Paris opens a door to exiled artists

Sudanese artist Mohamed Abdulatief poses at the agency of artists in exile, an organisation that identify artists in exile from all origins and disciplines on November 29, 2017 in Paris. (AFP)
Updated 06 February 2018
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Paris opens a door to exiled artists

PARIS: It was when Kubra Khademi stopped the traffic in Kabul, and men began to throw stones at her and bay for her blood, that she knew she was going to have to leave the country.
The young performance artist had walked alone into one of the Afghan capital’s busiest intersections wearing tin armor over her breasts and backside to highlight the harassment women face in the streets.
Even as she made her escape in a taxi, one of the mob touched her behind.
“I had to hide out in Kabul until they could get me away,” she told AFP of her flight to France.
Twice condemned to death for criticizing the Khartoum government, Sudanese poet Moneim Rahma did not think twice when an unexpected chance to flee the country presented itself.
While Syrian director Samer Salameh knew he was putting himself at risk by making a film about his devastated Damascus neighborhood of Yarmouk — once described as “the worst place on earth” by aid agencies — while serving as an army conscript.
All three eventually made it to the French capital, which a half century after it was last the prime destination for writers and artists fleeing oppression, is again becoming a haven for emigres.
Next to a cash-and-carry in a working-class district of northern Paris, a drop-in center has been helping some 200 artists find their feet in France since October.
The Studio of Artists in Exile does not pretend to be a panacea for the problems artists face when they suddenly find themselves “a fish out of water” in a new country.


But, despite operating on a shoestring budget and in donated premises, it can help artists navigate the maze of relaunching their careers, said co-founder Judith Depaule.
“In ways France is attractive for artists and easier for them to work in because, unlike Germany — where you have either the underground or subsidised state art organizations, — in France there is a lot in-between,” she said.
“The system itself makes it easier here,” she added.
“Paris has historically always been a place where exiled artists came to. In the 1920s, we had the Russians and then the artists who fled the civil war in Spain to join Picasso,” Depaule said.
While it has been nearly half a century since Paris, often dubbed a “museum city,” was a major destination for artists, “the cycle is perhaps changing,” Depaule insisted.
Last week French Culture Minister Francoise Nyssen publicly backed the studio, inviting its artists to her offices even as her government tightened rules making claiming asylum more difficult in France.
She praised the “extraordinary” way some in the arts had embraced the newcomers and urged others to follow their lead to “enlarge the way we see the world and open up our culture.”
Nyssen also invited 15 exiled artists, including Khademi and Rahma, to show their work in her ministry.
Khademi, 28, has fully embraced her new life since arriving in the French capital two years ago, going back to university and being honored by the government as a “knight of arts and letters.”


“I walk a lot in Paris and that is where I think about my art,” she said.
In fact, she walked backwards over the Pyrenees to recreate the philosopher Walter Benjamin’s escape from Nazi occupied France to Spain during World War II.
With her work getting noticed, and a commission for a performance in the French Museum of Immigration, her career is taking off.
For Rahma, 57, whose family is stuck in Ethiopia, the situation is more complicated.
With much of his energy devoted to trying to get his wife and four children away from “the long arm of the Sudanese secret police,” he is less at ease.
Yet he has published a book with 10 French painters on what it is like to be a refugee, written “lots of poems” and is starting his third novel.
But his focus remains firmly on his homeland.
Getting to France allowed Syrian Palestinian Salameh to finish his film showing the fate of Yarmouk during the war — “194. Us, Children of the Camp.” It has since been shown at festivals in Europe.
Yet even for a 32-year-old, the adaptation to a new life has not been painless.
“It is quite weird but even during a war your homeland can feel easier, softer, because it is your country, your language,” Salameh told AFP.
“Here is quite tough. It’s a big capital, you see people living in the street, it can be scary sometimes. There are lots of opportunities but a lot of competition as well. But I am OK, and I am starting to have some ideas to do films here now.”


Syrian seeds planted in dust of Domiz inspire stunning garden at Chelsea Flower Show

Updated 24 May 2018
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Syrian seeds planted in dust of Domiz inspire stunning garden at Chelsea Flower Show

  • About 26,000 refugees live in the Domiz refugee camp.
  • Judges awarded the Lemon Tree Trust garden a silver-gilt medal, the second highest award at the show.

