• October 19, 2018
  • Iraq Solidarity News (Al-Thawra)
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Every Sunday in Iraq, along a strip of embankment on the Tigris River reserved for followers of the obscure and ancient Mandaean faith, worshippers bathe themselves in the waters to purify their souls.  

But unlike in ancient times, the storied river that runs through Baghdad is fouled by untreated sewage and dead carp, which float by in the fast-moving current. 

"It's very saddening. Our religious books warn us not to defile the water. There are angels watching over it," said Sheikh Satar Jabar, head of Iraq's Mandaean community. 

Iraq's soaring water pollution is threatening the religious rites of its tight-knit Mandaean community, already devastated by 15 years of war that has also affected the country's other minority sects. Mandaeism follows the teachings of John the Baptist, a saint in both the Christian and Islamic traditions, and its rites revolve around water. 

On the eastern bank of the Tigris recently, Jabar watched as a younger cleric blessed congregants in the river, then anointed them with holy oil and gave them a sacrament of bread and water on dry land. 

The women, shrouded in white and their hair tucked under headdresses, went into the river first, receiving their blessings in a Mandaean dialect of Jesus's native tongue, Aramaic. Then the ceremony was repeated for the men. 

Finally, a one-year-old child, Yuhana, received his first baptism, squirming and sputtering as his father dipped him in. "When a Mandaean believer commits a sin or wants to ease the worries of life, he comes to the cleric to practice his religious rituals, where he must immerse himself three times in running water," said Jabar. 

The faith holds that only flowing water can baptize the faithful, and that it should be clear, pure and fit for human consumption. Until 2003, nearly all the world's Mandaeans lived in Iraq, but the cycles of conflict since the U.S. invasion have driven minorities out of the country for security reasons and economic opportunity. 

Most recently, under the Islamic State group's three-year reign in northern Iraq, the militants dynamited shrines to saints, forced Christians to pay a special head tax, and enslaved, raped and killed followers of the Yazidi faith. 

Sheikh Jabar estimates there are just 10,000 Mandaeans left in Iraq today, a fraction of what it was before. Their numbers are particularly susceptible to the toll of migration because Mandaeism does not accept converts: Worshippers must be born into the faith. 

The wars that drove many Mandaeans out of the country also aggravated a water crisis set in motion by deposed dictator Saddam Hussein's ecological policies. Baghdad's river today is a stew of industrial chemicals, untreated sewage and poisonous agricultural runoff, the Save the Tigris civil society campaign said in a 2018 report. 

And water levels are falling, owing to the changing climate and damming in neighboring Turkey, Syria and Iran. About 70 percent of Iraq's water flows from upstream countries. In the southern city of Basra, where the Tigris merges with Iraq's other fabled river, the Euphrates, riots broke out this summer over the chronic pollution and water scarcity. 

More than a dozen people were killed in the security crackdown. Still, the two Mesopotamian rivers mentioned in Mandaean scripture hold special significance to the faithful. Ibtisam Kareem, 45, accepted a sacrament from the cleric and drank a handful of water from the Tigris. "If you have faith in God," she said, "this water is like honey." 

by Philip Issa

  • October 16, 2018
  • Iraq Solidarity News (Al-Thawra)
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In the covered alleyways of old Najaf in Iraq, poetry and philosophy books compete on laden shelves with economic treatises, the Koran and other theological tomes for students' attention. 

Since leaving his native Bangladesh for the Shiite holy city three years ago, religious student Mohammed Ali Reda has regularly frequented secondhand bookstores. 

There are many like him in Najaf. Some wear turbans -- black for descendants of the Prophet Mohammed, and white for religious scholars. "I am still at the start of my apprenticeship", said Reda, in one of the dozens of bookshops in the city's Howeish market. 

Wearing a simple white robe and scarf, he speaks in hesitant Arabic, like his Iranian, Pakistani and Turkish student peers. "For the moment, we have lessons in Arabic, law and Islamic morals", he added. The 19-year-old avidly seeks advice on books on Islamic law, religious principles and other lessons of Shiite Islam. 

While Iraq is majority Shiite, only a minority follow this strand of Islam in Reda's homeland, like most of the rest of the Muslim world.

