The Odd One Out

Growing up in a family of doctors, Buthayna Ali’s household couldn’t have possibly been further removed from the arts. I discuss with the Syrian-born artist in Damascus how societal, religious and gender-related taboos fuel Ali’s oeuvre.

Buthayna Ali at her exhibtion We. 2006. 330 rubber swings, rope, sand, sound and light. Total size: 600 square metres.

Since the first time she attended an art exhibition as a tiddler, Buthayna Ali knew she wanted to become an artist. As a child, she would organise weekly in-house exhibitions for her family and showcase portraits of them, landscapes and sketches of her surroundings. Although her father expected her to study medicine, Ali applied to Damascus University’s Faculty of Fine Arts (where she now teaches painting) and later completed a diploma in painting from the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-arts and a Master’s degree in Islamic Art History at the Paris IV Sorbonne University.

As a multimedia artist, Ali is not only the odd one out in her family, but also within the Syrian art scene that is still largely dominated by classical art forms. Even though Ali admires the works of artists like Michelangelo, Manet and Schiele, the modernist art tendencies of artists like Duchamp in the early 20th century left the biggest impact on her. “The freedom in art in the 20th century helped me break many boundaries. Art for me is about freedom,” Ali says.

I can’t decide which is more provocative in conservative Damascene circles – the art forms that Ali pursues or her eagerness to break the taboos of sex and religion in her work. One thing is certain: Ali’s work never fails to raise eyebrows in her native Syria. When asked what her thoughts are on addressing ‘square issues’, Ali shrugs. “Art is meant to break traditions. It is important to free your tools and open your mind to new ways of expression,” she says, acknowledging acceptance of the fact that conventional spheres in Syria may not appreciate her work. “The first time I saw an installation as an art student in France, I thought it was crap. You don’t wake up one day and start to like video or installation art,” she adds; “To appreciate these art forms, you first need to understand the process that led to their creation and this does not happen between one day and another.”

Breaking Taboos

Even outside Syria, Ali’s work causes controversy. Her installation, No Comment, features copies of the Qur’an, Bible and Tanakh chained inside a glass display case with audio recordings of Islamic verses, Assyrian hymns and Jewish songs. It was denied entry into Jerusalem for participation in the 2009 exhibition, The Other Shadow of the City, curated by Samar Martha at Al-Hoash Gallery. Through the work, Ali criticises religious hypocrisy and implies that the teachings of the three religions are no longer followed, but are instead used for political propaganda. Ali did not receive an official explanation as to why the work was rejected. The work, which was never exhibited, didn’t make it back to Damascus and was ruined on the way.

“I made this artwork especially for The Other Shadow of the City exhibition and I chose this subject because Jerusalem for me is about these three religions and their fight to gain control over the city,” Ali said. “I was very disappointed that the art work was not allowed into Jerusalem. I’ve always dreamed about visiting Jerusalem and I was so excited that my work could be exhibited there.”

Y Why! 2010. 22 cement slingshots, rubber and leather. Total size: 600 square metres.

Her easygoing and informal persona allows her to stroll along the streets of Damascus to convince ordinary Syrians – from the local butcher to the veiled woman walking down Souk Al-Hamidiyeh – to talk to Ali openly about their views on sex, life and the concept of homeland. In her installation, Marionettes, Ali probed men and women from different cultural and religious backgrounds on Syria’s curious lingerie production which includes edible undergarments and remote-controlled bras that play music and spring open with a press of a button. The inspiration for this work came from seeing kitschy lingerie spread out on a peddler’s small table next to the Sayyida Ruqayya shrine in Old Damascus. “I found it very contradictory that it is a taboo to talk about sex, yet it is perfectly normal to sell lingerie in front of places of worship and to have women, mostly veiled ones, go into the Syrian equivalent of sex shops where men sell them lewd lingerie!” exclaims Ali.

The piece, exhibited in Point Ephémère in Paris in 2007, features eight lingerie items hung by strings, like marionettes, and which face eight mirrors. Visitors standing in front of the mirrors appear to be wearing the undergarments; a changing room – for anyone wishing to try on the lingerie – plays audio files of conversations between Ali and interviewed men and women who had been asked their opinions on the lingerie and whether they would purchase any of the items. To Ali’s surprise, most of the Syrian men she interviewed said they didn’t like them, while the majority of the women said that they would wear them.

Syria’s provocative lingerie production caught the interest of other artists as well. Designer Rana Salam and writer Malu Halasa published the book The Secret Life of Syrian Lingerie in which various Syrian women voiced their fears, hopes and view of sex and marriage. In Marionettes, Ali decided to go a step further by making visitors of her exhibition, even if only virtually, wear that lingerie and thus see the subject from a more personal point of view.

