The Orange Trees of Baghdad, Leilah Nadir

Long overdue, the United Kingdom finally sees the publication of the Iraqi-Canadian Leilah Nadir’s book: ‘The Orange Trees of Baghdad: In Search of My Lost Family’. As the UK was one of the prime architects of the Iraqi Invasion in 2003 – an event that irreversibly transformed the author’s life – it seems right that people here should have access to her story.

‘The Orange Trees of Baghdad’ is the memoir of a 32-year-old woman who felt compelled by circumstances beyond reason and control to question her father’s Iraqi and Syrian ancestral roots after decades of nothing but silence coming from him. Although Nadir’s father was born and brought up in Baghdad, Iraq and had four children half-carrying the Arab gene, he never volunteered much information about his home country and was almost in denial about it, content to have initiated a new life in the West and not wanting to look back.

But a week into the unjustified March 2003 Invasion of Iraq, father and daughter are on a plane journey from Vancouver, Canada to London to visit the three paternal aunts; when she begins to ask him some very uncomfortable questions about Iraq that he finally begins to open up and respond.

‘The Orange Trees of Baghdad’ received the George Rygan Award for Social Awareness In British Colombia (BC) Literature in 2008 and has already been published and translated in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Italy, Turkey and France.

Propelled by and intrigued with the answers, Nadir initiates a fuller search of his background, the extended family and friends he’d left behind decades earlier when he was just 16 years old; a young boy who once left but was never able to return even up until now.

In reconnecting with what was lost from years before, Nadir finds a warm, kind, generous and sincere people who hold the key to a Pandora’s box. On an emotional journey, she learns the ugly truth about the Iraq Wars and the tragic plight of its people held captive due to a trick historical passage of time.

The more Nadir probes, the more she learns of the awesomely heavy toll endured by her relatives; both those existing in exile and the others who had no option but to remain in Baghdad and experience firsthand the horrors of the invasion and its aftermath; as well as having been through years of oppression under Saddam Hussein and plenty more strife.

Nadir’s experience of digging deep and taking the brave decision to directly communicate with her estranged family during the war starts to affect and trouble her psyche. In fact, she ends up with a newborn Iraqi-Syrian identity and becoming the genuine offspring of an Arab ancestry; she can no longer help but to adopt and feel their losses and grieve for their dead. In her special way, she compiled and wrote the book as a testimony document that honours her relatives and that can one day be passed further down the family line.

She writes: “Now, as I watch this war, it is as if one part of me is invading the other. I feel like this war is between two cultures whose blood flows in me, and it makes the experience entirely different.. To look at me is to look at both the aggressor and the victim. I am both the enemy and the ally.”

Although the actual timescale of the book is from 2003 to just before the first publication in Canada in 2007 – and that Nadir goes all the way back to the Baghdad of her father’s childhood to bring out the nostalgia for that bygone age as well – this book is a timeless tribute to the power of family ties and the compassionate love that surpasses generations even when there is a big geographical divide.

Now ten years have passed since the beginning of the 2003 Invasion and Nadir has added an Epilogue for the UK publication that updates on some of the characters and stories in the book; and, fortunately, it offers some glimmer of relief, hope and light for them.

Turning over the last page of ‘The Orange Trees of Baghdad’, one is left with very strong feelings about the injustices wrought upon not just Nadir’s family – but the millions more of Iraqis – from the inside and outside. One has to wonder when the tragedy might come to an end; because, even for those who have managed to physically escape, the psychological trauma is still carried within their heavy broken hearts. And, sadly, the prospect of a happy return is still not nigh.

There is also the Nahla Ink Interview with Leilah Nadir:

Note: This articles was first published circa March 2014

Sex And The Citadel, Shereen El Feki

If you have ever wondered about the sex lives – or shall we say the sex secrets? – of the Arabs, then this book by Shereen El Feki is for you. In her subject choice of the intimate lives of the Arabs at this unusual and historic time of political revolution across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, she comes with a hefty mission as well as vision, theory and a hypothesis regarding the sexual future of the people of the MENA region.

It is one brave lady to open the lid onto something that is quite natural for any human being to do but that which can also be riddled with a deep well of personal or – as in the case of the Arabs – collective guilt, doubt, shame, confusion and misunderstandings.

Despite the challenges, she undertook her research into the field and spoke with many a man and woman, as well as experts in the sex and intimacy department who include: activists and campaigners for the right to a private life, doctors who deal with women in search of abortion or hymen repair surgery, lawyers, academics and other key individuals who are trying to make a difference through the media and other spheres.

In doing this, she probed and asked every single person in her path and pursued their contacts too. In the process of writing the book, she also unearthed a long and distinguished history of Arabic writing on sex that only in recent centuries has all but been buried. (It is one of her many hopes to reclaim the eroticism of the Arabic language itself and usher in a new period where sex and sex talk can become part of a more open society).

What El Feki Discovered

El-Feki discovered that sex is happening for the Arabs and their bedrooms are just as steaming hot and passionate as with any other people. The Arabs are practicing every type of sex and position, but with the one exception that the Arabs have a strong preference to keeping things under wraps about what they get up to in private and will go to extraordinary ingenious lengths to either deny it or find ways to justify it behind closed doors.