- 'A city apart' - 

Several decades Reda's senior, Mohannad Mustapha Jamal el-Din -- a religious student turned teacher -- also feels at home among the bookstalls. Najaf's 750-year-old market helps make it a "city apart", he enthused. Located 150 kilometers south of Baghdad, the city welcomes millions of Shiite pilgrims every year. 

They come to visit the tomb of Imam Ali, son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed and a founding figure of Shiite Islam. Najaf "is like no other city in Iraq -- (it's) steeped in religion and literature", said Jamal el-Din, sporting the black turban. 

Among the crowds of religious students, there are also poetry lovers. Some, like Jamal el-Din, have a foot in both camps. "One can be versed in both fields -- (knowledge of) one does not preclude the other". 

Iraqi poet Mohammed Mahdi al-Jawahiri could be found in Najaf's alleyways and bookstores in the 1920s, as he progressed from strict religious instruction to militant journalism in Baghdad. Twenty-one years after his death, his collections sit on shelves that heave with a splendid array of titles, stretching to the arcane such as "Islamic economy -- Marxist or Capitalist?" 

Other one-time students have found their calling in the maze of Najaf's old city, and become famous in their own right. 

- Bell and Sistani - 

Examples include the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the spiritual leader of Iraq's Shiite majority, and Mohammed Bakr Sadr, a great Shiite thinker. Sadr was killed by former dictator Saddam Hussein's regime, and was an uncle of political heavyweight Moqtada Sadr, whose electoral list won the largest number of seats in Iraq's legislative elections in May. 

Until the 1950s, secondhand bookstores held weekly meetings for students in Najaf, according to Hassan al-Hakim, an expert in history and Islamic civilization. They "gathered near Imam Ali's tomb and every Friday they sold works at auction, including many original editions", said the professor of Kufa University, who has set up a heritage association for Najaf. 

Famed British archaeologist Gertrude Bell "visited the Najaf book market" in the early 20th century, Hakim added proudly. The academic contends that the city's special status should not be threatened by the shift of much academic literature online. 

"We want our students to view books as their primary source, ahead of the internet" for verified information, Hakim said. And "by looking for a book, we can find others that interest us", he noted. 

by Haydar Indhar

  • October 16, 2018
  • Iraq Solidarity News (Al-Thawra)
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At a new private museum in Lebanon, a contemporary sculpture of a mortar missile is displayed alongside millennia-old statues retrieved from the bottom of the sea. 

Named after the Mesopotamian god of wisdom, the Nabu Museum opened in late September to showcase the cultural wealth of an ancient region devastated by conflict. 

Its inaugural exhibition includes 60 contemporary works, as well as around 400 antiquities from Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Yemen. "We have a more or less complete picture of what was once the cradle of civilization," says French curator Pascal Odille. 

Next to a private beach in the village of El-Heri in Lebanon's north, the museum's collection sits in an impressive futuristic cube of steel, coated with a rusty orange patina. A tall glass opening in the metal and concrete structure provides a view straight through the museum's interior and out to the sea. 

Designed by Iraqi artists, the museum for the first time opens up the private art and antiquities collections of wealthy businessmen to the public for free. Drawn from the homes and warehouses of its patrons, the exhibits are displayed on two floors, floodlit by the sunlight streaming through the tall windows. 

There are "ushabti" from Ancient Egypt, finely carved turquoise figurines traditionally placed in coffins to ensure passage to the afterlife. Nearby, a contemporary sculpture of a mortar missile by Lebanese artist Katya Traboulsi is adorned with hieroglyphs. 

The artwork is topped by a sculpted bust of the Ancient Egyptian god of the sky, Horus, instead of a warhead. 

'Ray of optimism' 

Visitors can see Lebanese artist Saliba Douaihy's abstract landscape paintings, one largely red, the other bright blue. But they can also admire terracotta statues harking back to the Phoenician period found during marine excavations off the southern coast of Lebanon. 

"You can see the seashell and limescale deposits on them," says Odille, of the figures from the sixth or seventh century BC. The project cost $7 million, the organizers say. But the works on show only represent a fraction of its founders' private collections, and there are plans to switch the exhibits every few months. 