“The work is about the viewers rather than the exhibited lingerie. I wanted to challenge the visitors and dare them to wear those lewd pieces,” Ali says pointing out that interaction with the audience is why she chose to make installations instead of paintings.  “A boundary always exists between the viewer and a painting, and it takes a long time to overcome it. Installations, on the other hand, involve all the senses of the viewer making the artwork easier to grasp and more intimate. This also makes it more colourful. Monet painted the Cathedral in each period of the day to show it, each time, in a different light. My installations change with every visitor; each one of them make it appear in a different light.”

Y Why! 2010. 22 cement slingshots, rubber and leather. Total size: 600 square metres.

Issues of Displacement

During the interview, roles were often reversed and Ali was the one asking the questions – something akin to the second nature of a restless artist. “In Arab countries we take many things as a given. There are a lot of things that you don’t question because you are not supposed to,” she says. “I didn’t choose my name, my sex, my country of origin or the religion I was born into. There are a few things left where I can have a choice, so why not? Asking questions gives me choices.” Her constant travel between Europe, Syria and Canada for study and work allowed her to question the concept of home, especially when meeting second-generation immigrants who consider their parents’ country of origin as their homeland even though some had never lived there and don’t speak its language. “Can you inherit a homeland?” Ali asks. “I don’t understand how it can be that you grow up and spend your whole life in a certain country and yet feel that you belong to another one that you’ve hardly visited!” Inspired by the immigrants and their sense of dislocation, Ali created the photomontage, Examples, in which she asked immigrants in various countries where it is that they call home. Exhibited in 2008 at Paris’s Enrico Navarra Gallery, the work features interviews and portraits of Ali’s ‘examples’ created in a book format, but hung. Like bookends, each person’s face and the back of their heads framed the contents within, thus inviting viewers to read what is essentially, within these ‘minds’. The conversation then begs the question: where does Ali call home? Unflinchingly and in a heavy Damascene accent, she quickly says, “Al-Sham (Damascus) is my home. I don’t see homeland as a political unit though. Less than 100 years ago, the Syria we know today did not exist. My homeland is where I grew up and where my childhood memories are.”

Dislocation is also a central theme in Ali’s installation, Y, which was commissioned and later purchased by Mathaf Arab Museum of Modern Art. The artwork is comprised of 22 slingshots which symbolise the 22 Arab countries that according to Ali, “catapult their citizens”, or, in other words, force them to immigrate and seek asylum for various political, economical and social reasons. Using cement, Ali sized each slingshot according to the size of the Arab country it represents and reflected its migration rate during the last decade in the length of its rubber straps. Why slingshots, I ask? “Because they involve a short period of flying. They give a sense of freedom. This initial freedom, however, is short-lived. They will soon hit the ground with a brutal jolt,” replies Ali, referring to the emotional impact of being uprooted.

Calling for Equality

Ali insists that she is not a feminist. However, the Syrian tradition of deeming trivial or casual conversations ‘women’s talk’ and the fact that two women’s testimonies equal a man’s in Syrian courts provoked the title of one her most recent works, Don’t Talk to Her, She’s Only a Woman! that was exhibited at Tütün Deposu in Istanbul in 2010 as part of the Sharing Waters sauna meets hammam project curated by Ulla Kastrup. In the piece, Ali explores the hammam as a refuge for women away from the sphere of male influence and authority; a place where they can spend “me-time” and share their secrets and concerns mostly concerning the opposite sex.  Ali’s belief of women being unequal to men is not restricted to Syrian society – the work includes a Japanese woman’s recitation of discrimination in her workplace because of her gender; an Iraqi refugee’s tales on being a prostitute in Syria and an American woman’s criticisms on society for frowning upon her having four or five sexual partners. “I see the hammam as a place where women peel off their clothes and restraints and enjoy a short period of freedom and gather strength to face their lives in a patriarchal society,” adds Ali. “It was very hard to convince women to open up and tell me the stories that they would otherwise confide in their close friends in a hammam.” Getting these women to talk was not the only challenge – Ali’s subjects opted to record their voices on tape for sake of privacy as opposed to speaking with her face-to-face. This element of ‘secrecy’ and indistinctness was reflected in Don’t Talk to Her, She’s Only a Woman! via two standard metal lockers fitted with 15 closed tier boxes in each. Light and recordings of each woman’s narrative spill out from the sealed boxes. Yet, when viewers open a locker, the light goes off and the sound is muted.

