Sunday, November 28, 2010

Activist for Afghan Women Founds Community College in Kabul

Sadiqa Basiri
Activist for Afghan Women founds Community College in Kabul

I had the pleasure of meeting Sadiqa Basiri on November 17 when she spoke at Columbia College / Museum of Contemporary Photography about the situation of women in Afghanistan, and what she has been doing to effect change.

Sadiqa is a young woman, raised as a refugee in Pakistan for many years before returning to her native land, where she has founded six girls schools and opened the first Afghan community college for women. She spoke of how important it is for women to be educated in Afghanistan, and how rare it is. Her own schooling was primarily rote memorization and did not involve critical thinking. Despite that, she brilliantly decided to transcribe every mention of women's rights written in the Koran and distributed them at every town in the countryside that she went to. "So it was not Sadiqa's opinion, but the Koran"

She spoke with sadness about the Taliban warlords, "our angry brothers" and how President Karzai is supporting them. She worried that US withdrawl will mean more repression for women. The recently passed Shia Law that forbids women from wroking outside the home or freeling moving, and condones marital rape. She talked about the National Stabilization and Reformation Act, which gives amnesty to all war criminals from the last 20 years, condoning the violence, intolerance and brutality.

Despite all this, Sadiqa remained optimistic, committed, firm and resolute. She advised contacting ambassadors to take women issues seriously and to hold Karzai accountable to women. She talked about what her school, the Oruj Learning Center, needs -- curriculum development, visiting professors, funding to rent space ($50,000/yr). Her first year she had 70 students, the second year -- 140. It is unusual for women to be able to attend college -- of 100,000 applications for higher education, only 23,000 are accepted, and o fthem only 2% are women.

Donate to Sadiqa's school , the Oruj Learning Project, if you can.

Read more about her here.

Another interesting speaker was Anna Badkhen, a journalist and author of Waiting for the Taliban and Peace meals: Candy-wrapped Kalashnikovs and other War Stories.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

My City's Still Breathing, Co-Prosperity School,

Looking forward to participating in My City's Still Breathing, a symposium exploring the arts, artists and the city. November 2-7 in Winnipeg Manitoba. Winnipeg is the 2010 Canadian Cultural Capital, and is so pleased with having created and fully implemented a cultural plan that it is embarking on a new cultural plan for the next decade. I can't wait to learn more about it.

The Co-Prosperity School is an Artist-Run School for and about the advancement and understanding of contemporary Chicago Art. Through guest speakers and class member presentations we will shine a light on the contemporary art scene of Chicago. I'm "teaching" on November 1. Hopefully we'll all be learning alot via conversations and presentations. More here

And, AREA, Chicago's excellent grass-roots exploratory publication, has released its 10th anniversary issue, institutions and infrastructures, with many compelling essays and investigations relating to Chicago and beyond, including a brief piece by yours truly.

Monday, June 14, 2010

My Audacity of Hope -- Reverse Samson Effect

My Audacity of Hope

On Inauguration Day...

January 20, 2009

On Inauguration Day...
I cut my hair for the first time since 9/11. This is very good news... my hair was really too long.

I had shaved my head while on vacation on September 10, 2001. The next day, when Bush responded to the 9/11 tragedy by declaring "war on terror" and urging us to go shopping, I needed to respond.

I vowed not to cut my hair again until the "war on terror" was over.

The absurdity of waging war on a feeling was cruel, and it detracted from the real issues at hand. Although I felt powerless about the whole situation, I still wanted something personal to mark the terrorist attack and its many ramifications.

My hair became a record, a symbol, a reminder.
It grew for 2,674 days (7 years, 18 weeks, and counting...)

Now, although resigned that we'll still be at war in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, tragically, for the forseeable future, I'm audaciously hopeful that our new President Obama will not wage war on a feeling, or on the English language, or the Geneva Conventions, or on the Constitution. He will not bully, he will not disparage nor disrespect our friends or the grievances of our enemy.

Reason enough to celebrate the audacity of hope!

I made an appointment at the Hyde Park Hair Salon for 4:00 pm, Tuesday January 20, 2009. President Obama''s barber, Zafir, was already booked (in Washington!), so Antonio did the honors.

photos many thanks to Paul Natkin

and Adam Brooks (top photo)

But What is Reverse Samson Effect?

Unlike Delilah's boyfriend in the Bible,
cutting my hair has made me stronger!
Fun links about this to try:

Chicago Reader

USA Today (in the Share section of the Inauguration Gallery)

See the video and more pics on Facebook (coming soon!)

Letter from a friend

On Saturday I met a boy named Mohammed....

Here's what I wrote about that. (see below)



P.S. Prepare yourself, it's a little long. Thanks.

This morning my friend, Aaron called me. We hadn't seen each other for a few months because he lives in Chicago and I now live in New York. He said, "Why don't you meet us at the Met because we're not a very mobile party – Mohammed's got a crutch…" "Oh, yeah, of course! I figured that's where we'd meet!" And so we picked a time and a place – high noon in the Egyptian lake room, and I finished doing my laundry. I didn't know who Mohammed was precisely, but could make a guess that he was most likely a child who had been wounded badly enough in Iraq that he'd been brought to the U.S. for care.

Weekend delays with the MTA and a long coat check at the Met put me behind just a little and Aaron texted: [Please come to the near east] so I skipped Egypt and headed upstairs to the dimly lit rooms of Ancient Assyria. I found them by the gates of Ashurnasirpal, two figures seated on a bench—one tall, blond-headed and bent over, speaking and building shapes in the air with his hands, and the other much smaller, wearing a baseball cap over his dark curly hair, listening…watching. Aaron and Mohammed. Aaron didn't see me, but Mohammed saw me see Aaron, his eyes widened as I quietly slid onto the bench and right up beside them. Oh wonderful sweet surprise! So good to see my friend! And to meet Mohammed! And Aaron asked me if I knew the story behind the Assyrian cuneiform and the reliefs all around us. And without hesitation we launched right into it, talk about the wonders on the walls, and what came first – this stuff or the Egyptians? And it was funny and sweet and easy – our lack of knowledge about these things and the humor and difficulty of trying to communicate it to a thirteen year old boy who speaks very little English but who was very interested in understanding and humoring us. Every now and then, Mohammed understood what historical happenings Aaron and I were confusing each other with and simply communicated what was what. Brilliant. Such a gorgeous boy is what I want to write over and over again. Such a gorgeous boy. Thoroughly. This boy, here from Fallujah. Sitting there in this nearly empty wing of an otherwise packed museum, he softly sang, at Aaron's request, a children's song in Arabic; a song that children sing when they are in the car so happily going to mosque.

