New Canadian Media

by Shenaz Kermalli in Toronto 

Hossein is a 10-year-old Iraqi orphan with long hair, big olive-coloured eyes and a shy smile. He loves going to school and playing soccer. He also loves visiting his Canadian dentist for annual check-ups. 

Hossein’s dentist is one of 51 volunteers who fly into Iraq every spring to provide free dental care. 

Armed with colouring books, games and iPads – to entertain the children while they wait for their turn – the dentists come fully equipped to carry out everything from oral health instruction to preventative care, including fissure sealants, extractions and stainless steel crowns. 

Toronto dentist Jaffer Kermalli* has been treating Hossein for several years. “His long hair hides scars from a bomb blast he was in,” Kermalli shares. “He came back to us [this year] and specifically wanted us to fix a broken front tooth and take away the pain from another tooth in his mouth.”

Kermalli recently went on his fifth trip to Iraq with Global Kindness Foundation (GKF), a Vancouver-based charitable organization that takes two trips every year to provide medical, dental and optical services to countries in need due to war and poverty. 

“To see the state of these children and how much they struggle; it puts all my first-world problems into perspective.”

A passion project 

In 2015, GKF took its dental mission to Iraq and Kenya. In the past, the organization (members pictured) also travelled to Peru, India and Tanzania. 

The 33-year-old dentist calls it his “passion project.” 

“I plan my year around the GKF trips, and over the years have become more active in helping organize supplies and train volunteers. It gives me focus throughout the year, and is my ‘reset,’” he says. “To see the state of these children and how much they struggle; it puts all my first-world problems into perspective.” 

The children they treat are generally thrilled to see them – notwithstanding the usual anxiety that comes with dental visits. 

For many, it means the first time ever sitting in a dentist’s chair, or holding a toothbrush. The lack of basic awareness is a direct outcome of living in both a war-torn country and refugee camps, where dental care is scarce or not available at all. 

Many non-dental volunteers have also joined the group, along with several opticians and physicians. The non-medical volunteers are assigned roles like screening the children in the waiting areas, occupying the children while they wait for their appointment and assisting the dentists. 

For many, it means the first time ever sitting in a dentist’s chair, or holding a toothbrush.

Shahina Rahim, an IT executive at the Royal Bank of Canada in Toronto, joined GKF for a second time this year. 

“I wanted to make a small difference to the lives of the children,” she says. “I couldn’t stop thinking about them and wanted to come back and help.” 

This time, though, she took a few Arabic classes in Toronto before leaving in order to help overcome the language barrier. 

Meeting many needs 

Additional medical and optical camps were also set up, seeing more than 1,000 children over two weeks. Many were referred to specialists. 

“One child had a case of congenital heart defect which had gone untreated and required surgery,” recalls Vancouver dentist and GKF founder, Dr. Hasnain Dewji (pictured).  

“There were also some cases of severe psychiatric conditions, so a referral to a local psychiatrist was arranged. Two other boys needed growth-hormone therapy. We are trying to determine the cost of therapy and see if we can raise the funds needed.” 

The two opticians in the group also flew in from Vancouver, and determined that at least 60 of the children they saw required corrective lenses. The charity arranged for the eyeglasses to be made in Tanzania and delivered for free to Iraq. 

"[The kids] have aspirations, optimism and hopes and dreams like all of us.”

Kids are kids 

The dental mission to Iraq started on March 19 and ended April 1. GKF is already recruiting its next set of volunteers to travel to Bhavnagar, India, in December. 

For Rahim, the hardest part of her trip to Iraq was witnessing the social remnants of war – the beggars, the children in wheelchairs and the sheer poverty. 

“For many of the kids, you can see the poverty through hygiene, dirty or worn clothes, and shoes or sandals that don't fit them.”  

But none of that seemed to stop them from smiling, laughing and dreaming, she adds. 

“My encounter with the kids has been a wonderful one. They have aspirations, optimism and hopes and dreams like all of us,” she says. 

“Kids are kids after all, no matter what part of the world they live in.” 

*Source is not related to the author.