Light forms an integral part of Ali’s works. Since her first show, an installation of a tent which was also her graduation project at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-arts, was criticized by the jury for not using light, Ali put a lot of effort in this aspect of her work.

“I felt that by not using light I let my work down. Light in an installation is just as important as colour is in a painting,” Ali said.

I’m Ashamed. 2009. 750 photographs, sound and light. 323 x 843 x 355 cm.

I’m Ashamed. 2009. 750 photographs, sound and light. 323 x 843 x 355 cm.

Ali’s most recent exhibition took place last November in Venice in the Fondazione Prada’s new exhibition space, the Ca’ Corner della Regina, where she showcased her work Y. Since then, however, the artist has not made any new artworks. The anti-regime demonstrations which began in Syria in March 2011 and rising death toll have had a profound impact on her; being so emotionally engrossed in the rebellion has distracted and conceiving other artwork is not a priority she holds at present.

When asked about her future plans, Ali shakes her head. “I used to tell my students at the university that if you stop working for one day, then you are not an artist! Yet here I am, one year after the unrest started in Syria and I am no longer able to work,” Ali says admitting that it is the first time she stopped making art since she was a little kid. “Living inside Syria, I feel like I am inside a box and I can no longer see things clearly. So many people are dying and all I am left with is a deep feeling of shame,” she pauses. “My only plans now are to see the end of the bloodshed in my country.”

This article was published in the current March/April issue of Canvas art magazine. See pdf version here.

Behind the Legends / Sultan Basha al-Atrash

Syria’s revolutionary heroes of the struggle against the Ottomans and the French in the first half of the 20th century have become national symbols for Syrians. Their names are used during the current Syrian revolution against the Assad regime as symbols of national unity and struggle for freedom. More than acts of bravery and leadership, the heroes of the past revolution were real people with families, homes, interests and quirks. I looked beyond the textbook tales to find out more about who these key figures really were. I profiled Sultan Basha al-Atrash, a revolutionist from Suweida.

Sultan Basha al-Atrash (1891-1982)

Sultan Basha al-Atrash (1891-1982)

Down From the Mountain

Sultan Basha al-Atrash was a serious leader from a patriotic place.

A simple farmer who loved working in the field is how the people of Al-Qrayya – a village 20km south of Suweida – remember Sultan Basha al-Atrash. He was a man who expressed his love for the land in all he did and said, in part by helping to lead the revolutions against the Ottomans and the French.

“The Basha used to criticise people who sit on rugs in the field. He always said: ‘Don’t put any barriers between you and your field,” said Maan al-Atrash, a 40-something grandson of Sultan Atrash’s nephew. He used the honourific term Basha, given to Atrash for his contribution to the revolt by King Faisal, the leader of the Arab revolt against the Ottomans.

It is his connection to his field and not to politics that led Atrash to fight against the Ottomans and the French, his relatives told Syria Today during a recent visit to the village. “He was not a politician, he did not understand politics,” Nadia al-Atrash, a 60-something granddaughter of Atrash’s cousin said. “He was a fighter who loved his land. He used to always say: ‘What was taken by the sword can only be retrieved by the sword’.”

Symbol of chivalry
In spite of his stern attitude, Atrash was popular among his community, Nadia Atrash said. People even consulted him about their personal problems.

“He was always very serious. No one ever heard him laughing. He used to say ‘men don’t laugh’,” she said. “Still, people respected him because he was honest and evenhanded. He had a down-to-earth manner, eating together with the workers on his farm.”

Today, photos of Atrash hang in houses throughout the Druze mountains, his statues dot its main squares and his name is mentioned in local folklore. Two years ago, a museum dedicated to his life opened in al-Qrayya.

Walking around al-Qrayya is like going back to the Middle Ages. People here still take pride in medieval knighthood and enjoy narrating old-fashioned myths about manhood and fighting. Words like “courage”, “honour” and “loyalty” are all that Maan Atrash and his friends talk about. He said he regrets that these principles are no longer valued.

“The chivalry of the fighters during the Great Syrian Revolution is out of fashion these days,” he said.

Fighting the Ottomans
Favourite among the tales is recounting the life story of the town’s most famous inhabitant. Basha Atrash’s military approach is attributed to his studies at the Ottoman Military Academy in Istanbul. The execution of his father by the Ottomans in 1913 for refusing to acknowledge their reign left deep resentment in Atrash, who joined the revolt against Ottoman rule as soon as he could.

That chance came in 1915 when Atrash, who was conscripted into the Ottoman army, defected and joined the Arab army of Sultan Husayn. The then 31-year-old Atrash served as commanding officer and roamed the villages of the Druze Mountains, encouraging men to fight.

