• September 20, 2018
  • Iraq Solidarity News (Al-Thawra)
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Walking up to 175 miles across north-west England and Wales, staff from a leading Catholic charity visited five cathedrals over five months to raise awareness of the suffering Church in Iraq. 

Finishing at Shrewsbury Cathedral last Saturday (15th September), Aid to the Church in Need’s North West Manager, Dr Caroline Hull and Bridget Teasdale, the region’s Schools and Events Coordinator completed the five cathedral walks to help Christians persecuted for their faith in the Middle East. 

Thanking ACN benefactors for their support, Caroline said: “By applying St Augustine’s adage ‘Solvitur Ambulando – it is solved by walking’, the charity’s cathedral walks for Iraq have now raised just over £6,000 in sponsorship. 

“We are so grateful for their prayers and for those of all who have supported us.” She added: “All money raised by the walk will go towards the charity’s work rebuilding Christian towns and villages in the Nineveh Plains where families were driven out by Daesh (ISIS). 

“ACN has already provided more than £6.1 million (€6.9 million) towards reconstruction – and by this July 45 percent of Christian families who fled the extremists in the summer of 2014 had returned home.” 

Having walked through sunshine and rain, Bridget said: “The best bit about our walks was meeting bishops, priests, Sisters and lay people – they all welcomed us into their cathedrals, parishes and even their homes.” 

She added: “Our time walking has led me to reflect upon and pray about the Christian people of Iraq… whenever I was feeling tired, or too warm, hungry or thirsty, whilst walking – I called to mind those in Iraq, and united my small struggle to theirs, through the power of prayer.” 

Thousands of Iraqi Christians were driven out of Mosul and the surrounding region by Daesh had to walk more than 50 miles to Erbil to find safety. Following the blessing of their boots by Bishop Paul Swarbrick of Lancaster in May, the pair walked 65 miles from Lancaster Cathedral to Salford Cathedral, the final few miles with Bishop John Arnold of Salford. 

In June, they walked 35 miles from Salford to Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral. With Archbishop Malcolm McMahon’s blessing, they walked with ACN benefactors Tony and Lynne Glynn in July from Liverpool to Wrexham Cathedral in north Wales. 

On the final leg to Shrewsbury last Saturday, Bishop Peter Brignall of Wrexham accompanied them as far as the border with England. Caroline said: “We’ve received wonderful hospitality from parishes, religious communities and ACN benefactors along our 175 mile journey. 

“Our final night was spent with the Poor Clares in Ellesmere where Mother Carmel and the community provided us with warm beds, fantastic meals and generous sponsorship as well.” Arriving at Shrewsbury early on Saturday evening they received drinks and jam doughnuts. 

Describing their “amazing and enriching experience”, Caroline said: “Bridget and I have walked many miles together, through so many different landscapes with bishops, family and ACN benefactors. 

“At the very heart of our experience has been a deep desire to show compassion for our brothers and sisters in Iraq. They truly need our prayers and our support.” She added: “Walking ACN’s North West Cathedral Walks for Iraq’s Christians has been fantastic… many thanks to all those who prayed with us, walked with us and sponsored us.” 

by Murcadha O Flaherty

  • September 20, 2018
  • Iraq Solidarity News (Al-Thawra)
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The Festival of Arabic Music and Arts (FAMA) and Adonis Group have announced a new event for its 2018 lineup: Small Wonders is a fundraising event showcasing the exceptional young talent nurtured by the Canadian Arabic Conservatory of Music (CACM). 

Children of all backgrounds ranging in age from 6 to 16 will perform on traditional Arabic instruments such as oud, qanun, and Arabic violin, as well as classical violin, clarinet, guitar, and piano. Small Wonders also features Zaytouna Dabke, a modern Arab folkdance group. 