After a while, my belly reminded me that it was lunchtime so I asked Aaron if they'd eaten lunch yet and he said that No they hadn't but that he was hungry. I asked Mohammed if he was hungry too and, while Aaron rocked back in laughter, Mohammed just looked at me quizzically. Aaron said sarcastically – He's never hungry! And then, grinning, he poked Mohammed in the ribs. As we would continue to do for the rest of the day, we went through the conversation again several times, from every angle we could think of in an effort to convey meaning through our limited shared vocabulary. With a smile every time, it continually came down to No, No, No – he wasn't hungry! And so Aaron and I decided that we were hungry so let's go eat! And as he would continue to do when we would ask him his opinion or preference about where to go or what to do he would smile softly and say "As you like." and Aaron and I would eventually give up and make a decision.

Neither Aaron nor I know the neighborhood around the Met well enough to have picked out a nearby restaurant and so, with a boy and a crutch, we decided that our best option was the museum cafeteria. We stood to walk and it was not crutches that Mohammed had, but just one – a forearm crutch; the kind that pushed the arm of his hoody up to bunch all around his elbow. We slowly moved through the Ancient Assyria galleries and when Mohammed lagged, I turned to find him caught up in a map of the region. This would be the first of many maps that we would look at together today. He puzzled at the ancient names of the Fertile Crescent written in English on a map that he knew quite well otherwise, and as we cruised along, he pointed out the word Allah in some of the very old Egyptian Arabic along one wall.

Nearing the gallery that would get us to the elevator, we saw that it had been blocked off for construction or something and we got rerouted on a circuitous trip through the European art collection. (Not very helpful to those using crutches!) Room after massive room of wall sized bible scenes and suddenly I was looking at them through the eyes of 13-year old Iraqi Muslim boy who came to the U.S. only three months ago. (Until this time, he had only ever left the GMRF facilities on Staten Island in order to go to a hospital in Philadelphia for treatment.) Steady bright electric light pouring down on wildly colored huge images of skeletons and angels, mother and child, mother and child, mother and child, and massive crucifixion after crucifixion after crucifixion! – so bizarre.

In the elevator, Aaron wondered if Modern Art or old European Art would make more sense and/or be more appealing to Mohammed. I suggested that really, I didn't think either one would make sense or be appealing to him. We made it to the basement and the elevator doors opened right into the cafeteria lunch line. The place was PACKED! So packed full of people that as they tried to bully their ways around us they didn't even know that they were pushing a kid with a prosthetic leg out of the way - they couldn't see his crutch past their big hungry bellies. We anchored our place in the line and still trying to get Mohammed to admit that he might be a little hungry I asked him if he liked pizza. And he said Yes, pizza! So I went on about pizza…Yum pizza! DELICIOUS pizza! Pizza is FABULOUS! Every museum cafeteria serves pizza! Right!? Whoops! Not this one…not in our newly health-conscious New York… eeeeeeeeeeeeee… whoops. So I ran off and made us a big salad at the salad bar – trying to figure out what would be appealing, A.) to a 13 year old boy, and B.) to an Iraqi. I wound up just making a salad that I knew Aaron and I would like, kept it simple and added three bread rolls to the plate. I figured that when in a foreign land, neutral starches are usually a winner. Aaron and Mohammed showed up with a large plate of veggie ravioli in a creamy tomato and pea sauce and we headed for the checkout line.

Now, here's the part where Aaron and I have our next amazing coincidence. (I do believe that every time that Aaron and I have spent time together some uncanny coincidence or another has come to light or occurred. I cannot think of a single time when it hasn't…) As Aaron was paying for our food, I glanced up and noticed a woman finishing up a conversation with a few other people just two feet past the end of our check out line. But it wasn't just any woman…it was Barbara Koenen! Barbara Koenen from Chicago who I haven't seen for years and there she was! With her husband, Tim. Whoa, man!!! Here's the thing: I interned for Barbara in 2001 at the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs. On top of that, I also helped her out a bit with some of her pieces. Barbara is a bureaucrat and an artist. (And an artistic bureaucrat.) Since I've known her, she's been making Afghan war rugs out of loose spices. Afghani weavers weave their culture into their rugs. Along with war with Russia, the rugs came to include tanks, guns, bombs, grenades, helicopters and more. As Buddhist monks carefully lay down sand-mandalas, Barbara carefully lays down her spice rugs that they may be swept up later, vanishing back to where they came from. Transitory, like life. Non-attachment to one's work. Every good rug has fringe, and that is what I helped her with. Hand rolling the guts of fireworks into tissue paper, which then get laid down loosely as well so that, at the edges, they look like this: IIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII . Barbara used to lay these gorgeous rugs down in galleries and museums without bringing too much attention to them – and if people noticed them, they would stop and look. And if people walked on them, they would smear the loose spices and leave footprints and then BANG! The fringe would snap beneath their feet – and they could no longer remain unconscious about what was happening right beneath their noses. For visuals go to here

Recently, Barbara has been organizing artists for shows based around the theme of war. So, upon receiving a recent show announcement, I sent her Aaron's web address. Among many other things, Aaron is also an artist, an Iraq War veteran and very actively anti-war. His artwork goes straight to the heart. For visuals go t (I recommend: Projects/Ahmed.) So I sent her Aaron's web address, and emailed him to tell him who she was and that I'd given her his info, just in case she contacted him and, remaining immersed in my own business a few states away, I left it at that.

And there was Barbara, at the end of the checkout line. At the end of, specifically, our checkout line. I know a rather large number of artists, and an extremely limited number of them (3) who make art about war. I'd just met Aaron before I moved to New York, I'd just met Mohammed an hour ago, and I hadn't seen Barbara for years. And now here we all were, in New York City in the basement of the Metropolitan Museum of Art on a Saturday afternoon with hundreds of millions of moving people passing all around us and half a million of them in this museum alone! (Not to mention a quarter million of them in that very same cafeteria!)