Nadia Atrash pointed out proudly that it was women from the region who sewed the flag that the fighters raised in Damascus as a sign of liberation in 1918.

Maan al-Atrash, a 40-something grandson of Sultan Atrash's nephew / photo by Adel Samara

Maan al-Atrash, a 40-something grandson of Sultan Atrash’s nephew / photo by Adel Samara

French opposition
By 1920, France was in control of Syria. In 1925 Atrash was elected the leader of the Syrian Revolution, Omar Arnao’ut a 91-year-old companion of the Basha’s son Mansour, said.

“The National Revolution Assembly, consisting of prominent Damascene and Syrian revolutionary figures, selected Atrash to be their leader. They chose him because his soldiers played the biggest part in the fight against the Ottomans and the French,” Arnao’ut said.

The revolt was finally crushed in 1927 and Atrash was sentenced – together with many other rebels – to death. He fled to Jordan where he stayed until he was pardoned by the French in 1937. Following Syrian independence in 1946, Atrash declined political office.

“He said that politics has its men. He is a farmer and the son of a farmer. His place is in the fields,” Najeeb Atrash, brother of Maan Atrash said.

Historical facts are based on official documents from the Historical Documents Centre in Damascus and the book Steel and Silk by political analyst Sami Moubayed.

This article was published in Syria Today magazine.

Behind the Legends / Naziq al-Abed

Syria’s revolutionary heroes of the struggle against the Ottomans and the French in the first half of the 20th century have become national symbols for Syrians. Their names are used during the current Syrian revolution against the Assad regime as symbols of national unity and struggle for freedom. 

More than acts of bravery and leadership, the heroes of the past revolution were real people with families, homes, interests and quirks. I looked beyond the textbook tales to find out more about who these key figures really were. I profiled Naziq al-Abed, a revolutionist from Damascus.

Naziq al-Abed (1898-1959)

Naziq al-Abed (1898-1959)

Our Joan of Arc

Naziq al-Abed was a pioneer for both national independence and women’s rights.

It might be hard to imagine Damascene women in the 1920s – generally perceived as illiterate and cloaked in traditional mlaye (a short skirt and veil) – as freedom fighters. Yet many of them took up both pens and arms in the fight against foreign rule.

Naziq al-Abed, a robust woman with a round face and dark, curious eyes, was one of the most controversial women to partake in the Syrian revolutions against the Ottomans and French. Born in 1898 as the daughter of an aristocrat and an insider in the court of Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid II, Abed traded the French dance saloons, European tours and luxurious lifestyle that her family maintained, for the battlefield. She was also a passionate feminist, often infuriating the sensibilities of Damascus’s conservative circles.

“She was not like any of her sisters,” Burhan al-Abed, Naziq al-Abed’s third cousin, said. “She was very liberal with a strong character. She was a true rebel.”

Burhan, an anesthesiologist in his nineties, recalled with nostalgia his visits to his cousin’s farm, where he usually found her working in the field or sitting on the floor eating with her fellow workers.

“She was a humble person who loved sports and horseback riding. She used to dress like middle-class Damascenes and avoided accessories and ornaments. She was the only woman at that time who wore trousers and boots and carried a whip,” he said.

Transition to politics
Following her student years, Abed became politically engaged. Although she originally studied agriculture, she worked as a journalist and became a vocal critic of the Ottoman and French policies in her country. In 1919, she led a women’s delegation that discussed the French mandate in Syria with the American King Crane Commission that was tasked with determining the attitudes of Syrians and Palestinians towards the settlement of their territories.

Naziq held anti-colonial views despite her family’s ties to the Ottomans. She came from a prominent Damascene family whose members held important governmental positions during the Ottoman empire. Her father, for example, was the wali (governor) of Mosul and her uncle, Ahmad Izzat, was the aide-de-camp and private advisor to Sultan Abdulhamid.

Many women activists worked with Naziq al-Abed. Together, they formed the Syrian Red Crescent in 1922.

Many women activists worked with Naziq al-Abed. Together, they formed the Syrian Red Crescent in 1922.

Yet, according to Burhan, her family did not mind Naziq’s political stance, even though she was exiled as a result of it in 1914 and again in 1919.

“Even though the Abed family held important positions in the Ottoman empire, they were proud of their Arab roots,” he said.

When France assumed the mandate of Syria in 1920, Naziq was the only Syrian woman to take up arms and join Youssef al-Azmah, Syria’s then-defence minister, and the military at the Battle of Maysaloun. She is also said to be the only survivor of the battle, which ended in a catastrophic defeat and in the French occupation of Syria.