Lebanese co-founder Jawad Adra's personal collection includes 2,000 items from the Levant and Mesopotamia regions, according to the exhibition's catalog. "I've been collecting stamps and coins since I was 10," says Adra, who now heads a Beirut-based polling company and owns quality control labs in the Gulf. 

To set up the museum, he banded together with Syrian business partner Fida Jdeed, and fellow Lebanese entrepreneur Badr El-Hage, who runs a rare book firm in London. 


"We've all reached an age where we're starting to ask ourselves, 'What have you done? What have you given your country?'," he says. Lebanon's interior minister recently attended an evening inauguration ceremony at the Nabu Museum. 

In Lebanon, a 2016 law demands all private owners of antiquities register their items with the ministry as part of its efforts to combat illegal trafficking. Adra says that "a large part" of his collection has been declared to the authorities, and he is registering the rest. 

In recent years, part of the region's cultural heritage has been damaged, destroyed or looted by armed groups. The Daesh group in particular swept across large parts of Syria and neighboring Iraq in 2014, wrecking countless historical sites in territory it controlled. 

Mahmud Al-Obaidi, who designed the museum building with fellow Iraqi artist Dia Azzawi, sees the project as compensation for years of loss. With governments in the region busy battling troubled economies and poverty, personal initiatives are key to preserving culture, he says. 


  • October 16, 2018
  • Iraq Solidarity News (Al-Thawra)
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The design world lost one of the greatest visionaries of the modern age when Zaha Hadid died in 2016. 

The British-Iraqi architect created gravity-defying curved structures such as China’s Guangzhou Opera House and the London Olympics Aquatics Centre. 

Dubbed the “Queen of the Curve” for her fluid forms, Hadid won all the biggest awards in her field including the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2004 and the Stirling Prize, twice, in 2010 and 2011. 

Her unexpected death – of a heart attack while being treated for bronchitis – at 65, came at a time when several of her buildings were still under construction, including the new headquarters for Bee’ah, an environmental management company in Sharjah. 

Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA) won the contract for the project in 2013, with a sand dune design inspired by the desert landscape. In the UAE, Hadid’s name is synonymous with the Sheikh Zayed Bridge, the massive four-lane highway with waved arches that connects Abu Dhabi island to the mainland. 

Rising to 60 metres above the water at its highest point, it became one of the most striking landmarks in the region upon its completion in 2010. Bee’ah’s building, due to be completed in 2019, is a smaller project in scale, but not in aspiration. 

Bee’ah aims to be a beacon of sustainability in the UAE, setting new standards for environmental solutions. The company is working to achieve zero waste to landfill and will power its new headquarters using 100 per cent green renewable energy sources. 

It was these ambitious goals that attracted Hadid to the project. “The client profile is very important for us,” Tariq Khayyat, ZHA’s Project Director for Bee’ah, tells The National. “It’s a small company with big dreams and big goals. Sharjah is an amazing city, too. 

It’s not as busy as Dubai or Abu Dhabi, but it has its own niche towards art and culture so we felt it was the right place and the right client.” Khayyat heads up the firm’s office in Dubai, which opened in November 2016 and serves the whole Mena region. 

Before moving to the UAE, he spent 11 years working closely with Hadid at the company’s London headquarters. 

“Zaha was always fascinated by the landscape. She looked at it as an amazing source of ideas and concepts. The site is literally in the desert in the middle of nowhere and by default, the landscape started provoking ideas. We positioned the building so that it looks as if it is a natural phenomenon by placing it in the direction of the prevailing north wind. 

“We also wanted the design to reflect the fluidity and flow of the message that the company, Bee’ah, is trying to deliver. We felt that having this kind of sand dune design is going to be a true reflection, not only of the site, but of the company’s message and goal.” 

Bee’ah is one of more than 60 projects ZHA has under construction or in design, in 29 countries across the world. Hadid set up ZHA in 1980, and the firm is busier than ever. But what is missing now their creative director and founder is gone? 

“There’s a gap spiritually. We miss Zaha as a person being around us and giving us her input,” says Khayyat. 