This type of attitude and behavior is down to fear of the wrath of the religious and traditional establishments, who rule that only in marriage is sex to be sanctioned and allowed. But beneath the veneer of piety, married couples in the Arab world are complaining about their lot, in similar ways to others.

Sex and Marriage

A whole chapter is dedicated to marriage, where we discover that both the men and women have issues. Whereas female virginity is still the sacred symbol of a family’s honor, sex outside the holy frame is very much frowned upon and illegal in many a circumstance for both sexes; and punishment too can happen DIY community style.

For both, there is the heavy burden of haram in stepping over the cultural or religious limits; but, lo and behold the Arab woman who challenges such boundaries! And divorced women in particular are made to feel it as a source of shame and dishonor.

But like in any other society, the genders feel at cross-wires and wonder if they come from one separate Mars and another Venus. Whilst the men complain their women are not giving enough, the women are saying they don’t know what their men want or mean by what they say they want.

To spice up their sex lives also, the Arabs are just as open to experimenting with sex and seduction; using lingerie for a feminine effect, eager to see Western style sex accessories, watching porn, as well as swallowing the Viagra pill for lasting pleasure. Others also believe in the powerful effect of white and black magic, spiritual sexual healing and Arabic medicine.

With the added social pressure on young married couples to give birth quickly – because it blessed and commended by the religion – El Feki also brings up the Arab’s attitudes towards IVF, abortion, the pill, sperm and egg donation, surrogacy and the fatwas that sometimes determine what are acceptable sexual practices or not.

Most curious for this reader were some connections or themes I was able to make out from reading the full book. These are: Sex and the LGBT community, Sex and Violence, Sex and “Unofficial” Marriage, Sex and Youth as well as Sex and Politics

Sex and the LGBT

In Dare to be Different, for example, El Feki gets in touch with alternative sexual behavior and orientations. As a rule in Arabic countries, the LGBT community has to live in hiding and underground; with the exception of Beirut, Lebanon where there is a little scope to socialize, gather and party in public.

Speaking to them, she finds out how many are facing danger in coming out and being ostracized by their families and the culture. But, fortunately, she also tracks down a number of support initiatives tackling the problem to offer LGBT members free sex advice, community support, health and psychological help.

Sex and Violence

In terms of sex and violence, an astonishing figure is given in the book, that a third of married women in Egypt are at the receiving end of domestic violence, with ten per cent also experiencing sexual abuse. Although there are efforts to help women with shelters, hotlines, counseling and legal services in some countries, a troubling common attitude is that a man can do what he likes should she misbehave.

There are other violent elements regarding sex in the region, including the stress and trauma a girl may have to endure by turning to hymen restoration surgery or dangerous botched up abortions in a desperate attempt to be seen as still virgin on her wedding night. Female genital mutilation (FGM) is also touched upon and the embarrassing ordeal of ‘dukhla’ that a bride may have to go through.

Sex and Youth

Sex and the generally disaffected youth of the region is another theme. With this group caught between economic straits, religious confusion and political frustrations, they are unable to afford marriage for halal sex and their hormones are raging with no proper outlet to unleash their energies.

Plenty of dynamics at play here, with the Internet becoming a new centre-stage for expression and with blogging, social networking, and other forms of new media more open about sex and talking about it without censure. On the other hand, there is a big public sexual harassment problem persistent in the region; where even the dolce hegabbanas (young and pretty girls who wear the hijab but with colorful clothes ensembles) are still molested on the streets with the police themselves at times complicit.

Sex and ‘Unofficial” Marriages

Most unusual for this reader was learning about the long menu or choice of “unofficial” marriages (I counted at least five) that people resort to in order to circumvent or outsmart the cultural conventions or the religious restrictions about sex outside of “official” marriage.

In effect, these are all secret types of marital sexual union with some used only by Shia Muslims and others by Sunnis as well. A most horrendous arrangement is the zawaj misyaf. Popular with Gulf male tourists going to Egypt for their Summer holidays, they are but a form of prostitution of poor young girls, done with the knowledge and consent of the father with money exchanged to pay for the short length of time brokered.

And there is so much more in the book but I don’t wish to completely spoil it.

Measure of Success

The true measure of El Feki’s success will be whether or not Sex and the Citadel further encourages more public debate and understanding about sex and the sexual lives of the people in the region and if the book is translated in Arabic.

Another important measure will be whether or not El Feki’s work can convince Arab governments to take the bold step of facilitating better and more thorough sexual surveys of their people to bring all out to the open, as was done by the Kinsey Report in the 1940s and 10950s America. This would at least fill in the big void she came across on her five-year journey into the MENA world.

Her call is very understandable, so that useful facts and information can be deciphered, given and shared with the people; chief among them the youngsters who need to be able to make better and more responsible sexual decisions and have more freedom to choose how they wish to conduct their private lives.

She does offer some hope that the recent political uprisings might encourage a better attitude towards sex and a drive to guarantee the right to a private life without state or religious intrusion. Referring to the ‘transformation of intimacy’ and ‘greater democratization of personal relationships,’ she is optimistic this will take place in the near future.

This reader personally, I wonder how one can reverse a deeply ingrained cultural tendency to sweep things under the carpet? The Arabs will continue to keep it all in the bedroom and in between the sheets. Do I recommend this book? Yes, it needs to be essential reading for all the Arabs and must be translated as soon as possible.