Newspapers at the time hailed her as “Joan of Arc of the Arabs” and King Faisal named her an honorary general in the Syrian army. Burhan Abed proudly recounted the king’s visit to his family house, based on the story his mother used to tell.

“We served him lemonade,” he said, leafing through a thick, leather-bound book and pointing out the common ancestors between his family and Naziq’s.

Burhan al-Abed, Naziq al-Abed's third cousin / photo by Adel Samara

Burhan al-Abed, Naziq al-Abed’s third cousin / photo by Adel Samara

Advocate for women
Her ‘liberal’ views about women were less welcomed by her family, Burhan said. Naziq Abed removed her veil several times in public and in front of television cameras. Unlike her sisters, she was unmarried until she was in her forties and until then had lived alone in her farm in the Ghuta, a green area of Damascus fed by natural aqueducts.

“Naziq’s family were very modern and open minded compared to the mentality at that time,” Burhan said. “Even so, they did not always like her behavior. But she did not listen to them. She did what she wanted to do.”

In 1919, Naziq al-Abed established Noor al-Fayyha (Light of Damascus), the first women’s organisation in Syria. She also helped to establish many associations and organisations that advocated women’s rights in Syria and Lebanon. She financed a hospital and was the founder of the Syrian Red Star which, according to Hazim Ba’ale, director of medical services at the Syrian Red Crescent, led to the opening of a women’s branch of the international organisation in Syria in 1922.

Historical facts are based on official documents from the Historical Documents Centre in Damascus and the book Steel and Silk by political analyst Sami Moubayed.

This article was published in Syria Today magazine.

Syria’s Soprano (profile of Syrian singer Dima Orsho)

Singer Dima Orsho fuses western and eastern traditions, making a name for herself both at home and abroad.   

Dima Orsho / photo by Kais Zakaria

 Dressed in jeans and a light blouse with her hair casually tied back, Dima Orsho looks nothing like the stereotype of an opera singer. The easygoing and youthful appearance that she and the other members of the Hewar ensemble radiate captivated their Syrian audience as they swung to the group’s eclectic music when they performed in Syria at a jazz concert in 2008.

Orsho, who performs both solo and with the band Hewar, has a musical style that reflects her multicultural background. She and Hewar blend Oriental sounds with elements of jazz, scat, opera and classical music, woven with non-verbal vocalisations by Orsho.  She uses her voice as a third instrument to accompany her Syrian colleagues, Kinan Azmeh on clarinet and Essam Rafea on oud.

“Hewar [Arabic for dialogue] is based on the principle of musical dialogue where we can say what we can’t express in words,” Orsho said.

A cultural blend

The lyrical soprano in her thirties said she refuses to be relegated to one genre.

“Just because I’m an opera singer, it does not mean that I should not sing oriental,” Orsho said in a phone conversation with Syria Today from the Chicago home where she currently lives with her husband and child. “I like to try different things and that is exactly what we try to do with Hewar. We enjoy experimenting and working together and I think that the positive energy created by that joy is always radiated to our audience.”

The search for something different drove Orsho to travel to the US in 2005 for graduate studies in opera performance at the Boston Conservatory.

Orsho had previously studied opera performance and clarinet at the Damascus High Institute of Music and attended singing classes in Maastricht Conservatory in the Netherlands. However, she found the courses too specific. 

“Opera performance studies in the US are more comprehensive,” she said. “I didn’t only want to learn how to sing but also how to stand on stage, how to act and how to direct a musical.”

Dima Orsho and Kinan Azmeh at the Library of Congress 2010

Stiff competition

Orsho, however, said her time in the US was not always easy.

“Studying abroad was one of the biggest challenges I’ve ever faced. It was a tough time for me since I had to catch up with a more complicated and intensive curriculum,” Orsho said. 

The competitive atmosphere in the US also makes it more difficult for musicians to distinguish themselves, she added.

“Each year thousands of musicians graduate from conservatories and music schools all around the US while in Syria only a handful of musicians graduate annually, which makes opportunities in the US very competitive, especially for non-Americans in general and Arabs in particular.”

Still, Orsho succeeded in making an international name for herself as a Syrian singer. She has performed in professional productions at the Boston Conservatory and at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.

In 2008, Orsho released her first solo album, Arabic Lieder, in which she sings to compositions by renowned Syrian pianist Gaswan Zerikly and incorporates lyrics from distinguished Arabic poems from Mahmoud Darwish and others. 

Music compositions

Although Orsho is primarily known as a singer, she says the idea of becoming one did not cross her mind until her second year as a clarinet player at the High Institute of Music.