 

This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to publisher@newcanadianmedia.ca

 

Published in Health

by Samaah Jaffer in Vancouver 

Near the old Jewish quarter of Baghdad, at Al Rasheed Street, there is a meandering alley named after the Iraqi poet Al Mutanabbi,” read Shawk Alani, the organizer of the ninth Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here” reading in Vancouver. 

The reading, quoting Phillip Robertson’s 2005 report, “The death of Al Mutanabbi Street,” was the first of many during an evening in commemoration of Iraqi literature. 

On Mar. 5, 2007, a car bomb devastated the famous bookselling street. Since 2007, writers, activists and artists have marked the anniversary of the attack with literary readings as part of a project called “Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here.” Spearheaded locally by the Pandora’s Collective at the invitation of founder Beau Beausoleil,  the annual event has  included readings from Vancouver writers like Bonnie Nish and Hadani Ditmars.

This year, readings were held in over 20 cities across North America, Europe and the Middle East. 

“I think the idea of Al-Mutanabbi Street ‘starting here,’ is to put context to history, and to say that these issues are not just issues that are local,” said Shawk, who prefers to be referred to using her first name. “These politics cross borders, there is relationships between what happens here and what happens in Iraq.” 

During Saddam Hussein’s reign, writers and intellectuals were servants of the state who produced literature praising the regime, for which they were rewarded.

Recreating Al-Mutanabbi 

The evening at Simon Fraser University’s Vancouver campus was an immersive experience, where guests were greeted with a classical Iraqi playlist as they entered and offered cardamom tea. 

Alani introduced the historical and political significance of the event, reminding the crowd of the pitfalls of the literary culture that was being celebrated. During Saddam Hussein’s reign, writers and intellectuals were servants of the state who produced literature praising the regime, for which they were rewarded. 

The readings included the original and translated works of the 10th century poet, Al-Mutanabbi, read by Wadood Hamad, adjunct professor in chemistry at the University of British Columbia. 

Hamad also read the poetry of one of Iraq’s most famous and influential poets of the 20th century, Muzaffar Al-Nawab, who wrote on the themes of love, politics, philosophy and existentialism. 

Iraqi writer Dima Yassine and Palestinian filmmaker and songwriter Sobhi Al-Zobaidi performed original works that reflected on their lived experiences and memories of their homes. 

“Art is an outlet; it is a place where we put our pain."

Sara McIntyre read an excerpt from Inaam Kachachi’s American Granddaughter, a novel about a young Iraqi-American who serves as a translator during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In the passage, the protagonist must stage a raid of her own grandmother’s house, as it’s the only way she is allowed to see her. 

Alani issued a trigger warning prior to reading from journalist Anthony Shadid’s book Night Draws Near. 

The excerpt, titled “A boy who was ‘like a flower’” dealt with the funeral of two teenaged boys who were victims of an unattributed attack. The scene addressed a raw, intimate moment of sorrow, anger and frustration that was all too common during the Iraq War.           

In addition to the readings, Shawk showcased a short film by Iraqi creative director Mustafa Al-Sumaidaie, featuring the rebuilt Al-Mutanabbi street today, and played Walid Gholmieh’s Symphony No.2, “Al-Mutanabbi” B. Flat Major. 

Shawk’s grandfather collaborated with the Lebanese composer to produce the piece, which was meant to provide listeners with an auditory experience similar to that of reading Al-Mutanabbi’s poetry. 

Readings provide healing 

“I think it’s important to make spaces that are critical, events that are a bit more involved, bringing more critical thought into people’s consciousness,” said Shawk of her involvement in the initiative. 

She said that bringing the story of Al-Mutanabbi Street into consciousness and awareness was the first step, but she also felt the need to give people an opportunity to act upon this knowledge. 

“Doing readings by other people is kind of like sharing that thing that has been externalized, and realizing that actually there are so many ways in which we have the same experiences.”

To inspire action, Shawk screened a video clip featuring Iraqi-born artist Wafaa Bilal: 168:01, an art installation in Windsor, Ont. that includes a 12-metre bookcase filled with 20,000 blank books. Bilal hopes to swap each of the blank books for a real book that will be donated to the University of Baghdad’s College of Fine Arts. 

