learned over the decades are full of wisdom, the details of which will be included in the upcoming book, Iraqi Americans: The Lives of the Writers.

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.

Real Talent Lives in My Neighborhood

Sabah Wazi 2Today I went to Wazi’s Rug Shop to pick up a gift that talented artists Sabah Selou Wazi made for me. Sabah is one of sixteen artists I interviewed for my upcoming book, Iraqi Americans: The Lives of the Artists. Because the shop is only a few blocks from my house, I mostly interviewed Sabah at his shop.

Each time I go into the shop, I feel I’m entering a small museum. Sabah has a studio in the back of the and his artwork is displayed in various corners in the front. Being surrounded by Babylonian and Sumerian artwork makes you want to wander around, and basically, not leave. When visitors admire his work, Sabah takes the opportunity to introduce and educate them to the rich history and culture of Mesopotamia. Doing so has become dearer to him since the horrific attempts to destroy Iraq’s heritage.

About a month ago, Sabah told me that he made clay tablets with cuneiform writing, replicas of those made during ancient Babylonian and Sumerian times. He passed them out for free during the opening of the Keys Grace Academy in Madison Heights. Grace Academy is the first Chaldean charter school in the United States. He told me he would make some tablets for me and my family. Today I picked up these four tablets.

Aside from being impressed by the detail of his work, so many feelings went through me as I held the stones that resemble those made thousands of years ago by my ancestors, who invented the first writing system.  There was a mixture of awe and wonder, a real closeness to my birth country, but also a little sadness to what has happened to that land. By the time I returned home, the sadness was gone and all that was left was joy – joy at having a number of real talented artists live in my neighborhood and doing their part in keeping the memory of the Cradle of Civilization alive.

Sabah Wazi

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The Woman That Keeps on Giving

WomanThatKeepsOnGiving2

When I returned home from a weekend family trip, I checked my mailbox and found an envelope from Nidhal Garmo, a pharmacist known for her incredible humanitarian work in Iraq and neighboring countries. I opened the envelope and found a three-hundred dollar check. I asked Nidhal what this check was for, and she said, “You have been supportive of my work for many years. I wanted to do the same for you.”

I didn’t know what to say. Nidhal’s generosity took me by surprise, even though she is well known as “a giver.” In one of my books, The War Generation, I titled the chapter about her “The Woman That Keeps on Giving.” Yet the last time someone from the Iraqi American community was that generous was over ten years ago. At my book launch party, a Muslim man I had never met donated two-hundred dollars, because he said he was proud of my achievement.

While the Iraqi American community is established economically and generous in general, when it comes to supporting the arts – well, let’s just say that compared to the rest of the world, they have some catching up to do. But I guess that’s not the case with Nidhal. She has given me a gift as a token of appreciation for my consistent desire to dispel stereotypes by telling true life stories. She knows the enormous time, money and energy I’ve invested into these projects, and her gracious gift says to me, “Keep going.”

Thank you Nidhal!

Iraqi Americans (Not) Acclimating

Photo by: Suman Bhattachary

             Photo by: Suman Bhattachary

Today I attended a school meeting with the educators and parents where we discussed, once again, how to encourage Iraqi American parents to get involved in their students’ work and in the school itself. My community has the largest growing Iraqi immigrants. It has even been nicknamed “Little Baghdad” because on each corner there is an Iraqi produce market, butchery, bakery, restaurants, etc. This is great on one hand. The culture resonates very strongly here. However, when the newcomers stay within these boundaries, adding Satellite TVs in order to watch Arab channels all day long, they don’t give themselves the chance to acclimate.

One of the teachers said that she really embraces this ethnic community, especially given that she resides amongst them. “However,” she added, “it feels like this community is like a volleyball game. This team is on this side, and that team is on that side, and often they split apart. They don’t really come together.”

I remembered something my elderly neighbor once said as we chatted over our back fence. Her parents were first generation immigrants from Italy. She said that all immigrants had difficulty acclimating but that she noticed this was more prominent with Iraqis. They really resisted change.

I thought about that and wondered whether this was due to them having immigrated from a country of a different religion. They also had endured much oppression and persecution and for over 30 years war. Their wounds are so deep, it’s not easy to tap into them. They will take decades, maybe even generations, to heal. But isolation is not the answer. And it’s their children who will suffer for it.

As the principal said, “If people don’t know the truth, don’t worry. They will make it up.”

His point was to spread the good news about the school. My point is let’s spread the good news about our culture, our history, our pains and joys. Let’s share ourselves. Because if people don’t know the truth about us, they will make it up.

Changing the Future – Through the Eyes of French Filmmakers, An Iraq Veteran, and Iraqi Americans

Iraq veteran Alejandro Villatoro was trained to view everyone in Iraq as a potential threat, with a weapon pointed at them. After a while, he began to ask himself, “The Iraqi people, were they ever our enemy?”

When the documentary My Beloved Enemy was released last week, I was anxious to watch the stories of Iraqi Americans, especially that of my mom, Shamamta. French filmmakers Claire Jeantet and Fabrice Catérini did a great job portraying the real lives of this immigrant population. But what they also did was weave within these stories the testimony of a young Iraqi veteran whose observation and honesty is truly touching.

“Coming back from the war I was confused,” said Villatoro. “I wasn’t sure if what I did was right for my country or the Iraqi people.”

Villatoro ended up joining Veterans Against War, which helped him heal and put him in peace with himself.

“I’m still proud of where I came from, and I still sometimes wear my uniform,” he said. “But I have taken a proactive role to educate the community about the consequences of war.”

Villatoro can’t forget the past, but he has learned to forgive himself in order to move forward. This is how he, and the people who made and participated in this film, can help change the future.

http://my-beloved-enemy.inediz.com/?a=387 (click here to watch My Beloved Enemy)

MBE_Backstage-7

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

Documentary about my mom – Coming in September!

Mom (3)

Remember the three beautiful filmmakers from France who honored my home with their visit? Well, they just informed me that the documentary about my mother’s experience in attaining her US citizenship is coming out next month. It will be posted on their website, http://www.mybelovedenemy.com , sometime in September.

My Beloved Enemy is a project portraying Iraqi-American stories ten years after the start of the war. The film crew toured different parts of the United States to show the challenges and triumphs that various Iraqi-American individuals and families face.

With all the misconceptions and stereotypes that exist out there in the mainstream media, this kind of project is especially important today. It shows the everyday truth that is neglected, overlooked and undermined. Yet it is this truth that could help us put an end to unnecessary killings, even wars, that were ignited by misconceptions and stereotypes.

It is also important because in 2007, the U.S. refugee program began admitting Iraqis to the country, to date some 85,000. Still more are entering the United States every day. What better way to know the people who are to become our neighbors than to watch a real heartfelt documentary about them!