“But one of her main talents was that she was extremely good at investing in people. She believed in giving opportunities to people around her regardless of their age or position within the company. Over the last 35 years, she managed to transfer that way of thinking to the people who have been working with her closely.” 

One of the people Hadid invested heavily in was Sara Sheikh Akbari, who joined ZHA in 2007. Having proven her talents as a key member of the gigantic Heydar Aliyev Centre project in Baku, Azerbaijan, she is now a project architect for Bee’ah, working from ZHA’s studio in London’s Clerkenwell. 

“From the moment I joined ZHA, I could see it was a free space for people to explore,” she says. “It was all about learning how to collaborate and work as a team to express ideas, refine them and make them better rather than dictate a path. Because the moment you start doing that, innovation and creativity is gone. 

“A lot of the clients we work with are visionary, willing to explore and be open to various design languages. You see a lot of visionary clients in the UAE and we hope that Bee’ah will be a milestone for similar projects there.” 

Hadid was famed for her temper as well as her brilliance (she once famously demanded to be put on a different flight when she heard she was going to be delayed). But this passion inspired rather than intimidated Akbari, who joined ZHA fresh from her master’s degree. 

“She was very demanding. She always wanted the best in everything we did,” she recalls. “But if you just look at the clients and the people we work with, that’s what they expect from you as well. It’s the culture that has been built into this company and the reason some of the most iconic building projects in the world have happened here.” 

From speaking to the team at ZHA, it’s clear that commitment to maintaining their mentor’s legacy is strong. “We will always stand by the principles that Zaha fought for,” says Khayyat. 

“She worked so hard over the last 35 years to establish a new way of thinking regarding architecture. Her strength came from not only the kind of buildings she designed or being called the Queen of the Curve, but by liberating the way architects think and the way the young generation think of architecture.” 

Will the company continue to be at the forefront of architectural innovation? Khayyat certainly thinks so. “Put it this way, I think you will see more curves.” 

by Claire Corkery

  • October 16, 2018
  • Iraq Solidarity News (Al-Thawra)
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The smell of smoke and boiling sugar filled the air as I pedaled a bicycle along the shore of Myanmar's Inle Lake. It was December, which is sugarcane season here. 

Since the cut cane must be processed quickly after harvesting, small-scale producers were hard at work as field workers carried heavy bundles from nearby farms. When an old man beckoned me in, I paused to watch the process. 

The sugarcane was pressed through a pair of heavy rollers powered by a diesel generator, the juice funneled into a series of bamboo baskets set over coals. It looked like hot, heavy work to stir the thickening sugarcane juice, which would eventually cool into a brown mass shot through with tiny crystals. I broke off a piece of brown sugar and savored the full, rich flavor. 

Recipes tell sugar's history 

That fresh lump of sugar was perhaps close to what the world's earliest sugar makers produced: it was unrefined, dense and the product of hard manual labor. 

Sweet as it is, sugar's sticky path through history is full of stories of war and conquest. While the story of sugar could fill a library of history and travel books, there are bits of the tale in kitchens around the world. 

Sugar has followed in the wake of the world's armies, from the Arab conquest to European colonialism, and it's left a trail of recipes behind it. It's history, as preserved in cookbooks and on handwritten cards. 

That is partly thanks to the central role of sweets at celebrations. 

Sweet holiday traditions 

"In all the major religions, holidays have sweet foods associated with them more than any other kinds of foods," said Michael Krondl, the author of "Sweet Invention: A History of Dessert." 

"They were special, they were expensive, and they weren't the kinds of things you can have on a day to day basis," Krondl writes. And when cooks bake gingerbread or whip up a mincemeat pie for a special meal, they're keeping history alive. 

"Holidays often preserve what the everyday loses," wrote anthropologist Sidney Mintz in his book "Sweetness and Power." The nature of holidays, with traditions that are passed between generations, means that their distinctive foods can be a window into the past. 

Not that the ingredient lists and instructions are unchanged — far from it. 

Cooking techniques shift quickly, but whether it's a unique spice blend or flavor combination, many recipes still have a story to tell about human history. Learn the stories behind the sweets, and you'll bring that history to life each time you crack open a cookbook. 