Barbara and I marveled over each other and then she stepped back when she saw that Aaron was there too and then we introduced her to Mohammed. Unbelievable and thoroughly believable - both at the same time. If human kind moves through time like a river, then it's amazing to consider the undercurrents and eddies that swish us around and mix us up into such wild combinations. We all caught up for a minute and I got to hear about a talk that Aaron had just given at the Hyde Park Art Center, which Barbara had organized. Awesome. It's not so great though, at this point, for Mohammed to stand around for too long, so we cut it short, saved some for later and parted ways. Mohammed forged ahead to find us a table.

That boy is strong and super-independent. Aaron and I speculated that this is probably at least partly where the "not ever being hungry" business comes in. (Not to mention, he and his mother probably do not have much in the way of money). Wearing only a t-shirt and two hoodies, he also professed to not being cold in the below freezing weather outside. How could he not be cold here I wonder? I'm cold everywhere including here - and between here - in NYC, and growing up in snowy blowy Ohio, I just spent 9 years in Chicago – this kid is straight out of Iraq and he's not cold? Hm. Fascinating. Granted, I did get a little chilly at times in Sub-Saharan Africa, but let me tell you – it was below 30 degrees out there today. That is, technically, real cold.

Aaron ran off to get us water and coffee and things and as Mohammed and I got ourselves seated, it looked to me as though he was tired in his bones – he'd done a lot of walking today. He'd been on a subway for the first time in his life today and wound up in the heart of New York City, the heart of Manhattan, in a massive over-the-top opulent American museum. And Aaron told me that he'd gotten to play soccer yesterday too – for the first time in three or four years. Rehab has been going well for him and he got excited and threw his crutch down for a bit to play.

We sat quietly for a few minutes and I could see his attention drifting, sliding through the tabletop into who knows where. After a while he looked up and asked me "How many years are you?" So I said what I often say to this question, "Guess." But he didn't know that word and just looked at me. Hm. Okay. So I tried "What do you think?" Nope, that didn't quite do it either. Mmmm, let's see…"You tell me?" (pointing first to his heart, next to me talking, then to my heart) Ah, yes good, he got it. "Nineteen." Ah! Man, really? Even an Iraqi kid thinks I look 19. Psh! This made me laugh and I told him "No! 29!" and he laughed too and shook his head no-no-no. Geez Louise, I was thinking. He asked where Aaron went and I told him, which launched us into a conversation/mime about Arabic coffee in tiny glasses and his mother who loves coffee. We also talked about family and he said he has two sisters. One is a teacher and the other one is married. He told me that his mother is fat.

Aaron came back with drinks and a plate full of churros. He told us a story about being in Iraq when a boy – a boy like you he said, pointing to Mohammed's chest until he nodded understanding – gave me a churro like this (pointing pointing pointing). Mohammed looked at Aaron out of the corner of his narrowed eyes in disbelief, and looking from Aaron to the churros said "What!? No." – essentially saying, Yeah right, dude, that sounds implausible what the hell is that thing anyway? And I just about slid onto the floor laughing and suggested that maybe the Iraqi he'd met had been studying Mexico? Haaaaaaa!!!!!! This teasing came right back to me when I told Aaron that Mohammed had asked my age and that he'd thought that I was 19. Aaron asked "You're not 19?" And then turned to Mohammed and pronounced, "She is 19." Which Mohammed seemed to believe more than 29. Great.

When we asked Mohammed if he was tired he would say No - every time. But when Aaron and I would trail off in Engleshi it was clear that he was zoning out and trying to keep his head off the table. I can only imagine how overwhelming this day was for him – let alone every day of his life for the past 6 years.

Suddenly I remembered what I thought I recalled was the Arabic word for 'dates' (the dried fruit) because I've seen it on packaging labels. Fadjool? Fadjul? Something like that? Mohammad got very excited and we launched into a halting back and forth about how Iraqi dates are the best in the world and fasting from 6AM to 7PM (or was it 7AM to 6PM?) for Ramadan and I don't know exactly how those things are related…but Mohammed really liked telling us about what he knows and we really liked hearing it.

Supplementing our halting words and miming was Aaron's sketchbook, which we would draw in when worse came to worse or, of course, if visuals were simply more appropriate. Mohammed also showed us how to write many things in Arabic. Did you know that we write everything backwards? At the lunch table, surrounded by (mostly) loud American families hustling and bustling by us, Mohammad drew a map of Iraq and he and Aaron discussed where the Sunnis and Shiites were - both in Iraq and in the nations surrounding.

Mohammed continued to tell us that he wasn't hungry, no matter how much Aaron teased him and pleaded with him. "How do you think I got this tall?" "Your mother will get mad at me!" "You need to eat to get strong after rehab!" No dice. Not interested in the salad, not interested in the ravioli. I did notice that one of the bread rolls had gone completely missing though. Eventually I split the churros into three equal parts and said, "Okay, we each eat this and then we can go!" That worked. I'm sure it's hard for any kid to turn down fried dough slathered in sugar - wherever they're from! He choked it down.

Refueled and rested we decided it might be cool to take Mohammed to go see the Lorenzo Ghiberti doors. The Renaissance style "Gates of Paradise" - gilded bronze doors - amazing reliefs depicting scenes from the Old Testament. I asked directions at the cafeteria Info-Desk and the woman there said dryly "Take the elevator behind you up to the first floor, walk toward Christ and make a right" and then she turned away to talk to somebody else. Okay. Take a right at Christ, got it. Somehow those didn't seem like very Kosher museum directions, and yet I thoroughly enjoyed them. Exiting the elevator we had to walk through the Medieval gallery – filled with people silently gawking at a large evergreen tree with lights and pictures stuck in it, the voice of a woman singing in Latin being piped in from somewhere. Very Barbarella in a Pagan sort of way. We walked on. Apparently I'm not the best at telling myself things silently. When Christ came into view, I said "Hey, there's Christ!" a massive crucifixion in bronze, hung from the ceiling at a gallery juncture. I very slightly lifted my arms, Christ-like, and said "Bathrooms to the left, Ghiberti to the right." Not only did Mohammed hear me but he also understood me (he knows how to mime, he knows the word Christ, and he definitely knows the word bathroom - Ai!) and he just about slipped off his crutch with laughter.

