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

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