Small Wonders takes place at 6:30 pm on November 5 at the Maja Prentice Theatre, Burnhamthorpe Branch Library, 3650 Dixie Road. Admission is free, and donations will be gratefully accepted towards sponsoring CACM tuition for two or more children. Small Wonders is part of FAMA's ambitious 2018 lineup of music, theatre, exhibitions, and film presented in eleven venues across the GTA from October 26 to November 10. Tickets are now on sale for all FAMA events. 

"In the same way that the Canadian Arabic Orchestra began with a small dream that became a big reality, we are proud to have established the Canadian Arabic Conservatory of Music. Our main goal is to provide educational programs that promote interest in the Arabic classical and Western classical music heritage," said Lamees Audeh, Director of the Canadian Arabic Conservatory of Music and co-founder of FAMA with Wafa Al Zaghal. 

The 2018 Festival opens on October 26 with the celebrated Lebanese composer and singer Marwan Khoury. 

Other headliners include the Armenian-Syrian Lena Chammamyan; a concert pairing the legendary Moroccan singer Fouad Zabadi with the acclaimed violinist Mahmoud Srour; and two concerts by the brilliant Dalal Abu Amneh of Nazareth - one with Sufi music and twirling dervishes, the other with a group of female elders from the local community in the GTA singing traditional songs of the Levant. 

The Canadian Arabic Orchestra is also featured in three festival concerts: Flamenco Arabia, a Spanish-Arabic fusion performance that blends flamenco dance with traditional Andalusian sounds and contemporary Arabic music; Sounds from Iraq with singer Hassan Tamim; and the festival's grand finale on November 10, a special tribute to Egyptian cultural hero Sayyed Darwish with Lebanese oud master Charbel Rouhana joining the full Canadian Arabic Orchestra and Choir. 

In addition to musical offerings, FAMA 2018 includes the award-winning Egyptian film Photocopy; and Al Namrood, a fully-staged, widely toured play written by Sheikh Sultan AL Qasimi of the United Arab Emirates. For more information about the festival, visit canadianarabicorchestra.ca.

  • September 18, 2018
  • Iraq Solidarity News (Al-Thawra)
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A combination of soft music with hammer sounds, can be heard at the entrance of Awadeen Souq, or the Lute Players Market, at an old alley on Rasheed Street in downtown Baghdad. The traditional market is specialised with manufacturing Iraqi hand-made lutes, or Oud in Arabic. 

The old market has been struggling after years of security and economic troubles since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. In one of the old shops, customers enjoy a fascinated view of photos of well-known Iraqi artists and intellectuals who visited the market in the past. 

The shop owner crowns his warm welcome by playing on the strings of a lute. Ali al-Abdali, in his 60s, is the owner of a lute manufacturing workshop and has who in the field for 40 years. He inherited the profession from his father Mohammed al-Abdali, one of the well-known lute maker in Iraq. 

He said the golden period of the lute industry in modern Iraq was in the 1970s and 1980s. During that time, cultural and artistic activities as well as music clubs flourished throughout the whole country. Academic studies of fine arts also expanded in many institutes and colleges across Iraq. 

"Hundreds of Arab and non-Arab artists as well as tourists, who are fond of our traditional musical instrument, used to visit our market to buy our distinctive hand-made lutes, which were made by many reputable lute makers," Abdali said. 

Amir Ali al-Awad, 50, started his lute manufacturing career under guidance of a veteran lute maker in 1984.

"I've love this career and I gave it all my time and efforts to learn the utmost skills needed to be as creative as possible because I adore music and especially the lute, which charms me with its tunes," Awad told Xinhua, at the entrance of an old shop where he started his career 34 years ago. 

Awad said that lute industry in Iraq is "as ancient as the history of civilisations in Iraq." "The ancient lute instrument was very simple, they hollow a piece of wood and then fix strings on it, but as time passes, it developed to what we know now," Awad said. 

Sinan Samir, 45, a lute workshop owner, told Xinhua "lute manufacturing needs experience, high accuracy and knowledge of wood types." Manufacturing the lute needs several stages starting from choosing the type of wood, slicing and curving them to make the main concave shape, Samir said. 

