Arts: Notebooks from the edge

The Iraqi artist Nuha al-Radi turned her experience of the Gulf War into a witty diary. But its humour is tempered by the pain of exile.

During the Gulf War, the Iraqi artist Nuha al-Radi was unable to paint, read or listen to music. Instead, she began to keep a diary - something that she had never done before. These writings have now been published as Baghdad Diaries.

Politics inevitably figures throughout (there is a good joke about Saddam Hussein), but the focus is chiefly upon the domestic and local details of al-Radi's daily existence. "I'd like people to see what's going on, to see the life and humour," she says. "I wanted to show everyday living, how you've got to survive."

There is much black comedy in the diary. "At least Baghdad is now on the map," she wrote on the eighth day of the war. "I will no longer have to explain where I come from." She mocks the Iraqis who flee to the countryside with their freezers loaded on pick-up trucks: "Only we would escape from a war carrying freezers full of goodies. Iraqis have been hoarders for centuries..."; and makes fun of state bureaucracy: "...if we ask for a permit to die, they'll say, `Come back in a week and bring all your papers with you...'."

Friends of al-Radi say that the diary is in the spirit of her work as an artist. "Nuha's ceramics are like her writing - insouciant, charming, witty," says Dale Egee, who has known al-Radi for 20 years and is currently exhibiting her etchings in a London show of modern Arab art. "Humour is central to her art."

In the diary, someone tells al-Radi that her work is "world art" as it has no barriers. Baghdad Diaries transcends cultural boundaries, too. Al-Radi wrote it in English - which comes more naturally to her than Arabic when she writes. She spent part of her childhood in India, where she had an English education, and trained at art school in London. During an air raid, she thinks that it could almost be a Philip Glass opera; on another occasion, she feels as if she's in a never-ending Indian movie.

But her cosmopolitan nature was severely tested by the war and she doubted she would ever be able to set foot in the West again. "I'm not even sure that [the West knows] if there are ordinary human beings who live here," she wrote. Her diary shows how quickly Baghdad disintegrated into villages; how little time it takes to destroy a modern city.

After the war, life under sanctions inspired her to make a series of sculptures from car parts and stone which she called "Embargo Art". She refers to it as "junk" in her diary, something with which to lighten up the hardship.

"It's impossible to work when you see disaster going on around you," she says. "How can you produce art and who would be expected to buy art at such a time? We artists are the first ones who go down the drain because art and artists are a luxury. This was the best way that I could find to express myself."

An open-air exhibition of the sculptures in Jordan was well received and became an even greater metaphor of the Iraqi predicament than al-Radi had originally intended. During the show, the detachable parts of the sculptures began to go missing. "Every time I went, it looked a little different and more worn out," she recalls, "and I said, `That's exactly what our situation is in Iraq'."

She is deeply saddened and indignant at the continuing plight of Iraq after eight years of sanctions. "Everyone is leaving. You can't earn a living there and inflation is unbelievable. There's nothing you can pick out of the situation in order to re-plant, re-grow, nourish - it's a slow death."

Meanwhile, al-Radi herself leads a nomadic existence, wandering between Beirut, London, Jordan and Iraq. She writes poignantly in her diary about the experience of exile, comparing notes with fellow expatriates about the humiliation of chasing visas - "so much effort for a licence to live". For the moment, she has chosen Beirut as the best place of refuge and it is from there that she will be working towards her next exhibition.

`Baghdad Diaries' is published by Saqi Books, pounds 9.95.

Nuha al-Radi's etchings can be seen at Egee Art Consultancy (0171-351 6818) and Soni Gallery (0171-262 9101) until 17 October

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing