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Shadow and Light

Khalel al-Zahawi [or Khalil al-Zahawi] (#324)


Khalel al-Zahawi [or Khalil al-ZahaWl]! Born in 1946, al-Zahawi was considered the most important calligraphist in Iraq and among the most important in the Arab-Muslim world. He worked as a lecturer in calligraphy in several Arab countries during the 1990s. He was killed 19 May 2007 in Baghdad by a group of armed men.

Artist Statement

Baghdad art scene reels after slaying (Excerpt: Chicago Tribune). In what was left of Baghdad's art community, the murder felt like a priceless parchment ripped apart. Khalil al-Zahawi, the Iraqi artist who was one of the Arab world's most prominent calligraphers, had been shot to death on the steps of his home. The grandfatherly calligrapher had influenced a generation of Middle Eastern artists from Egypt to Pakistan. His dedication to beauty had been an elegant counterpoint to the devastation of war. "It is a big sadness. Just as a father in a house brings blessings and takes care of his children, we calligraphers lost our father. Losing this great man in this criminal, this brutal way, it is one clear image of this war, another picture you can add to the thousands of pictures we live through every day," - Haidar Rabia, professor of Arabic calligraphy, Fine Arts Academy, University of Baghdad.

Like the bombing of Baghdad's Al Mutanabbi Street just 77 days earlier, Khalil al-Zahawi's murder was an effort rob the Iraqi people (and the world) of art, culture, and history.

When I chose to provide my photographic response to the murder of calligrapher Khalil al-Zahawi, I wanted to pay my respects to a generous artist who told stories with his historic Arabic letterforms. I am currently working on a storytelling project with Iraqi and Syrian refugees called "What We Carried: Fragments and Memories from the Cradle of Civilization." I have asked those displaced war refugees to tell me their stories by writing on my photographs of those few personal objects that they chose to carry with them as they fled their homes, possibly forever. Their stories are personal, heartbreaking and universal. Some of the participants write in English and some in Arabic.

I fell in love with the rhythm and beauty of the Arabic script.

My photograph of the Killin Wetlands Cedar Canyon Marsh in Oregon is an impressionistic visual response to graphic mark making. The sticks and dead trees against the foggy swamp remind me of calligraphic gestures. The marsh also reminds me of photographs of ancient Mesopotamian Marshes in southern Iraq. The marshes were the largest wetland in the Middle East, and a site considered by many religious scholars as the inspiration for the Garden of Eden in the Bible and Koran. In the early 1990's due to political conflict, Saddam Hussein began to drain the fertile marshland to punish the Marsh Arab's 6000 square mile historic wetlands.

The memory of Khalil al-Zahawi is a counterpoint to the effort to destroy culture, free thought, and truth.

Jim Lommasson