You can purchase your own copy:

Note: This article was first published circa January 2014

Journey of Hope, Omar Reda MD

Searching for Hope in the Middle of a War Zone

Journey of Hope is the 40-year-old Libyan American psychiatrist Omar Reda’s bold and courageous pledge to firstly dedicate himself as a mental health doctor to the cause of post-Revolution Libya.

He wants to contribute towards a country that can be at peace and harmony with itself; and for him to be able to take a leading role in healing his country from not just the outside but the inside injuries it has suffered for over the last four decades.

The book is a brief but extraordinary account of his life that shows it is possible to gain a closure of one’s difficult personal experiences, even when one is led by forces bigger than oneself. Indeed, coincidences do not exist according to the legendary psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung and synchronicity occurs in all of our lives, if only we open our eyes to its guidance and lessons therein.

Omar Reda had to flee Libya at the age of 26 for fear of his life, as Gaddafi blacklisted him in 1999 for the humanitarian medical work he was doing as a physician with some of the families of those who were imprisoned or executed by the former regime. It was his father who saved his life by warning him of the danger that he must immediately leave with no time for proper goodbyes.

Forced to escape, he sought asylum abroad in the United Kingdom and after the United States; where he was drawn to the field of psychiatry and global mental health, graduating from Harvard with a Masters in the field in 2007. Little could he then foresee February 2011 when he would not just be able to return home, but that his medical specialty would be of the utmost significance and be put to great use.

Journey of Hope is also very much a book about the Revolution and all the individual and collective sacrifices made by the Libyan people in their struggle to topple a cruel dictator who abused them for decades. It is about the sung and unsung heroes who risked or sacrificed their lives for freedom and liberty.

Above all, however, it is the writer’s unique mission to return to Libya to help, guide and support his fellow countrymen and women as a psychiatrist and to tend to the invisible psychological wounds suffered as a result of so much fighting, pain, hurt, trauma, oppression, rape, imprisonment and so much more.

To quote Omar Reda: “[In Libya], we can no longer hide our head in the sand, stuff our skeletons in the closet or swipe our dirt under the rug, our closets are full they are about to explode, our laundry is dirty but we cannot clean it unless we admit that it is dirty, there is nothing wrong about exposing what happened, the first step towards recovery is to admit that you have a problem, lack of insight is a poor prognostic indicator in psychiatry, lack of motivation is yet another one.” (page 87).

Omar Reda is concerned that this psychological terrain has been neglected and is still not being widely addressed by the government nor the people, however it is most urgent and necessary. The focus must be on the mental, emotional and feeling-wellbeing of the Libyans if there is to be any hope of lasting peace.

He also strongly believes that this mammoth task could and should be achieved by the Libyans themselves in the long run, with only the initial help and support from the relevant foreign aide professionals, NGO’s and charities already on the ground. He is also seeking the backing of the Ministry of Health that has unfortunately not been so forthcoming.

He makes a number of proposals as best strategy to make this challenge a reality and taking into account these facts: that in Libya today, there is only one psychiatrist per 200,000 Libyans, that pre-Revolution, there were only two very poorly equipped mental hospitals, that the role of mental health professionals was misunderstood and stigma attached to psychiatric symptoms.

And more facts. It is estimated that there are more than 25,000 cases of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), ranging from children to adults, military personnel as well as physicians who had to tend to the wounded. Plus, one cannot forget the consequences of Gaddafi’s rule that has caused, according to Reda: “moral corruption, depression, despair, PTSD, addiction to drugs, anger, grief, blood and revenge lust.”

One of the main proposals is to train the Libyans who are already working in the field of psychology and medicine or give support to those who have already built specific charities for men, women and children. Efforts must be unified and consolidated to build the much-needed mental health care infrastructure and therapeutic possibilities.

Already, Reda has immersed himself in this quest and contributed to the works of NGO’s and medical charities on the ground; beginning with his first visit to the country during the Revolution and his ongoing returns to oversee a number of initiatives focused in this area.

In particular, he is also fond of his work with children – whom he believes are the most vulnerable – by having offered some of them a safe space to freely express their fears and find ways to comprehend what has happened and give them hope for a brighter future. He is also concerned with developing support groups for the mental health professionals themselves to prevent them from compassion fatigue.

One current initiative that Reda started in June 2011 with the support of local NGOs is the Libya Al-Shefa Healing Project. This, he says, contains seven different goals but needs the government’s moral and financial backing to succeed. The seven goals are: psycho-education, raising standards of local professionals, support circles for fighters, support circles for families of fighters and the missing or deceased, a hotline, art and play therapy for children, and reconciliation efforts.

One can only wish him the very best of luck in this mission.

Note: This article was first published circa October 2013

Between Two Rivers, Dorothy Al Khafajji

With its bright yellow cover and a back page that reads very much like the synopsis of a great romance, I thought this book was some kind of chick-literature. However, opening the front page and reading the introduction, it is clear that the book is based on the true memoirs of the English Dorothy Al Khafaji, who was born and bred in Somerset, England but through extraordinary fate, had to travel to and live almost two decades in Baghdad, Iraq between 1962 to 1980.

The tale begins when Dorothy, an impressionable young girl who hasn’t even finished her A-Level education, falls in love with the handsome and dark Iraqi engineering student Zane in a London club. Soon after, they are married with a little daughter and on their way to Baghdad with no questions asked.

