"Art is My Freedom"

A refugee's journey from Mosul to Portland

Akram Sarraj at the second annual Portland International Muslim Cultural Festival.

Akram Sarraj at the second annual Portland International Muslim Cultural Festival.

On a sunlit day in downtown Portland’s Director Park, patrons leaf through postcard-sized prints and original paintings by the artist, and Iraqi refugee, Akram Sarraj.

Instantly recognizable Oregon settings like Crater Lake, Haystack Rock and even downtown Portland, are elevated to a presence worthy of panes within modern cathedral walls. The vibrant, geometric backgrounds show the influence of traditional mosaic and stained glass, as well as cubism and Modernisme.

Next to those native familiars are images portraying distant desert memories. Paintings of marketplaces, horse races and the narrow passageways in an ancient city called Mosul, where Akram grew up and learned to appreciate life.

A painted doorway in the Old Mosul district.

A painted doorway in the Old Mosul district.

One series throws a spotlight on dervish dancers, frozen mid-twirl to illuminate the metaphysical harmony of soul and body expressed by this more than seven hundred year old dance.

As your eye looks over the details of scenes both familiar and exotic, the hallmark style of Akram’s Sarrajism comes into focus. The technique was reached through many years of studying art history, practice, and experimentation with forms. You may even notice hidden figures that appear within the backgrounds: vaulting deer, drifting birds, rosy children, men and women. You can find them cleverly built into the intersecting mosaic seams.

Take a step back and those elements disappear into abstraction.

Return up close again and you will find yourself scanning the wavy lines and myriad colors for new artifacts.

Many of these stained glass styled landscapes appear to live in a world of perpetual sunset, thanks to the bright hues chosen by Sarraj. His portraits have a similar effect. Faces in those paintings transmit the value of light reflecting off gold. This radiance was a common sight in Akram’s hometown, thanks to the famous Mosul school of metalwork who developed an extraordinarily refined technique of inlay for silver, brass, bronze, and gold. An example of this coming together can be seen above in Sarraj's depiction of the Temple Mount, in the Old City of Jerusalem.

Such reverence for the way light enters the eye, or the way contours can alter a mood, were equally ingrained in Mosul art and architecture. Some building features in the city date back to the 6th century CE. While civilization in Mosul was an integral part of the Assyrian empire as early as the 25th century BCE.

Fast-forward to June of 2014: when the Islamic State’s crude military seized the city and drew lines of war between friends and ancestors alike. Under terrorist occupation, Mosul became a place where neighbors could not be trusted and even sacred spaces promised no sanctuary.

WAR

The war with the Islamic State changed everyone's lives.
This is what happened to Akram.

“One day the army visits my house, to see if this house is [safe or not safe.] When they found many paintings in my house, they liked these paintings, and speak with me and stay with me more than one hour. But my wife tell me, please tell him to go because that is very dangerous for us. And maybe my neighbor tell ISIS, Akram is friends with American soldiers, stay with him long time. When the army goes, ISIS bring RPG-7 and shot me by RPG-7. That is very dangerous for me because - one meter between me and the bomb.”

“That is a very hard day for me and my kids...the blood from everywhere, my face and my clothes. Because small glass, broken, coming into my body.”

It was after this incident that Akram realized his presence would continue to be a threat to his family. So in 2011, he left Mosul permanently.

After two years in Amman and Damascus, working sporadically as an art teacher and sending funds home to his family, he decided that remaining in the Middle East was too great a risk. Akram thought he might have a better shot of working more regularly and perhaps even selling his art at American gallery prices if he could only make it to the United States.

This was not by any means the first time that Akram experienced war and economic displacement. That started in 1980 with the Iraq invasion of Iran. As a young man, Akram was forced to serve with the Iraqi army until his medical discharge. When that war ended in 1988, Akram was finally able to apply for permits to begin his dream of starting a completely new kind of art gallery in Mosul.

To get the initial funding for the gallery, Akram sold every piece of furniture in his house. Over time, the gallery's popularity allowed him to recoup the money spent. But it was only two years later when the Iraq invasion of Kuwait occurred and triggered the U.S. intervention known as the Gulf War. After that conflict ended, Akram managed seven more years of business with his gallery. It was open a total of ten years until 1998, the year of the Bombing of Iraq as a strategy to carry out the Iraq Liberation Act, in which the U.S. congress promised to support efforts to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein. It was during this U.S. occupation that Akram first experienced economic displacement, resulting in years of traveling to Jordan and Syria to work and sell art.

After that, there was 9/11, the Iraq War, and the Iraqi insurgency. Which brings us back to the moment of the rocket propelled grenade exploding in Akram's home, and the moment he realized that leaving Iraq would indeed be necessary to survive.

