Cultural Glimpse

Enjoying diversity

Tag: Middle East

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.”

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ISIS Cannot Destroy our Stories

The Feminine Art

Chaldeans are an ancient people who trace their roots to Prophet Abraham as he was from Ur, land of the Chaldees. These are my ancestors and, for thousands of years, they have contributed a great deal to the birth of civilization. They were builders then and they are still builders today, despite the hundreds of years of oppression and violence they keep enduring.

After the Islamic State attacked the Christian villages of Iraq, the birthplace of my parents and grandparents, Christian Iraqis in the United States were outraged.  They helplessly watched family, friends and relatives being forced out of their homes in the most inhumane way possible. Chaldeans, Assyrians, Yazidis and other minorities were kidnapped for ransom, or killed, and others were threatened to convert or die. Women and girls were captured, like slaves, and those who survived had nothing to their name but their identification cards. They left their homes and all their belongings and became refugees.

The leaders in our community immediately reached out to political figures in Washington to help the minorities during this dire situation. As ISIS destroyed historical sites and artifacts, artists took up their brush and rebuilt these monuments on canvas, more determined than ever to bring their history back to life. Myself, I picked up the pen and I wrote and wrote and wrote.

Aside from wanting to give our community a voice, I wanted to preserve our stories. I’ve always wanted to do that, but more today than ever. We have magnificent stories that are unheard and these stories are not necessarily about war, religion, or politics. They are about love, culture, courage, and triumph.

This weekend, my three novels are for the promotional price of $0.99 (eBook), so that they reach more readers, so that more people have the opportunity to learn about an ancient people that are not victims over their lives, but victors!

My Amazon page to order these books:  http://www.amazon.com/Weam-Namou/e/B001K8X9HM

The Feminine Art

http://www.amazon.com/Feminine-Art-Weam-Namou-ebook/dp/B00WJG0Y5E/ref=sr_1_3_twi_kin_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1457097727&sr=8-3&keywords=Weam+Namou

The Mismatched Braid

http://www.amazon.com/The-Mismatched-Braid-Weam-Namou-ebook/dp/B00W60X5FY/ref=pd_sim_sbs_351_2?ie=UTF8&dpID=51AaSLS5gxL&dpSrc=sims&preST=_AC_UL160_SR103%2C160_&refRID=0VJ4A6KNM0G7E9N0SPX3

The Flavor of Cultures

http://www.amazon.com/Flavor-Cultures-Weam-Namou-ebook/dp/B00UPFOHEK/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1457097840&sr=1-1&keywords=The+Flavor+of+Cultures

 

 

 

Black Filmmakers have it Made – Compared to Us!

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First day of filming The Great American Family, a documentary which is currently in post-production.

Most people know me as an author and journalist, but I’m also a filmmaker, one who has to almost work underground, using my own flashlight, like a miner. It’s difficult enough being a women filmmaker let alone one with Middle Eastern background. So when Chris Rock talked at the Oscars about the lack of blacks in Hollywood (in films, receiving awards, etc.) I thought, “They Have it Made – Compared to us!”

Over ten years ago I was at the Surrey Writer’s Conference in Vancouver and I met with three producers, one who’d produced Father of the Bride II, one who produced Pay it Forward, and the third, I forgot what he produced. Anyhow, I pitched to them and their reactions to my stories were quite unique. Even though the U.S. had been politically involved with Iraq for decades, even though my stories were of modern day Iraqis and Iraqi-Americans, these producers didn’t see how they could possibly adapt them into film.

“It would be difficult to cast an Arabic movie,” one said. “Who would we cast for the leading role? Tom Hanks?”

As if Tom Hanks is the only actor in Hollywood! It was not a problem to cast him in The Terminal, a sweet and delicate comedy, similar to my type of work – where Tom plays a man from the fictional country of Krakozhia who is stuck at John F. Kennedy International Airport.  It was possible to cast Dustin Hoffman and John Travolta as women (Tootsie and Hairspray), but it is impossible to get a good actor to play a normal Arab?

Plus, the roles of “bad” Arabs have been easily played by other western actors, starting with Rudolph Valentino. In the 1920’s he starred in The Sheik and Son of the Sheik, two films which set the stage for the exploration and negative portrayal of Arabs in Hollywood films. They both represented Arab characters as thieves, murderers, and brutes.

Jack Shaheen, in his book Reel Bad Arabs, surveyed more than 900 film appearances of Arab characters. Of those, only a dozen were positive and 50 were balanced. Shaheen writes that “Arab stereotypes are deeply ingrained in American cinema. From 1896 until today, filmmakers have collectively indicted all Arabs as Public Enemy #1 – brutal, heartless, uncivilized religious fanatics and money-mad cultural “others” bent on terrorizing civilized Westerners

I didn’t make such remarks to that particular producer, who smiled at me as though I was a naive little girl. In the middle of our conversation, he had actually winked to his colleague, as if to say, “Isn’t she a darling creature to have such profound visions?”

