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
Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year


Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Arts and Entertainment
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

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

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living