The doors were, indeed beautiful, but did not hold the attention of our party. Besides, one of us was getting very obviously (although still not admittedly) physically tired. I watched Mohammed as we walked, using his right forearm on various horizontal surfaces that we were passing in order to support his weight and to take it off his legs and the crutch on his left arm. We headed next door to the Egyptian lake to sit and rest and talk and to take photographs of all the people taking photographs. I did most of the photographing of photographers and the boys did most of the talking. Aaron was making a video recording of Mohammed while he talked about things. I came in and out of the conversation as I wandered around.

I walked into the conversation at a point where they were going back and forth:

Mohammed: Soejas veddy nice!

Aaron: Soldiers are nice?

M: Yes, veddy nice.

A: Soldiers? American soldiers?

M: Yes.

He told a story about U.S. soldiers coming into his house and asking for "mediseen…aspirden – you undastandt? Aspirden." He seemed proud that he was able to talk to them in English and to help them.

I asked if they had electricity at home and Mohammed said "No." "Water?" "No." and he took to the sketchbook. He drew a boat, then added water below. The communication passed between he and Aaron and Aaron said A-ha! They go to the river for their water and then they light a fire beneath it. They boil it to make it safe for drinking. I asked what they burn to make the fire and Mohammed pointed outside to the trees. Is the air black? Yes, very black.

He said "I no love my fatha." His dad is "big police" with the Iraqi police, working for the Americans. I took "big police" to mean that his dad was or is a big wig. His dad divorced his mom and doesn't give them any money. I do believe that a husband divorcing a wife in Islam is a very big and bad deal for the wife. The man is remarried now, with another family. Mohammed added to a picture that was already drawn in Aaron's book. It was a picture of a Native American holding some kind of stick – that part of the drawing escapes me now – but exuding from the bottom of the stick Mohammed added a bunch of scratch marks. He was describing something about what the Iraqi police do or did. "A shovel? Do they bury people?" no-no-no "Ah! A broom? They sweep?" Yes! Yes! Apparently the police sweep the streets? Hm.

He said the people of Iraq are very very good people, but when Aaron asked if he wanted to go back there he said No.

Earlier, Aaron and I had talked about possibly taking him to the top of the Empire State Building next. So I asked Mohammed, "Do you want to go to the top of a very tall building?" Aaron added, "A high tower – you know 'tower'?" Mohammed gave us the What? look as I attempted to mime looking down around at the city. That didn't do it. Out came the sketchbook and I drew a whole bunch of skyscraper buildings with one building three times as high as all the rest and I put a little stick figure up there, pointed to Mohammed then pointed to the stick figure and said "you. - you want to go up?" His eyes widened and he said something like "me want…?" and he mimed jumping off! As in suicide! Whoa! Aaron and I profusely protested – NO, no, NO! Whoa! Not that, No! And I quickly added several more figures – one of them much taller than the rest (Aaron is 6'9" or something) and I did the pointing "Me, you, Aaron – we go up to look, to see!" trailing the pen up the drawing of the building. I'm not sure he totally got that either, but still we heard "…As you like."

Aaron and I took turns mothering Mohammed while at the same time trying to not mother him because he is, after all, a cognizant 13-year old boy. I did however push the gloves on him as we left the museum. We got a cab and headed down 5th Avenue. Turned on to Park and I got to point out my brother's building. Family was a good topic of conversation between us so I was glad to show that some was near. And we just looked and looked out the windows. While in the cab, Aaron called one of his professors who happens to speak Arabic and who also just moved to Chicago from Brooklyn. Aaron put Mohammed on the phone with him and he truly lit up and talked so much and so fast that it was delightful to see – I know what a major relief it is to suddenly be able to easily communicate again in one's own tongue. From the Professor, Aaron got an Iraqi restaurant dinner recommendation. Good work!

The staff at the Empire State Building were outstanding. Seemingly without even seeing Mohammed's crutch or gait, they whisked us past the long lines of people (I overheard that people were waiting for almost two hours to go up) and they put us into practically private elevators. As we walked along a private corridor, bypassing the throngs weaving their way forward on the other side of the wall, I said something like "Well, this is the life!" And Aaron replied, "Well, it's the least they could do." And he was right, and the reality of that hit me like a boulder dropping in my belly.

We made it to the ticket counter and said "two students and a boy with a prosthetic leg". "No student discounts". Aaron tried a different approach, "A veteran. A boy with a prosthetic leg. And a, uh, a regular person." Lord have mercy, someone finally thinks I'm regular. Anyway, that finally got us some discounts. The woman behind the counter looked at us sympathetically and said, "Oh my, a regular person? I'm so sorry. We'll get you up there right away – no charge!" Just kidding, she made Aaron show a fistful of I.D.'s, charged us 50 bucks and up we went. (Sidenote: If we had to pay $50, I wonder how much those suckers in line had to shell out. ? wow, man.) Our last elevator ride to the top (they do it in segments) was just the three of us, and the elevator operator. He tried to make small talk with us, "Where you from?" The question registered in my brain just as I heard Mohammed softly answering it, "Iraq." For all the lack of space in that little elevator, the elevator man kind of stood back. Oh! "…So, uh, did you get hurt in the war?" (pause), "yes." frankly, softly. The doors began opening then and the man offered "Hey! It'll be okay." And Aaron and I just goggled in amazement and horror for a moment before we followed Mohammed out.

It sure is stunning up there. And we'd accidently arrived at the perfect time for a gorgeous pinky-orange sunset. First we looked East, all the lights shining and twinkling across the land. We navigated our way to the South wall and squeezed our way up to it. Among so many of the more positive ones, one of the many little lessons of this day was how needlessly pushy a lot of people can be. I found myself spreading my arms out around Mohammed to keep people from knocking him or his crutch. I raised my voice to an old man.

At the edge, Mohammed just stared and stared and stared out over it all. Unfathomable. Aaron pointed out the Statue of Liberty and Staten Island, where Mohammed has been staying. It was the first time that I'd seen Mohammed pull out his camera, a little $5 disposable point and shoot. He pressed all four fingers of his left hand into his left eye so that he could see better through the tiny lens with his right. If this kid hadn't already melted my heart, it would have dissolved right then.