“My teacher Victor Babenko advised me to switch from clarinet to singing. He believed in my vocal and musical abilities.”

Since she was a teen, Orsho wanted to study composition. However, back in 1993 when she started her studies at Damascus High Institute of Music, there were only three curriculums: clarinet, piano and singing.

“I didn’t have many options back then. I wish I had then the opportunities I have now in the US. It’s too late now to start all over again and study composing” Orsho said.

Nevertheless, Orsho occasionally composes her own music for films and theatre performances. Some of her most famous compositions include the soundtrack for the 2005 film Under the Ceiling by Syrian director Nidal al-Dibs and Darkest Times, a mimic theatre performance directed by Syrian dancer and choreographer Noura Murad. She is currently composing the music to which the Syrian dance group Leish Troup will perform in December.

Meanwhile, she is busy recording Hewar’s third album, which will be released in Germany and Damascus by the end of the year. Twenty-four hours each day does not give her enough time to accomplish all the musical feats she would like to achieve, she said: I wish I had more time, there are so many things I’d love to do.”

This article was published in Syria Today magazine.  

Independent Film and Television College

Established in 2004, Iraq’s first Independent Film and Television College has produced 13 short documentary films by young Iraqi directors that turned a lot of heads at international festivals. However, with the growing insecurity in Iraq, the school’s future looks bleak.

Maysoon Pachachi

If just taking a camera out on the street, or even shooting from the back of a car could get you killed or stopped by armed militia, the police or the National Guard, would you consider making a film? If you were a student at the Independent Film and Television College (IFTVC) in Baghdad you would. In fact it’s this violence and sectarianism that drove London based Iraqi filmmakers Kasim Abid and Maysoon Pachachi to establish the college at first place.

“We felt that film and television could be powerful tools in the reconstruction and renewal of a shattered society. They could provide a way for a society to look at itself, to question its history and to consider its future.  And they also provide a way for one section of society to talk to another,” Pachachi says. “We want to try to help young people, in particular, to unlock their creative potential and to provide them with a basic training to enable them to put their thoughts and stories on the screen.”

Established in 2004, IFTVC has become the first and only private film and television college in Iraq to date. The college organizes special intensive courses in camera, sound, and lighting as well as documentary film courses all free of charge.

 During the Saddam regime, there was very limited cinema production.  The severe sanctions imposed on Iraq for over 13 years meant was no film stock, labs, and certainly no digital technology. Almost no practical film training had been possible,” Pachachi says.

While before the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iraqi documentaries were few and far between, the bloody events of the recent years, coupled with a growth in film stock and digital technology available to Iraqis, kicked more of the country’s filmmakers into action. Flocks of young Iraqis enrolled in the courses of the newly-opened college, producing 13 short documentary films so far and drawing attention in various international festivals.

One such film is Hiba Bassem’s Baghdad days (2005). The 35min documentary about Bassem’s struggles to come to terms with her position as a woman on her own in Baghdad received the New Horizon silver award at the al-Jazeera International Film Festival in Doha (2006) and the golden award at the Rotterdam Arab Film Festival (2006).  Other films by IFTVC students have recently been screened at IDFA in Amsterdam and Sheffield International Documentary Film Festival, New York University, Columbia University and Goldsmith’s College among others.

Kasim Abid

Not without Difficulty

While IFTVC organizes two 4-month-documentary courses a year, keeping to the schedule wasn’t always easy.   “They (the students) often research their projects and once they’ve set everything up, done their camera training and are ready to shoot, they often find that the security situation has suddenly changed and they are now unable to shoot the film they wanted to shoot and have to start all over again,” Pachachi says.

Furthermore, students suffered attempted abduction, saw their houses destroyed by mortar attacks, and their family members kidnapped or violently killed. One student even got shot while shooting his film. This growing insecurity in addition to the rise in the number of nearby explosions, one of which shattered every pane of glass in the college, forced it to close several times. Nevertheless, according Pachachi, IFTVC never cancelled a course. “All this, obviously, has forced us to work in a stop-start manner.  And we have been able to carry on by remaining patient and flexible, working in a low-profile manner and being prepared to improvise,” she says. “It was either this or abandoning our project and we were not willing to do this.”

The continuous delays meant that courses took twice as long, putting economic strain on IFTVC as it is funded by charity, foundation grants and private donations. Furthermore, while the college used to advertise for students and publish announcements in the newspapers in 2004, since the emergence of extremist groups that regard cinema sinful, it’s no longer safe to do so.  “Until there is a serious improvement in the security situation, we will be finding students by contacting colleges and arts centers and by word-of-mouth,” Pachachi says. As a result, only 18 students attended IFTVC’s most recent course, a far cry from the average 25 students who used to apply.

