• January 23, 2019
  • Iraq Solidarity News (Al-Thawra)
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Omar Ibn Said was leading a prosperous life in West Africa at the turn of the 19th century, devoting himself to scholarly pursuits and the study of Islam, when he was captured, carted across the globe, and sold as a slave in Charleston, South Carolina. 

An autobiography that Said penned during his time in America is the only Arabic slave narrative written in the United States known to exist today. And this precious manuscript was recently acquired and digitized by the Library of Congress. 

The Life of Omar Ibn Said, as the manuscript is titled, is the centerpiece of a collection that includes 42 original documents in both Arabic and English. Some, according to the LOC, were written in Arabic by a West African slave in Panama, and others were authored by individuals in West Africa. 

The collection was assembled in the 1860s by Theodore Dwight, an abolitionist and one of the founders of the American Ethnological Society. It was passed from owner to owner over the centuries, at one point disappearing for nearly 50 years, before The Life of Omar Ibn Said reached the Library of Congress. 

By then, it was in a fragile state, and conservationists quickly got to work preserving it. Though it is only 15 pages long, Said’s manuscript tells the fascinating and tragic story of his enslavement. In Charleston, Said was sold to a slave owner who treated him cruelly. 

He ran away, only to be re-captured and jailed in Fayetteville, North Carolina. There, he scrawled in Arabic on the walls of his cell, subverting the notion that slaves were illiterate, according to the Lowcountry Digital History Initiative. Said soon was purchased by James Owen, a statesman and brother of North Carolina Governor John Owen. 

The brothers took an interest in Omar, even providing him with an English Qu’ran in the hope that he might pick up the language. But they were also keen to see him convert to Christianity, and even scouted out an Arabic Bible for him. In 1821, Said was baptized. As an erudite Muslim who appeared to have taken up the Christian faith, Said was an object of fascination to white Americans. 

But he does not appear to have forsaken his Muslim religion. According to the Lowcountry Digital History Initiative, Said inscribed the inside of his Bible with the phrases “Praise be to Allah, or God” and “All good is from Allah,” in Arabic. 

“Because people were so fascinated with Umar and his Arabic script, he often was asked to translate something such as the Lord’s Prayer or the Twenty-third Psalm,” the North Carolina Department of Cultural History notes. “Fourteen Arabic manuscripts in Umar’s hand are extant. Many of them include excerpts from the Qu’ran and references to Allah.” 

Writing in a language that none of his contemporaries could understand had other advantages, too. Unlike many other slave narratives, Said’s autobiography was not edited by his owner, making it “more candid and more authentic,” says Mary-Jane Deeb, chief of the LOC’s African and Middle Eastern Division. 

Said died in 1864, one year before the U.S. legally abolished slavery. He had been in America for more than 50 years. Said was reportedly treated relatively well in the Owen household, but he died a slave. The library’s newly digitized collection not only includes the Arabic text of The Life of Omar Ibn Said, but also translations commissioned by Dwight, the abolitionist. 

“To have [the manuscript] preserved at the Library of Congress and made available to everyday people and researchers across the world will make this collection an irreplaceable tool for research on Africa in the 18th and 19th centuries,” says Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden, one that she predicts will further “shed light on the history of American slavery.” 

By Brigit Katz


  • January 23, 2019
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Begun in 1918 by British troops, Basra’s shipyard is surviving into old age with little maintenance, relying on its vintage machinery and the skill of its workers to keep going. 

Thousands of ships, including former dictator Saddam Hussein’s yacht, have passed through the Iraqi shipyard’s three docks, where a giant steam engine hauls them out of the water and up the century-old wooden tracks. 

There are no spare parts and no written manuals. Mohammed Adnan, who has been operating the huge steam engine for six years now, says it is not easy. It requires expertise and intuition to maintain the right pressure in the boilers, and to prevent the engine from overheating. 

“British manufacturing is great quality ... but it is because of Iraqi expertise that we have managed to keep it going,” said 56-year-old Adnan. The only instructions in the boiler room are those inscribed on a steel plaque: “Flag Signals: Yellow heave, blue lower, red stop.” 

Workers say the wooden tracks seem to grow stronger each year. “They say they [the British] brought in the wood from Burma... we tried to drill a 1.5 inch nail into it once, we couldn’t,” said Jassim Hussain Sabour, the shipyard’s longest-serving worker. “It is like stainless steel, not wood.” 