We spent a lot of time right there, just looking. And I was cold, but Mohammed said that he was not cold. My, oh, my. Eventually we decided to see if Times Square was visible from above. (Hey, if you're going to blow someone's mind, right?) Scooting around toward the Western edge, we rounded the corner and the wind instantly blasted us – ice cold and incessant! We could see the glow of Time's Square peeking through buildings, but otherwise it was blocked so we made a hasty retreat. As we rounded the corner going back the other way I looked back and asked, "Mohammed! Was that cold!?" Definitively he replied, "yes." A-ha! Finally! That made us all grin and laugh and I checked to make sure my ears hadn't entirely frozen and cracked off. They were there.

We asked him if he wanted to go eat Iraqi food and said "Iraqi?" while pantomiming eating. We got only a quizzical look. Are you hungry? "No". Do you want to go get Iraqi food for your mother? "My mother is fat!" Oh dear. I'm not sure, but I think he didn't believe that there was Iraqi food in New York – and also, it's possible that our communication skills weren't quite top notch. Aaron said, "in New York there is any food!" "…As you like."

We got down as easily as we'd gotten up.

The restaurant, La Kabbr, is in Hell's Kitchen and the cab dropped us off right in front. Only two tables were occupied when we came in and we sat on the other side of the restaurant from them, away from the drafty front door. Mohammed was so happy. There was a big Iraqi flag hanging in the corner and Iraqi paraphernalia all over the walls. We sat and instantly Mohammed started to sing softly, I asked him "You know this song? You know this music?" "Yes!" "Who is that picture of up there?" "Theese!" (pointing to the speakers in the ceiling.) A picture of the singer. Cool.

The menu was written in English, so I read out loud "Babaganouj! Hummus! Dolma! Kabob!" And Mohammed's smile got bigger. He hadn't eaten Iraqi food the entire time he'd been here! Our waitress came over, clearly Iraqi, so we asked her to speak with him in Arabic about his order because we were doing a terrible job – and, again, the floodgates opened and all Aaron and I could do was watch the conversation take place. It was a joy just to be there for this. In English, she said to us, "You are doing a very nice thing for this boy." I said, no-no, not me! Him! - pointing to Aaron. And Aaron said, No, not me! and then he added something about just being thankful to be there. We ordered a small amount of food; some chai, dolma, babaganouj and for Mohammed, Kabob.

Two minutes after the waitress left a large man came to our table. Farouk! The restaurant owner and chef, wearing a buttoned black vest over his bright white double-breasted chef jacket – with a nehru collar, no less! (Serious style!) He talked with Mohammed and us for quite some time and was ecstatic. The chef said, "I told him, You are a lucky boy! There are so many hundreds of children who could be helped by coming here." I would bet that could be shifted into the thousands. After Farouk left, course after course began to arrive – a special delicious soup (shorbpa = yum!) followed by huge salads and our appetizer and… and by then Aaron and I suspected that, perhaps, this was not the normal treatment around here.

Mohammed taught us the Arabic names for various vegetables and food items. When I said "I love olives." I was told they were (phoenetically, here) 'zaytune'. I learned 'eta habibi zaytune!' …which I think means either, my lovely olive or, perhaps, I love olives. Something like that. Personally, I like that as a term of endearment. (Although, if perchance I ever have an Arabic-speaking honey I would not necessarily want to whisper, during an intimate moment, 'Sweetheart…darling…I love olives.')

Coyly, Mohammed told us that at the 'Ron-aild MackDon-aild' house in Philadelphia there are some boys from Puerto Rico – one of whom speaks many languages and who wanted Mohammed to teach him how to say 'girls' in Arabic. Habibi. So the little Puerto Rican boy ran around saying 'Habibi! Habibi! I love habibi!' Mohammed found this very funny. But then I was confused about if a woman can say Eta habibi (I love you) to a man if habibi means girl. We spent a great deal of time on this, Aaron drawing bathroom door man/woman symbols with speech bubbles and arrows so that we could really get a clear view of things. It turns out that Eta habibi goes both ways… perhaps.

Toward the end of our meal, our friend the chef showed back up at the side of our table. This time accompanied by a larger man with a tight haircut and neatly trimmed beard. "This man is a singer – very famous in Iraq." This was Raad Barakat and apparently like meeting a rockstar for Mohammed – he recognized Raad from T.V. and knew his songs! (Was this the singer from the pictures on the wall?) (see: Raad told us that he left Iraq by way of Yemen because Sadaam wanted to kill him. He described living under Sadaam and said that all the artists had to make all of their work about Sadaam – he said that, in this regard, even the artists were soldiers. (His life story is on his website, but written in Arabic – he's going to send it to me in English though – if you're interested let me know and I'll send it on.)

Raad stood at our table so long that he actually just wound up sitting with us to continue talking. He was great about talking a lot to Mohammed and then translating for us. Mohammed told him –

"I went to the top of the tallest building in America today. I am sad because I don't know why Sadaam Hussein could not let us have such a building. I do not know why he had to kill so many people."


Raad told us that we should do everything in our power to help Mohammed stay in the U.S. – even if it meant that his mother had to go back to Iraq. Aaron explained the problem with that; even if he applied for a student visa, if he got denied he would not be allowed to ever come back – which would mean no more coming to the U.S. for treatments, which would mean he would have no chance when he outgrows his prosthetic leg in a year. Raad shook his head and we discussed what great ambassadors these children of Iraq would be if only we would bring them here to help them. Why doesn't the U.S. allow more children to come for treatment? The possible volume of them would be too alarming to our citizens. Farouk assured me that "what happened to him – it was not done by an Iraqi". He took me aside and said, "Me, I am a Christian, this one (Mohammad) he is Sunni, and this one (Raad) he is Shiite – look at us, you see us here and we are family."

They told us that if the U.S. left Iraq now it would be very bad, Iran would come over the border in a heartbeat.

I tried to get my credit card to Farouk before Aaron could get his out, but he was too fast and we were quickly engaged in a dual of thrusting credit cards toward our host. Seriously, just as we got our fists out over the table (for a round of rock paper scissors), Farouk began to speak – he said to us "I told (Mohammed): I am an Iraqi, You are an Iraqi, I will take care of you!" And he would not let us pay him anything. And then he had the kitchen send out dessert.