LONDON: Main Avenue at the Chelsea Flower Show in London is ordinarily reserved for showpieces by Britain’s leading horticulturalists, but this year Syrian gardeners from Domiz refugee camp in Iraq are the inspiration behind one of the most prominent displays.
Crowds clustering around the Lemon Tree Trust Garden on Member Day at the celebrated event this week are told that the space is designed to raise awareness about the reality of life in the camps, where despite the squalor and suffering, people still take pride in their surroundings.
“It’s really powerful, the human spirit and the will to thrive even in really difficult situations,” said the garden’s designer Tom Massey.
Most of those living in Domiz, north of Mosul, are Syrians who have been arriving since 2012. Six years on, as temporary structures in Iraq’s largest refugee camp take on a more permanent form, hundreds of gardens have sprung up across the space. Some people have even sold their land in Syria and invested the money into their homes here.
“Gardening is a way to put down roots when people decide they are going to stay longer,” Massey explained.
He told Arab News that at first glance the sea of beige buildings crowded across a barren plain in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq resembled every other refugee camp in the region. But stepping out of the car at Domiz, near the Syrian and Turkish borders, he witnessed how plants were transforming the bleak surroundings.
“It’s incredibly hot and dusty, but as soon as you move into a garden space, you’re transported,” said Massey, who worked with gardeners in the camp to develop ideas for the showpiece.
The Lemon Tree Trust is a UK-based aid organization that has been working at refugee camps across northern Iraq for the last three years.
Massey, a former animator who retrained as a garden designer, was struck by the “resilience, determination, ingenuity and dedication” conveyed in each tiny green space he saw.
Pomegranate, rose and citrus trees flourish throughout the 710-square mile Domiz camp and in other camps nearby, bringing bursts of color to the backdrop of canvas and concrete. Even a six-foot space between a door and a garden gate made from an old UN tent will have been used to plant flowers and grow vegetables in ingenious ways.
“You read stories about the resilience and strength of the human spirit in the camps, but I didn’t expect the creativity that can flourish when people have so little,” said Alfonso Montiel, who also works with the Lemon Tree Trust.
In Aveen Ismael’s garden at Domiz, the back wall is adorned with old wellington boots painted and planted with flowers, while a closer inspection of her herbaceous border reveals old footballs refashioned as plant pots.
“Syria is green, but here it was like a desert until we started growing plants and trees,” she said. “Creating a garden was a way for us to heal and remind us of home.”
The 35-year-old, who was forced to flee Damascus in 2012, has become a local team leader for the Lemon Tree Trust, organizing gardening competitions and encouraging more residents to take part. Interest has grown from around 50 participants in 2016 to the almost 1,000 entrants across the five refugee camps who were involved this year.
In the gardens across Domiz there is a sense of community that is akin to the sociable atmosphere on a London allotment, said Massey, who plans to develop more spaces for the neighborly feeling to flourish by creating public outdoor gardens in the camp where people can come together and “share their passions.”
Montiel believes the draw of the gardens is down to the “need we all have to see beauty and be around nature.” At Domiz camp, he said “extreme beauty and extreme suffering exist side by side” in the generosity and hope that people demonstrate despite the destitution of their situation.
For many, tending their gardens is a way of passing the time and pushing back against the stillness of camp life. Everyone relates differently, whether it is a means of earning a living, easing the boredom or an attempt to capture a semblance of home.
One woman Montiel met there showed him pictures of the rose she tended in Syria, a cutting from which is now growing outside her house in Domiz. Other gardeners in the camp brought seeds with them from Syria when they fled, or asked friends and relatives to send a “piece of home.”
At the Chelsea Flower Show, horticulture enthusiasts described to Arab News the affinity they felt with the Syrian gardeners of Domiz.
“This kind of garden here tells a story about what this means to refugees and to people in London, and the experiences they have to go through to grow their own,” said giant vegetable specialist Kevin Fortey.
The refined lines and ornamental elegance of the London showpiece puts a polish on the make-shift gardens that inspired it, but the materials and arrangements displayed here reflect the creativity that thrives in the green spaces of Domiz.
Massey made use of concrete, timber and steel, materials frequently featured in the camps, which are “quite daring at the Chelsea Flower Show,” he said.
At the center of the display, a 50-year-old lemon tree showcases the origins of the project, while a wall-hung herb and vegetable garden represents the tin cans and halved plastic bottles used to grow food in the camp.
Surprisingly, the majority of plants in Domiz are grown for purely ornamental purposes rather than to supplement limited food supplies. “It’s interesting that in a situation of absolute desperation, having lost everything, people pay attention to feeding the soul, in some cases more than the stomach,” said Montiel.
It’s a detail he shared with Queen Elizabeth when she attended the Chelsea Flower Show on Monday, the first in a stream of dignitaries to tour the garden before it opened on Tuesday, including British Prime Minister Theresa May.
Unlike most guests, they were granted access to the sanctuary behind the barrier, where the clamour of the crowds gives way to the sound of water lapping over the sides of a star-shaped fountain as latticed wood screens shield the show from view.
There they were able to experience some of the solace and tranquility nature can offer people, even in times of war.