I walked away, uninfluenced by their discouragement, but over the years, I saw how negative images keep certain communities in the dark and without a voice. When I watched the Oscars the other day and listened to the emphasis on the lack of black peoples receiving roles and awards, I thought, they have it made – compared to filmmakers of Middle Eastern and Arab backgrounds. For us, we can’t even get our stories in the industry let alone be given roles and win awards.

Stereotypical representations of Arabs and Muslims are often manifested in a society’s media, literature, theater and other creative expressions, and often have real repercussions for people in daily interactions and in current events. Though not legally prohibited, stereotyping could put innocent people in danger.

I’m glad that black people are at least bringing this subject to light, because for humans to survive, diversity must have a home. With millions of Middle Easterners living in the US, making them the fastest growing group of immigrants, and with so many social, political and religious issues regarding that region – Iraq in particular – happening on a daily basis, it is becoming absolutely essential for Hollywood to provide film audiences everywhere true stories of the lifestyle and culture of the modern Middle Easterner. In this way, cultures will develop a better understanding of each other, and thus, the world will be pushed into another, a more diverse reality.

 

 

 

 

 

Bridging Worlds: The Art of Qais Al-Sindyor

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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.

I Authenticate Myself

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The moment we arrived to the Schoolhouse Cottage in Suttons Bay, I told everyone I was going for a walk. I wanted to see the little town that Melissa, the house owner, described over the phone. She talked about the little café’s and art galleries, the wine tasting tours, the hikes and the nearby beaches. We had driven for five hours and I was ready to explore. My niece said she would accompany me. We got to the main street, which resembled a picturesque street that belonged to a small European town with no fast food restaurants or chain stores.

One particular corner caught my eyes. The outside had several metal welded art pieces on its walls and the center of its courtyard:  a bike, butterfly and the body of a women sleeping on her side. I took pictures of the area before I entered a store called Casey-Daniels. It had colorful handmade handbags and matching hats as well as handmade jewelry.

A man greeted us and when I told him we had just arrived for a weekend vacation, he immediately we dove into a long conversation about the town of Suttons Bay. His name was Will and he had been living in this area for 50 years. He made his own jewelry and pointed to a table where he sat all day to do the work. He told us about his neighborhood, the dozens of artists and writers who lived and worked there and the diners that served good food. I asked if I could write about him in my blog and he said, “You can do whatever you want. You’re a writer?”

“Yes.”

“What do you write?”

I told him about my books, including the poetry book coming out in May. He went to a corner and returned with two magazines, handed me one and my niece the other. It was called Exposures 2014, a Leelanau County Student Journal and it had been around for 26 years. He said he was the publisher. I flipped through it and saw poems written by school students along with pictures, paintings and other art work.

“There are no ads in here,” I said. “How are you able to publish this?”

“It’s funded by the schools.”

I frowned and closely observed it. “How did you manage that?”

He opened his eye glasses from the center of the frame and removed them. “We submitted a proposal to the school and they accepted.”

I was impressed. Before we left, he emphasized that we return to his store if we needed anything. The next morning I woke up before everyone else. I made myself a cup of coffee and walked to Will’s store. He and I sat on a bench outside his store, under the sun.

He told me about traveling with his friend every year to countries like Egypt and Ecuador, regions where their wives were not interested to go. He asked me about my work, and after I explained that I write about the Iraqi American experience, he said, “There’s an attitude in this country about the Middle East that is very stereotyped and we refuse to acknowledge that region’s historical literature. We want to group it in simplistic mindset in what constitutes the Middle East.”

He pointed to a green building across from us. “This building is green, right? But I tell you it’s blue. That’s the audience you’re confronting it.”

We continued to talk about the business of unconventional writing, and in the end, he said, “It’s important to get your foot through the door. Is it relevant which door you get your foot into it? I make weird things. I’m not going to stick myself in art shows. You know why? Because I’m not looking for the approval of others. No, I’m going to authenticate me.  You’re going to authenticate yourself. If I want to put them at a gallery, then I’m placing what I do at the throne of someone else. They stand and say, ‘Oh, that’s this and that.’ And I lose myself.”

With that, I returned home with a whole new perspective.  