"A single Oud (lute) takes a week with eight hours work a day, the weight of the Oud should not normally exceed one kilogram, that's for a skillful manufacturer," Samir added. Samir said that during 1970s and 1980s, his father sold lutes to many tourists and artists. 

"But things changed after 2003 due to deterioration in security and economic situations," Samir complained while continuing to work on a new lute in his workshop. Hassan Ibrahim, 65, a lute player, told Xinhua, "The deterioration after 2003 hit all aspects in Iraq, including the lute industry, as violence, political conflicts and extremism distorted the life of Iraqis."

  • September 18, 2018
  • Iraq Solidarity News (Al-Thawra)
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Built in 1967, Mosul University Library was the largest in northern Iraq and one of the largest in the ­Middle East and North Africa. 

The space once housed more than one million books—600,000 Arabic-language materials and 400,000 resources in English and other ­languages—for 150 university departments ­covering diverse fields of knowledge. 

The collection also included periodicals dating back to 1700CE, government publications from the founding of the modern Iraqi state in 1921, and versions of the Quran from the 19th century. Foreign culture corners gave students and researchers the chance to explore diverse literary traditions and ways of life in other countries. 

As a house of learning and knowledge at the centre of the university, the library was among the first institutions targeted by ISIS after their occupation of Mosul in 2014. They would later burn it completely, destroying nearly all of its contents and the building’s structure. 

Following the liberation of Mosul from ISIS, around 50,000 students and university staff are now ­struggling to complete their academic work, not to mention other ­independent researchers from Mosul, nearby cities and other parts of Iraq. 

The RSE Young Academy of Scotland is helping to change this. In 2016 we welcomed four at-risk academic and refugee members, among them Dr Alaa Hamdon, a geologist from the University of Mosul who ­specialises in disaster management. He had left Mosul in January 2015 and secured a position at the University of Aberdeen. 

When he returned to Iraq in 2017, he sought to help his city and university begin their slow recovery by founding a campaign called Mosul Book Bridge (mosulbookbridge.org) to bring the plight of the university library to the world’s attention and to generate support to restock and rebuild it. 

With the help of Dr Caroline Sandes, an archaeologist at University College London with expertise in post-conflict urban regeneration, he enlisted the support of the UK-based charity Book Aid International (bookaid.org) and through them organised a major shipment of brand new academic books, carefully chosen to complement the degree courses now resuming at the university. 

Further shipments from Book Aid International are planned for the coming year. These book donations are a major step forward for the university library, but Dr Hamdon has other ambitions for Mosul Book Bridge too. 

With the ongoing support of Dr Sandes and the help of a number of Young Academy of Scotland ­members, he is now working to secure IT equipment and electronic journals for the ­university library, much needed given how limited the space for hard copy books is in the temporary library buildings. 

There are also plans to support the restoration of the city of Mosul’s main public library, also affected by the conflict, and to establish some book buses to travel the city bringing books to its people. The challenges facing Iraq as it responds to ongoing security concerns are immense. 

Meanwhile, ­however, the lives of its citizens ­continue. The majority of the population in Iraq is aged under 24 and it is these same young people who will shape the country’s future. By calling for international support, Mosul Book Bridge argues that ­education is the key to realising a peaceful and prosperous future for Iraq. 

It believes that students in Mosul should have access to the same up-to-date resources that students in Scotland can access in their libraries if they are to overcome the tests that lie ahead. A modern, well-stocked Mosul ­University Library can serve as a site for the free exchange of ideas among students and the wider citizenry, an invaluable asset as the city rebuilds. 

In extending our help and friendship to our academic colleague in Iraq, members of the Young Academy of Scotland and the Mosul Book Bridge Team are keen to ­promote wider collaboration between UK institutions to support the city, region and country in their recovery. 

Alice K√∂nig and Kate Walker, ­members of the RSE Young Academy of Scotland.

  • September 18, 2018
  • Iraq Solidarity News (Al-Thawra)
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Arabic cinema has increasingly captured the imagination of movie-lovers around the world this year, with Arab film-makers winning award nominations and securing high-profile screenings at major film festivals. 