Fishing and oil smuggling during the nineties when Iraq was under sanctions kept all three docks busy with ships coming in for repairs. In its heyday the shipyard handled nine ships every month. In 2018, it repaired eight boats in total, most owned by the state-run ports and waterways authority. 

The shipyard was built by the British after their campaign to capture Baghdad from the Ottoman Turks during the First World War. It suffered some damage during the 1980-1988 Iran Iraq war, and looting in 2003, but survived the Gulf Wars largely unscathed. 

by Mohammed Atie


  • January 23, 2019
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Though the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916, carving up the Ottoman Empire between France and Britain, had a devastating impact on the political landscape of the Middle East, surprisingly few Arab novelists ventured to explore its aftermath. 

The Watermelon Boys, a novel by Iraqi-Welsh writer Ruqaya Izzidien, narrated from the perspective of an Iraqi family affected by the treaty, offers a rare glimpse into one of the most pivotal events of Arabic modern history. 

All in all, Izzidien spent three years researching for her project, sifting through fiction and academic books about the era. Most of the fictional work she encountered was narrated mainly from the perspective of Western soldiers or diplomats, as Arab protagonists played only a subsidiary role or were portrayed in stereotypical or racist manner. 

Izzidien, despite the fact that the setting of your novel takes place almost 100 years ago, The Watermelon Boys is a very personal book, and was inspired by your grandfather. Tell us more.

The original seed that inspired this novel came about when my grandfather passed away. I had grown up hearing about his experiences of Iraq and, when he died, I was terrified that these stories would die with him. Two of his stories in particular were pivotal in the development of the book. 

One of them concerns a wave of violence directed towards Jewish Iraqis in 1920, which I haven’t been able to find documented anywhere. The other story is about my great-grandfather. Like the protagonist, Ahmad, he suffered from temporary memory loss during World War I. 

In The Watermelon Boys, Ahmad is found by his wife. In real life, it was my great-grandfather’s mother who found him by coincidence, wandering lost through the streets of Baghdad. For this reason I named Ahmad and his son Yusef in my novel after my grandfather and his father, but it is important to note that this novel doesn’t reflect their lives and is definitely fiction. 

What fascinated you to write about that time in particular? 

I was disappointed to find that the overwhelming majority of English-language fiction set in colonial Arab countries either misrepresented or completely excluded Arab voices. Most of these works focus exclusively on Western soldiers during the occupation of Arab nations like Iraq, Egypt and Morocco. 

For example, in the novel Tangerine (2018) by Christine Mangan, set in Tangier in the 1950s, there is just one Arab of significance, and he only appears 25 percent of the way through the book, popping up infrequently only to offer a mysterious, menacing or stereotypical representation of Arabs. 

Long Road to Baghdad by Catrin Collier (2013) is set in British-occupied Baghdad and also revolves around the British, at the exclusion of Arabs. The same goes for Beneath a Burning Sky (2016) by Jenny Ashcroft, set in late nineteenth century Egypt. 

This novel does feature a few Arabs, but they are wildly unrealistic and poorly-researched, resulting in an ignorant portrayal of Egyptians that are little more than a mysterious sideshow to the British protagonists. I wanted to write about a real Iraqi family, which faces dilemmas we all can relate to. The problem is that despite the fact that I am half Iraqi, I have never been there. 

Not yet, anyway, I plan to go this year. Yet somehow I had to write about Baghdad (she laughs). And I feel I did it justice through an incredible amount of research on Iraq at that time. I do not think you can write about modern Baghdad if you have not been there. It makes it easier to write about a period of time 100 years ago. 

One hundred years ago Iraq was invaded by the British Empire, whereas Iraq now is still suffering from the consequences of the American-led invasion 2003. Have you chosen the post Sykes-Picot era deliberately because of the similarities? 

It is more of a happy coincidence, I would say. The British involvement in Iraq during and after World War One is completely ignored in our domestic education. Nobody really knows that Britain invaded Iraq 100 years ago, and nobody cares that this isn’t being taught in school. We are happy to live in this colonial delusion. 

This is how we end up with 44 percent of Britons believing that the Empire left colonial countries better off than before. Without education about the brutality of colonialism we end up with this vision that it was a wonderful thing. And so I wanted to draw the reader back to an Iraq which was not primarily associated with war. 

In the wake of the US invasion, Iraq became a cautionary tale, and the media would caution us about creating “another Iraq”. I found it very dehumanizing to reduce a diverse and complex nation to its current political turmoil. With this kind of singular narrative, all of Iraq’s history is forgotten, despite the fact that it remains one of the oldest civilizations in the world. 