Their adventure starts in a fancy Mercedes picked up from Germany (for Zane’s brother) and they drive all the way through Europe and Asia to get to Iraq; passing Holland, Austria, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Turkey, Jordan and Syria. When they finally arrive, the young family live with the in-laws in a pretty suburb of Baghdad near to the Tigris River.

Al Khafaji is quickly thrown into the very different patriarchal and conservative culture and has no option but to adapt. She writes in detail of her life then as a young mother away from all that was once familiar to her in England. With almost zero contact with the Western world and so far away, she learns the Arabic language and picks up on the local habits in order to personally survive.

We get a wonderful insight into life of the ordinary but dignified Iraqis during the 1960s and a country full of hope. We come to witness through Dorothy the lifestyle as well as the passionate temper and irrational family traditions they follow. She tells of her new living arrangements and how safe and friendly their neighborhood was like, with people of all backgrounds living in peace together, without any conflict based on religious, ethnic or political grounds.

She even becomes one of the extended family members and refers to the in-laws as Mum and Dad throughout the story; but, this is not to cover up the dramas and the heated arguments that take place between the brothers, sisters and parents which test her patience and diplomacy skills to the limit in order to keep things under control.

Dorothy and Zane go on to have more children and face lots of obstacles in getting to a state of financial independence, as they relocate on several occasions and have to mix with different families. But the central relationship does comes across a little strained and difficult with plenty of complaint from Dorothy, albeit restrained, regarding Zane.

We do get a great glimpse also of the popular Arabic culture in those days and the various phases that impact on the lives of everyone over an eighteen-year period. But, of course, it is in the politics of the Middle East and the situation of Iraq in particular that begins just as background information to events, but later comes to affect and colour the personal lives of all characters involved.

It was this part of the book most enjoyed as Khafaji writes it so well; although, it could not have been easy to live through the terror, horror and injustices that were caused by the Baathist government that took hold. Ending with the sadistic regime of Saddam Hussein, we understand just how mercilessly it threatened the life of every single person who either lived in or originated from Iraq.

I do recommend reading this book, as it weaves the personal with the political in a fluent and measured fashion. It does shine a light on a time in Iraqi history that tested the nerve and steel of ordinary people. With so many crimes committed against the innocent, Dorothy herself is a survivor who has lived it and can now tell the tale for others to contemplate any lessons that might help to heal today’s post-Wars Iraq.

Between Two Rivers will soon be available on paperback, priced at £8.99. ISBN 9781908946874

Note: Note: This article was first published circa June 2013

The Bussy Monologues

Modest World Premiere in Brighton, UK

You don’t expect to attend the world premiere of a very important, culturally significant and fascinating anthropological film experiment in a medium-sized lecture hall in the city of Brighton, UK. In a room of about forty tops, a group of international women were attending the Women in Art, Science and Research Conference and pleasantly surprised to be the very first audience to see the film adaptation of the scandal causing and goose-pumps’ creating BuSSy Monologues.

Khalid Abol Naga, the multi-award winning Egyptian director of the film adaptation, and Sondos Shabayek and Mona El-Shimi, two of the creative members of the BuSSy Project, were personally present and super nervous and excited to gage our response.

The BuSSy Monologues

What defines the BuSSy Monologues film as original is not that the stories told haven’t been visualized or known before in Arabic fiction film or novel art-making, but that these are honest and truthful first-hand accounts of real people, without any censorship of the details.

Acted out by a small dedicated team of young Egyptian actors and actresses and filmed as they preformed the original plays at various University venues in Cairo, some of the tales remain anonymous to protect the sources of truly horrendous confessions, but others do carry the brave names of those who came forwards.

The themes of the clips are controversial and deliberately challenge an Arabic and predominantly Muslim society that is very much scared of taboos and social stigmas, with the youngsters portrayed afraid to act outside the culture’s conservative mores and restrictive gender segregation.

What we see is they are all struggling not just for being young, but also having to live in a politically volatile landscape with high levels of poverty, unemployment and uncertainty about the future. Some characters are also from the unfortunate underground classes who are not even able to access a decent or standard level of education; but here are stories across the poor, middle and rich levels of Egypt to expose the realities of their existence.

The Clips

Some of these are quite shocking and made worse by the fact that there seems to be little or no redress for the tellers of the stories in their societal environment. It is only through the writing of the confessions that there is hope for some personal relief.

In Farha, a simple poor woman is forced to marry an older man who infects her with AIDS and makes abnormal sexual demands on her. Innocently not even knowing how the disease is carried, her family and neighbours ostracize her when they find out and she spends years looking after him until he dies. She remains oblivious as to how her husband and she too caught the virus.

In My Son and Daughter, an uneducated housemaid inadvertently tells her wealthy female employer that her daughter is being married off to her brother with the complicity of the father and local sheik in order to save money on rent and living expenses. The incestuous sex is hinted at, also when the woman comments that she is worried her daughter might otherwise get pregnant from other male family members.

Again, in Salwa, an impressionable young girl is confused about having sexual experience and worried that her purity has been taken away. Naively, she believes that sleeping around might result in at least one man who will truly love her. Also, she talks about putting on the veil as a way to make her seem decent and good in the eyes of society.