Raad and Farouk took a break from our table and Aaron grabbed the chance to run to the ATM next door so that we could leave a generous tip. In the meantime, Mohammad began drawing another map. He drew the streets of Fallujah. He drew a street that appeared to dead end at a river. He drew a little box nestled in the corner made by where the road stopped at the river. "This my house." "Oh! Wow," I said, "you lived right by the water? That must have been nice." "Yes, very nice." Then he pointed and said "Boom!" And I understood that there had been a bridge there but now it was gone.

Mohammed's right lower leg is gone too. And so is his little baby cousin. A car-bomb headed for a U.S. convoy exploded while Mohammed and his cousin happened to be right there. Contrary to what Farouk had to say, Aaron told me that Mohammed knows the various sects of his old neighborhood and could probably narrow it down to two or three who probably are responsible for the bombing.

Leaving La Kabbr was a warm flurry of hugs and kisses and photographs. Raad asked thirty times for us to email him the picture of him with Mohammed. Farouk packed up a massive bag of food for Mohammed's mother. (She's with him staying on Staten Island – a little fearful about getting out and about.) I had Farouk write a note to her requesting that she allow me to escort her and Mohammed back to the restaurant next weekend in order to hear Raad sing. (Apparently he packs the house!) And he promised to give us a V.I.P. table for the night too. We stepped out the door and Farouk came running out after us – he needed to introduce his young son who works in the kitchen to Mohammed. They hugged and kissed and grinned.

We had to walk a block to catch a cab and Mohammed was a total trooper. He seemed a mix of exhausted and ecstatic…but I might have just been projecting. My heart was burning as I saw them into the cab. I stumbled away and found myself at 46th and 9th, I knew the 1 train stopped at 42nd and Broadway so I headed toward the lights. Past flashing theatres, tourists, bars and hustlers, the billion-dollar outrageous looking Church of Scientology and into the bright advertisement lights of Times Square. In all that flash there was only one reference to the war that we all paying for – a young man with a flimsy handwritten poster-board sign: TRUST PHYSICS, NOT BUSH! Whatever that means.

My face screwed up of it's own accord and as I wove my way through the ogling masses, the hot tears just came pouring down my cheeks.


You can check out the U.S. organization where Mohammed is staying here:

And here is a quick link to the CNN report about Mohammed:



"I call myself a radical conservative. Radical -- look it up in the dictionary. It means, getting to the root of things. Now, I'm a conservative because I want to conserve the potability of our drinking water. I want to conserve the non-polluted air we can breathe. I want to conserve the First Amendment to the Constitution. And I want to conserve whatever little sanity we have left." - Studs Terkel

Consuming War

Consuming War is an exhibition curated by Barbara Koenen for the Hyde Park Art Center
November 4 – January 20, 2008.

Artists: Lynda Barry I Wafaa Bilal I Mary Brogger I Adam Brooks Burtonwood & Holmes I Michael Hernandez De Luna I Frederick Holland I Harold Mendez I Michael Rakowitz I Ellen Rothenberg Edra Soto I Dolores Wilber I Paula White

Consuming War is dedicated to local artist and activist Malachi Ritscher (left) who immolated himself at the base of a sculpture alongside Chicago’s Kennedy Expressway during rush hour on November 3, 2006, in an act of war protest. A memorial concert will open the exhibit on November 4, 2007, in honor of Malachi, who recorded hundreds of experimental music concerts in Chicago prior to his death. "I only get one death, I want to make it a good one." Read Malachi's final statement here.

Consuming War will feature the work of 14 artists whose practice has been consumed by war -- who examine us as we are consumed by war… as our consumption begets war… as our war is depicted and reported using the tools of consumption… as our country, our civil liberties, and our standing in the world is consumed in the gridlocked intersection of commerce and jingoism.

Consuming War will also present programs, events and collaborations that take place outside the Art Center. Instead of a traditional catalog or postcard, the exhibition announcement will be a mock advertising supplement distributed in Newcity Chicago. Artist Adam Brooks will produce 200 advertising cards on the CTA Red Line and various bus lines featuring provocative quotations from throughout history about war, freedom and consumerism. Former director of the National Museum of Iraq, Dr. Donny George, will talk about the state of the cradle of civilization with U of C professor McGuire Gibson and artist Michael Rakowitz. Journalist James Janega will talk about his experiences covering Iraq for the Chicago Tribune. See all events listed at right.

Participating Artists:

Wafaa Bilal was born in Iraq in 1966 and lived through the rule of Saddam Hussein, arrested and tortured for his political artwork before escaping to Kuwait, where he was imprisoned again, eventually making his way to the U.S. He is now a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. For his recent project, “Domestic Tension,” Bilal lived in a room at Flatfile Gallery for a month under constant surveillance of a live webcam hooked to a paintball gun that anyone could fire online. Bilal received over 60,000 paintball hits, and millions of webhits for this project, which received international attention. For Consuming War, he will present Al Qaeda R US, “a visually poetic exposition of United States intervention in selective parts of the world between 1948 and the present. The artist's intention is to draw attention to the origins of much of the hatred directed toward the US government. The work illustrates atrocities committed by the US military and the CIA against the people of Chile, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Korea, VietNam, Panama, Iraq, Palestine, and Afghanistan. The piece is a witness to the present for the past that has never passed.” Courtesy of Flatfile Galleries.

In 1993 Mary Brogger created a Persian Rug (below) out of plasma cut steel, each piece teetering on fragile pins. She created this floating carpet in reaction to the first Persian Gulf war. It belies the beauty of the delicate patterns, as ancient traditions are impacted by cold hard steel. This piece will be joined by a 2006 sculpture, All; Everything.

Adam Brooks, of the duo Industry of the Ordinary, has for many years used text as his medium to survey the landscape of political thought. Often soliciting the input and opinions of others, he has compiled the Freedom Wall at Huron and Lake, papered the streets of Chicago with historical quotes on politics, created soapboxes for pronouncements, and with his wife, Cindi Canary of the Campaign for Political Reform, diagrammed political contributions for a recent Illinois gubernatorial race.

Tom Burtonwood & Holly Holmes’ prints and sculptures juxtapose advertising flyers from local grocery stores with the images of weapons created by the US 's most powerful weapons manufacturers. Commenting on the foundation on which our economy is built and fed, they have created room-sized installations of tanks, often to scale, papered with these colorful candy-colored flyers. Courtesy of GardenFRESH, Chicago.