Before World War I, Basra was a holiday destination for British travellers. It was considered the Venice of the East because of its amazing greenery and beautiful architecture. All the modern, violent associations with Iraq feel alien to me. I deliberately wanted to cast another light on Iraq and offer some complexities to this one-sided narrative with which we have been bombarded in the last decades. 

How did you experience the Iraqi invasion by US troops in 2003? 

I was 16 years old, going to school in rural Wales. You have to remember that despite the fact that I am half British, I don’t look what is considered typically British, I wore the hijab. So the context in which the invasion took place was one that was very loaded for me on a personal level. 

I was trying to contextualize the war and the post 9/11 atmosphere. In a way, I was the embodiment of that conflict, being Iraqi and British. I struggled to contextualize my identity, being neither uniquely British nor Iraqi, but both, and as an extension – not fully either. 

As a teenager I wished I could wake up and not to have this impossible daily task to deal with; being a representative of something, and constantly reminded of my otherness. You become a political vision to people. I actually staged a protest at my school the morning Iraq was invaded. I had always been a good student who didn’t cause trouble. 

So it shocked my teachers to see what they viewed as this shrinking violet mobilized half the school in protest. This is a school that played rugby and gave out poetry awards, so they did not know how to deal with a protest. They didn’t expect it, and they most certainly didn’t expect it would come from me. 

I announced the protest during the break at the assembly hall on the microphone. One of the teachers tried to block me from running to the demonstration. The Iraqi invasion hit me personally. I have cousins and an aunt in Iraq. I was always worried for their safety. At that time I started frequenting internet forums, spending my evenings trying to debate proponents of the invasion online. 

It was a fool’s errand of course and I was too young to be able to express my thoughts fully. My parents were separating. I had an identity crisis. So it was a personal and political tragedy. The Watermelon Boys is a product of those formative years, when I did not have a political platform. 

All of what you read in the novel had been bubbling in me for a long time, so writing it was also very cathartic. Even if it had never been published, it always felt like a significant process for me, that these stories which Jiddu (my grandfather) told me, would be passed on. I think this book would have happened one way or the other, and I’m grateful I got the chance to write it. 

Your mother tongue is English. Your novel was primarily written for an English-speaking reader. If you had written it in Arabic, would it have been the same book? 

Though I grew up speaking mainly English with my father, there was some Arabic at home, especially for food. Anything that was prevalent in Iraqi culture, but we used at home, I only knew by Arabic words and learnt much later in English since I rarely had cause to use them. 

My father left Iraq around 1970. He had political concerns with the regime but he came to the UK to study. The last time he visited Iraq was three months before the US invasion. It is kind of strange to call a place you have never travelled to home. And I would say that The Watermelon Boys is an Arab story, despite the fact that it is written in English. 

It tells the rare Arab perspective of this brutal and violent invasion. So, even if I had written it in Arabic, I don’t feel I would have changed much of the story. And I’m glad that there has been a lot of interest from Iraqis in my book because it shows that it resonated with that audience too. 

There is a Welsh soldier, stationed in Baghdad, whose life intertwines with that of the Iraqi family. How does the Welsh side of you play into your book? 

This book obviously came about through the fact that I am Iraqi-Welsh. My upbringing in Wales is joined in the narrative. You want to write from a position of information, so I wrote about the parallels I saw in the two countries and as a consequence lots of my own experiences went into Carwyn and Ahmed. 

It was actually unintentional to begin with, but the more I wrote the harder it became to avoid the similarities. Identifying with Wales has always been complicated for me. If I walk around the streets in Wales, nobody would assume I am Welsh or could speak Welsh. Yet the older I got, the more I identified as Welsh, especially when I left to study in England. 

Wales has a very strong affinity for arts, poetry and history. Every year there are local, regional and national competitions called the Eisteddfod which is a cultural highlight of the year and usually falls on St. David’s Day. Significantly, they award poets and literary prizes every year.

In 1917, a Welsh soldier, who wrote under the pen name Hedd Wyn, was awarded the prestigious bard’s chair in the national Eisteddfod, but died before ever knowing he had won. Like many Welsh poets he was influenced by Welsh nature, and the concept of home. There is this Welsh word that has become popular online recently in the collections of unusual but meaningful foreign words. 

