This piece is dedicated to my father, Kassim Habib, who recently passed away. He taught me everything I know about Iraq, its history, politics, music, food and football. This magazine exists because of the love for Iraq that he instilled in me. Without him, Iraq seems so far to the point that it no longer exists. But I know that my father would have wanted me to keep sharing stories of Iraq with the rest of the world. This one is for you Baba. Thank you for everything. I miss you.
Separated by a million walls, we connected through a common belief in the ability of art to smash distances, start fires and document the destruction of the world around us.
Ali Eyal has lived in Iraq his entire life. A country I last visited over a decade ago, only a few months after American Marines marched through Baghdad in 2003 as part of yet another attempt to kill the city’s spirit, and bury its citizens even deeper into mountains of rubble.
But Ali survived, and this is his story.
Born in the Nineties, during the UN sanctions, Ali grew up in Mahmoudiya, a small city located just a stone’s throw away from the ruins of ancient Babylon. With a population of about half a million, the rural community staggered through a crippling international embargo, and watched civil society unravel right before its eyes.
Ali’s love for the arts began there, in a small house, where he lived with his parents and three sisters. At school, his talent for the visual arts was to emerge in a surreal and ironic way, a befitting reflection of his crumbling surroundings, when as a child, like all other students, Ali was forced to draw portraits of Saddam.
But unlike the other kids in his class, his renditions of the dictator were so accurate that they caught the eye of his teacher, who, to her credit, started giving him extra drawing assignments to further fuel his misplaced, yet growing talent.
“I drew his portrait so many times, that I eventually remembered every line in his face,” Ali recalls over a choppy internet line, more than 15 years later, “but I grew up in a conservative family, and my mother and father wanted nothing to do with my drawing hobby; they wanted me to focus on my studies instead.”
Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be parental resistance that would thwart Ali’s love for the arts. America’s occupation of 2003 meant something much more sinister was brewing in his neighborhood, and inside his own home. The US army had perversely dubbed Mahmoudiya “The Gateway to Baghdad,” a landmark for passing troops to let them know that the capital city was near.
But for Ali, Mahmoudiya became a Gateway to Hell.
“By the time I was finished with elementary school, sectarian violence was terrorizing us, and it is something that is still very present now, even though more than a decade has passed,” he said.
At the time, violence in Iraq was broadcast to international audiences like a football score, a death tally from a barbaric game between two inexplicably violent sides, but the reality for Ali, was much more real, and much less ‘infotaining.’
“Slowly, sectarianism took from my city what it could. It took from me the most cherished of things: my family. On Sept. 6, 2006 my father disappeared,” he wrote me in an email, shortly after we connected on social media. His words brought my flickering screen to its knees, humbled by the magnitude of his loss.
“Suddenly, life became unbearable for my mother, who was an elementary school teacher at the time. Not only did she have to support her kids, but she also spent her days and nights searching for my father, who was now just another missing person in Iraq.”
As time passed, Ali spoke more about his father’s disappearance. He did so with a matter of fact tone, describing one of thousands of new facts in Iraq’s new reality. His Skype voice was muffled by the sound of electricity generators and fans: the Baghdad symphony. His round and eternally smiling face was transmitted thousands of miles, as pixels held on to each other to cope with the strength of his words.
“I still remember going to the morgue with my mother, looking for a body with my father’s distinctive tattoo, a traditional ‘degga’ painted on his nose.”
Despite their efforts, Ali’s father was never found.
The degradation of living conditions in his neighborhood meant that he and his family would have to leave. Internally displaced, his family joined millions of other Iraqis who were now strangers in their own home.
“We forgot ourselves. We no longer recognized our faces in the mirror,” he told me, in between pulls from his cigarette.
They decided to move to Thawra City in Baghdad, a government housing project from the 50s that has grown to become a city within a city, where millions of people live together in tight confines, almost on top of each other. Despite the suffocation, the mega-neighborhood has always had the brilliance to feed Iraq with some of its finest poets, thinkers, football players and visual artists.
As our friendship deepened and grew, what attracted me to Ali wasn’t an exotic voyeurism into the set of circumstances that shaped his life. In many ways, his tragedies were typical of Iraq. They sounded like family stories that have been told around my family’s own dinner table. They represent the everyday wounds carried by millions.
His ability to carve out windows from his art formed the basis of our connection, and this is what compels me to tell his story today.