Shawk said the significance of hosting this reading is about saying, “I’m here, I’m a part of this city now, and I want to bring to people’s awareness things that are happening in the other place where I also belong.” 

She indicated that for members of the Iraqi and Arab diaspora, the event also represented an opportunity for “dealing with the emotions, the crisis, the trauma, all in a way that’s productive.” 

Shawk noted that the Iraqi diaspora is quite diverse and unique in that there have been multiple conflicts over the past 50 years during which large populations emigrated, either as refugees or by choice. 

“Art is an outlet; it is a place where we put our pain. You take the pain, you externalize it in a piece of art, and then you can step back and look at it and deal with it in a different way, and you can share it with other people,” said Shawk. 

“Doing readings by other people is kind of like sharing that thing that has been externalized, and realizing that actually there are so many ways in which we have the same experiences.” 

Shawk added that “Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here,” enables Iraqis — a group that has been historically victimized and portrayed as weak, unhappy and constantly being killed — to partake in creating an alternate history for themselves. 

Reflecting on her own birth in Baghdad in the wake of the first Gulf War, Shawk explained, “You can create a space in literature where you can celebrate life, resistance, and existence.”

Publisher's Note: This report has been updated to correct the history of this initiative: this was the ninth – not the first – edition of the reading. We regret the error. 


This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to publisher@newcanadianmedia.ca

Published in Books

by Hadani Ditmars (@HadaniDitmars) in London, England

Iraqi cellist Karim Wasfi’s video of his musical improvisations at the site of last month’s bombing in Baghdad became an online sensation – with over 47,000 collective hits on YouTube and various content sharing platforms.

I admit to being as moved as the thousands of others who watched worldwide as he played his cello on a blasted sidewalk in Mansour – the neighbourhood named after the Abbasid Caliph who championed arts and culture. And Wasfi continues to play at the site of bombings all over his city, performing this week in beleaguered Karrada, where several blasts have rocked the neighbourhood in recent weeks, and today in Adhamiya, at the site of a violent sectarian attack.

Video Source: YouTube/News House

But Wasfi's story is not new to me.

In fact, I first met Karim in 2000, when Baghdad was enduring a different kind of siege: not car bombs, militias and ISIS at its gates, but rather a crippling embargo exacerbated by a dying police state and the growing strength of a criminal smuggling culture.

Inspired by his penchant for playing the cello under bombardment, I ended up dedicating two chapters to Karim – one bearing his name – in my 2005 book Dancing in the No Fly Zone that documented Iraqi culture pre and post invasion. 

I remember [Karim] practising every day in the tiny flat, almost as a form of resistance against the whole situation.

When my US dollars ran out, I stayed with him and his sisters in their apartment across from the old Press Centre, seemingly under the radar of the ubiquitous “minders” ('guides' assigned by the old Ministry of Information who were in reality spying on journalists). I remember him practising every day in the tiny flat, almost as a form of resistance against the whole situation.

We even staged a fundraising concert for a children’s charity in the garden of an art gallery that was later bombed, performing Gounoud’s “Ave Maria” and some Leonard Cohen songs as rather desperate incantations.

Channeling a Musical Heartbeat

Indeed after my first trip to Iraq in 1997, to report on the state of sanctions-era health care for the NY Times, I discovered that Iraqi culture was far more seductive than interviewing beleaguered doctors and overwhelmed UN workers and compiling depressing statistics.

I remember spending three days in a private hospital run by a tough Iraqi nun – Sister Marie, who had to barter for black market penicillin –hearing the stories of patients who came here from all over Iraq, as the once shining example of public health care in the region that bore the ravages of sanctions.

A doctor, who had studied in California in the 1960s, offered me his practice as a “day in the life of” venue. Just when I could not bear to hear another story of a cancer patient with no access to proper pharmaceuticals, or a child stunted by malnutrition, a lady in her 80s wandered in.

There in the hospital full of dying children, [the once famous Iraqi singer] offered a gorgeous, throaty love song about moonlit nights and the scent of orange blossoms. I was transported.

