Posted on Sat, Mar. 04, 2006
Iraqi artist boldly strives for normalcy amid war
Sabti says with his collages he tries to 'gain victory over the destruction surrounding us in Baghdad'
By Hamza Hendawi

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Like most people in this frightened city, Qasim Sabti struggles to survive, keep up his spirits and conquer his anger.

A respected artist and curator, he did not pack and flee to the safety of exile or hunker down at home. Instead, Sabti has made one brave attempt after another to get the most out of what little the Baghdad of today can offer.

His quick wit and upbeat moments make a pleasant change in a city that seems to be in constant mourning.

"What can I say?" is a typical Sabti reply when casually asked about his health. "We live in a country that's entirely booby-trapped."

Sabti's candor about his past is another rarity in a country where many go to great lengths to conceal any tie, no matter how tenuous, they may have had to Saddam Hussein's regime.

Not Sabti, a 53-year-old father of three who has rugged good looks, parts his silver hair in the middle and walks with a limp from polio in infancy.

His one-time membership of Saddam's Baath Party is no secret. Nor is the admiration he felt for the former president until he invaded Kuwait in 1990.

"I was among the most enthusiastic supporters of Saddam. I admired his courage," Sabti said in a recent interview. "But I never look back at the past. Saddam is in the past now."

Sabti's art gallery -- called Hewar, or dialogue -- has become a magnet for Baghdad's art scene -- men and women who brave daily bombings and kidnappings to view the 20 exhibitions Hewar has mounted since 2003.

Over tiny cups of coffee and sweet black tea, Sabti sits in the gallery's garden, discussing politics and arts and dispensing insights to a stream of foreigners eager to gauge the mood of Baghdad.

An early visitor, he recalls, was Jay Garner, Iraq's first postwar U.S. governor, who attended the May 2003 birthday party of an American journalist who had befriended Sabti.

Frequent visitors in 2004 were shadowy French agents seeking to use Sabti's Sunni tribal connections to free French hostages.

The exhibits at Hewar are sometimes stingingly anti-American, but the reception for Americans is always friendly.

Visitors dropping in around lunchtime are invariably treated to a meal of fish, which Sabti grills in the garden. "This is what keeps my sexual valor," he explains.

The fall of Baghdad is an event defined by images of U.S. Marines bringing down a bronze statue of Saddam. But what Sabti remembers most are raging fires, systematic looting and his frustration that U.S. troops did little to stop it.

Yet, he found something inspiring in the wreckage.

On April 10, 2003, the day after Baghdad fell, Sabti was walking from his home to the nearby Academy of Arts, his alma mater, when he found pages torn from a book being blown about the street by the wind.

In a tearful rage, he rushed to the academy's library. Smoke filled the air and mounds of books, some charred, lay on the floor.

When he picked up a book about Russian landscape painting, it fell apart. On the ripped-out pages were handwritten Arabic verses or notes.

He described the experience of the day on his Web site:

"Like the fireman realizing that some victims were still breathing, I began to gather more covers that called to me. I brought a pile of the damaged covers back to my studio and immediately started to work. First, I rubbed their surfaces. Next, I cut swatches from the covers, punched holes, reapplied loose delicate strings and lacy webbings, and even painted on them. They are my attempt to gain victory over the destruction surrounding us in Baghdad."

Nearly three years later, the result was hundreds of collages and a sense of achievement.

"The book covers became something akin to farmland. There, I could plant my thoughts, emotions and experiences. With me, they have become an expression of a war-related emotion."

Sabti has, so far, made 500-plus collages and intends to go on working on more.

"I will stop at 1,001, just like one thousand and one nights."

Showing Garner around the gallery, he says they talked about Anbar, Sabti's home patch, a vast province to the west of Baghdad that would become a bastion of the Sunni-dominated insurgency.

He says he warned the retired U.S. general that in Anbar "They have money, courage, weapons and combat experience. You cannot talk to them like you would talk to Baghdadis. They can declare you an infidel at a moment's notice and kill you right away."

Garner was intrigued but went on to enjoy the party, joining in a game with water pistols brought by one of the guests, Sabti recalls.

The next day, he said, a Garner aide showed up at the gallery wanting to hear more about Anbar. "Are you here as a friend or a CIA agent, which I think you are?" Sabti asked his visitor. "Both," came the reply, according to Sabti.

So, was Sabti cooperating with the Americans?

The short answer is "no." The long one is complicated.

"Resistance is not only by the sword," Sabti said. "If I were living in Anbar, greeting back an American soldier makes me a collaborator, but this is Baghdad. This is an art gallery."

"What good will it do to grab a gun and shoot an American soldier and me getting shot? But what is good for Iraq is that I gave hundreds of media interviews in which I explained Iraq's problems and the immorality of the occupiers."

Last year, Sabti's cousin, the cousin's wife and two of their three children were shot dead by U.S. soldiers on the outskirts of Baghdad. The third child was wounded in the leg and survived. The shooting followed an attack on a U.S. patrol.

During the funeral, a U.S. Army officer showed up with an Iraqi official councilor to offer an apology and financial compensation -- 1 million Iraqi dinars, or about $700. The money was politely declined, but the fury of the relatives endured.

"That was the price of an entire Iraqi family minus one child. Is Iraqi blood so cheap? Can you really blame relatives if they take revenge on the Americans?" asked Sabti.

"Hypothetically, one may find justice in an occupier, but this did not happen in the case of America. I wonder sometime about the divine wisdom behind America's occupation of Iraq and the killing of men, women and children that followed."

Sabti has developed a routine since the United States occupied Iraq nearly three years ago -- cursing the Americans at dawn when their helicopters fly low over his home in northern Baghdad.

"The house shakes. I, my wife and the children are awakened. Then, I scream 'May your sisters be deflowered,' but I guess they don't mind that too much."

He knows the helicopters are a small inconvenience compared with his constant fear of being caught in a firefight or a bombing, not to mention being kidnapped for ransom or shot and dumped on a quiet street.

"In Iraq, killing is free of charge. Abductions and robberies are in good supply," he said.

"Every night, when I am getting ready to sleep, I expect a knock on the door or the street gate broken and people that I don't know storming the house. It could be something I said to a newspaper or at a coffee house. It could be anything."

All things considered, however, Sabti has done better than he expected.

A Norway-based development agency gave him $75,000 to overhaul his art gallery. He boasts that he sold 200 of his works to a U.S. art dealer in "Iraq's biggest ever art deal." A contact has his work on sale in a Paris gallery.

But success is risky, too, he says, explaining why he doesn't want it revealed how much he was paid for the collages:

"I could be kidnapped for ransom."