In spite of all difficulties, Pachachi and Abid remain optimistic. “It is difficult to predict how anything in Iraq will develop at the moment, but we are hoping to be able to carry on and to expand our teaching, to offer more courses, expose them (the students) to a wider number of teachers, and support their filmmaking activities,” she says.

This article was published in Tafaseel periodical e-magazine specialized in documentary films. Tafaseel is a publication of Proaction Film company.


The Art of Deformation (profile of painter Nihad al-Turk)

Syrian painter Nihad al-Turk explains how four months in prison shaped his artistic career.

Looking at Nihad al-Turk’s works is like watching a science fiction movie. Painted with strong, fast brushstrokes and bright colours, deformed mythological creatures, half-human-half-beast, grow all over his canvases and appear to radiate light. Each figure has a necklace with seven dark beads dangling around its neck.

“The beads resemble the members of my family,” Turk said as he pulled out the very same necklace with seven round olive pits from under his jumper. “This deformed and shattered creature I paint is actually me.”

As our interview progresses, this statement does not surprise me. He tells me stories of growing up in extreme poverty, of his mother hand-washing her five children’s clothes in a large basin, and of his father heading off to work exhausted at 5:30am every morning to put food on the table for his family.

However, it was in fact not his tough childhood that influenced Turk’s gloomy style; an incident in 1992 shaped his work and life much more profoundly.

The young artist’s first exhibition took place in 1992, while he was doing his military service. Excited about the show, Turk took time off from the military without permission from his superiors – not just to attend the opening, but for the full 27 days of the exhibition.

The consequences were severe. Turk was arrested and sentenced to four months imprisonment in the military prison in Palmyra. “I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “I kept thinking it was a lie until I saw the ruins of Palmyra through the narrow bars of the police van.”

Life in the military prison was no picnic so Turk sought to ingratiate himself with the guards by offering them paintings. But what initially seemed like a clever way of using his talent to make prison life easier soon became unbearable.

Every day, Turk would be given a 50-page sketchbook and asked to fill the whole pad with drawings of beautiful women, shiny lips and red hearts. At the end of the day the guards would take the drawings, add a couple of lines of poetry and give them to their girlfriends.

The work was exhausting and left Turk feeling entirely despondent. After his release, he sought out psychological help. “I felt like a sheet of shattered glass,” he said. “My only release was painting.”

Today, the beautiful women and scarlet hearts have been replaced by amputated corpses painted in harsh twisted lines that resemble burnt trees. The poignancy of his work is reinforced by his painting technique: using oil paint on a thin layer of paste, he scratches the corpses with pencil lines. The deep grooves that are left in the paste represent the shackles that chain his characters.

Even when painting still life portraits, Turk still distorts his subjects using ragged lines and nervous brushstrokes. Unable to bear stillness, he often adds one of his living creatures – usually a mouse with seven feet – to his works. “I can’t paint anything without life in it and it’s the creatures that give life to my paintings.”

In spite of the supernatural and aggressive appearance of Turk’s creatures, he believes they are not that far removed from reality. “We live in a region full of war and economic hardship, so people will inevitably be slightly deformed.”

In fact, Turk even feels his works express a sense of hope, conveying his love of life and desire to persevere against the odds.

For more information about Nihad al-Turk log on to

Nihad al-Turk
Born in 1972 in Aleppo, Nihad al-Turk never formally studied fine art. After primary school, he started working and earning money for his impoverished family. At the time, Turk could never have dreamt that he would one day be exhibiting his work all over the world with collectors from Lebanon, Turkey, Dubai, the USA, France and Switzerland flocking to buy them.Turk’s most recent shows include a solo exhibition at Ayyam Gallery in Damascus at the end of last year and a collective exhibition at Mark Hachem Gallery in New York in October and November 2008.

This article was published in Syira Today magazine.

Modern Robin Hood (profile of painter Nihad al-Turk)

When meeting Syrian painter Nihad al-Turk, you are faced with a restless man, a modern Robin Hood, as he likes to call himself, who is burdened by poverty, social and political injustice yet unable to restore order.

Born to a poor family in Aleppo in 1972, life didn’t go easy on Al-Turk. Finishing only the primary school, having no money and experiencing a series of debacles in his personal life however made Al-Turk all the more determined to achieve his dream and follow the footsteps of painters like Picasso and Da-Vinci, his ideal at the time.

