Celebrate Iraqi culture at museum exhibit

The art of Ir­aq: ‘Bagh­dad,’ a paint­ing by North­east res­id­ent Mayy­adah Al­humssi, be on dis­play dur­ing Ir­aqi Cul­tur­al Day on March 8.

There are sev­er­al hun­dred Ir­aqis liv­ing in North­east Phil­adelphia, and their cul­ture and their his­tory will be the sub­jects of a daylong pro­gram at the Penn Mu­seum, 3260 South St., on March 8.

Ir­aqi Cul­tur­al Day will fea­ture glimpses at the coun­try’s an­cient ar­ti­facts and in­clude a read­ing of the mod­ern chil­dren’s book, The Lib­rar­i­an of Basra.

Fadya Hamzah, one of about 700 Ir­aqis who live in Phil­adelphia, will trans­late the book in­to Ar­ab­ic as it is read, she said dur­ing a Feb. 26 phone in­ter­view.

Hamzah said most of the Ir­aqis who live in the North­east reside in the 19111 or 19149 ZIP codes. Al­most all, if not all, are refugees. Most have been here for only about five or six years, but some came after the Gulf War in the early 1990s. Many are from Basra, she said.

“I am one of them,” she ad­ded.

There were many reas­ons for leav­ing their home­land, she said. “We don’t like the gov­ern­ment; it’s not safe; there are many, many reas­ons,” she said.

Many of Phil­adelphia’s Ir­aqis are edu­cated and have de­grees, she said.

Some, however, don’t speak Eng­lish. Hamzah is an in­ter­pret­er who works for Luther­an Fam­ily and Chil­dren Ser­vices, she said.

Au­thor Jeanette Winter’s The Lib­rar­i­an of Basra is a story about Alia Muhammad Baker, the lib­rar­i­an in the south­ern Ir­aqi city, who wanted to save more than 30,000 books that were in danger of be­ing des­troyed dur­ing the Ir­aq War as the city was be­ing at­tacked by Brit­ish and Aus­trali­an troops. Baker had known the city was sure to be at­tacked and asked her gov­ern­ment to per­mit mov­ing the lib­rary’s books. She was re­fused and so began smug­gling them out. She was suc­cess­ful in get­ting most of the books out of the lib­rary be­fore it was des­troyed.

“It is a true story, and a little bit sad,” Hamzah said.

The book’s read­ing and Hamzah’s Ar­ab­ic trans­la­tion are be­ing done in con­junc­tion with the Free Lib­rary’s and may­or’s of­fice’s “One Book, One Phil­adelphia” pro­ject. The pro­ject was foun­ded in 2003 with the aim of mo­tiv­at­ing res­id­ents to read a fea­tured se­lec­tion and par­ti­cip­ate in dis­cus­sions, events, work­shops and classes, said Penn Mu­seum spokes­wo­man Jem­mell’z Wash­ing­ton.

All Free Lib­rary branches have sev­er­al cop­ies of The Yel­low Birds as well as its com­pan­ion books, Chil­dren of War: Voices of Ir­aqi Refugees, for middle-grade chil­dren, and The Lib­rar­i­an of Basra, which is for young­er chil­dren.

The mu­seum’s pro­gram be­gins at 1 p.m. with a dis­play of some of the mu­seum’s 30,000 clay tab­lets in­scribed in lan­guages of an­cient Ir­aq, Sumeri­an and Akka­di­an. The tab­lets are everything from school notes to lit­er­ary com­pos­i­tions to mer­chants’ re­ceipts and were writ­ten in clay from 2900 B.C. to 500 B.C.

At 1:30 p.m., guests can learn about Ir­aqi cuisine, fol­lowed by a dis­cus­sion of ef­forts to pre­serve Ir­aq’s cul­tur­al past, as well as a talk about the dis­cov­ery of a 4,500-year-old roy­al cemetery. The group read­ing of The Lib­rar­i­an of Basra starts are 3:15 p.m.

Throughout the day, guests can meet paint­er Mayy­adah Al­humssi and oth­er artists, view pho­to­graph­ic works, dress in Ir­aqi at­tire and learn to write in Ar­ab­ic. 

Al­humssi came to the United States from Bagh­dad a year ago and lives in the North­east. Her “Bagh­dad,” is one of her paint­ings that will be on dis­play March 8. It’s based on 1,001 Ar­a­bi­an nights, she said. She said she brought some paint­ings with her when she came to Amer­ica, but she’s pro­du­cing more now.

“I’m paint­ing every day for the event,” she said. ••

For in­form­a­tion and tick­ets, vis­it www.penn.mu­seum.

You can reach at jloftus@bsmphilly.com.

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