Medieval sweets 

Start with a tiny, sweet bite of marzipan, the sugary almond paste that many bakers shape into colorful fruits, animals, and figures. 

An early version appears in the "Kitab-al-Tabikh," literally the "book of cookery," a 10th-century cookbook that chronicled delicacies of the Baghdad court. Both of marzipan's main ingredients, sugar and almonds, were carried into Europe by the Islamic armies that marched across north Africa and into the Iberian Peninsula. 

During the furthest extent of Arab rule, sugar was cultivated across the Mediterranean, and different takes on marzipan remain important in those former Islamic strongholds, including Sicily, Cyprus, Malta and Spain. 

A spoonful of sugar? 

When sugar arrived in Europe, though, it was rare and precious — and it was considered medicinal, one that could cure everything from sore throats to the bubonic plague. 

Europe's black death might be far from your mind while stirring up dough for a gingerbread house, but the earliest recipes for gingerbread were seen as medicine, rather than a sweet treat. 

"Sugar was coming in in quantities that were comparable to spices," said Krondl, who noted that in the early days of sugar in Europe, it was often sold by apothecaries. "And it was used a lot by those apothecaries. Like the song goes, a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down." 

Like recipes that remain popular today, classic gingerbread was scented with aromatic cloves, cinnamon and ginger, some of the spices whose high value and portability helped inspire Spanish explorer Christopher Columbus' first trip across the Atlantic, when he was searching for a quicker route to Asian spice markets. 

It didn't take long for sugar to follow in the wake of his ships. 

The sugar islands 

Columbus brought sugarcane on his second trans-Atlantic voyage in 1493, then transported enslaved Africans to tend the fields. (Infectious disease, warfare and enslavement killed so many native Tano people that the Spanish quickly faced a labor shortage, according to Mintz.) 

By 1516, just 24 years after Spaniards first set foot in the Americas, sugar produced by enslaved people was being exported back to Europe. England established extensive colonies in the Caribbean islands, which are sometimes referred to as "sugar islands." 

Their plantations produced goods that read like a baker's shopping list, including sugar, molasses, coffee, rum, nutmeg, chocolate and coconut. 

Trans-Atlantic fusion cuisine 

All through the modern-day Americas, people enjoy traditional sweets with roots in the earliest days of the "Columbian exchange," when ingredients and cultures from two distant worlds combined. 

In Brazil, locals nibble goiabada — that's a sugary, thickened guava paste — and in the markets of southern Mexico, you can pick up brilliant figurines shaped from mazapan de pepita, or pumpkin seed marzipan. 

In each case, the recipes are a reminder that military colonization of the Americas was accompanied by efforts to bring European religion to the new world. The cross followed the sword, but sugar came too. 

By 1747, the area that's now Mexico already had 45 convents. Many of those religious orders brought recipes for the sweets that had long been made in their European convents back at home — sweets that were heavily influenced by Arab traditions. 

They were quick to swap in local ingredients. The quince paste that Arabs brought to Europe became guava paste in South America. Almonds in marzipan were replaced by pumpkin seeds. 

Slavery's bitter legacy 

But as the new world sweets tradition developed, the Caribbean sugar trade unfolded as one of the darkest chapters in human history.  

There are echoes of both the origins and the brutality of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in a sweet, boozy bite of Jamaican rum cake, which still graces island tables at Christmas dinner and other celebrations. 

With the base of a traditional English fruit cake, Jamaican rum cake is aromatic with the spices that inspired Columbus' early journeys, and soaked with Caribbean rum, which became a profitable byproduct of island sugar plantations. 

It was the massive scale of the Caribbean sugar trade — and the enormous human suffering that trade incurred — that finally transformed sugar from a rare, precious commodity to something that Europeans expected as a regular part of their diet. 

By the time working-class Brits could afford to stir sugar into each day's tea, the world's sugar production was a far cry from the small-scale industry I saw by Inle Lake. Consumption shot up in Europe and the United Kingdom, where importers prized pure, white sugar over unrefined cakes of simmered cane juice. 