In The Autobus, a young man tells of how the public transport buses in the city are a way for him to get glimpses of girls and so he can touch them up and flirt with them for a bit of secret sexual pleasure. Commenting that his humble job offers him only 400LE, there is no way he can afford a bride and marriage.

Another is The Wedding Night, where a young bride is told not to tell her husband of any previous romantic experience, because he may well badly judge her and this would cause problems in the marriage. There is a sad memorable quote here: “The perfect bride (or wife) is the perfect corpse.”

All the others are just as engaging from start to finish, with the acting done as individual monologues or of little two-way dialogues set in a simple theatrical background with very few props.

Collectively, they explore the deep anxieties and frustrations of an angry, unhappy, miserable and yet still humorous generation of young men and women in today’s Egypt. It is clear that the BuSSy project does not judge its very own content, but allows for a catharsis through the power of Art in relaying the most difficult of societal truths.

I highly recommend you view the film adaptation of the original plays, whichever clips are selected for later screenings. Hopefully, the artistic team will be able to find bigger audiences as they may now plan to embark on an international world tour. So watch out, it may soon be coming to a cinema near you.

The BuSSy Project

The BuSSy Project started in 2007, when in the spirit of artistic research, two students at the American University in Cairo (AUC) began to collect stories from young women about their personal memories and experiences of life and gender issues to turn them into a stage show. Their simple flyer read: “If you have a story about yourself or a woman you know, please pick up a submission form and share it.”

Five years into the project, and backed by a team of student actors and actresses, they were able to compile over 500 stories, from both male and female Egyptians and went to put on the plays. Receiving mainly negative and critical reviews in the local media, the Monologues spoke about the problems of the cultural and social pressures youngsters face but are too afraid to openly challenge.

In July 2010, when the BuSSy Project used a café to set up a stage and a section of a parking lot for a two-night performance, even the Egyptian government censors were informed and wanted to cut out some of the lines and scenes.

In defiance, the actors and actresses mimed the parts as a political statement that nothing will stop them, now that they were under way and gaining an interested and packed audience.

On that very night, Khaled Abol Naga, a very popular Egyptian actor, producer and director, was invited. He took an immediate interest in the project and offered to re-produce the stories for film with Mohamed Hefzy. Abol Naga is not just an artist, but also a passionate human rights and social activist, as well as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador for Egypt.

Currently, two young Egyptian ladies are also heavily involved with the project and to make the film a reality. Sondos Shabayek is a young writer, theatre director and actress who got on board in 2007 and is fully involved with the Monologues. The other is Mona El-Shimi, who is a psychologist, actress and “traveller”. She has also acted in the plays, co-directed the clips, coached and coordinated the Project since 2008.

For more information about the BuSSy Project:

Also note: The Brighton screening was hosted by the support of Ethics in Performance, an art initiative that is part of the Brighton and Sussex Medical School. They organize and host a regular calendar of public events in collaboration with a variety of artists throughout the year. For more information:

Note: Note: This article was first published circa February 2013

Halim Al-Karim: Witness from Baghdad 2013

Hailing a cab in a hurry to get to my scheduled interview with the Iraqi artist Halim Al-Karim, I thought I’d need to apologise. However when I arrived at the Artspace London Gallery, he was busy with another journalist, offering me some time to look around and survey the exhibition.

Immediately, I was taken aback by what I can only describe as a contemplative yet ambiguous beauty present in his pieces and I understood why so many of his images have been so celebrated and repeatedly showcased at exhibitions all around the world.

They are of a larger scale than I had somehow anticipated, ranging from 220 cm x 130 cm at the largest and 90 cm x 60 cm at the smallest. Whilst many of the pieces are politically provocative, others are based more on female beauty and sexual seduction. In particular, the Goddess Series, the New Orientalism 6 and the Untitled 10, from the King’s Hareem Series.

Al-Karim’s muse is always in a blur, out-of-focus and never identified, though he uses real life models – it is one of his rules to never disclose their identities. Then there is his play with the light and shadows, which gives the pieces different visual interpretations from various angles with unusual optical effect.

Above all, one is compelled to engage with the recurring themes of Al-Karim’s personal life and how they intertwine with those of his home country Iraq, which he had to flee in 1991 in order to survive and physically stay alive.

In emotional and psychological exile since, his art tries to make sense of the awful tragedies that have befallen him and his countrymen. Al-Karim has indeed suffered greatly, having lost four brothers and one sister because of multiple Iraq wars and it is still hard for him to contemplate ever going back.

His style takes on a subtle imaginative form, but always rooted in the enduring horrors of fighting and the influence it has on the psychology of its victims, as well as for the artist himself to get away from the violence through love and the creative process. His work also challenges the hidden or secret nature of certain human behavior.

One of Al-Karim’s techniques is to put a veil of silk or other light fabric on top of the pieces, to indicate the thin line between reality and illusion, as well as to project the distant lands of the artist’s memory, fantasy, dreams as well as terror and nightmares.

He also addresses the potential power of collective memory versus individual awareness, of the close relationship between love and hate, women and politics. His Schizophrenia piece is especially powerful as it represents a split in the psychology of a people and the deceptive nature of governments.

Currently showing at Artspace London Gallery for the first time are three pieces entitled the Eternal Love Series, originally completed in 2010, which the artist expands upon in the Interview transcript.

