Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, October/November 1997, PAGES 94-96

Northeast News

For Kurdish Refugees, Resettlement in Boston Brings New Battles

By David P. Johnson Jr.

( Author's Note: At their request, the names of the three Kurdish refugees interviewed for this story were changed and no photographs were taken. In addition, certain details have been altered to protect their anonymity.)

Each morning Anwar, 42, says good-bye to his wife and two young children and leaves their apartment in a run-down section of Boston. Elbowing his way through the rush hour crowds, Anwar steps into an MBTA (Massachusetts Bus & Train Authority) subway car for the ride to work. Thousands of Bostonians and millions of Americans make similar journeys every day. Nothing could be more routine.

But for Anwar it is not a routine journey, not yet anyway. Each time the doors close and the subway rumbles off represents a revolution for him. Another revolution occurs when he takes his place at one of the stitching machines in the clothing factory where he works for long shifts at $6.75 per hour.

For Anwar, the life of a humble blue- collar worker is quite a comedown from the life he once led. Since he was 13, Anwar has led the harrowing life of a pes.merge—Kurdish for guerrilla—in the rugged terrain of northern Iraq. And for the moment at least, he thinks that survival in Boston may be the tougher battle.

"We left everything behind," Anwar said through an interpreter during a group interview at the International Institute of Boston, which sponsored 50 Kurds in the Boston area and another 25 in New Hampshire at the end of last year. "We were living well [in Iraq]. Here, we're not living well. It's hard for us to make it in America. It's just totally difficult for us." Even though death may await any of these Kurds who return to Iraq, Anwar said some are thinking of going back.

Although lack of money and the high cost of living in America are clearly major problems, the role of women here is another big concern for many Kurds. Anwar's wife works as a cleaner in a social service agency to help support the family. "I don't like this," he said. "I don't like my wife working. In Kurdistan we do not have wives working. Parents do not even have time for their children here. But we are a family-oriented people."

In addition to his job, Anwar takes English lessons at the International Institute. Marcia Chaffee, the English as a Second Language coordinator at the institute, reported that the Kurds are doing well, and that Anwar should be especially proud of his progress because he never learned to read or write either in Kurdish or in Arabic.

"He has a much bigger job," she said. "English is his first written language. His progress has been outstanding."

Khalid, 32, is a relative of Anwar's who arrived at the same time. Up to now he has faced many of the same traumas as Anwar, but Khalid spent 17 years studying in Iraq and had worked there as a geologist. Although he, too, works in a factory, once his English improves Khalid plans to look for work as a geologist in the U.S. "If there is a chance for me to be a geologist, I'll be one," he said with a smile.

"It's hard for us to make it in America. It's just totally difficult for us."

So long as Saddam Hussain is in power, Khalid has no illusions about going back to Iraq, where he worked for an international agency connected to the United States during the Gulf war. That would have made him a likely target for the hangman's noose, he said, if he had stayed in Iraq.

Khalid is married, but has no children. His wife is also taking English lessons at the center, but has not started working yet. He echoes the sentiments of the others, who protested that life in Boston moves too quickly.

"We must rush to work," he said. "Our minds are not relaxed. Financially we are not relaxed. It is very tiring to do everything at once."

The third refugee interviewed, Omar, arrived under different circumstances. From northeastern Turkey, he entered the U.S. by winning a visa awarded by lottery. He came to "live in a better place, a safe place, to leave the insurgency." In his section of Turkey, which was under emergency rule, villages were being bombed, Omar said. He left everything behind.

A 38-year-old archeologist, Omar currently is a chef at a sub shop. His wife and four children have all joined him. Although he can speak some English, Omar is enrolled in classes and hopes to work as an archeologist one day.

Another hope, with which the other two men agreed, is an independent nation of Kurdistan. "Our dream is that America will help us on this matter," Omar said. Numbering 40 million people living in Syria, Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Armenia, the Kurds are the largest ethnic group in the world without its own nation, the men said. However, they also conceded that they face an extremely difficult task, since none of the countries involved is willing to give up sovereignty over lands populated by the Kurds.