The recipes of rebellion 

But even as sugar slavery gripped the Caribbean, voices of dissent bubbled up in kitchens and dining rooms. Anti-slavery activists demanded a boycott of slave-produced sugar, and reworked their favorite recipes to use honey and maple syrup. 

Sugar boycotts didn't overturn slavery. You can find a taste of that era's activism, though, in a dense slice of Elizabeth Margaret Chandler's honey tea cake recipe, which she published in "Genius of Universal Emancipation," an abolitionist newspaper. 

The cake, like Chandler, eschewed cane sugar as the product of the slave trade. The American writer penned poems about the cruelty of slavery and the impact of the sugar trade that still resonate with modern-day movements to bring justice to the food system. 

"I cannot feed on human sighs, or feast with sweets my palate's sense," wrote Chandler in one of her poems about sugar and slavery. "While blood is 'neath the fair disguise." 

by Jen Rose Smith

  • October 14, 2018
  • Iraq Solidarity News (Al-Thawra)
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The award of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize to Iraqi human-rights activist Nadia Murad, who will receive the award jointly with Congolese doctor Denis Mukwege, has been widely celebrated in Iraq, both by the authorities and the population at large. 

Iraq Media Net put the hashtag #NadiaMuradPeaceIcon in the corner of the screen on its five TV channels and on the front pages of its dailies and weeklies. 

Nadia Murad, born in 1993, is a young Iraqi Yazidi woman who became a human rights activist and was kidnapped by the Islamic State (IS) group with around 1,000 other Yazidi women and children from their village of Kojo in the Sinjar district of the Nineveh Governorate of northern Iraq about 530 km north of Baghdad. 

Kojo, with a population of 2,000, was controlled by Kurdish Peshmerga fighters after April 2003, but was attacked by IS in August 2014 after the Peshmerga had left the day before. The Yazidis were given three days either to convert to Islam or be killed, and at the end of this deadline men and older women were killed and young women and children were kidnapped and forced into sexual slavery. 

Nadia Murad herself became a sex slave and was raped dozens of times. However, she eventually managed to escape even as other Yazidi young women in a similar predicament were either killed by explosive devices or caught by IS and executed. Murad then told her story to the world, wanting to halt the use of woman as tools in warfare. She was quoted as saying that telling her story was her strongest weapon against IS and their sex crimes against women. 

Since her award of the Nobel Prize, Iraqi writer Amer Badr Hassoun has begun a campaign to ask Adel Abdel-Mahdi, the prime minister-designate of Iraq, to choose Murad as a minister in his new cabinet. “She must become a minister because of her bravery in breaking the silence on sex slaves in Iraq. While she has not stopped being a victim, she has become a victim who won,” Hassoun told Al-Ahram Weekly. 

“Murad has been received by many presidents, UN officials and different religious personalities, among them the sheikh of Al-Azhar in Egypt, yet our minister of foreign affairs did not salute her Nobel Prize in his own name, but only in the name of the ministry. I think there are many who still see sexual slavery as somehow shaming the victims,” he said. 

Hassoun condemned other ethnics whose young women were also kidnapped by IS and became sex slaves, saying that “these adhered to a false concept of honour by forcing their young women to stay silent about what had happened to them. The Yazidis urged their freed young women to speak out, on the other hand, seeing their daughters as victims that should be helped and supported.” 

Princess Aouroba Bayazid, a member of the leading Yazidi princely family who is herself a human-rights activist and an adviser to the former governor of Mosul, said the Prize could restore justice to the Iraqi Yazidi victims. “The award of the Nobel Prize to Nadia Murad is global recognition of the catastrophe that has hit the Yazidis in general and Yazidi women in particular. 

Nadia has become the voice of the more than 3,400 Yazidi young women who became sex slaves,” Bayazid said. “I blame the Iraqi government that has not taken care of the hundreds of Yazidi young women who have lost their entire families and are still living in camps in poverty without any medical care.” 

“The Yazidis’ happiness will not be complete until all Yazidi young women return to their homes. The award of the prize to Nadia Murad is also not only for Yazidis. It is for all Iraqis as Nadia is the daughter of Iraq,” she added. 

Hassoun and Bayazid agreed that the award of the Prize to Nadia Murad was a way of taking a stand against using women in war. However, it could not stop the crime of sexual violence against women as long as there were still those who believed rape could be used to bring about victory. 