Another set of images, the Seclusion in Pigalle Series, are of a purely sexual nature and show women in intimate naked contact; but they are a little difficult to locate in the Gallery. Placed right at the back of the lower level, one has to wonder whether they were deliberately hidden at the last minute to not affront some of the more conservative Arab viewers.

Witness from Baghdad 2013 at Artspace London Galley is Al-Karim’s first solo exhibition in London, UK, organized to coincide with the tenth anniversary of the Iraq War. A small percentage of sales will go towards the charity The Young Mesopotamians, which is an educational initiative to foster the next generation of young artists in Iraq. Their Facebook page: Young Mesopotamians.

I do highly recommend a visit before it ends on 23 February 2013. More information:Witness from Baghdad.

Halim Al-Karim: Artist Biography

Halim Al-Karim was born in Najaf, Iraq in 1963 and studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Baghdad. He had to endure much hardship under Saddam Hussein and at one point, lived in hole for three years to escape military service for war. He has lost a number of family relatives over the years, including four brothers and a sister.

Able to flee in 1991, he sought asylum in the Netherlands, where he studied Photography at the Gerrit Rietueld Academy from 1996 to 2000, which is now his preferred medium of work.

Today, he lives between Denver, Colorado in the Unites States and in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates. His work has already been exhibited all around the world, including the United State, the Gulf, Middle East and Europe. Most notably, his work was a part of an exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery in London in 2009 and in October 2011, a solo exhibition in New York.

Note: This article was first published circa February 2013

Made in Makkah, Exhibition at Artspace London Gallery

One has to wonder what kind of Art would come today from the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Indeed, would there even be room for it in a place reserved just for Muslim pilgrims who arrive at least once in their lifetime to pray, face God and do the necessary rituals to get closer to the Divine.

It is to the inhabitants who live permanently so close and near to this place of worship that we can search for the answer because their artistic sentiments give rise to the issue of Islamic Art in general. Although Western academics would have us believe that it all ended in the 19th Century, this new exhibition at Artspace London Gallery offers a challenge.

In collaboration with Athr Gallery in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Made in Makkah brings the work of three living Meccan artists, who have taken the classical forms of Islamic calligraphy and sculpture and given them a modern twist. Overall, the exhibition brings a fresh insight and perspective into what can be done artistically without crossing the religious restrictions.

Nasser Al-Salem, born in 1984, is the calligraphist who has created a signature modern form that extends the Arabesque style. Drawing on the names of Allah and verses from the Quran, his work is poetically geometric with various movements created within the texts, to symbolize the transcendent perfection of God through the word.

For example, the piece entitled “Whoever obeys Allah, he will make for him a way out” is the verse transformed into a labyrinth or maze to represent the meaning of the injunction. His “Kul I” and “Kul II” are also beautiful, in black and white; and, by using mirrors, his “God shall not Die” again creates a spatial infinity.

The second artist is the 32–year-old sculptress Noha Al-Sharif, who has two related pieces exhibited. Working with clay, marble aggregate and polyester resin, she has created at least 100 black female figurines for each piece that stand together in Islamic prayer or deep contemplation. They exude the sense of being together or alone in worship, as well as the peace in religious posturing.

Last but not least is the incredible and most impressive work of Saddek Wasil, who creates sculptures from dark steel, iron and discarded metal. His unusual subjects that include “Barbed”, “Windows” and “They bear their weights”, have an uncanny leaden heaviness, pain and almost torture about them.

As well-put by Artspace: “His sculptures exuberate a rejection of binding stereotypes and an iron will to defeat material subjugation for the sake of spiritual freedom. He equates metal, with strength, and his patience and ability to break down its intransigence and to manipulate it to his will, is what gives him his sense of empowerment and achievement.”

This exhibition proves that Islamic art is alive and well in the birthplace of the religion. Yes, it has changed and adapted to be new, modern and provocative, but its original spiritual dimension remains, with the process of the Art being an act of adoration and worship in itself.

Artspace was first created in Dubai in 2003, to bring the very best of new and well-established Middle Eastern artists’ works to the world stage. Now in London as well, it endeavors to provide the best selection for Western and Eastern collectors.

Already, Artspace has brought forward the works of well-known artists and helped launch several artistic careers, including, Zakaria Ramhani, Ahmed Mater, Mohammed Taman, Shadi Al Zaqzouq and Monif Ajaj.

Made In Makkah can be viewed until 27 October 2012 at the elegant Artspace London Gallery, located very near to Knightsbridge tube station. For more information,

Note: This article was first published circa October 2012

The Gaddafi Archives

Libya Before the Arab Spring

The Gaddafi Archives is a controversial new exhibition taking place at the Slade Research Centre as part of the London Festival of Photography 2012. It draws upon original archives unearthed by a team of Human Rights Watch during the Revolution in Libya. The material is mainly photographs of originals discovered and therefore, they are not in any way of an artistic bent taken to humanise Gaddafi.

Still for the Libyan this exhibition is hard to stomach because Gaddafi was the great tormentor, abuser and grand narcissist, who derived great pleasure in displaying his prowess. The material only evokes feelings of loss, grief and shame about the wasted years and what could have been achieved but wasn’t.