Though the process would take years, the UN refugee relocation program would eventually settle Akram in Vancouver, Washington. His first priority was getting his leg fixed, which we will explain a little later. But he also thought this resettlement would be the start to finding a path for his family to join him. But in the years that followed, Islamic State insurgents orchestrated the Fall of Mosul and defeated the Iraqi Army. Over two thousand executions took place in the immediate aftermath of the takeover.

“Day after day, I can’t sleep,” Akram says to describe the years that followed Mosul’s fall to the Islamic State’s forces. “Twenty-four hours, I am just looking for the news. What happened to my family, to my friends, to my country?”

It took three years of strategy and fighting for the Iraqi army to recapture Mosul from IS. The resulting 2015 offensive by the Iraqi Army, backed by an international coalition of more than sixty countries, lasted two years before Mosul was liberated once more. There were tens of thousands of casualties and over 1 million people have been displaced as a result.

With shops destroyed and families often gathered together into one relative’s remaining house in the neighborhood, Mosul was on the brink of starvation. There were few places to depend on for getting supplies. It might have been an option to plunder old IS strongholds after they moved on to another neighborhood, but the risk of injury was high. Rigged explosive devices were planted in many of these abandoned buildings across the city.

As IS crossed the city in 2016, they began to use human shields to protect their passage. Akram’s family tried to escape amidst the chaos, but they lost his sister-in-law to targeted sniper fire. Consequently, the family remained locked in their home, hiding for one month without leaving. It would be another two months before Akram received word about his sister-in-law and an update on their living condition.

Akram shared with us his experience during all of this: “I don’t know what happened to my family. I just look for the news. The bombing continued and the guns and the sound. I catch this from the TV. When I see, oh look there’s my daughter! I don’t believe. I need to cry. It’s very, very crazy days.”

Akram then showed us this next video that he watched via Facebook in 2016. Originally posted by the local Mosul news outlet ALMawsleya TV, it depicts the Iraqi armed forces helping Akram's daughter and her family escape from hiding when a hidden explosive was triggered in their building, and the area came under attack from militants.

His daughter appears at minute 1:47 in the video, holding her baby. Her husband stands in front of her in the queue with a plastic sack of their belongings strapped to his back. While watching the video with Akram, he reminded us that if a woman did not have her face covered in public, that woman's husband would be beaten by an ISIS occupier.

Viewers BE WARNED: This video contains intense clips of the war in Mosul and shows families being rescued while under gunfire.

Though the city has been declared safe for over one year now, much of Mosul's infrastructure has been lost and employment is scarce. For many families, there is no way to fully rebuild a life in Mosul. Reports say that nearby Ninevah and other ancient towns have fared even worse.

Akram has not disclosed specific details about how his family in Mosul is currently surviving. What we know about conditions there is that there are at least 650,000 people still living in camps or displaced. Nearly half of the children in Mosul under the age of fifteen are working to contribute to the household income. There are 8 million tons of conflict debris from damaged buildings and homes, and it is the most heavily contaminated area in the world with unexploded devices. Projections show that it will take ten years and $1 billion to fully normalize the city.

According to Akram, “Everything is silent in Mosul. No university, no school, because ISIS destroyed everything. No service, no electricity, no water. It’s very hard. I want to bring my family here. They would like to come with me.”

There is much more to be said about what Akram's family has endured, but for now, let us focus on what gives Akram hope.

SARRAJISM STYLE

Absorbed by a different kind of muse, Akram clicks through Youtube videos. The back cover of his laptop bears a copy of one of his paintings: an image of fall, bursting with cherry and chestnut pigments. Akram is intent on showing us videos of friends and other musicians performing on his father’s instrument of choice, the oud. The sound of plucked strings uncoils from his laptop speakers. Each run of notes meanders and quickly vanishes into the next cadence, as though the songs cannot keep shape in this modern air.

Inspired by his father’s oud playing, Akram’s Al-Sarraj Art Gallery hosted not only visual arts events, but also concerts and trainings. He remembers this space as the jewel of Mosul. His business was the first established showcase in the city for both performances and visual mediums.

Frequent visitors at the gallery were due in part to its location on the historically famous Nineveh Street, proudly situated across from the Latin Church, and humbled by the weight of its massive clock tower shadow.

A traditional oud performance, like the ones you might have heard at the gallery, could be described as a sonic illustration of improvisation within a scale. Absorbing that loose structure has helped Akram establish his own decorative rhythm, which eventually became the fragmented, and yet composite, backgrounds in his paintings.

Like the lute in Europe, the oud is the Middle East’s quintessential instrument of expression through improvisation. There are no frets on the oud, and so the player must invent the correspondence of notes extemporaneously as he plays. Akram’s father was famous in both Mosul and Baghdad for this creative style of classical music. This was how the elder Sarraj spent his free time beyond the multimillion dollar plastic bag screenprinting factory he built and managed.

