Building on tradition: Iraqi laborer preserves calligraphic art

Iraqi calligrapher Wael al-Ramdan, 49, wipes the glass on one of his Arabic calligraphy framed art pieces at his workship in al-Ashar district of Iraq's southern city of Basra on December 19, 2021. (AFP)
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Updated 23 December 2021

Building on tradition: Iraqi laborer preserves calligraphic art

  • Though he has won awards in numerous competitions, Hussein acknowledged that “you can't live on this”, the artistic handwriting of Arabic script

RANYA, Iraq: When he is not hauling concrete blocks on a construction site in northern Iraq, Jamal Hussein devotes his time to preserving the gentle art of Arabic calligraphy.
Though he has won awards in numerous competitions, Hussein acknowledged that “you can’t live on this,” the artistic handwriting of Arabic script.
“I have a big family. I have to find other work,” said the father of 11, who is 50 years old and earns his keep working on building sites in the Iraqi Kurdish town of Ranya.
Last week, the United Nations culture agency declared Arabic calligraphy an “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity,” following a campaign by 16 countries led by Saudi Arabia and including Iraq.
“The fluidity of Arabic script offers infinite possibilities, even within a single word, as letters can be stretched and transformed in numerous ways to create different motifs,” UNESCO said on its website.
Abdelmajid Mahboub from the Saudi Heritage Preservation Society involved in the proposal to UNESCO said the number of specialized Arab calligraphic artists had dropped sharply.
Hussein is one of them, and he welcomed the UNESCO decision.
He hopes it will push “the Iraqi government and the autonomous Kurdistan region to adopt serious measures” to support calligraphy — “khat” in Arabic — and its artists.
Practicing since the 1980s, his decades of experience and participation in competitions are attested to by about 40 medals and certificates displayed at his home.

In October he came second in an Egyptian online competition, and is now training for a contest next month in the Iraqi holy Shiite city of Najaf.
Hussein’s creations are made with a reed pen that he buys from Turkey or Iran. He sometimes sells the work for posters, shop displays and even tombstones, he said.
For decades, in the major regional centers of Cairo, Amman, Beirut or Casablanca, calligraphy was displayed on storefronts, on walls featuring popular sayings, or on plaques at the entrances of buildings to signal the presence of a lawyer or a doctor.
Today, the remnants of this calligraphy are only visible on the faded facades of old shops.
Still, nostalgia for the vintage aesthetic has become something of a trend, as hipsters of the region post pictures of their discoveries for their followers on social media.
But in impoverished, war-scarred Iraq, there is no support from the government “whether for calligraphy or for other arts,” Hussein lamented.
“Because of technology, the sanctity of calligraphy has declined,” he said.
“Calligraphy requires more time, more effort and is more costly. People are moving toward cheaper technological production.”
But it is impossible for Hussein to abandon his art. He dreams of “traveling to Egypt or Turkey and living there temporarily to improve my khat.”
At the other end of Iraq, in the southern city of Basra, Wael Al-Ramadan opens his shop in an alley.
A client arrives to inquire about the preparation of an administrative stamp used to confirm attendance.
Ramadan seizes one of his sharp-nibbed pens and starts again to practice the art which his father introduced him to when he was still a child.
On paper he slowly begins to trace the requested words, with Arabic letters distinguished by their elegant curves.
Like his fellow calligrapher Hussein, Ramadan applauds UNESCO for its “great support for calligraphy and calligraphers all over the world.”
Ramadan earns money by teaching the discipline in schools but also sells his skill for advertisement purposes.
“We hope that the government will take an interest in this art, through exhibitions and competitions,” said Ramadan, 49, who is clad in black with a shaven head.
“The survival of Arabic calligraphy depends on the support of the state.”
It depends, too, on the devotion of men like Hussein and Ramadan.
“I obviously hope that my children will succeed me, just like I followed in my father’s footsteps,” Ramadan said with a smile.

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Vehicle accident in southern Egypt kills 9, injures 18

Updated 13 August 2022

Vehicle accident in southern Egypt kills 9, injures 18

CAIRO: A vehicle accident involving an overturned microbus in southern Egypt killed at least nine people and injured eight, authorities said Saturday.
The crash took place Friday when the passenger vehicle overturned following a tire blowout on a highway in Minya province 273 kilometers (170 miles) south of the capital Cairo, provincial authorities said in a statement.
The microbus, a sort of mass transit minivan, was transporting people from Sohag province to Cairo, the statement said.
Ambulances rushed to the site and moved the injured to hospitals in Minya, the statement added.
Deadly traffic accidents claim thousands of lives every year in Egypt, which has a poor transportation safety record. The crashes and collisions are mostly caused by speeding, bad roads or poor enforcement of traffic laws.
Earlier this month, a microbus collided with a truck in Sohag, killing at least 17 people and injuring four others. In July, a passenger bus slammed into a parked trailer truck in Minya, leaving 23 dead and a least 30 wounded.