Anwar and Khalid are among the 2,194 Kurds settled in 33 states at the request of the State Department. They were evacuated from Iraq to Guam and then flown to the U.S. The institute had to meet the refugees at the airport, find apartments and jobs for them, conduct orientation sessions, enroll the children in school, and arrange for medical exams and apply for social security cards so the adults could work.

"Every new population provides that challenge for us," said Westy Egmont, institute director. "It's a tremendous challenge to be ready."

Elizabeth Nolan, public relations director for the institute, said that helping refugees requires being ready to handle all sorts of situations, from "the Ethiopian farmer who has never held a pen in his hand, to a judge from Sarajevo who obviously isn't going to be a judge any more."

Although the institute helps refugees continuously, the Kurds represent a bigger challenge than many populations, such as Russians or the 20 Bosnians who arrived in July. Egmont explained that while the staff can speak 23 languages, and includes a Bosnian psychiatrist, no one could speak Kurdish. With only some 300 Kurds in the Boston area, locating a qualified and availableinterpreter was a challenge. Dr. Fuad Safwat, a former University of Massachusetts biology professor and probably Boston's most prominent Kurdish American, conducted the cultural orientation and helped the Institute find an interpreter.

The Intricate Islamic Art of Calligraphy Thrives in Boston

In one of the enchanting tales of "The Arabian Nights," the second dervish recounts how, when a demon had turned him into a monkey, he was able to save his life by writing Arabic poetry in various scripts before the vizier.

Praised through the ages, Arabic calligraphy is often considered the highest Islamic art (see following item on Harvard art exhibit) and those who mastered it, as the dervish could verify, were deeply respected.

And now that ancient art form is enjoying an upsurge in popularity in, of all places, Boston. "I have to turn away students," said Nabil Khatib, a 37-year-old Lebanese living in Cambridge who teaches Arabic language and special calligraphy classes. "There is an enormous demand that is not met. My plan is to open an Arabic school and an Arabic calligraphy school."

Khatib, who currently teaches privately and through the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, said many calligraphy students do not know any Arabic.

"I've taught people from all kinds of backgrounds," he said, including Muslims searching for their roots, foreign service personnel, academic researchers and those looking for something different. In one recent class, a young woman said she wanted to use the Arabic scripts for designs on her pottery. One man was learning Arabic and wished to improve his cultural knowledge, while others just wanted to have summer fun.

"This is a very humbling art," Khatib said. "People come in and think it's just lines, but there is detail, effort, concentration and precision."

Khatib said his own painting and poetry lead him to calligraphy. "I decided to investigate more and sometimes the best way to learn something is to teach it. It has an almost hypnotic effect." In Turkey, calligraphy is often used in psychotherapy, he added.

Stating that apprentice calligraphers in the Middle East may spend a year working on just one set of words, Khatib explained that calligraphy is an art for the patient. "It takes many, many years. It's not an eight-week course. It takes a lifetime," he said.

Master calligraphers, who hold an ijaza (license), are permitted to sign their own names to their work. They also often make their own ink from natural sources, varnish their own paper and write with hand-carved bamboo reeds.

According to Khatib, there are at least 120 separate ways to write Arabic letters. When studying a particular style, students must learn how the strokes comprising a letter are made and whether the pen should be held straight to create a thin line or at an angle for a thicker effect. In addition, each letter can be written in as many as five different ways: standing alone or attached to one or both of the letters beside it. There can also be special "ending strokes."

The major styles include naskhi, often used to write the Qur'an; ruq'ah, the everyday script common in newspapers; the angular, square form called kufic, sometimes written in the shape of a mosque; thuluth, the graceful, curved style often associated with art; and various regional variations. The Persians developed ta'liq, a graceful, delicate script often written at an angle across the page, while Chinese Muslims often use seenee, using Arabic script in a style similar to Chinese characters.

Although calligraphy has ancient roots in the Arab world, the Ottoman Turks raised the art to new heights through royal patronage, creating the curving, ribbon-like diwani style used for official documents. Imperial decrees were written in jala or royal diwani, which is so flowering it is difficult to read. "This courtly style used to be the secret style," Khatib said. "This was how a lot of decrees were written, so they could be very private." Royal seals were also written in royal diwani, as are many diplomas and official documents in the Arab world today.