This month the Oscar-nominated Saudi Arabian director Haifaa Al-Mansour premiered her short film set in Riyadh, “The Wedding Singer’s Daughter,” at the Venice Film Festival. Al-Mansour previously wrote and directed the film “Wadjda,” which was the first foreign-language Oscar entry from Saudi Arabia in 2014. 

Earlier in the year Ziad Doueiri was the first Lebanese film director to be nominated for an Oscar with his film “The Insult.” “Arab cinema’s profile has been on the rise. There are several different Arab movies being shown at Venice (film festival) this year,” said Joseph Fahim, an Egyptian film critic and the curator of this year’s London-based Safar Film Festival, which runs on Sept. 13-18. 

Daniel Gorman, the director of London’s biannual Shubbak festival, which showcases mainly contemporary Arabic culture, art and film, said he that has seen the appeal of Arabic film grow in the UK. “There is a huge interest and appetite for creative work coming from across the Arab world and there is strong interest in the UK to hear the voices of people from across the region, in an area that is generally represented in headlines in newspapers. Film is an excellent way of doing that,” he said.

Festivals have played a vital role in boosting awareness of Arab film, he said. “(They) are able to bring new audiences to new work as they bring this concentrated moment of activity. A festival tends to have a bit more reach in terms of media coverage and audience awareness. 

“(It) brings people along to something which they might not go to as a one-off screening,” Gorman said, explaining how the Shubbak festival also works with local schools and community groups to increase access to Arabic film and art. 

This year’s Safar film festival — which is in its fourth year and organized by the Arab British Center — has focused on the theme of literature and film in the Arab world. Fahim has created a program that includes movies dating back to the 1960s that have been buried deep in their respective country’s archives, as well as new films that have not been screened in London yet. 

One of the films included is the Tunisian “In the Land of Tararanni,” originally released in 1973 and based on a collection of short stories by Ali Dougai. It was one of the more tricky recordings to track down, said Nadia El-Sebai, executive director at the Arab British Center. 

“There are films in this program that audiences will have no idea how many people it took to get that film,” she said, explaining the lengthy negotiations with ministries of culture, national archives and old friends and contacts to track down the much sought-after recordings. There were other movies they had to give up on ever finding, including those lost in Syria or Iraq, or old versions of films that have not yet been digitised by national archives, she said. 

More recent festival entries include this year’s Egyptian film “Poisonous Roses,” adapted from a 1990s cult novel, as well as the European premiere of the work of an Iraqi filmmaker — “Stories of Passers Through” — which traces the stories of Iraqis exiled from their country during the Saddam Hussein regime. 

The literary theme of this year’s festival was chosen as a reaction to the growing popularity of contemporary Arab cinema, with the event’s organizers wanting to delve into the history of Arabic film. “We are delighted by the increasing access to Arabic cinema. There are more films plugged into the London film festival this year. We have other other festivals — the Shubbak festival (in London), and the Liverpool Arab Arts Festival,” said El-Sebai. 

“For this year’s edition we thought we would like to take the opportunity to go a little deeper into the history and heritage of Arabic cinema, and the industry,” she said. “Safar is taking place just before London Film Festival (LFF), which was another motivation for us to look at something a bit different as we are definitely going to see really amazing contemporary films at the London Film Festival,” she said. 

The LFF — which begins on Oct. 10 — is set to feature work by Syrian filmmaker Soudade Kaadan as well as the Saudi Arabian director Mahmoud Sabbagh’s latest dark comedy “Amra and the Second Marriage,” among other Arab productions. Fahim was also keen to use the Safar event as a way of bringing audiences’ attention to a broader range of Arabic movies, highlighting the heritage of the film industry. 

“It is reminding people that Arab cinema did not spring out today — there is a long history,” he said, adding that he wanted to question audience expectations. “There have been a flood of amazing images from Arab cinema being displayed at festivals and most critics had no idea what they were. The more I spoke to people, the more I realized that there is a certain expectation of what Arab movies should be,” he said. 

