Portrait Of Iraq: A Refugee Artist Paints His Home Ahmad AlKarkhi fled from Baghdad in 2006, but he continues to paint his memories of his war-torn homeland. "There is nothing there to live for," he says, but he insists that there is a beautiful side to the country "that we must keep alive."
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Portrait Of Iraq: A Refugee Artist Paints His Home

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Portrait Of Iraq: A Refugee Artist Paints His Home

Portrait Of Iraq: A Refugee Artist Paints His Home

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It was just after a blizzard here in Washington that NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg came across a surprising art exhibit: paintings of Iraq on the walls of a local gallery. Instead of images of rubble, blood or militias, she found pictures of a serene place.

Unidentified Man: (unintelligible)

SUSAN STAMBERG: Framed on the walls of the Foundry Gallery, watercolors by Ahmad AlKarkhi show bright sunshine, sparkling waters, tropical foliage.

Mr. AHMAD ALKARKHI (Artist): (Through translator) Palm trees are everywhere in Iraq, so you grow up seeing them everywhere in the city, out on the outskirts.

STAMBERG: We hear so many terrible stories, that it's very hard to imagine that there are beautiful, tranquil places like this there, as well.

Mr. ALKARKHI: (Through translator) That doesn't mean that we forget about the beauty that exists. There's always that beautiful side that we must keep alive.

STAMBERG: Forty years old, Ahmad fled Baghdad for Syria in 2006. In Damascus, in less than three years, he made and sold some 240 paintings at the city's best galleries. But he was always on edge, wondering how long he could stay there.

Last summer, a prominent Damascus art collector named Roson Ramadan(ph) stepped in. He got in touch with an art-loving American friend, retired diplomat Marjorie Ransom, who'd served in Syria for years. Roson told Marjorie that Ahmad was coming to the U.S. and needed arts connections.

Ms. MARJORIE RANSOM (Former Diplomat): I got this phone call from Roson in Damascus, and I was pleased to hear from Roson. He was truly a very good friend, but especially before having knee surgery, I didn't need this kind of intrusion in my life. But I love art. I have always loved introducing Americans to the beauty of the Middle East. You hear so much about the woes of the Middle East. It's always been kind of a goal of mine to show Americans the beauty of that part of the world.

STAMBERG: So Marjorie Ransom said yes. Soon, another phone call: Ahmad, in the U.S., and sounding plaintive.

Ms. RANSOM: Speaking no English and looking for help.

STAMBERG: Since that August phone call, Marjorie Ransom has come to know Ahmad.

Ms. RANSOM: He absolutely hates to ask for help. I have to guess what he needs and anticipate, because he will not ask. He's extremely proud.

STAMBERG: She's been doing what she can, trying to find arts organizations. She says she's no expert: looking for a sponsor, helping him get a brief show at the small D.C. gallery. She knows Ahmad needs help after the horrors of Baghdad, the civil strife.

Mr. ALKARKHI: (Through translator) Life has ceased to continue. Everything's stopped. Only militias were on the street. We heard through news reports on the radio that there were just targeting of artists, including actors and actresses, because those extremists think that what we're doing is prohibited by Islam.

STAMBERG So many artist friends have been killed. Others, still in Baghdad, are desperate.

Mr. ALKARKHI: (Through translator) I get emails from a lot of them, and they all wish that they could leave. There is nothing there to live for. There is nothing left.

STAMBERG: In the States since August - U.N., French and American officials helped him over - Ahmad has painted steadily: oils, acrylics, watercolors. He's painting his dreams and memories of Iraq in vivid oranges, fuchsias, greens.

Ms. RANSOM: One minute, I say I like his portraits...

STAMBERG: Again, retired former service officer Marjorie Ransom.

Ms. RANSOM: ...because I see a variety of emotions in the faces. They're very real. They reach out and touch you. And I think it's the portraits I like best. And then I look at his landscapes. I've never been to Iraq, but I just - I can taste Iraq that way.

STAMBERG: Ahmad has given Marjorie a small watercolor portrait of a woman, her white hair rimming the edge of a red scarf. She has seen a lot, this woman, and much of it has been difficult, a viewer feels. Yet there is hope in her eyes, something eternal.

Mr. ALKARKHI: (Through translator) This is a mother to all of us who left Iraq. So when you look at it, you look into your mother's eye. And the eyes of this woman reflect the eyes of the mothers of everybody who left home.

STAMBERG: After much difficulty, Ahmad AlKarkhi, his wife and small child are settling into a new homeland. He can have a peaceful life here, he says.

He can realize his dreams.

Mr. ALKARKHI: (Through translator) As artists, we look for two things: one, to be recognized and for our art to be known, and second, to actually sustain a living for ourselves and for our family.

STAMBERG" That's a dream of any artist, anywhere.

Mr. ALKARKHI: (Through translator) So I took this dream with me to the United States.

STAMBERG: I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

INSKEEP: And I'm looking here at our Web site of portraits of his dream: Iraqi palm trees, an Iraqi street, a busy street, a portrait of an old woman lost in shadow whom he describes as a mother to all of us who left Iraq. You can see them at npr.org.

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