None of the photos comes as a surprise, as the Libyans have already seen most of them on billboards for 42 years. We know of all his various outfits, from the military dress with false medals of honors, to the African robes and Armani suits. But perhaps for the foreign observer, the exhibition offers an insight into the years of horror endured.

Spread over five rooms, it starts with Libya’s independence in 1951. We see King Idris I and his former Prime Ministers, Mustafa Ben-Halim and Hussein Maziq, as well as his close Adviser Abdul-Aziz Shelhi. One shows HM Queen Elizabeth II on a visit to Libya in 1954 and another with the King opening Parliament, as well as photos of him with US and British Military attaches.

The Gaddafi era then follows, with Room Two focusing on the first year after the 1969 coup and anniversary celebrations, when the US and British had evacuated their air bases. Also, there is the major visit to President Gamal Abdul-Nasser in Cairo in 1969; and how, when the latter died, photos of the memorial parade with thousands of Libyans out in public mourning.

Room Three is material circa 1980s, when Gaddafi began to implement his Green Book theories, by abolishing parliament and the party system, rejecting communism and capitalism and the abolition of personal property. There are photos of a state visit to the Soviet Union President Leonid Brezhnev and a picture of Saif Il-Islam with his mother Safia Farkesk, in a Great Man Made River Project tunnel.

It is Room Four that looks at Gaddafi’s descent into hell, with photos and videos proving some of the public hangings that took place in the 1980s. In particular, one disturbing photo is of two men hanging at the Benghazi sea port and a video of the public execution of Sadiq Hamed Shwehdi. Also, in this room, are copies of letters from the CIA, dated in March 2004, coordinating with Gaddafi for the secret rendition of Abdullah Al-Sadiq (real name Abdelhakim Belhadj) from Malaysia.

Room Five is miscellaneous material, with portraits of Libyan military graduates, photos regarding the war in Chad and ‘Al-Fateh’ celebrations in 1977. It also includes cartoons and a recent video of Misrata militias terrorizing residents of nearby Tawergha accusing them of pro-Gaddafi atrocities.

Although there are no pictures of the recent Revolution, there is a tribute area to the photojournalists who were killed in April 2011: Tim Hetherington, Chris Hondros and Anton Hammerl. And mention of Michael Christopher Brown and Guy Martin who were also wounded. HRW has made it clear that this exhibition is not meant to be a Gaddafi freak show, but to respect the memory of all those who have died or suffered under the regime.

Like any historic proof, it is for a nation’s benefit to preserve all original material for future educational reference. As Libyans, 42 years of history cannot be wiped out and the evidence must not be destroyed, no matter how much anger or shame we feel towards it. Archives remind us of what and how things went wrong and will help us to unravel the thousands of mysteries yet to be unraveled.

As Libyans, yes, we’d prefer to put images of a smiling Gaddafi aside, at least until our hurt and wounds properly heal. Perhaps in years, we can look dispassionately at these archives and gain much needed closure. Gaddafi laughed at us and we were scared of him. But, now it turns out, he was the Emperor with no clothes.

The Gaddafi Archives will be open until 29 June and include four panel discussions next week. For more information: Gaddafi Archives.

Note: This article was first published circa June 2012

Libya – The Years of Hope, Mustafa Ben-Halim

I owe my dear friend Magda a big thank you for letting me borrow her treasured copy of Mustafa Ben-Halims’s ‘Libya – The Years of Hope’, for it is not easy to come by. Although dense and heavy at 343 pages, it does add an extra dimension to the recent February 17 Libyan Revolution with Ben Halim’s heartfelt recommendations, especially for the younger Libyan generation, when he wrote the book.

Ben-Halim, former Prime Minister of Libya during the Senussi led constitutional monarchy, published the memoirs in 1990, when he was still living in exile under diplomatic protection in the United Kingdom. Written in both Arabic and English, it documents his ten years’ worth of experience in public office and sets the record straight on the Years of Hope – as he describes them.

His goal then was to expose the Gaddafi regime’s “falsification and fabrication of history” and to fill a thirty-year vacuum of information; as well as to answer some of the severe accusations directed at him after the 1969 coup. He was brave and courageous to write this material as Gaddafi was still in power; but, considering last year’s events, Ben Halim must be very glad. He the only surviving ex-premier who witnessed the downfall of the dictatorial regime and it must for him feel like the completion of a full circle.

Not being able in 1990 to rely on important official documents for his time in office – as all were confiscated and locked up – he sets and jogs his memory on British and American official documents published after 30 years from the day of events and on newspaper archives. The former exclude other scripts which need a fifty-year-cut-off before becoming available.

Part personal biography detailing his Derna merchant family background, the childhood influences and education he received in Alexandria, Egypt and qualifying as an Engineer, the greater focus is on his time first as Minister of Public Works (1953-1954), second as Prime Minister (1953-1957), third as Private Councillor to the King (1957-1958) and last as Ambassador to France (1958-1960).

Incidentally, the memoirs offer a wonderful look at the historical dynamics some decades prior to 1951. From the day the Italians landed on the coast in October 1911, to their harsh occupation and punishing military tribunals versus the heroic local resistance movement, to the World Wars, the UN Mandate granting Libya independence, to recognition of the Senussi monarchy; and, finally, to the massive challenges faced by a virgin country that was divided, poor and in need of international political and economic support.