In speaking out against the use of rape in war, Nadia Murad has equated honour with bravery, refusing to see rape as somehow bringing shame. This was underlined by Iraqi President Barham Salih and other high officials who saluted her courage this week in their tweets and messages of congratulation. 

by Nermeen Al-Mufti

  • October 12, 2018
  • Iraq Solidarity News (Al-Thawra)
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Iraq’s tragic recent history has created a diaspora that’s among the largest globally, and the fate of seven Iraqi artists who left their homeland in the 1970s is the subject of veteran documentary maker Kasim Abid’s latest film, “Mirrors of Diaspora.” 

Melancholy and reflective, the movie revisits the same painters and sculptors featured in Abid’s 1991 documentary “Amid the Alien Corn.” Having gone to Italy to master their craft, the artists became exiles after Saddam Hussein tightened his murderous grip on power and attacked Iran. 

They still hoped to return permanently when Abid first encountered them, but a further quarter-century of devastation has ended the artists’ dreams of making Iraq their home again, and this sense of loss is a recurring theme in a film that’s overlong but always engaging. 

Viewers meet Basra-born Afifa Aleiby, who eventually settled in the Netherlands, where her paintings found a rapt audience. Other artists featured include Florence-based Fuad Aziz, a sculptor and much-loved children’s author and illustrator; painter Jaber Alwan; and Baldin Ahmed, who still grieves for a brother murdered by Saddam’s forces in 1969. 

Abid, too, is an Iraqi in exile, having lived in London since 1982, and so holds similar feelings. The somber score adds to the film’s resigned tone as the artists contemplate their mortality and dwell on their homeland’s ruin. Interspersing new footage with archival scenes from “Alien Corn,” Abid shows how some of the artists went from painting caricatures for tourists to creating artwork of staggering beauty. 

All seven remain professional artists, exhibiting in galleries worldwide, but these accomplishments cannot mute their longing for Iraq –- or at least the Iraq of their youth, with the country’s flawed democracy failing to convince them to return to a land wrecked by war and destruction. 

The film examines memory and the notion of home, taking the viewer through the artists’ decades of exile. Their warmth shines through as Abid skilfully shows their stories, his careful camerawork and understated style creating a powerful testament to the creativity and compassion of a remarkable generation of Iraqi artists. 

by Matt Smith

  • October 12, 2018
  • Iraq Solidarity News (Al-Thawra)
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"Nadia Murad is campaigning to try to get the world to notice, and do something." Oscilloscope Labs has debuted the official trailer for a documentary titled On Her Shoulders, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and won the US Documentary Directing Award. 

The film is even more relevant now because its subject, young activist and genocide survivor Nadia Murad, just won the Nobel Peace Prize with Denis Mukwege. After surviving the 2014 genocide of the Yazidis in Northern Iraq and escaping sexual slavery at the hands of ISIS, 23-year-old Nadia Murad gave a testimony before the U.N. Security Council that was heard around the world. 

Nadia suddenly became the face and voice of the Yazidis. Despite longing for a normal life away from the spotlight, she takes on the exhausting role of an activist in hopes of halting the ongoing genocide. This seems like a powerful look at how hard it is to speak up and keep living your life. 

Twenty-three-year-old Nadia Murad's life is a dizzying array of exhausting undertakings—from giving testimony before the U.N. to visiting refugee camps to soul-bearing media interviews and one-on-one meetings with top government officials. 

With deep compassion and a formal precision and elegance that matches Nadia's calm and steely demeanor, filmmaker Alexandria Bombach follows this strong-willed young woman, who survived the 2014 genocide of the Yazidis in Northern Iraq and escaped the hands of ISIS to become a relentless beacon of hope for her people, even when at times she longs to lay aside this monumental burden and simply have an ordinary life. 

On Her Shoulders is directed by doc filmmaker Alexandria Bombach, her second feature-length documentary after Frame by Frame previously. This premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this year, and has played at many other festivals. Oscilloscope Labs will release On Her Shoulders in select US theaters starting on October 19th. 

by Alex Billington

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