“We wanted to challenge what people expect from Arab cinema … I am tired of seeing Lawrence of Arabia a gazillion times on the big screen,” he said. He said the selected films in the festival will hopefully challenge preconceptions. He referred to the inclusion of the 1964 Egyptian film — “The Search” — based on the writer Naguib Mahfouz’s novel. 

“It is a crime noir. It is essentially an existential noir and I don’t think many people will expect to see that,” he said. Arabic cinema, however, needs to be better promoted, he said, noting a dearth of adequate film critics. “At the big festivals it sometimes feels like Arab cinema is the bottom priority for critics,” he said. 

“We need more perceptive writing. I could name you on one hand the film critics who know their stuff. That needs to change. Maybe we need to have more different voices. Film criticism is still being dominated by white male writers — although it has been developing — but that is still the norm,” he said. 

by Rebecca Spong

  • September 18, 2018
  • Iraq Solidarity News (Al-Thawra)
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After the coalition forces pounded the old city of Mosul to kill the last of Daesh fighters in Iraq in 2017, heaps of rubble and countless dead bodies were all that was left of this historic place. 

"The intensity of fighting for the liberation of the city is something we haven't seen since the Second World War. That explains the situation a lot," said Louise Haxthausen, head of Unesco in Iraq, who is now tasked with rebuilding the city and its cultural heritage sites. 

The ambitious project, Haxthausen said, has many challenges, including the fluid security situation. "Around 50 to 80 per cent of the old city is completely destroyed. It is incomparable to anything," Haxthausen told Khaleej Times. 

Though Unesco with its mandate for culture and heritage, gives a particularly strong focus to the old city in Mosul, Haxthausen said there are several landmarks and heritage sites that lay in ruins in Mosul. 

"Let us not forget, there are other heritage sites, churches, synagogues, beautiful private houses that got destroyed in Mosul. The key educational institutes, like the University of Mosul, which are not in the old city, suffered extensive damage. Several of its faculties have been destroyed. The library with thousands of books got burnt. Many of Mosul's archeological sites dating from pre-Islamic times were destroyed. We have our hands full in Mosul." 

The security situation in Mosul is also a big challenge for the Unesco team in Iraq. "The security is improving and is more stable now. We go there often. But of course, there is always a risk that something may happen," said the official. 

A fillip to the project has come in the form of UAE's partnership with Unesco and Iraq to rebuild Mosul. The UAE's engagement in spearheading the reconstruction of the 800-year old Al Nuri Mosque and Al Hadba minaret in the old city has put international limelight on the need to rebuild the spirit of Mosul, according to Haxthuasen. 

"The Minister of Culture in the UAE is playing a fantastic role in mobilising the international community. The engagement of the UAE is proving to be the mother of international support for the revival of Mosul," added Haxthausen. She said the project is more than just symbolic as it would allow her team to start the complete implementation on the ground with all the key stakeholders. 

The official was in the UAE on Friday to take part in the first steering committee meeting of the project chaired by UAE's Minister of Culture, Noora Al Kaabi. In April this year, the UAE Government pledged to fund the rebuilding project of the mosque, which is estimated to cost $50.4 million. 

Message of hope 

Speaking to Khaleej Times, Al Kaabi said rebuilding of the mosque is more than just reconstructing an old religious landmark. "There is a message behind such a project. The UAE is a country of hope, of tolerance of co-existence. And we share the same values with our Iraqi brothers and sisters. That is the basis of why we are forging such a partnership with Iraq." 

The minister said the steering committee meeting will discuss the time frame of the project, and how they are going to proceed in the next 12 months, starting with the removal of the rubble. "Hopefully, we will be able to visit and take pictures of this beautiful mosque in the next five years," said Al Kaabi.

The minister said the project is also aimed at creating 1,000 jobs for the local people, an idea that resonates with the Unesco's rebuilding plans for Mosul.