The entries detail the constitutional set-up, the federal institutional system imposed – and the challenges this created – as well as the big constitutional crisis faced by the Mahmoud Muntasir and Muhammad governments. We also read the specific diplomatic problems Ben-Halim had to face and the role he played in extracting and negotiating for financial aid and support from Britain and the US, in helping resolve the border problem of the French in the Fezzan, to proposing reforms to the King which never came into effect and a chapter on the story of oil.

I mostly enjoyed the part on the personality and political inclinations of King Idriss and the dangerous competitive drama that existed between his family members and the Head of the Royal Household, Ibrahim Shelhi. We also read on the assassination of the latter by the former and the awful results of that too. The King is portrayed in an affectionate way as a friend but Ben-Halim also expresses frustration with him for being too easily influenced by his entourage on matters of state and wavering at critical junctures.

There is more on the general political landscape of the Middle East in the 1950s and 1960s, the power and position of Egypt and President Jamal Nasser’s hold on popular nationalist Arab sentiments, the question of Israel and the handling of the Suez crisis. Other pages include Libya’s role in the Algerian uprising, the Tripartite Aggression against Egypt and its repercussions, the last years of the Royalist regime and finally the 1969 coup with the false promises then made.

Throughout, Ben Halim’s woes regarding that period are evident when he writes: “The nucleus of a democratic system began to appear. Many deputies performed their patriotic duty in giving direction to the government and calling it to strict account. Anyone who looks fairly at the House records will only feel a deep sadness and regret at the loss of freedom, at the strangling of that nascent democratic experiment, its destruction, repression, despotism and wrongdoing.”

Yet describing the situation a few years later: “I could see the beginnings of the deterioration of the monarchal system, and the spread of corruption which was becoming so overwhelming that it was damaging the props of constitutional rule and the integrity of public servants.”

Ben- Halim ends up paying a heavy price with the fall of the constitutional monarchy. Although he escaped imprisonment and execution by the Gaddafi regime, he was still put on trial in absentia for “corrupting political life by rigging the 1956 elections”. And, after refusing to become a Revolutionary Committee member, he was kidnapped in Beirut, Lebanon in 1973.

Had that attempt succeeded, he would have been forced back to Libya and brutally punished. Luckily, he was saved when the car had an accident and the kidnappers, hired from the Ahmed Jibril Palestinian Group, ran off. There were also several assassination attempts foiled by British Intelligence in the years that followed.

Eventually, Ben-Halim had to accept exile and so sought support and protection from his friend Prince Fahd and the King Faisal of Saudi Arabia. He describes the day when he pledged allegiance: “My raised right hand trembled. I quivered with emotion and could barely hold back the tears. I felt great pain and sadness as I gave up the nationality of my fathers for that of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, even though this is the homeland of the true Arab spirit, the refuge for free Arabs and Muslims, and the site of the Holy sanctuaries. The pain of severance I felt then I would not wish it on my worst enemy.”

Although Ben-Halim book doesn’t answer – and doesn’t claim to answer – all the questions we may have about our country’s history between independence in 1951 to September 1969, they do offer a sincere account of the years when he was Prime Minister and his own assessment and analysis of the political, social and economic forces at play.

Plus, the book should really serve as a reminder of the injustices forced upon those who chose not to sell their souls to the Gaddafi regime post-1969. Today, more than ever, it is essential to study the past in detail, so as not to repeat some mistakes and to ensure we never end up being hostage in our own country without our deserved freedoms.

Note: This article was first published circa February 2012

Anatomy of A Disappearance, Hisham Matar

This novel is about an author’s incredible restraint. Hisham Matar, who has in real life suffered a publicly documented tragedy – the loss and disappearance of his father – doesn’t in 246 pages mention the word Libya, the true source of his grief and misery. Easily, he can blame, accuse and point the finger; but rather, Matar in this novel reclaims the personal, ignores the current political and rises above the sordid history.

Insisting his work is fictional, an adolescent Nuri loses his mother first and after experiences the unusual vanishing of his father. Alongside, there is a racy and competitive love triangle interwoven in the tale – between father, son and the amorous interest Mona.

Though one is transported to the background cities of Alexandria, Egypt, Geneva, Switzerland, Paris, France and London, England, the protagonist’s country of origin is only referred to as a place of waterfalls, pomegranates and palm trees. Matar also cleverly fabricates the political tale: “Our King was dragged to the courtyard of the palace and shot in the head.”

Throughout, Nuri struggles to make sense of his life, his young sexuality and unusual family circumstances. Living at first in exile with his father, he is clearly in the shadows of the man who holds incredible charm and intellect, wealth and a certain political persuasion. But after there is also a great betrayal.

After the father’s disappearance, there is even more anguish, confusion, loss and the sense of unrequited grief: “Relatives and neighbours who might have filled the chairs in the hall if father had died were silent in the face of his disappearance.”

Not to spoil the intricate plot that is well paced and engaging, I recommend this book over Matar’s first – “In the Country of Men.” This one flows much better and reads as a stream of poetic consciousness. But the fine line between fact and fiction is taken to the limits once more. Maybe Matar wants to be timeless. But, as the voice of the father, Kamal Pasha el-Alfi, says: “You can’t live outside history. We have nothing to be ashamed of. On the contrary!”

Note: This article was first published circa March 2012