At other times, a calligrapher might intentionally create something that is hard to read, Khatib said. "There can be an element of teasing the audience to figure it out."

Commercial calligraphers make store signs or write headlines in newspapers. Calligraphy is also used in paintings, on ceramics, carved into wood or stone and arranged in mosaic tiles. And, Khatib said, the best work is done in mosques. Although he is also a painter, he said "Islam favors calligraphy over painting. It reduces the risk of creating idols. Calligraphy stands out as purer."

Since the Qur'an should not be typewritten, only handwritten (it may be photocopied), calligraphy has religious overtones. The opening words of the Qur'an, "In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate," are often found in calligraphy. Khatib said the most beautiful examples of religious calligraphy can be found in the Dome of the Rock mosque in Jerusalem and in the wall hangings embroidered with golden threads at the Kaaba in Mecca. "It is the ability to express the word, God's message. Through the delight of the eyes one is delighted by the spirit in the word. It inspires awe," he said of religious calligraphy.

For more information, call the Cambridge Center for Adult Education at (617) 547-6789.

Harvard Museum Highlights Splendor of Imperial Islam

They were the last and they were the mightiest of the great Islamic dynasties: the Ottomans of Turkey, the Safavids of Persia and the Mughals of India. During the 500 years (from the 14th to the early 20th centuries) that these dynasties held sway, Islamic scholarship and artistic creation reached new heights. During the summer Harvard University's Arthur M. Sackler Museum captured much of this creative explosion with an exhibition of textiles, paintings and objects from these empires, "Shadows of God on Earth: Arts from the Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal Dynasties."

During a tour of the show, Rochelle Kessler, acting assistant curator of Islamic and later Indian art, explained that the phrase "Shadows of God" had a double meaning. The sultan ruled with the authority of God, while at the same time he should protect his subjects, acting as a shadow of a God on earth.

Mounting her first exhibition since her arrival at Harvard from the Metropolitan Museum in New York, Kessler said she selected art works "that show themes of kingship and life at court." It was under royal sponsorship that Islamic art reached its peak, she said. "The kings were patrons of the arts and were often very creative themselves."

Arts compounds under royal patronage sprang up in various cities, including Istanbul, the Ottoman capital, and in the Persian city of Tabriz—the first Safavid capital, which was later moved to Isfahan—and in Samarkand in Central Asia.

While all the dynasties produced great paintings, architecture and textiles, Kessler said, "Calligraphy is considered the highest art in the Islamic world." Manuscripts were often bound in leather and decorated with gems and gold.

Books and knowledge were highly valued by the imperial courts and the exhibit included several manuscripts painstakingly decorated with gold and silver paint, which often took decades, even generations, to complete. One of the earliest illuminated manuscripts is theShahnama, a chronicle of the ancient Persian kings dating from the 11th century. Calligraphy also was used to describe what was taking place in a painting, often outlining the exploits of a ruler or discussing what a character was saying, much the way modern cartoons do today.

Kessler said the dynasties influenced each other, as well as adopting or adapting styles imported from neighboring countries. For example, the illiterate hordes of Genghis Khan and his successors, who devastated much of the Persian Empire in the 13th century, spared the lives of the calligraphers and other artists, who were taken to the Mongol court. Later, Chinese influences "were to revolutionize Persian and Ottoman art" through stylized landscape painting and the blue and white motif, popular on Turkish porcelain, Kessler explained.

In the 17th century another motif, the tulip, was to bloom on much Ottoman art, and both the flower itself and its image spread quickly to Europe.

Another imported image, the dragon, came to be a feared, malevolent object in Persia, while in China dragons are symbols of good luck. Persians excelled in highly detailed, stylized, theatrical paintings. "The Safavid style is really quite beautiful and elegant," Kessler said, pointing to a painting. "Look at the moon-faced beauty for boys and girls. I encourage people to look closely because these paintings really have fantastic detail." Most paintings on display featured splendid displays of wealth and power, showing the rulers in rich settings, often gardens surrounded by beautiful women and elegant courtiers.