“My works are a reflection of me,” Al Turk tells me. His paintings however depict a deformed, chained character, heavy with disappointment and sorrow. In fact, Al-Turk believes that every man is deformed from the inside and that life is about improving our deformed selves through our lives by love.

As Al-Turk finds life unjust and people only further deform and destroy it, he resorted to the world of animals that he sees as more righteous and innocent. He created a mythical creature that unites the contemporary man, which is deformed, bewildered and disappointed in life and the animals.

“It’s people who deform life and worse they try to chain animals and organize their daily lives and meals according to their taste depriving them from their primitivism.” He says.

A night in his studio’s garden in Dummar marked a turning point in Al-Turks career. Awakened by a little mouse, Al-Turk felt his deep loneliness. By dawn, he depicted himself as a lonely deformed flower vase and painted the mouse as a deformed animal with seven legs. Since then the little animal has been present in all his paintings and has become a trademark of Al-Turks latest works.

Though moved to still life, the sense of alienation and oppression never parted Al-Turk’s works; avoiding the traditional still life stereotype, he deforms every element in his paintings and adds a living creature to each one.

“I can’t imagine painting a still life without life in it. It’s simply too rigid and lifeless that way.”

Despite their depressive content, Al-Turk’s paintings bear a lot of strength and love. His intensive use of red colors adds strength and vivacity to the works. Far from the traditional interpretation of red as the color of love and revolution, Al-Turk sees it as a spark, action and a symbol of his intense love for life; for though he never lived on easy street, Al-Turk is very ardent and optimistic about his future. He has already won several prizes, among them the golden prize in the 5th Latakia Biennale in 2003 and his paintings has been sold in international auction houses.

Nevertheless, Al Turk believes his art will remain heavy with the poverty, political and social injustice that governs the world. „As long as there’s no justice in life, tension will never leave my life and therefor my paintings,” He says.

This article was published in the artist’s catalog.

Artist Profile: Oussama Diab… A Fairy Tale of Love and Freedom

Ousama Diab tackles social and political problems with the naïve technique of children.

Painting by Oussama Diab

Painting by Oussama Diab

“Her name is Mariam!” says Ousama Diab pointing to a fleshy woman who appears in a collection of his paintings entitled Mariam, as if introducing an old friend. However, Mariam with her bent head and slightly curled up body, seems stuck inside Diab’s canvases. Painted with earthy colors and rugged lines, she seems as if sculpted from mud. “Mariam is Palestine,” Diab says. “She represents Palestinians stricken by massacres, hunger and displacement”

Though she never looks you in the eye, Mariam’s forefingers are always stretched out, as if trying to draw your attention to her story; a story Diab lived as a Palestinian refugee who was forced to flee his country and as the son of a fedayee who fought hard for unachieved independence.

As Diab’s style leans towards naïve art, wars and massacres are no longer his subjects. Instead, he criticizes the lack of love and solidarity among people and their everyday struggle to make ends meet.

“People used to give without taking only two decades ago; today they act like the Syrian proverb says: scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours, or even worse; they say scratch my back but I won’t scratch yours.” Diab says recalling with nostalgia how his mother used to fill a plate of their favorite food for the neighbors to taste and how warmly neighbors used to greet each other in the street; customs that Diab says aren’t that customary any more.

Except for Diab; in his studio, I was received with extremely sweet tea, delicious handmade Palestinian pastry and was seen off with a shot of strong black coffee prepared by his cheerful father. On canvas, Diab’s paintings remain grim and grey though. He depicts screaming faces, dark monsters and frightening animals. For him, a painting doesn’t have to be beautiful, what matters, is that it reflects his feelings. “I’m not a singer, I don’t need to entertain the audience; I showcase what I feel and they are free to like it or not.”

Nevertheless, since Diab found love himself, his paintings became more colorful and jolly. In one of his latest paintings, Diab presented his own version of “the little red riding hood” where instead of trying to eat the red riding hood, the wolf falls for her.

Painted mainly with acrylic and oil colors, Diab’s paintings are finished off with pastel to remind you of children’s drawings on the school’s blackboard. Also similar to children’s drawings are Diab’s repeated elements like hearts, wings and arrows symbolizing love, freedom and killing. In fact watching Diab’s paintings and his strange mythological characters, with five eyes, seven toes and a great verity of colors, is like leafing through a fairy tale. Even Diab’s still life paintings, mainly in the form of a flower pot with three flowers in it, have an air of supernaturalism about them. But then who wants to depict life exactly as it is? Certainly not Diab! “While a painter paints an apple, an artist eats it and paints how it tastes.” He says.

This article was published in the artist’s catalogue. Download pdf version here.