Beat poodle Fred Milton’s brilliant tirades against the war, and specifically against George Bush and Dick Cheney is the creation of cartoonist Lynda Barry. Milton’s pointed poems are simple, playful and cathartic. A demoralizing sign of the times, several of the “ alternative” publications who carry Barry's strip have cancelled or threatened to censor her Fred Milton strips.

Michael Hernandez de Luna makes and mails stamps, subverting the iconic representation of our culture, playing with the attentiveness of the US Postal Service, asserting the voice of the artist and activist in the face of Federal persecution/prosecution. Courtesy of Carl Hammer Gallery, Chicago.

Edra Soto Fernandez’s One Vision: Hollywood Soldiers (right) is an ensemble of video stills of actors playing soldiers in Hollywood movies. Since both the government and media censor images of real soldiers, real blood and real coffins, America's enthusiasm for the war is based more on fictitious portrayals from Hollywood and global media, rather than actual events.

Frederick Holland's rage and cynicism has been close to the surface for years but previously centered on highly crafted objects that aestheticized sexuality and violence. Since the current war, Holland has turned his focus to popular culture – games, advertising, quizzes and educational materials – as his vehicle for critique of the policies and assumptions that mainstream culture takes for granted. Courtesy of Flatfile Galleries, Chicago.

Harold Mendez
looks at confinement – corrals, fences – and extrapolates to Guantanamo, to Abu Graib, to the unknown extraordinary rendition abroad. Mendez starts from Nevada bomb sites and draws from literary and historical images.

Michael Rakowitz's body of work has presented a range of responses to US consumerism, including building homes for the homeless from trash bags and HVAC vents to recreating his Iraqi grandfather's import business. He will include versions of two recent works in Consuming War. “The invisible enemy should not exist,” in which archeological artifacts missing from the Baghdad Museum, as documented by the Oriental Institute, are laboriously recreated from commercial packaging wraps (right), and “Enemy Kitchen” a cooking class based on his mother’s Iraqi recipes. Courtesty of Lombard-Freid Projects, NYC.

Ellen Rothenberg takes a critical look at the adoption of camouflage by the fashion industry, and employs propaganda imagery from previous wars to entreat people to turn in their garments for the war effort. The artists’ statement may be found here.

Dolores Wilber
’s video projection, Tooth and Nail (below), combines images of hand grenades, ash, nails, silver-covered teeth and a spinning safety pin. It reflects several years of research on individual acts of violence and the faith that is touted or reflected in suicide bombings, beheadings, acts of humiliation and torture – the overwhelmingly gruesome and personal violence of war.

Paula White is a fifth generation textile artist, home healthcare nurse and a student in Northwestern University's masters program in creative writing. At a July Prostrations for Peace event, prayer flags were made which she has sewn into colorful quilts.

The Consuming War exhibition at the Hyde Park Art Center ran through January 20, 2008. CW featured the work of 14 artists -- Lynda Barry, Mary Brogger, Wafaa Bilal, Adam Brooks, Burtonwood & Holmes, Michael Hernandez de Luna, Fred Holland, Harold Mendez, Michael Rakowitz, Ellen Rothenberg, Edra Soto, Dolores Wilber, and Paula White. Ranging from steel carpets and inflatable bombs to postage stamps and cooking classes, their work is thoughtful, sharp and inspiring. Click here for some photos of the show and the opening.

We've gotten some great press on Consuming War. Here are some links for highlights:

Spencer Dew for Chicago Artists News
Joanna HInkel for Chicago Artists News "Most Important Exhibition of 2007"
Carrie Ruckel for CAN-TV

Alan Artner for the Chicago Tribune

Hello Beautiful for James Janega's talk
Chicago Reader

Time Out Chicago
New Cit
Chicago Weekly

CW will also include several interesting events that will give you a chance to participate -- including talks by Chicago Tribune journalist James Janega about reporting from Iraq; Geraldine Gorman, a nurse with the international aid group Emergency, and a special conversation with Dr. Donny George Youkhanna, the former head of the Iraq Museum in Baghdad. And, at the opening, plan to join us for a memorial concert by Michael Zerang and Jim Baker, in remembrance of their friend Malachi Ritscher, who immolated himself in protest of the war, here in Chicago last November. (Read more about Consuming War here)


Articles, Reviews, Podcasts

November 4 - Exhibit Opens
2–3 pm Concert for Malachi
Musicians Michael Zerang and Jim Baker perform in memory of Malachi Ritscher.
3–5 pm
Meet the artists

November 11 (Veteran’s Day)
12–4pm Prostrations for Peace
Community gathering for peace, with yoga and tai chi practice, peace offerings, prayer flags, poetry, music and more.
3 pm Emergency
Geraldine Gorman, RN, PhD, speaks about Emergency, the international relief organization providing treatment to civilian war victims.
4–6 pm Meanwhile in Baghdad…
Exhibition opening at the Renaissance Society, 5811 S. Ellis.

November 25
3–5 pm Iraq Veterans Against the War Aaron Hughes and other veterans discuss Warrior Writer Project, Operation First Casualty, and other efforts to end the war by its veterans.

November 28
6–8 pm Reporting from Baghdad
Chicago Tribune journalist James Janega

December 5
6–8 pm Talk Back: Creating Histories
Artists Wafaa Bilal, Adam Brooks and Dolores Wilber

December 12
6–8 pm Talk Back: Buyer Beware
Artists Tom Burtonwood and Holly Holmes, Fred Holland and Michael Hernandez de Luna

January 9
6–8 pm Talk Back: Culture and Space
Artists Mary Brogger, Harold Mendez and Paula White

January 13
5–7 pm Enemy Kitchen
Artist Michael Rakowitz uses food as an element to facilitate
dialogue and collaboration by preparing a meal based on his
Iraqi mother’s home recipes. RSVP required.