Hiraeth means a certain type of nostalgia, a sort of longing for your homeland. So there are many ways in which I can identify with this. When I was young, I used to go with my father and siblings on these long adventurous walks through fields and rivers and mud. That was Wales to me, immersed in beautiful greenery and famous for its literary scene. I’d like to experience Iraq like that one day too. 

by Sherif Abdul Samad


  • January 23, 2019
  • Iraq Solidarity News (Al-Thawra)
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You may have seen the YouTube video showing a cellist playing in the ruins left after a car bombing in Baghdad. That cellist is Karim Wasfi, the conductor of the Iraqi National Orchestra. Wasfi was performing in San Antonio last week, including a DreamWeek concert Saturday for Musical Bridges Around The World

"Terrorists and radicals were turning every element of life into a battlefield. I have decided to turn every element of life — whenever it's doable and possible — into an area of creativity and beauty to counter,” he said. “It's to counterattack. It's to proactively defy radicals and terror. " 

To understand where Wasfi is coming from, it’s good to know his backstory. "I think music found me before I was even born, we had music. My late mother, who is originally from Egypt, where I was born, was a pianist. My late father was also a musician," he said. Wasfi said the war with Iran was a major a part of his young life. 

So much so that Iraqis like him could identify countries of origin by the sound of the falling mortars. "Which one was Austrian, which was German, which one was French, was because they could identify the noise of the mortars," he said. It was in this backdrop that Wasfi began to think of all sounds and the powerful sound can have in impacting lives. 

"It empowers imagination. It empowers the connecting the subconscious to the conscious,” Wasfi said. “And it creates a certain level of transcendence beyond time and space." He studied music in Iraq and at the Indiana School of Music in Bloomington, before returning to Baghdad and conducting the Iraqi National Orchestra. 

War also returned to Iraq in 2003, challenging the musicians of the orchestra when their rehearsal space near the city's morgue lost electricity for three days. "It was a very weird smell of death that had invaded our space while I was conducting the Mozart Clarinet Concerto. Surreal,” he said. “Actually, it was that day when I decided to stay in Iraq, as opposed to fleeing like many people were." 

His reasons formed the basis of his many performances at the sites of bombings in the years to come. "We had to retaliate and fight back,” he said. “We had to fight back through arts; through culture; through music." So Wasfi began having his friend videotape his visits to bombings sites. 

"Let's share this message. Let's use Facebook; let's tell everyone this is exactly what's happening and we keep doing this to prevent more from Happening,” he said. “And so it was in condolence of those we have lost, but it was also in support of life and commitment to life." Wasfi says terrorists lead lives completely devoid of art. 

"Some of these people haven't even seen a live performance before," he said. He said the best weapons against terrorism, are civility, art, and, of course, music. "I can assure you that terrorists are afraid of beauty, and music creates enough beauty within itself and enough beauty that is shared with others that defies the concept of terrorizing others," he said. 

Wasfi created a foundation to help further his vision called Peace Through Arts. "The mission is to create a peaceful world, to empower the future leaders and to utilize the impact of arts and music — in particular — towards sharing, better lives," Wasfi said. Peace Through Arts may have started in a building but it has quickly moved to the streets. 

"So now instead of one place in Baghdad, we have 16 centers,” he said. “We've got an operation in Erbil in Kurdistan healing the ISIS survivors from Mosul. We focus on events and performances." Volunteer musicians offer lessons of rudimentary songs. And in roughly two weeks, a performance is scheduled. 

"Instead of doing it in eight months, we do it in a very intensive, short period of time to help people integrate and engage and identify talent within the self," he said. He said that makes playing a highly personal endeavor and something the students can take with them and build on throughout their lives.  

"It's proven scientifically that the brain functions in a different way — obviously a better way — when there's a certain level of engagement to music and to practice and to playing an instrument," he said. 

by Jack Morgan


  • January 21, 2019
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Roaring along Baghdad’s highways, the “Iraq Bikers” are doing more than showing off their love of outsized motorcycles and black leather: they want their shared enthusiasm to help heal Iraq’s deep sectarian rifts. 

Weaving in and out of traffic, only the lucky few ride Harley Davidsons - a rare and expensive brand in Iraq - while others make do with bikes pimped-up to look something like the “Easy Rider” dream machines. 

“Our goal is to build a brotherhood,” said Bilal al-Bayati, 42, a government employee who founded the club in 2012 with the aim of improving the image of biker gangs and to promote unity after years of sectarian conflict. 