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Serving Our House through Journalism

Photo By: Vickie Thomas

Left to write: Marlon Walker of the Detroit Free Press, Weam Namou, and Charlie LeDuff of Fox News, and moderator Kathy Chaney, Producer/Reporter at WBEZ 91.5FM              (Photo by Vickie Thomas)

While in my birth country ISIS continues to wage war against journalists, here in the United States journalism continues to flourish, opening doors to new voices – as is the tradition of the United States.

It’s true that a lot of minority groups in America do not receive the air and press time they deserve. But it is also true that in America, there is an opportunity for people to break the mold without risking their life. Here, an association of black journalists says “welcome” to an Iraqi-American journalist like myself, because what they see and appreciate in each other is the heart of journalism, which is an appetite for truth and education, an appetite which journalists in many other countries cannot dare quench.

On October 11th, at the 2014 NABJ Conference in Detroit, sitting on the panel next to award winning reporter Charlie LeDuff of Fox News and reporter Marlon Walker of the Detroit Free Press, listening to the easy and lively manner in which they spoke about how they dealt with “Conflict in the Community”, the topic of our discussion, I realized that a large part of the problem many Middle Easterners and Arabs have is inner conflict. Born and raised under authoritarian regimes, they have difficulty expressing their truths in constructive ways. Rather than influence public opinion and government policy, they try to influence each other – which often builds tension within their own communities rather than create progress.

Investigative Journalism is such a phenomenon in the Arab World that Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) based in Amman, Jordan describes it on its website as “still an alien practice.” Many journalists from that region who growing up, were told to “Hush!” and “Mind your own business” have wounds to heal before they can grow wings like the American journalists who were told to “Speak up!” and “Dig for the truth”, who like Charlie LeDuff can confidently say, “This is my house too! We’re all living in the United States, sharing it.”

It is when people from the Arab world, who over the last decade have become one of the fastest growing ethnic groups in the United States, fully comprehend, appreciate and believe in the words “This is my house too!” that we will best serve this house through journalism.

To Our Countries

“To Our Countries” is a project produced by a group of youths who live in Sweden and are originally from Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine.

The song expresses different parts of the Middle East. Here’s an excerpt about Baghdad:

 In Iraq there has been a liberation for more than 10 years.  A liberation from injustice, oppression and tyranny that came with a greater tyranny, injustice and oppression, where the people of the country were all expelled.

A liberation that divided what was already divided and what broke what’s already broken. A liberation where civilizations cease to exist. A liberation which all Iraqi citizens were marginalized regardless of their ethnic or religious background.

A liberation that enslaved people and demolished homes. One that killed the human and the motherland.”

I have the right to peace of mind

I have a right to peace of mind

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.

What a Pro-Saddamist once said to me

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Maaloula, an ancient Syrian village with Christian inhabitants was attacked by rebels today. These rebels shot and killed people, and forced residents to convert to Islam.

Yesterday my cousin told me that he was nearly killed in a Baghdad bombing where 8 men died and 20 were injured.

“Since Saddam’s fall, you tell me where in the Middle East and Arab world has there been peace?” a famous local radio announce once asked me.

I did not have an answer for this man, who is known to be pro-Saddam and was once investigated just because, he said, “I did not have a dislike for Saddam.”

“I mean, isn’t this why we went into Iraq to begin with?” he continued. “So the world would be a more peaceful place?”

I still had no answer for this man. But these questions blink in my head each time I watch the Arab news channels and see violence tread the streets of the Middle East and Arab world, like a loose madman in search of blood.

If only men would stop trying to be heroes through war, and emulate Gandhi’s type of heroism.

Flipping a Pot of Stuffed Grape Leaves – The Chaotic Way

My brother-in-law arrived from Jordan a few days ago and we had a gathering for him last night. Although the gathering was nice, it was also quite chaotic. After all, it was an Arab/Middle Eastern family so we’re talking sisters and brothers and nieces and nephews and aunts and uncles and more aunts and uncles.

There were more people than my house can hold and it was too chilly to sit on the patio. My husband was passing out jackets to the men (after checking no money was in any of the pockets) but after staying outside for an hour or so, they walked back in and took up whatever little air was left inside.

The most fun part was when all the women tried to help in the kitchen. I was trying to get to the sink but when I saw the little crowd clustered there, I thought, better get the camera instead.
Turns out the fuss was over the huge and heavy pot of stuffed grape leaves, which my husband’s nephew successfully flipped over. The Iraqi version of stuffed grapes is different than other regions in the Middle East. The dish is called dolma and in it is included stuffed green peppers, cabbage, zucchini, eggplants, onions, or whatever else one’s heart contends. Some even stuff potatoes and carrots, if they’re large enough.

The good part is – at least I did not have a lazy group of people at my house, in which case I would have ended up staying up until 5am cleaning instead of when I actually slept at 1:30am.

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