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Tunisian government, unions agree to talks on IMF reform program

Updated 12 August 2022

Tunisian government, unions agree to talks on IMF reform program

  • Prime Minister Najla Bouden, UGTT labour union chief Noureddine Taboubi and UTICA commerce union chief Samir Majoul had agreed a "social contract" to tackle national challenges
  • The UGTT reposted the statement on its Facebook page

TUNIS: Tunisia’s government and both its main labor and commerce unions agreed on Friday to start talks on Monday over economic reforms required by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a rescue program.
State news agency TAP reported that Prime Minister Najla Bouden, UGTT labor union chief Noureddine Taboubi and UTICA commerce union chief Samir Majoul had agreed a “social contract” to tackle national challenges, citing a government statement.
The UGTT reposted the statement on its Facebook page.
The labor union, which represents a vast syndicate of workers, has been a staunch critic of IMF economic reforms proposed by the government, including subsidy cuts, a public sector wage freeze and the restructuring of state-owned companies.
It previously said, such reforms would increase the suffering of Tunisians and lead to an imminent social implosion.
Tunisia is seeking $4 billion in IMF support amid the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic and the war in Ukraine, though diplomat sources told Reuters any IMF program approved would be unlikely to reach that level.
The IMF wants the UGTT, a powerful union that has a million members and has previously paralyzed parts of the economy in protest, to formally agree to government reforms.
Efforts to secure the IMF bailout have been complicated by Tunisia’s political upheavals since President Kais Saied seized most powers a year ago, shutting down parliament and moving to rule by decree.
Last month, he pushed through a new constitution formalising many of the expanded powers he has assumed in a referendum. Official figures showed that 31 percent of Tunisians took part, but opposition groups have rejected the figure, calling it inflated.


Hundreds linked to Daesh transferred from Syria to Iraq

Updated 12 August 2022

Hundreds linked to Daesh transferred from Syria to Iraq

  • It is the fourth operation of its kind this year from the camp, which lies less than 10 kilometers from the Iraqi border
  • The men, women and children belonged to 150 families and left the camp on Thursday

BEIRUT: Syria’s autonomous Kurdish region transferred to the Iraqi government more than 600 relatives of Daesh group members who were detained at the notorious Al-Hol camp, a monitor said Friday.
It is the fourth operation of its kind this year from the camp, which lies less than 10 kilometers from the Iraqi border.
In the latest transfer, around “620 people, relatives of Daesh members, left Al-Hol,” coordinated between the camp administration and the Iraqi government, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in a statement.
The men, women and children belonged to 150 families and left the camp on Thursday, an official in the Kurdish administration told AFP.
Thousands of foreign extremists joined Daesh as fighters, often bringing their wives and children to live in the “caliphate” declared by the group across swathes of Iraq and Syria in 2014.
Kurdish-led forces backed by a US-led coalition dislodged the militants from their last scrap of territory in Syria in 2019.
Kurdish authorities have repeatedly called on countries to repatriate their citizens from crowded displaced camps, of which Al-Hol is Syria’s largest.
More than 100 people, including many women, were murdered in Al-Hol over an 18-month period, the UN said in June, calling for camp residents to be returned home.
But nations have mostly received them only sporadically, fearing security threats and a domestic political backlash.
The first repatriation of Iraqi families from Al-Hol, involving around 300 people, took place in May last year.
Iraq should repatriate 500 families in total from Al-Hol this year, the official Iraqi New Agency announced on Wednesday.
In addition to the returned family members, the Iraqi government also received this week about 50 Iraqi Daesh fighters and leaders who were detained by the Syrian Democratic Forces, according to the Observatory.
The SDF spearheaded the fight against Daesh in Syria with the support of the US-led coalition.
In early June, Iraq repatriated another 50 Iraqi Daesh fighters who were detained by Kurdish forces. They were among 3,500 Iraqis held in Syrian Kurdish prisons, a senior military official said at the time.
In April, a senior Iraqi security official said the Al-Hol camp is a security threat and should be dismantled.
It houses around 55,000 people, the UN reported in June.