That is why the first rule of his bikers club is: you do not talk about politics. “It is absolutely prohibited to talk politics among members,” Bayati told Reuters as he sat with fellow bikers in a shisha cafe, a regular hangout for members. 

“Whenever politics is mentioned, the members are warned once or twice and then expelled. We no longer have the strength to endure these tragedies or to repeat them,” he said, referring to sectarian violence. With his black bandana and goatee, the leader of the Baghdad pack, known as “Captain”, looks the epitome of the American biker-outlaw. 

But while their style is unmistakably U.S.-inspired - at least one of Bayati’s cohorts wears a helmet emblazoned with the stars and stripes - these bikers fly the Iraqi flag from the panniers of their machines. 

The Iraq Bikers - who now number 380 - are men of all ages, social classes and various faiths. One of their most recent events was taking part in Army Day celebrations. Some are in the military, the police and even the Popular Mobilization Forces, a grouping of mostly Shi’ite militias which have taken part in the fight to oust Islamic State from Iraq in the last three years. 

“It is a miniature Iraq,” said member Ahmed Haidar, 36, who works with an international relief agency. But riding a chopper through Baghdad is quite different from Route 101. The bikers have to slow down at the many military checkpoints set up around the city to deter suicide and car bomb attacks. 

And very few can afford a top bike. “We don’t have a Harley Davidson franchise here,” said Kadhim Naji, a mechanic who specializes in turning ordinary motorbikes into something special. “So what we do is we alter the motorbike, so it looks similar ... and it is cheaper.” 

by Hamuda Hassan


  • January 21, 2019
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A drumroll cuts through the chatter of attendees at an oil ministry event in Baghdad. A darkened stage is flooded with light and the smiling dancers of Iraq’s National Folk Dance Troupe appear in a whirling, swirling mass of colour, performing with seamless coordination only achievable through hours of training. 

The audience cheer, clap and fumble for mobile phones to photograph this unexpected delight engulfing their senses. Iraq's National Folk Dance Troupe was rescued from falling into obscurity by its director, choreographer and former lead dancer, 64-year-old Fouad Thanoon. 

In the 1980s, the dance troupe, which exclusively performs traditional dances, had been an award-winning outfit, trained by maestros and experts from the former USSR, with countless global performances under its belt. 

"People look at me now and say you're a big man, how could you have been a ballet dancer?" says Thanoon, roaring with laughter outside a Baghdad cafe frequented by artists, poets and intellectuals. "But of course I was young once, and thin." 

He scrolls through black-and-white photos on his phone, from his days as the troupe's lead dancer. Sporting slim-fitting 70s jeans and with a mop of swept-aside hair, his younger self grins beside North Korean maestro Kim Sonde, whom Thanoon credits as being responsible for his own success, putting him on centre stage as the troupe's lead dancer. 

But, as the troupe was reaching its peak, the war with Iran started. A decade later, Iraq's invasion of Kuwait sparked the first Gulf War, and the country's arts scene fell into decline. "Because of sanctions and war, all the trainers left Iraq, the troupe became weak and the level of everything - dancers, musicians, set designers - really dropped, and many artists fled," says Thanoon. 

"We diminished in size and quality, and we were about to disappear completely." For a man from a well-respected local tribe, who had already broken with tradition to pursue his career as a dancer, Iraq's collapse was merely another challenge. 

"I left behind all the tribal traditions to pursue this career, but dance has always been my passion and I never cared what others thought," he says. Thanoon says only he and fellow dancer Hana Abdullah had the power to save the group. "We were determined to keep the troupe going because we were carrying the whole history of Iraq in our dances, so we dug in our heels and continued," he says. 

Working virtually for free and with no budget, Abdullah and Thanoon mustered some new dancers and boosted their repertoire. "The troupe is very precious to us, so we made a big effort to write new dances and, because I was only one left in the theatre then, I had to be good. I had to be the best," he says. "I choreograph the dances, and Hana trains the dancers, and she is perfect." 

Established in 1971, Iraq's National Folk Dance Troupe's aim was to showcase traditional Iraqi dances all over the world. It was put together after visiting teachers and maestros who trained the country's best dancers had become enchanted by Iraq's rich cultural heritage. 

Travelling across the country, they recorded details of Iraq's local dances, culture and geography, composing specific numbers to reflect regional diversity. Its focus on traditional rather than modern dance or ballet - both of which forms the dancers continue to train in - was something that saved the troupe. 

