interviewed by Predrag Pajdic, Amsterdam, December 2006

Could you please tell me about your background and how you ended up in the Netherlands?

My background has many dramatic layers, I believe. I was born in Baghdad in 1962, but I then spent the first five years of my life in Kufa: a small city 150km to the south of Baghdad, where my father worked. I grew up with my three brothers. I remember that period as a normal, warm childhood. In 1970 we moved back to Baghdad, where I aspired to become an artist. Ten years later I applied to the Institute of Fine Arts Baghdad, I was excited, and anxious at the same time about the racist oppression of the Baath Party. While learning and practicing my art, that was also an unpleasant period of my life. You cannot imagine, great depression, no freedom, no oxygen at all.

Although I felt very fortunate to have had art as an alternative companion, sketching up the way I lived in one notebook, it's also important to include here my emotions. I cannot describe at this moment how much sorrow I carried. I graduated after five years and it was then compulsory for me to become a soldier. Imagine that, during the war with Iran: a black comedy. Counting time until the sun rises and gains in intensity, suddenly one day on 08.08.1988 it was proclaimed that the war was over. Oh my God. I felt I could fly. I needed to make a big difference in my life after this war. But how? How do I escape? I felt fenced into the country. The dream of moving abroad infiltrated my mind every single moment. All of that was a dark layer.

In 1990 I left Iraq with a one way ticket to Amman, immediately after the chaos of The Gulf War. In 1995, by a quite mysterious coincidence, I found myself in Europe, where I finally and for the first time felt safe, and had and could assemble my new identity in the Netherlands, as a refugee. So briefly: I never had any plans. All of my life is constructed of virtual accidents.

Is your family still in Baghdad?

Yes, my family is unfortunately still there. This is a heavy burden. I'm apprehensive of hearing bad news every time my phone rings or an email arrives. It is horrible waiting for a hopeless future. Even though I keep in contact with my family, I feel sure that the link is becoming so weak. By your question you've reminded me again of the big distance, and the emotional gap since 1990 in my family picture. A unique one. One in which I was always missing.

My Family, My memory

Original Photograph, Baghdad, Iraq, 1961
Courtesy of the artist

Your question indirectly or automatically forces me to ride a time machine that sends me right back home, to be in an instant among my brothers, mother and father. My room, bed, clothes, recorder and my own books. Unbelievable warmth. I feel extremely sad. Don't open this hidden document please. In any case I'm sure that another virtual Nedim is living there.

What is the future for Iraq? Can you see all these bloodshed ending soon?
How do you cope with it?

I see an endless chaos happening on a bloody stage. An ugly atmosphere and new masks appear as well. Ignorance of the other. Poor monologue. All titles of life went back to the extreme. It's hard to explain. Hard to develop. Frustrating and hard. Painful. Every time I try to avoid this question in terms of forgetting the past. Why one more time should I express my unreadable feelings? I think that the Iraqi inhabitants are the only ones who have the right to estimate what will be tomorrow.

What do you expect from a dead body? Many religious and political flags rise up in the gray sky of Iraq. Your question just creates a number of sub questions. I see today that every single Iraqi citizen has one flag and that implies a difficult kind of communication. Even I consider that seeds for a dirty future. Always, Iraqis have no choice. Their dreams used to be converted into nightmares. Hope's not existing any more nowadays. There are millions who have by direct or indirect ways escaped and finally left. This migration since 1990 will create new generations who carry very little idea about any concept of Iraq in their luggage. What future do you ask me about? I can assure you there, by the way, that the bloodshed you mentioned will not end soon. So the only way I cope with all these horrible situations is to keep the distance of peace between the meanings of my early childhood there in Iraq, and believe in a change of our destiny here in the Netherlands. I do recycle my identity.

I expect this 'identity recycling' to be the nucleus of your work. Is it?

Yes, I totally agree with you. Identity and what's beyond is the point. In terms of meanings modeling. I'm not sure yet whether I'm a pure Iraqi or not, but here I will try to figure out to my self at least how much of an Iraqi I am. Feeling like an alien is not an issue any more. Why? Because it started already, in the early dark time of being home in Baghdad in the '80s and '90s, and that badly consumed my soul. I was actually under the Baath Party occupation. Where ever I moved I found a checkpoint asking me for my papers. Me and the government. Me and the authority. Me and the dictatorship. We never trusted each other. Like a daily game between Tom and Jerry.

I still shake, if you can believe me, every time I find myself at any airport, or any police office. Even now I have a Dutch passport: the most acceptable one in the world. Look! and pay attention to the contrast: what I had and what I have today. I'm wondering, is identity an official paper? Is it a continuity in the family tree? Is it an army service duty? Is it the place of birth and death? Is it saying yes to what they decide for you? No! I reject all of those common thoughts and focus only on one. And then I may say: being satisfied on a piece of land where ever it is and sleeping deeply, peacefully there without any of nightmares. That is the real identity. According to my experience, there still is an ID conflict which automatically allows my identity to be recycled. From time to time the mirror of the past follows me but in front of me. It reflects clearly my memories. The sweet and bitter ones. And also it's able to observe, compare and manipulate the meaning of it. Trying to find a balance somehow. I used to find myself in betweens: imperfect existence. It has to be, one day, full identity. Art could be an ID. Even a good mother language as well. The identity recycling idea came to me while I was in New York City once.

In order to analyse this conflict, I put all my trust in the tongue and eyes of Iraqi kids. Through a visual essay about traveling between here in the Netherlands and the Middle East. My project aims are to update visual feedback of Iraqi kids (6-14 years). Since 1990 they hold at least double identity. My job is like a postman. Collecting and activating a kind of exchange between their stories. Thoughts and dreams in one historical document by video art.

From 'The Moon Follows Us' by Nedim Kufi

“On a summers day traveling from Baghdad to Kufa on a visit to relatives the view shifted along our course seducing us. I remember sleeping deeply during this two hour trip, a long time for a child of six. In between sleep I caught sight of the view through the car window; the moon centered in an ecstatic sky. The speeding car followed it through the dark and desolate desert. I was amazed that whenever the car stopped or slowed down so did the moon. It entered my mind freely stirring my astonishment and curiosity, this phenomena, and I asked my father "Oh father…the moon follows us, why is this?" I wished to impress my father with the depth of this phenomenological thought! He smiled but didn't offer any words in reply. It was as if he had known the answer at a time past, but no longer. The question remained silently with me through out the long night spent with my relatives till we went onto the roof of the house to sleep. There was the moon again reclining above and seeming to own the sky here as it did in Baghdad. With a new sense of clarity I said to my father "this proves my theory, look just as I told you…the moon follows us! Content I fell asleep with a smile… unfortunately the heads of the households seemed only to speak about life's problems…not paying attention to the moon.

And here I am, unexpectedly passing through the fortieth year of my life, still in a state of surprise. When I try and unravel the darkness and find order in the Dutch sky Baghdad's moon does not provide sense though it follows me yet softening my estranged and desolate path.”