Establishing a good dialogue with the local population and empowering and engaging them in the project is crucial in rebuilding the city, according to Giovanni Fontana Antonelli, senior consultant at Unesco in Iraq.

"We aim to involve the urban youth in the old city as our partners, our labour force and allies, first to protect the project and then rebuild it. Considering the socio-economic scenario, it is important to involve the local community and work with them," he said. 

by Anjana Sankar

  • September 18, 2018
  • Iraq Solidarity News (Al-Thawra)
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In a modest structure located under the shade of large oak trees in what used to be a French military compound, hardly betokening the seriousness of purpose that lies within, the papal foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) runs a global operation to provide support to impoverished and persecuted Christians everywhere. 

With boots on the ground in all corners of the world, ACN has its finger on the social, political and economic pulse of Christians everywhere. With a simple phone call to priests, nuns or lay people working on their projects, the organization can gather information from Puerto Rico to China.

“We fund those projects that help the Church grow,” said Regina Lynch, director of the projects department at ACN International, in an interview with Crux Sept. 13. Every year the non-profit receives over 7,000 applications for funding projects worldwide, and ACN, through donors and special contributions, is able to provide funds for about 5,000. 

Normally a project does not exceed $15,000, Lynch explained. The greatest demand is for infrastructure, and 30 percent of the organization’s yearly budget is destined for the construction of chapels, seminaries, orphanages. “Our purpose is evangelization,” Lynch said, “by listening to the needs of the local church.” 

ACN also offers funds for clergy transportation. In Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam, religious sisters skip along the busy streets aboard Honda 340 motorcycles. For some priests a Mass-equipped boat, capable of moving along the river from port to port, offers the best way to spread the Gospel across large dioceses. 

The rest of the funds are deployed for the formation of seminarians and novices, providing them with the necessary tools to evangelize in a changing and globalized world. With their global headquarters, ACN employees get an exclusive view of the economic disparities between churches worldwide. 

In Germany, for example, Catholics pay a tax to the state for their religious group or Church, making it among the wealthiest in Europe. In other places, priests barely have the means to cater to their own private needs let alone those of their flock. For this reason, ACN looks for ways of providing revenue for clergy, where Mass donations form the lion’s share. 

Priests can earn up to $8 per Mass dedicated to the intention of a benefactor. That number is even higher in cases of Gregorian Masses, which can take place every day for a week. While in some places the local church requires a helping hand to grow and expand, in others it is downright under attack. “Our priorities are in the persecuted Church,” Lynch said. 

Norbertine priest Father Werenfried van Straaten - also called the “Bacon priest” for his fame of bringing food to the poor - founded ACN in 1947 to help the impoverished and displaced after World War II. In the 1980s, a large part of the organization’s efforts was to administer to the needs of the persecuted Church behind the Iron Curtain. 

The ’90s were taken up by rebuilding these countries after the fall of the Soviet Union, and today Eastern Europe remains a primary concern. ACN’s scope has grown steadily year after year, with projects spreading throughout the globe. Lynch explained that about 30 percent of ACN’s budget is destined for projects in Africa, where large numbers of young people make it a booming continent for evangelization. 

Yet, she added, the danger of constant conflict and the growing influence of Islamic extremists in some African countries pose many challenges. Despite these concerns, Lynch said, “Africa is a priority for us” and also “the Middle East has been a big focus.” 

Ever since the ISIS invasion of Iraq’s Nineveh Plains in 2014, where up to 100,000 Christians were killed or forced out of their homes, ACN has been working tirelessly to provide support for these battered people and is now a key player in the reconstruction of the area. “We are concentrating on rebuilding the churches,” Lynch said, explaining that the religious sites offer a point of encounter, community and cohesion. 

Whereas Iraq needs infrastructure reconstruction and long-term projects to offer jobs and opportunities to its people, Syria continues to be an emergency situation, Lynch said. “It’s important for Christians there to see that they are not alone,” she added. 