As Iraq tumbled into years of sectarian-fuelled violence following the US-led 2003 intervention, the arts scene in Iraq collapsed further. While fighting raged in the streets of Baghdad, Muslim hardliners, who viewed dancing as sinful or shameful, started cracking down on artistic expression, prompting more musicians and dancers to flee. 

Following threats, Thanoon temporarily relocated his own family to Jordan, himself returning to Baghdad to continue working with the dance troupe. 

"We faced a lot of difficulties because what we do is art and dance and, in Iraq, dancing like this is not really allowed but when people saw there was no nudity, our costumes were very modest and moral, and we were only dancing traditional dances, no-one minded," says trainer Abdullah. 

"Traditional dances have a message, a story or an idea," says Thanoon. "I worked on dances with themes of solidarity and the unity of Iraq to give everyone a very important message: we have to be a unified country." 

'Dictator' of dance 

Thanoon, who stresses the importance of rigorous training in all dance forms, has passed the discipline instilled in him by his erstwhile international teachers down to Iraq's next generation of dancers. 

"If anyone misses a class, they get punished because discipline is essential. This art form demands dancers to be at their peak of physical fitness, which requires daily exercise, and I dismiss dancers if they can't keep up with the training," he says. "I am a dictator in my art." 

His commanding presence inspires respect and devotion from his dancers. "Mr Fouad is like our father, and he's a wonderful person," enthuses Riham Kareem, 27, one of the troupe's four female dancers, from the 10 there once were. 

"The training is hard - four to five hours every day, and even more when we have an upcoming performance - but this huge effort to be perfect when we perform is very satisfying." Adel al-Aebi who, at 58, is still the group's lead dancer, says both Thanoon and Abdullah are relentlessly inspirational, even during long, tough rehearsals for their most challenging dances. 

Although he has technically retired, for Thanoon, leaving is out of the question, not least because there is no-one with comparable skills and experience to replace him. "I will continue until I die and, honestly, death is the only thing that will keep me from the troupe," he says, admitting that he has consistently prioritised the group over everything, including his family. 

"The troupe is such a big part of me, it's my life and soul, and the dancers are like my sons and daughters." Thanoon also shoulders the responsibility for the group's financial survival and support. "About eight years ago I went to the Ministry of Culture because all of our stores, archives and even costumes were burned in the 2003 war and we were starting again from zero. 

"They gave me $40,000, so I bought everything we needed to restart properly, even cloth and sewing machines," he says, adding that he used some of the funds to transform a storeroom in Baghdad's National Theatre, where the troupe is based, into a new studio.

Despite his efforts, the troupe faces ongoing problems. Dancers' salaries are just 500,000 Iraqi dinar ($420) per month, which Thanoon says makes it difficult to recruit new members, and the troupe has a budget of almost nothing, meaning they have no money to cover expenses to travel to international events, if they are invited. 

Dance as 'ambassador' for Iraqi arts 

Iraq's National Folk Dance Troupe may be a shadow of its former self but, largely thanks to Thanoon's unflinching vision and drive, it has not only survived but boasts 12 professional and well-trained dancers. Thanon praises the quality of the troupe’s backing tracks, a necessity prompted by most of its musicians fleeing the country. 

Always focusing on the positive, he adds: "But this will be better for us in the future because, when invitations start coming again, usually they only want a maximum of 15 people and, if we have too many - like a whole orchestra - they won't invite us because of the price of flights and hotels." 

Thanoon and Abdullah's work also lives on outside Iraq, after former troupe member Mohanned Hawaz established the Enkidu Company in Sweden. This all-women group performs traditional Iraqi dances worldwide, winning a best performance award in China in 2014, and still receives occasional training and direction from Thanoon and Abdullah. 

A few years ago, Thanoon also directed and featured in a music video for Iraqi singer Khadem al-Saher, which was filmed in Dubai. Although he admits that the troupe's "golden decades" were the 1970s and 80s, when they performed in 70 different countries, darkly adding that "there have been no golden years since 2003," Thanoon believes in both the future of the troupe and its national importance. 

"This troupe is very important, and we want people to know that there is a dance company in Iraq. Our troupe should be like an ambassador for Iraq to all other countries," he says. "We hold all the history and heritage of Iraq in our dances." 

Although at present performances are still mostly limited to local or government institution events, the unique cultural experience Iraq's National Folk Dance Troupe offers continues to please crowds in Iraq and, the dancers hope, will one day help curb the country's long-standing international bad press. 

