Friday, 29 June 2012

... and transported to 1940s Kurdistan by Gulan

My second South Kensington trip of the day was to the Royal Geographical Society for a BISI-sponsored evening organised by our friends at Gulan.

Gulan is a very dynamic and imaginative London-based charity for the promotion of Kurdish arts and cultures, especially the region's minority communities. Past events of theirs have focused on Yezidi, Faylee and Kaka'i; last night we were taken back to the Aramaic-speaking Jewish community of Zakho, on the Turkish border, where UCLA professor Yona Sabar grew up in the 1930s and 40s.

Our guide was Yona's son, the journalist Ariel Sabar. He spoke with raw honesty of rejecting his father's history and identity as a teenage wannabe-surfer in 1980s LA. Becoming a father himself ten years ago prompted a radical rethink of his roots and family history, and his relationship to Yona. The eventual result was a joint trip to Zakho in 2005 and Ariel's marvellous, prize-winning book, My Father's Paradise: A Son's Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq.

If you have ten minutes to spare you can watch and/or read a C-Span interview with Ariel or if you have a full hour there's a much fuller one on Fora TV.

As Ariel reminded us, the Jewish community of Kurdistan has its roots in Sargon II of Assyria's capture of Samaria in 722 BC and deportation of its population to the banks of the Habur river. Indeed, Zahko sits on an island in the middle of that very river. The newcomers adopted the Aramaic language of central Assyria but kept the Hebrew script, and there they remained, impoverished but largely content and well integrated, for some 2700 years until the mid-20th century politicisation of religion dispersed the community across the globe.

After Ariel's talk, Sarah Panizzo of Gulan interviewed the erudite and charming Yona. She drew out out reminiscences of his grandfather, mother—married at 13 in an amazing multi-layered purple-and-blue outfit which still looks as good as new—and school life. Many audience members had their own questions and memories to share—who knew there were Kurdish Jews in Burma?—and the evening could easily have gone on to midnight or beyond.

Yona has made it his life's work to document and study Aramaic, both as a historical phenomenon and as a living—but now dying—language across the diaspora. You can read more about Aramaic in three chapters of BISI's book, The Languages of Iraq: Ancient and Modern, edited by Nicholas Postgate (2007):

  • Alan Millard, Early Aramaic
  • Geoffrey Khan, Aramaic in the medieval and modern periods
  • Eleanor Coghill, Fieldwork in Neo-Aramaic

Out in the foyer, the Courtauld Institute's Conway Library generously displayed a selection of Anthony Kersting's extraordinarily evocative photographs of 1940s Kurdistan, taken on a wartime RAF posting to the Middle East. Sadly, the crush of people made it difficult to stand back and appreciate them fully and I can't find any of them online either. So I do hope the Courtault will provide further opportunities to view this magnificent collection, which is worthy of much closer study.

Thank you to all at Gulan, the RGS and the Courtauld, as well as to Sabar père et fils, for putting on such a rich and captivating event.

Nearly spoiled at the Iraqi Embassy ...

One of the many things I love about BISI's location in the British Academy—so, actually, one of the many things I love about the Academy's location on Carlton House Terrace—is the 5-minute walk from Piccadilly tube down Lower Regent Street, past (and often into) the magnificent array of real sushi bars.

So yesterday afternoon my BISI work began with chilled edamame and raw tuna in the front garden of the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, as BISI Assistant Administrator Lauren Mulvee and I briefed each other on the latest developments in various BISI projects and planned the afternoon ahead.

The front garden of the Natural History Museum isn't the obvious lunch spot for Academy-based business and, overrun by hordes of picnicking schoolchildren and their leftovers, nor was at its most beautiful (which is surely during its annual reinvention as an ice rink). But it was a convenient stopping-off spot on the way to the brand new Iraqi Embassy just round the corner in Queen's Gate.

Our mission was to introduce ourselves and BISI's current work and plans to the Chargé d'Affaires, Dr Muhieddin Abdullah. The first portent of the very warm welcome we were to receive was the stunning photo in reception, of an elderly Iraqi woman in a black abaya, holding up her ink-stained voting finger in front of a twinkling grin. The second was the series of photos adorning the stairs, of some pieces of the famous Nimrud gold jewellery.

I was particularly delighted to see a large, half-empty box of Ferrero Rocher on the coffee table. Joke or the truth behind the legend? We couldn't tell. Nor, sadly, were we offered any (though we were plied with many other good things). Maybe when we are mixing with the honoured guests at the official opening of the Embassy in a few weeks' time!

In any case, the foundations were laid for a strong and co-operative relationship between BISI and the Embassy. We warmly thank Dr Abdullah and his staff for their hospitality and support.

Friday, 22 June 2012


The BISI's Council elected me as their new Chair in February 2012. In this blog—which I've been wanting to start for months now—I'm planning to write about some of the things I do and think about as I carry out my role. I promise to skip the confidential and/or boring bits, though, such as proof-reading minutes, drafting policy proposals, and chairing meetings (which are great fun, in fact, but you have to be there to appreciate them fully).

And it won't just be about me (at least, I hope not!), or even just about BISI. This is also an opportunity to showcase some of the amazing people I meet who research, teach, study, and/or support Iraq and to share their brilliant work with you.

Needless to say, this is an informal, partial, personal blog reflecting my own thoughts and opinions (though I promise to keep them civil!) and does constitute a formal record of the activities, decisions or policies of the Institute.

Here's a list of stuff that's already happened that I want to come back to. I'll mix in these retrospective posts with current events, so this list isn't just to remind me what to write about. I'll link back to each item as I write about it, to maintain some semblance of order and chronology.

23 February 2012: my first day
Appointing Lauren as Assistant Administrator—how to shine at interview!; saying farewell and thank-you to Roger Matthews (my predecessor as Chair) and Andrew George (long-serving and magnificent editor of Iraq; Roger's lecture in memory of Rachel Maxwell-Hyslop.
17 April 2012: APPGI
Speaking to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Iraq at Portcullis House; meeting our new Visiting Scholar, the delightful Mohammed Jwad Kasim.
21 April 2012: URAP
Jane Moon and Robert Killick's exciting plans for archaeological excavations near Ur in southern Iraq.
26 April 2012: Xavier Pick
Appeal lecture and the most stunning art-work on the relationship(s) between antiquity and post-war Iraq.
3–11 May 2012: Kurdistan
This will have to be several blog posts to do it justice:
  • the Suleimaniyah Museum, Antiquities Service and Guest House;
  • tagging along with the UCL team as they choose excavation sites in the Shahrizor plain near Halabja;
  • travelling through Assyria;
  • Erbil citadel, the souk and dinner chez David Michelmore;
  • Gulan and ArtRole;
  • Erbil Museum, the Iraqi Conservation Institute, etc.
28 May 2012: Nejef, Kerbala and Basra
More on Mohammed Jwad and his work for the Ministry of Shrines; recent and current work in and around Basra
14 June 2012: reliving the war
Jack Fairweather's Bonham-Carter lecture on his book A War of Choice
23 June 2012: Iraqi Cultural Centre opening
at their new premises in Shepherd's Bush

Which brings me up to date. In fact I should have started with the ICC opening, as it was on the day after I set up this blog. But I shall come back to it soon.