January 16
3–5 pm Consuming Culture
Dr. Donny George Youkhanna, former Director of the
National Museum of Iraq, with University of Chicago
Professor of Mesopotamian Art McGuire Gibson and artist Michael Rakowitz

Consuming Thanks....
Consuming War has been supported by Newcity Chicago, The American Academic Research Institute in Iraq, Experimental Station, and the generous contributions of Jane Fulton Alt, Sidney Barton, Kim Freiders, John Himmelfarb and Molly Day, Esther Grimm, Justine Jentes and Daniel Kuruna, Laurel Lipkin, Jackie Kazarian and Peter Cunningham, Beverly Koenen, Annie Morse, Tim Samuelson, Paul Klein, Harold Olin, Karen Paluzzi Steele, Laura Samson, Eva Silverman, Paula White, and Roberta Zabel.

Graphic design: Laura Tan Exhibition design: John Vinci

And thanks to the staff of HPAC, Chuck Thurow, Allison Peters, Kate Lorenz, Chris Hammes, Colleen Coyne and everyone who helped and inspired us.

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those
who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. The world in arms is not spending money alone.
It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.

Dwight D. Eisenhower
US president and general, 1953

Sunday, June 13, 2010

War Rugs

These are re-creations of Afghan War Rugs, made from loose spices, in the spirit of Tibetan Buddhist mandalas.

In 2001, when the US invaded Afghanistan, I began recreating Afghani war rugs in public performances.

Afghani war rugs first appeared twenty-five years ago, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and the traditional weavers, primarily women, began to incorporate images of weapons into their traditional floral, animal and geometric patterns. Subtle at first, the military iconography eventually dominated the textiles, erasing all but the most incidental remnants of centuries of previous motifs.

I was moved by the tragic nature of this cultural and aesthetic phenomenon, and wanted to feel what it was like to create something so brutal. Adopting the practice of the Tibetan Buddhist monks who make elaborate sand mandalas that they then destroy, I constructed war rugs like mandalas made from loose spices and seeds. Taking up to 6 days to complete, the colorful and fragrant installations exist only temporarily. Once complete with fringe and popper firecrackers attached, they are tread upon, but the footsteps only reveal their impermanence.

The first war rugs I swept up into jars at the end of each exhibition. Now I record the pieces as “monoprints,” fixing the remaining spices to cloth with clear medium. The prints retain much of the color and aroma of the rugs, as well as the pattern of footprints and other incidents that the installation endured.

Afghan War Rug No 35, Paratroop Version (SOLD) 2004

This "rug" was an installation that I made for Art Chicago in 2004, at Navy Pier. It is

Creating a spice war rug at the Museum of Contemporary Art, November 2007.

I made my 7th spice war rug, Baluchi Drixa, for the Mapping the Self exhibition at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art. It was on display until March, 2008, when I made some prints and swept it up. Not too worse for wear, there were only a few footprints and little messes in the pattern. I'll have photos of the prints soon.

made out of paprika, poppy seed, tumeric, ginger, fennel, coffee, flour, red and black pepper,mace, cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice.

I placed the spices carefully on a mat, without any glue. It took about 5 days to finish it. Once the pattern is filled, I complete it with cotton fringe, that has popper firecrackers attached.

If you step on the fringe..."POP"!

Link Outlaw A / NOVA War Rugs on flickr

War Rug Prints

Failed Buddhist, I stopped pouring the spices into a jar at the conclusion of the installation, and began to make prints of the rug installations, preserving the footsteps and other transgressions.

Inspiring Guns tank Afghan War Rug, 2003
Spices, acrylic on canvas, 66 1/4 x 46 inches
Impressions 1, 2 and 3

Mashadi War Rug, 2003,
above: spices, acrylic on canvas, below: spices, acrylic, cotton, popper firecrackers on linen

Silk Road War Rug
, 2006

below, 1-3 impressions: spices, acrylic on canvas

More War Rugs

Koenen -- More War Rugs
Other War Rug Installations, 2003 - present
Afghan War Rug No. c35, Paratroop version, ak-74 (SOLD)
As installed at Columbia College Glass Curtain Gallery, 2003.

Ersari Turkoman Rug (Poppies, AK-47s),
As installed at Three Arts Club, Chicago, 2003

Knight's Castle, Ptuj Slovenia, 2005
10 feet x 3 1/2 fee

Silk Road War Rug
installed at the Chicago Tourism Center, 2006

Baluchi Drixa
at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago
November 2007 - March 2008

Top: Creation
Bottom: Destruction

All these war rugs are made from loose spices and seeds, including poppyseeds, sesame seed, turmeric, cinnamon, ginger, coriander, fennel, black and red pepper, mace, salt, flour, etc.

Each is based on a real war rug, although patterns may vary.

Cow on Parade

The sweetest, and heaviest, of the Cows on Parade in Chicago during Summer 2000. Over 20,000 gumdrops were glued to the cow, courtesy of Favorite Brands International. The Cow mooved to Berwyn, on top of the meat counter at the Fair Share grocery store on Roosevelt Road, and is now in the Fruit section.

My paintings, like the installations, use unusual materials and repetitive processes.
Some are for sale, contact me for prices. See titles, descriptions below.

Paintings from L to Right, top:

, 2005, 66 x 72 inches, oil on canvas*; Aurora, 2002, pigment, cat litter, urethane on jute, 60 x 40 inches*; Blue Note, 1995, wax on linen; Black Sky, 2000, oil, acrylic, charcoal, enamel on jute, 72 x 66 inches;* Confetti, 1995, urethane and paper on canvas, 60 x 40 inches; Aluminium, 1995, acrylic, enamel on canvas, 60 x 40 inches; Dayglo, 1995, oil, pigment on jute, 72 x 66 inches; Blue on Red, oil, pigment on linen, 60 x 40 inches; Blue Sky, pigment, acrylic, pencil on canvas, 42 x 42 inches*; Poppyseed 1, 1994, poppyseeds, acrylic on canvas, 72 x 66 inches *; Dilly-dilly, 1995, urethane and lavender on linen, 60 x 40 inches; Rudy, 2000, sumach, pigment, urethane on canvas, 60 x 40 inches; Mum, 1996, beeswax on linen, 60 x 40 inches*; Poppyseed 2, poppyseeds, acrylic on canvas, 72 x 66 inches*; Hide, 2002, oil on linen, 60 x 40 inches*; Green on White, 1995, oil on canvas, 72 x 66 inches*; Winter, 1997, oil on canvas, 72 x 66 inches*; White on Blue, 1997, oil on canvas, 72 x 66 inches*

Paintings with an asterisk (*) are available for sale. Please contact me if you are interested in learning more..