She seemed arrested in another era; her dyed black bob and dark eye make up giving her the appearance of a ’30s Hollywood screen siren. As it turned out, she was a once famous Iraqi singer, who had been the mistress of Abdul Karim Qassim (who was deposed by a CIA backed Baathist coup when he got too cozy with the Russians and nationalized foreign oil interests).

She lived in a once swanky area, but like so many others drinking tainted water, and with chlorine blocked at the border, she was suffering from dysentery. Before long she and the doctor were chatting like old friends, an introduction was made and soon she began to sing.

There in the hospital full of dying children, she offered a gorgeous, throaty love song about moonlit nights and the scent of orange blossoms. I was transported.

In a similar moment, I had wandered accidentally into the al-Rashid theatre, strung out after a frustrating day talking to people who would lapse into Baathist platitudes as soon as they saw my “minder”, drawn in by the soothing sound of strings.

Indeed his music was very resonant with the current situation and expressed all the hopes of his generation, touching the soul of his city. But these were pre-internet days . . . Lance’s story never went “viral.”

I happened upon the rehearsal of a new orchestral piece called “Heartbeat of Baghdad” by a young composer named Lance Conway (whose improbable name came from his Anglo/Indian/Irish grandfather, part of the British occupation) that celebrated, he told me, “Baghdad’s history of resistance – from the Mongols to today.” 

Indeed his music was very resonant with the current situation and expressed all the hopes of his generation, touching the soul of his city. But these were pre-internet days, and apart from a story in U.K. newspaper, The Independent, that I wrote about the orchestra, and a few paragraphs in my book, Lance’s story never went “viral.”

Making a Difference

Now Lance, a Christian, lives in Erbil, having fled the post invasion violence of the capital. Like so many of my friends in war zones, we reconnected recently via Facebook.

I mentioned the odd phenomenon of having former minders “friend me” at a recent evening at London’s Frontline Club – attended, as it turned out by Tony Borden, of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, whose colleague Ammar Al Shabandar – a supporter of Wasfi’s efforts – had been killed two days earlier by a car bomb in Karrada.

In London, a city with thousands of Iraqi refugees and exiled artists – who keep their culture alive at venues like the Iraqi Cultural Centre on Shepherd’s Bush, which currently features an exhibition of paintings inspired by the ISIS Camp Speicher massacre – Janine di Giovanni read a poignant piece she’d written on Iraq for the latest Granta publication.

With Karim’s moving video having gone viral, and so much technology at our fingertips, I asked, would this ‘make a difference’ as they say, to the situation?

Sadly not, she replied, noting a distinct sense of ‘compassion fatigue’ in the West.

While the “cellist of Baghdad” has been playing in the rubble for the better part of two decades, and the misery in Iraq appears endless, it’s still enduring culture that offers medicine for the broken hearted and succour for the soul.

And yet acts of cultural defiance, I would argue – implicit in the title of my first book Dancing in the No Fly Zone, which was inspired by a lively chobi I encountered at a wedding in Baghdad the day after Clinton’s Desert Fox bombing campaign – are as important now as ever.

While the “cellist of Baghdad” has been playing in the rubble for the better part of two decades, and the misery in Iraq appears endless, it’s still its enduring culture that offers medicine for the broken hearted and succour for the soul.

I hope that Karim’s video will indeed make a difference. But predictably, as he posted on Facebook the other day, he is now under threat from a militia opposed to his performances.

I watch his Mansour video again now, as he plays next to a barefoot man in a wheel chair, and light a candle for Iraq. Inshallah el salam, I pray, and may music continue to heal the country’s many wounds.


Hadani Ditmars is the author of Dancing in the No Fly Zone and is working on a new book about ancient sites in Iraq. She has been reporting from the Middle East for two decades and is also a singer and musician. She will be performing some Andalucian songs at the Iraqi Cultural Centre in London at 6:30 p.m. on May 16, in solidarity with Iraqi people and artists. 

 

This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to publisher@newcanadianmedia.ca

 

Published in Commentary

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