Sadr followers hold mass prayer outside Iraqi parliament in show of force

Updated 12 August 2022

Sadr followers hold mass prayer outside Iraqi parliament in show of force

  • Supporters of the populist leader have occupied the Iraqi parliament since July
  • Iran-aligned political groups were expected to hold their own demonstration later on Friday

BAGHDAD: Thousands of followers of Moqtada Al-Sadr held a mass prayer outside parliament in Baghdad on Friday in a show of support for the powerful Shiite cleric who has called for Iraq’s judiciary to dissolve parliament by the end of next week.
Supporters of the populist leader have occupied the Iraqi parliament since July after a 10-month political stalemate that followed elections last October. Sadr was the biggest winner but failed to form a government free of Iranian-backed parties.
He withdrew his lawmakers from parliament and is now preventing the chamber from electing a new government and is demanding early elections.
On Wednesday he said the judiciary must dissolve parliament by the end of next week. If not “the revolutionaries will take another stand,” he said without elaborating.
Outside parliament on Friday thousands of Sadr supporters gathered for prayer. Most were dressed in black to mark the Muslim month of Muharram and some wore white capes symbolizing burial shrouds and their willingness to die.
“You will not break Iraq as long as Sadr is here,” an imam told the crowd from a big red stage set up outside parliament. “There is no going back from this revolution ... and the people will not give up their demands.”
In the intense summer heat, men picked their way through the worshippers and sprayed them with cold water. Some carried portraits of Sadr and his father, also a prominent cleric, as well as Iraqi flags.
“We have revolted and there is no going back,” said Mohammed Elwan, 40, carrying a portrait of Sadr.
Hamid Hussain, a father of five, said: “I am here to call for an early election and make sure that all the corrupt faces are excluded from the upcoming elections...I became unemployed because of the corrupt parties.”
Sadr’s opponents also accuse him of corruption. They say his loyalists have run some of Iraq’s most corrupt and dysfunctional government departments.
Iran-aligned political groups were expected to hold their own demonstration later on Friday, the latest in a series of protest and counter-protest in recent days which have led to fears of unrest.
Sadr counts millions of Iraqis among his followers and has shown he can still stir up gatherings by hundreds of thousands of supporters, mostly working-class Shiite Muslims, if he needs to exert political pressure.
His father Mohammed Sadiq Al-Sadr was killed more than 20 years ago for his outspoken opposition Saddam Hussein. When Saddam was topped in a US-led invasion in 2003 Sadr began an insurgency against US troops.
His new foes, however, are fellow Shiite leaders and parties mostly aligned with Iran, as Sadr has positioned himself as a nationalist who rejects foreign interference. Those groups, like Sadr, are backed by heavily armed militias, but do not hold the same sway as he does over masses of fanatical followers.


Syria rebels call for protests over Turkey’s ‘reconciliation’ call

Updated 12 August 2022

Syria rebels call for protests over Turkey’s ‘reconciliation’ call

  • Comments sparked calls for protests in key cities that fall under the control of Turkish forces
  • Ankara has launched successive military offensives in Syria

SYRIA: Protests broke out in Syria’s rebel-held north on Friday over a call from Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu for reconciliation between the Syrian government and opposition.
“We have to somehow get the opposition and the regime to reconcile in Syria. Otherwise, there will be no lasting peace, we always say this,” Cavusoglu said Thursday, in remarks to diplomats.
The comments have sparked calls for protests after Friday weekly prayers in key cities that fall under the control of Turkish forces and their supporters, including in Al-Bab, Afrin and Jarablus.
Similar calls were made in Idlib, controlled by Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham and other rebel groups, to gather at border crossings with Turkey.
Small protests already began overnight in some areas, including Al-Bab, where dozens gathered holding opposition slogans and chanting against Turkey.
Some demonstrators burned a Turkish flag, while others took down Turkey’s colors hung up around the city, an AFP photographer said.
Dozens of others gathered at the Bab Al-Salama crossing to Turkey, many shouting “death rather than indignity.”
Turkey’s top diplomat also revealed that he had held a short meeting in Belgrade in October with his Syrian counterpart Faisal Al-Meqdad, adding that communication had resumed between the two countries’ intelligence agencies.
But he denied direct talks between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Syrian counterpart Bashar Assad, despite long-standing calls from Russia for such dialogue.
Cavusoglu added that Turkey would continue its fight against “terrorism” in Syria, following warnings from Ankara since May that it could launch new strikes on Kurdish-held areas in north and northeast Syria.
Ankara has launched successive military offensives in Syria. Most have targeted Kurdish militants that Turkey links to a group waging a decades-long insurgency against it.
Cavusoglu’s comments have sparked widespread anger among the opposition, with renowned figure George Sabra writing on Facebook: “If Cavusoglu is concerned with reconciling with the Syrian regime, that is his business. As for the Syrians, they have a different cause for which they have paid and continue to pay the dearest price.”
About half a million people have died during Syria’s 11-year conflict, which has destroyed large swathes of the country and displaced millions of people.