For Reinhard Backes, who heads the Asia section at ACN that provides funds to Pakistan, the Philippines and the Western parts of India, this is especially true. “For me there is one big topic: How do we deal with Islam?” Backes asked. “There is only one way: through dialogue and cooperation.” In the regions covered by Backes’ department, Christian-Muslim relations present daily challenges. 

Pakistan, a Muslim majority country home to over 200 million people, has witnessed countless cases where religious minorities were targets of persecution. The most troubling threat against religious freedom in this country is its blasphemy law, which has been easily manipulated in order to put Christians in prison or settle old scores. 

ACN provides financial support for the families of those individuals who have been sentenced to prison or even death due to Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy law. The Philippines, led by controversial President Rodrigo Duterte, is the only Catholic majority country under Backes’ jurisdiction. 

“It’s a difficult time with the Trumps and Dutertes of the world,” he said. During a siege in which ISIS militants attempted to conquer the Philippines’ only Muslim-majority city between May and October of 2017, significant numbers of Catholics were kidnapped and killed. After the battle, which saw government forces emerge victorious, ACN set in motion projects to rebuild trust among different groups that would cater especially to the young. 

“We listened to the local bishops,” Backes said, because they emphasized the importance of helping the youth who had undergone trauma. The Hapitanan Resort Rehab Center was funded by ACN and offers trauma treatment for about 100 former hostages of the siege. Among them are many young people captured by ISIS and enlisted to fight against the Filipino authorities. 

Backes also showed pictures of smiling youth, Christian and Muslim, who volunteer in the “Youth for Peace” project by visiting refugee camps and offering help and support. Bottom line is this: While many of ACN’s individual projects may be fairly small-scale, collectively they add up to a surprisingly large footprint worldwide. 

by Claire Giangravè

  • September 15, 2018
  • Iraq Solidarity News (Al-Thawra)
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It is said that crime stories are less concerned with the crime as they are with the aftermath. That principle holds true today, with crime fiction not only a permanent fixture on bestseller lists, but also often act as the safest and most accessible literary form to investigate society’s strengths and ills. 

And in some cases, the genre – with its heroic, villainous and passionate characters living on society’s margins – often acts as a welcome window into new and misunderstood parts of the globe. 

The Arab world has long been a beneficiary of crime fiction’s popularity, with Arabic translations of Maurice Leblanc’s detective series, featuring the classy thief Arsene Lupin, dating back to 1910. 

These books influenced Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, who went on to pen his own crime stories including 1981’s The Thief and Dogs. More recently, Sudanese writer Jamal Mahjoub has found success under his nom de plume. 

He goes by the moniker Bilal Parker, and his novels feature Sudanese private investigator Makana, and take readers from the underbelly of Old Cairo to the gritty streets of Khartoum. Meanwhile in Algeria, Yasmina Khadra (real name Mohammed Moulessehoul) also garnered an international audience through his terse political mysteries. 

His novels featuring the Algiers superintendent Llob are positively Raymond Chandler-esque in their tone and brute efficiency. 

Now, the crime-fiction juggernaut has arrived in Iraq. Despite the country being a cultural citadel and pioneer, crime fiction has only relatively recently begun to spring from the country – ironically, it is the bloodshed of the past decade that is partly responsible for the literary development. 

The most significant leap is the success of Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad. He won the 2014 International Prize for Arabic Fiction for the Gothic mystery, an award he received in Abu Dhabi, and the title has been shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker International Prize. 

So it’s no wonder Saadawi is the linchpin of the marketing campaign for the new short story compilation Baghdad Noir, released by New York’s Akashic Books. He joins 13 other authors – all Iraqis with the exception of four – in this engrossing collection of crime stories all set in various districts of Baghdad. 

How the novel came to Iraq 

Presented with a detailed map of the ancient city to illustrate where all the stories are based, the plots are all well-executed and offer various takes on the trusted genre. 

Salima Salih’s The Apartment adopts a classic whodunnit structure with a weary detective investigating the death of an elderly lady in her home, while Mohammed Alwan Jabr’s Room 22 is more visceral as it violently describes the kidnappings and abductions of Iraqi families since 2003. 