Ali finished primary school shortly after moving to Baghdad. He never ceased to search for his father in nearby hospitals. Eventually, when facing the reality of his father’s disappearance became inevitable, Ali found the strength to live in his art.
The first piece that he showed me was a video he had made for the 5th Cairo Video Festival. He called it the Body’s Autumn. At first, it seemed too abstract for me to understand, but I was compelled by seeing art that emerged from Iraq that wasn’t within the traditional confines of paint on canvas.
He told me, “In this piece, I created something that embodied how I gave away my entire being, piece by piece, to the machines of war, from the Iraq-Iran war all the way to the war of 2003.”
“I inserted clippings from Iraqi radio archives, including secret conversations between the leadership at the time.”
“Each audio clip represented the heavy toll paid by average Iraqis, a piece of their soul, dumped into a barrel of oil, mixed with the loss of a civilization, and a complete societal collapse.”
Ali would always say: “I have a message. I want to document how humans beings are capable of both beauty and barbarism at the same time. I want to document these things and want them to be seen by generations to come.”
I began to gain a better understanding of the country’s death through his insistence to live and create.
Then came, “Add Friend,” an interactive digital piece he created where one can add former Iraqi leaders on Facebook, and send messages back and forth to them. Question them. Hold them accountable. Even though it was fictitious, it accurately captured the frustration of an entire generation desperately seeking answers as to why their lives had been destroyed.
“Following that, my next work was an installation. In a large wooden box, I placed a family portrait which I painted along with a copy of a court order to execute my father for avoiding military service. People would peep into the box. They would see how we lived. Our home. Our lives. I wanted to capture how I watched decades of secrecy and fear embody my father’s entire life.”
The piece was shown at the Iraqi Independent Film Center, a space set up by prominent director Mohamed Al Daradji The audience was limited to a small group of people, as spaces to show art are limited in Iraq. In fact, they are virtually non-existent.
As both a student in the Institute of Fine Arts and as a member of the Sada collective, a non-profit initiative that works to empower young artists throughout Iraq, Ali and his colleagues faced tremendous difficulties in finding spaces to show their work.
“We wanted to make art about the loss of our beings to Saddam and America.” But censorship and a rejection of alternative creativity meant that works would only be exhibited to each other, in confined spaces, behind closed doors.
“Galleries belittled contemporary or abstract work. They saw little commercial value in it. Instead, artists would exhibit their work in the Sada building to the internet eyes of artists abroad.”
One of Ali’s paintings, “Islamic Nightclub,” was banned by a prominent gallery in Baghdad. It spoke of what he perceived as the modern day perversion of his religious beliefs. The content would prove to be too controversial for a society torn apart by the imposition of different beliefs on to the public sphere.
Ali returned one day to the gallery to find his painting on its way to the trash.
“We wanted to create radical spaces to show our work. For example, my classmate and graffiti artist Sajjad Abbas started working on an idea of pasting a huge image of two eyes on a building in central Baghdad with the words “I can see you.”
“After working with Sajjad, I began looking at what ties the past with the present in Iraq. I felt that the huge eyes that over looked Baghdad belonged to a past that knew where this city was, how art meant something to this city, reminding its present day citizens that it will never forget.”
Ali wanted to compare the immense destruction of today with the rich history of culture and the arts in Baghdad that inspired him to create.
“I wanted to examine the strong collective memory of Iraq’s past that still exists today and how it manifests itself within an increasingly connected population.”
He told me of how he felt like a European Orientalist visiting Baghdad for the first time. He was a stranger in his own home.
This feeling of displacement and estrangement leads him to his latest work, an interactive installation that he is currently developing under the guidance of powerful Iraqi artist Sadik Kwaish.
Ali describes it to me as being an interactive map where viewers will look at the city through a magnifying glass that transmits videos of everyday life in Baghdad.
No matter what the piece will be, and no matter who will see it, Ali’s creativity in the face of air strikes, terrorist militias and sectarian suffocation is reflective of the resilience that runs through the streets of Iraq.
As a friend, he inspires me to rid myself of the privilege ridden problems that pursue me. He shows me their irrelevance, and with each message and call, Ali dissects my Diaspora into digestible pieces.
Whether we will ever meet or not is a matter left in the hands of those bent on destroying Iraq. But just like we found a way to create a relationship out of nothing, I am certain that Ali and I will meet one day, hopefully in a space that is big enough to accommodate both the immense size of his creativity and the grandeur of my love for him.