"There are many artists and dancers in Iraq who love and appreciate beauty," said lead dancer Aebi, his face still flushed from the performance at the oil ministry. "Terrorists make a dark life but we make beauty, and I hope that the whole world will see that we do not only have destruction in Iraq, but also art." 

by Tom Westcott


  • January 21, 2019
  • Iraq Solidarity News (Al-Thawra)
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Nestled at the end of her sofa in the soft light of a standard lamp, a lined notebook balanced on her knees, Nagham Nawzat Hasan often takes time at the end of the day to record the harrowing accounts she has heard from escaped Yazidi women who were abducted from their homes in northern Iraq and held captive by ISIS. 

Since devoting her working life four years ago to helping these women recover from their ordeal, the 40-year-old gynaecologist has helped more than a thousand survivors, transcribing countless pages of horrors as part of a personal ritual that has become part testimony, part therapy. 

“I have more than 200 stories written down. I feel like I have to record this for history,” Hasan explained. “I would get home and cry, thinking about all that I had heard. It affected me psychologically. I am also a Yazidi, and a woman. Writing their stories down helps me to relieve some of that trauma.” 

The Yazidi community from Sinjar in northwestern Iraq, whose ancient religion has its roots in Sufism and Zoroastrianism, were targeted by the militant group in August 2014. Armed fighters separated men and boys older than 12 years from their families and killed those who refused to adopt their beliefs. 

It is estimated that more than 6,000 Yazidi women and girls were kidnapped and sold as slaves, and held in captivity for months or even years. Many were subjected to imprisonment, torture and systematic rape, as part of a campaign of persecution that the UN has deemed a genocide and a crime against humanity. 

To this day, the fate of more than 1,400 Yazidi women remains unknown. Hasan was working at a hospital in Baashiqa – a town 14 kilometres northeast of Mosul – when the area fell to the militants. As she and her family fled to Duhok, in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq, they began to hear the reports of Yazidi men being massacred and women and children being abducted. 

A few months later, Hasan became aware of two Yazidi women that had arrived in Duhok after fleeing their captors. In seeking them out, she unknowingly changed the course of her own life. “When Yazidi women began escaping to Duhok, that’s when my work started,” Hasan said. “I saw immediately that they were destroyed. They had lost all trust in people, so I set out to rebuild that trust.” 

“I approached women and encouraged them to seek help and treatment. I gave them my phone number and slowly built up trust. Before long, newly escaped women began calling me themselves.” Her work was secretive at first as people struggled to come to terms with what had happened. 

As the scale of the atrocities committed against the captives became clear, religious and social leaders issued calls for the abducted women to be welcomed back into the community. “The Yazidi community played a huge role. They were the first ones to receive these women back,” Hasan explained. 

“Acceptance by their families and support from the community was an important step, but they needed more.” Her experience as a gynaecologist proved essential, but it soon became clear that the needs of the survivors went far beyond their physical treatment. “Medically, most of them suffered from pain. Many had sexually transmitted infections as a result of numerous rapes. But psychologically, the state of survivors was extremely bad.” 

“I did not have a magical treatment, but being a woman and a Yazidi, I saw that most survivors trusted me.” Building on the relationships she was able to forge, Hasan began to devote more and more of her time to visiting survivors in their homes, where they felt safest. Two years ago, she set up her own NGO called Hope Makers for Women, which provides medical and psychological support to female survivors living in camps set up to house displaced Yazidis. 

On a dazzling early winter’s morning at a tented camp near Mosul Dam Lake, Hasan arrives on one of her regular visits and is greeted like family by a group of half a dozen smiling Yazidi women, who smother her in hugs and kisses. Later she visits one of her regular patients, a young woman who was held captive for nearly three years along with her three daughters. 

“Life was very bad after we first escaped from ISIS, and in the beginning I couldn’t even go outside my tent,” the young mother explained. “She made herself fully available to us. She treated us and looked after us. The doctor helped me find a strength I didn’t know I had.” 

Hasan points to the living conditions still endured by many survivors, which she says make it harder for them to recover from their ordeal. “To have escaped ISIS and then have to spend two or three years living in a tent in a camp, with no work – how can they truly recover in that situation?” 

As well as providing ongoing humanitarian assistance to displaced Yazidis, UNHCR – the UN Refugee Agency – has worked with partner organizations to establish uniform standards for counselling, to ensure that Yazidi women and girls all receive satisfactory care. 