Old Testament images also featured prominently in the exhibit. Kessler said that Islamic rulers revered King Solomon, who "was seen as the most typical and wonderful of kings." Solomon is often portrayed as the peacemaker, illustrated in paintings by a lion lying beside a lamb. Angels, prominent in Islamic theology, appeared on many of the paintings.

Included in the exhibit was the mu-seum's rare Safavid hunting carpet, which features the hunt, a kingly theme, symbolizing the domination of the strong animal over the weak.

Not surprisingly, the Muslim rulers also patronized the arts of war. Kessler displayed several daggers, with elaborate handles and etched blades, which were similar to those in several paintings.

It was in India that Islamic art and culture collided with the Hindu styles. The result is sophisticated and often breathtaking Mughal art.

"In India the Mughals were a minority ruling over a Hindu majority," Kessler said. The fusion with Hindu art produced paintings of rich color and elaborate detail.

Its minarets and central dome reflected in a peaceful pool, the celebrated Taj Mahal, completed in 1653 near Agra, India, remains the outstanding example of Mughal architecture, blending Hindu and Muslim styles.

Asked about the representations of people and animals in the paintings, Kessler said, "Nothing in the Qur'an forbids the representation of the human form and animals. But it forbids idolatry. You will never see human figures in a mosque, but in the courtly context here, you see it all over the place, except in the case of a particularly orthodox ruler. If there was an orthodox ruler, the painters fled." Sculpture, however, is extremely rare in the Islamic world, she added.

Although the exhibition has ended, some of the works are from the Sackler's permanent collection. In addition, through November, Kessler is presenting an exhibit of Indian pieces, "Art of the Royal Rajastani Court." For more information, call (617) 495-9400.

In addition, Harvard's Semitic Museum is presenting an ongoing exhibit, "The Pyramids and the Sphinx: 100 Years of American Archeology at Giza."

Boston Hospital Donates Medical Equipment to Bosnia

A leading Boston hospital has joined the international effort to help the war-torn nation of Bosnia rebuild itself. Since one of the country's major hospitals, the Kosevo Hospital in Sarajevo, has been nearly destroyed by the fighting, medical supplies are particularly welcomed.

St. Elizabeth's Medical Center of Boston recently sent some $300,000 in supplies and used medical equipment to Bosnia, including pharmaceuticals, tongue depressors, high-tech heart monitors and hospital beds. The aid project is being jointly sponsored by St. Elizabeth's; the Friends of Bosnia, based in Hadley, MA; and Physicians for Human Rights.

"Only such direct support from the medical community can supply the sophisticated medical equipment necessary to restore Kosevo Hospital and smaller regional medical clinics and the supplies needed to ease the pain and suffering of the country's population," said Glenn Ruga, Friends of Bosnia director.

During the five-year-long conflict, operations were often conducted by flashlight, and running water and essential supplies were often unavailable.

The equipment, which filled a 40-foot shipboard container, was collected and stored at a warehouse in Canton, MA operated by SHARE New England, a non-profit food distribution organization. While it was at the warehouse, an electrical engineer converted the equipment to European electrical standards. It was then shipped to Croatia, where Edinburgh Direct Aid of Scotland, an organization founded to deliver humanitarian aid to Croatia and Bosnia, trucked the equipment to its destination.

Dr. John O. Pastore, director of St. Elizabeth's echocardiography laboratory, said, "We benefit from a vast amount of modern medical equipment here in the U.S., and St. Elizabeth's philanthropy in terms of sharing some of this equipment is the least we can do. The hospital has been extremely supportive in its commitment to help."

Pastore is a member of Physicians for Human Rights and executive secretary of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, which received the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize.

St. Elizabeth's is a 400-bed institution affiliated with Tufts University School of Medicine and a member of Caritas Christi Health Care System, one of the largest health care providers in New England.

For more information on helping Bosnians, contact Friends of Bosnia, 47 East St., Hadley, MA 01035 or (413) 586-6450.


David P. Johnson Jr. is a Boston-based free-lance writer concentrating on international affairs.

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