Refugee Chess

A recent story of mine that ran on the newly launched Wunderkammer Magazine in New York.

They lived well in Baghdad; their eldest daughter had two cars. Six years later, the Iraqi couple moves their mattresses out of the bedroom each night to sleep on the living room floor. The only bedroom is left for their daughters while they live in this concrete refugee suburb of Damascus.

It was Friday and quiet on the balcony above the street. The fried fish lunch was over and the mother was reading fortunes in the bottom of coffee cups. The father skulked past the couch and flashed his pack of cigarettes. He didn’t smoke before the war. He was a chain-smoker by the time he arrived in Damascus. He shrugged when his wife explained his new habit—“he’s always with a cigarette, always, but he never smoked before.” She brought her index and middle finger to her mouth and mimed puff after puff.

Read the rest here.


“This is a gift from the Iraqis. This is a farewell kiss, you dog! … This is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq.”

There is a lot to say about these shoes, and the gusto of Muntazir Az-Zaydi. It’s a subject that will get play in the press for weeks now – I mean the Arabic press. Az-Zaydi is a celebrity now, a folk hero for online video and satellite news. American media will report ad nauseam in clear and simple English just how offensive shoe throwing is in “Arab or Muslim or Islamic culture.” They will try and delve into the cultural significance of all this, and only look more and more like out-of-touch asses oggling at the others for standing up and throwing something at Bush. The Angry Arab is having a field day — is there a better Eid present? or early Christmas gift? — and if you want to laugh and read all the compliled cultural analysis on the meaning of a shoe in the Middle East and see how it is properly lambasted, click there.

Seriously, let’s hope Az-Zaydi is released very soon.

From McClatchy:

It wasn’t clear whether Zaidi was hurt. His employer, Cairo-based Baghdadiyah Television, released a statement late Sunday demanding Zaidi’s release from Iraqi custody.

“Any action taken against Muntathar will remind us of the actions and behaviors taken by the reign of the dictator and the violence, the random arrests, the mass graves and confiscations of freedom from the people,” the board of Baghdadiyah said.

Friends said Zaidi covered the U.S. bombing of Baghdad’s Sadr City area earlier this year and had been “emotionally influenced” by the destruction he’d seen. They also said he’d been kidnapped in 2007 and held for three days by Shiite Muslim gunmen.

A studio visit


We enter the artist’s apartment – let’s call him Khalid – and turn to the left into another room. There is florescent light at one side, to the right, where two painting hang on facing walls that frame the middle wall, which is the workspace. A plastic tarp hangs on the white wall, protecting it from splattered paint, aerosol spray and free strokes. The linoleum floor is not covered and has the shoe sole and color marks of a studio floor. A folding worktable is covered in paint cans and jars and dry brushes.

To the other side of the room, to the left upon entering, is the living room. The television in the corner is showing “First Knight” with Richard Gere and Sean Connery on mute, below more paintings: a pair of tall blue and red figure pieces – “these I don’t like much,” Khalid says – and a yellow and green scene of three thin figures over a bicycle.

A couch on the opposite wall faces the studio corner, flanked on the adjoining wall by two chairs. A place for tea – which he brings ten minutes after showing us the paintings and gushing at our visit.

“These two… are brother and sister” – he points to a pair of white and turquoise-banded paintings on the small wall, cut by the balcony, that faced the living room corner.

“Are they the marshes?” I ask, since they share tones of two of his other paintings, which he described a week before, triumphantly, as “marsh paintings: southern Iraq.”

“No, they are any village,” he replied. “They are the Iraqi villages, along the rivers, or the oases, in the desert.” Faded silhouettes of palms are clouded by white in both paintings – sandstorms maybe, or just the haze of heat.


“Everywhere in Iraq there are palms, like in the States? California? The south? Except in the north, where like you we have other trees” – he makes a motion of descending triangles with his hands.

“Cedars. Pine trees,” I reply. “Like in Lebanon.”

“But the marshes, they are like another world.” Gesticulating, he looks in Arabic for the English word for Martian, or planet, or outerspace. “When I was there, it was like another… planet? People live on the water.”

But he’s not from Basra he’s from Baghdad. He left some three years ago, escaping violence that made a man a target for the militias – in his case Shi’a – because his name – a Sunni name – was suddenly a threat. He won’t go back now. One day “God willing” he will go back, when it is no longer this confessional society, its new meanings enforced by ethnic cleansing and blast and sectarian walls, and when parks and traffic circles and public schools are not being renamed after Shi’a clerics. No more Abu Nawas. No more Salah-ad-Din.

When it is the old Iraq, or even a better new one, when its capital Baghdad can be his home again, a place for an artist – there are so many of them – who were educated there, trained there, members of artist unions there, then forced onto a truck or a taxi, their paintings and supplies strapped to roofs and shoved in suitcases, driving through the desert to Syria, for Damascus, for a refuge. Where they paint today, trying to sell their work for a sum, wondering among other things, like Khalid does, where is the artists’ festival?

“They have celebrity festivals, for musicians, for Nancy Ajram, in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Beirut,” he says. “Where is our festival? Our bi…” Biennial is on the tip of his tongue.

“I want to meet more artists, talk to them, talk to me.”

 He sighs and offers us more tea.







“Did the New York Times not know that `Abdu-s-Sattar is dead?”

A sign of the state of American reporting in Iraq? The New York Times printed a story on the “pacified” Anbar province earlier this week, with the following photo and caption:

Iraq’s national security adviser, Mowaffak al-Rubaie, right, and Abdul Sattar Abu Risha, a Sunni sheik, on Monday in Ramadi.”

Problem is, Abdul Sattar was killed last September in a high profile assassination by Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. It was pretty big news, since he was the “key Sunni ally” of the US in Anbar, a figurehead for the so-called Sunni Awakening (how much did the Pentagon pay him, you wonder?). He was among other Anbar Sunni tribal leaders who met Bush in Iraq in early September 2007, barely a week before he was killed in a bombing near his home. Maybe the Times forgot about all that. After all, in this article about the shift from violence to apparent calm in Anbar, Dexter Filkins doesn’t even mention Abdul Sattar’s assassination.

Source and title quote: Angry Arab News Service.