Hasan says international support for the Yazidi people must be maintained if they are to ever truly recover from the crimes committed against them. “International support for the Yazidis has decreased since the liberation of Mosul. Some, like UNHCR and UNFPA, are still offering assistance, but support overall is going down. I’m concerned that in future this support will disappear entirely.” 

She is calling on the international community to offer more resettlement places to Yazidi survivors who choose to make a fresh start elsewhere. Those that opt to stay in Iraq, meanwhile, require financial assistance to help re-establish their lives outside the camps, as well as training and job creation schemes to boost their economic prospects, she added. 

For Hasan herself, the work of helping Yazidi survivors and others who have lived through similar experiences will continue. “This is now what I want to do with my life. I became a doctor to care for people and help those in need. I am still a doctor, but I’ve gone from working in a hospital to working as a humanitarian.” 

Next to her notebooks filled with tales of suffering and pain lies another book that serves as a reminder to Hasan of the purpose behind the life she has chosen. One of the first survivors she worked with was the author and Nobel Peace Prize winner Nadia Murad, who six months ago sent Hasan a copy of her memoir. 

A handwritten dedication inside reads: “To dearest Dr. Nagham. Each one of us fought ISIS as much as she could, but you fought them with the most powerful weapon the day you decided to treat us. This brought our souls back to life.” 

By Charlie Dunmore and Dalal Mawad


  • January 21, 2019
  • Iraq Solidarity News (Al-Thawra)
  • No comments
The tears of an ordinary man from Mosul have put public frustration with the government’s lacklustre progress in rebuilding the war-torn city back in the spotlight. Large swathes of Iraq's north were reduced to rubble during the three-year occupation of ISIS and the Iraqi forces' ensuing battles to wrestle them back. 

But with the end of the war declared in December 2017, attention shifted to the country's spiralling unemployment and decaying infrastructure. “Mosul is suffering, Mosul is exhausted,” Ahmed Ibrahim Mohammed told members of parliament on Saturday. 

Sitting against the backdrop of four Iraqi flags and facing a group of MPs, the unemployed carpenter lamented the loss of his city. More than 40,000 homes in Mosul have been destroyed and an estimated 700,000 people have been displaced, according to UN estimates. 

Mr Mohammed’s testimony was first posted on local media, prompting Parliament Speaker Mohammed Al Halbousi to invite him to Saturday's parliamentary session. "We live in a land between the two rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates, that has oil, how can this happen to us? How can we live like this?" Mr Mohammed said, standing on a street in Mosul. 

Iraqi forces, backed by the US-led coalition, fought for nine months to retake Mosul from ISIS. The protracted assault, including artillery and air strikes, flattened large parts of the city and displaced about half of its prewar population. The extent of the damage was immeasurable, the human toll catastrophic. 

"Please help us eat," Mr Mohammed asked politicians, breaking down in tears. "There are no jobs, no adequate public services." Mr Al Halbousi stressed the need to speed up Mosul’s reconstruction, ensure the safe return of displaced civilians and compensate those who suffered under the rule of ISIS. 

But the degree of destruction coupled with deep-rooted corruption have hindered efforts to rebuild the city, Ali Al Bayati, a member of the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights told The National. Iraq's social disaffection isn't limited to its war-torn cities. South of Mosul, in Basra, protesters took to the streets over the summer months demanding basic services such as water and electricity. 

Dozens of demonstrators were killed when they clashed with security forces. In a show of support for the impoverished southern province, Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mehdi on Sunday made his first trip to the city since his swearing in three months ago. He visited several sites, including healthcare centres and oilfields. 

“The prime minister called for redoubled efforts so these projects can be accomplished as quickly as possible,” his office said in a statement. Mr Abdul Mahdi had vowed to present a plan to fulfil the public’s demands within his first 100 days in office, but has yet to show tangible results as he struggles to form his cabinet. 

None of the government promises over the last few months have been met, Mr Al Bayati said. "Job opportunities and unrealistic promises, as well as disagreement between Basra’s governor and members of the provincial council continue.” There has been no process on planned water and electricity projects, he said. 

“Basra’s security situation is also fragile as tribal conflicts are increasing, despite some progress made after it was implemented in Article Four of Iraq’s antiterrorism act,” Mr Al Bayati said. Meanwhile power and water shortages, as well as widespread unemployment, continue to afflict Iraqis, from Basra to Mosul. 

by Mina Aldroubi


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