But perhaps the most enlightening read of all is the compilation’s sterling introductory essay by the editor, the acclaimed Iraqi novelist Samuel Shimon. 

Titled, Garden of Justice, City of Peace, Shimon paints a picture of a multiethnic and pluralistic Baghdad, from the advent of the British Invasion of the Ottoman Empire in 1917 to the societal ruptures caused in the aftermath of the “American Invasion of April 2003.” 

Among all these changes, he recalls the birth of the modern Iraqi novel, which is widely considered to be Mahmoud Ahmed Al Sayed’s 1921 Mark Twain-like adventure Jalal Khalid. 

Iraqi novels took on a more serious tone after the Second World War, with the gritty and surrealistic works of pioneers Abdul Malik Nouri and Fouad Al Tokerly influenced by American and European literature translated to Arabic at the time. 

The Iraqi novel finally became ubiquitous after the fall of dictator Saddam Hussein. Shimon states that over the past 15 years, nearly 700 novels were released, many of which took on a darker tone as authors surveyed the toll of UN-enforced sanctions and how Iraq’s social fabric was ripped apart by sectarianism. 

It all goes to shape what Shimon calls “Iraq’s Noir story”; one that began at the arrival of the Iran-Iraq War and gained steam with the bombing of Baghdad during the first and second Gulf Wars of 1990 and 2003. 

Crime fiction as a measure of a city 

The authors in Baghdad Noir dissect that experience in various ways. For Salih, the crime novel has become an effective method to analyse the state of play in Iraq today. 

Based in Germany, she was a journalist with the Iraqi press before turning her hand to short stories and releasing three Arabic anthologies. “It is the best way to show the human and political changes that have happened over the past 20 years,” she says. 

“Baghdad was so different 20 years ago, and we have fallen behind in so many ways, things that were unthinkable back then, that we now see with these stories of crime, murder and violence.” 

Set in the suburban Al Ghadeer District of Baghdad, Salih’s short story vividly encapsulates the fraying of neighbourly ties – a bond viewed as sacred – as a result of the ongoing civil conflict. 

“These stories have become normal today, sadly. This idea that your neighbour will kill you for your apartment is something that is happening,” she says. “It goes to show what war can do. It’s not that it only turns neighbour against neighbour, it shows how everyone now is just trying to save themselves.” 

One writer who is keenly aware of war and its unintended consequences is Roy Scranton. He spent 14 months “as an occupier” of Iraq as an American soldier, before returning four years ago as an acclaimed journalist and author of the celebrated novel War Porn. 

His anthology contribution, Homecoming, is set in the Baghdad marketplace of Al Shurja and is a brutal examination of vengeance in war. 

While the story is mainly concerned with following an Iraqi soldier on the trail of militia leaders, it also paints a picture of a once proud marketplace reduced to a shadow of itself due to the arrival of American troops. 

“One thing that goes on in the story is the coppersmiths in that street can no longer sell their handmade work because the market has been flooded with cheap goods from India and China owing to the way the US occupation opened up Iraqi markets to trade,” he says. 

“That’s an important part of the story, and it came from me doing my homework, being there and talking to people about that.” 

Baghdad endures despite the carnage 

In addition to the Iraqi authors involved in Baghdad Noir, Scranton describes writing about the war-torn city as an emotional experience. “My feeling as an occupier and then as journalist and tourist in Iraq is sense of regret, lost opportunity or confusion and guilt and sadness,” he says. 

“All those feelings I always had in a sense. But what really comes to me now is the resilience of the people of Baghdad and their rugged determination to live life and find pleasure and happiness where they can.” Shimon agrees with the notion.

He closes off his essay by cautioning the reader not to view Baghdad Noir as doomsday tales from a once proud city: “The stories in Baghdad Noir testify to the enduring resilience of the Iraqi spirit amid an ongoing real-life milieu of despair that the literary form of Noir can at best only approximate.” 

by Saeed Saeed

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