Let's listen to what this instrument sounds like. Here is a traditional Iraqi take on a popular Western sound: the theme song from the 1954 Hollywood cowboy drama Johnny Guitar, as performed by the "King of Oud" himself, Mosul-born Munir Bashir.

As a member of the Iraqi Plastic Arts Society, and an important contributor to the community, Akram has rubbed shoulders with many of Mosul's luminaries. One of his good friends, Khalid Mohammed Ali, gave lessons at the gallery in the style of his teacher, the more famous Akram Habib. The workshops and art openings regularly drew hundreds to the gallery. Even the renowned, Mosul-born architect Zaha Hadid would visit whenever she was in her home city. Before Hadid's passing in 2016, she was famously called the “Queen of the Curve” by Guardian magazine for her signature fluidity in building design. Her work includes the Olympic Aquatics Center in London and the Al-Wakrah Stadium for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar.

A philosophy of style is something unique to every artist. They play on education, add to it, improvise and develop new ways of working with familiar forms to keep them fresh. To aid his mastery of representation, Akram has studied several scientific disciplines, including physics, optics and biology. He has worked in realism and continues exploring abstract expressionism as a way to seek out commissions. His real passion lies in combining elements of impressionism and cubism to create a personal style he calls Sarrajism.

Akram’s commitment to painting never falters. It fuels his ambitions across all aspects of life. By continuing to exercise his approach to aesthetics, he keeps alive the hope for a strong future for his family. As Akram puts it, “I want to make a style for the future. My style is not for this time. For the future.” Akram’s lifeblood and spirit remain entirely devoted to both family and artistry. To practice with one is to reward the other.

From looking through photographs online or when he has been lucky enough to attend trips with friends, Akram has managed to take sight of many Oregon vistas and translate them into his artwork. His favorite so far has been Crater Lake. It's ultramarine blue waters mesmerize him and remind him of the rivers and oases of his childhood. According to Akram, ultramarine blue is the most beautiful, beautiful blue.

To compare, here are vintage handpainted photographs of Iraq, from the US Library of Congress, just as Akram remembers it from his youth. When life was easy and the bread was free.

ARRIVAL

Akram has been in the Portland area since 2013, the same year as the IS takeover of Mosul. Originally resettled by The U.N. Refugee Agency, he has also received assistance from Lutheran Community Services and Portland Meet Portland.

Upon arrival in the U.S., Akram's first task was to have a surgeon examine the bad foot he had been hobbling on for twenty-four years. Long before the IS takeover, Akram suffered a broken ankle in an auto accident. The Army hospital that he originally went to in Iraq only made the ankle worse by shortening the joint, and then told him that it could not be repaired fully. That left Akram with a lopsided walk for what he thought would be the rest of his life. Since then, walking for more than even five minutes at a time brought pain to his step.

The search for medical attention led Akram to Vancouver, Washington, where he had the surgery that now allows him to walk and stand without pain. He must still be cautious with his distances however. The whole foot is currently being held together by only five screws. If Akram were to dislodge any of those screws, he would be back in crutches for the rest of his life.

As Akram describes it, “More than 24 years, I can’t walk straight. I feel pain every day. But when I came to America, my doctor looked at my leg and tells me ‘I can fix your leg.’ Now I have five screws in my leg, but I can walk straight and I don’t feel pain since the surgery.”

While the surgery was a success, the recovery period was very difficult. Akram spent months alone in his apartment with a cast on his leg, very weak, and on heavy doses of pain medication. He remembers having to crawl on the floor to the bathroom, dragging his cast along carefully so as not to damage the foot again. Some days, the exhaustion, pain and loneliness were too much to even make it that far. This went on for months. He spent two years total on crutches before the foot was finally healed enough to walk regularly. Akram no longer has the limp that he lived with for two and a half decades. However, living through that extended patch of fragility all alone has taken its toll. Akram's depression returns frequently when he isn't focused on his art or with the few friends who occasionally stop by to cheer him up and take him out for local Middle Eastern cuisine. Akram does not drive and getting out of the apartment has not been easy.

While this article was being written, Akram's oldest daughter, the one from the video, had just moved to Turkey with her family. When Akram gains his U.S. citizenship next year, he will finally travel abroad to visit and help the family work together on permanent relocations. Akram's wife, son, and three other daughters are still behind the travel ban in Mosul. Aside from the legal impossibility, travel to Iraq could actually be dangerous for Akram or anyone else who wishes to avoid kidnapping or other harm.

Over a five year average, the U.N. relocation program has helped 72% of refugee applicants find political asylum abroad. However, only 0.5% or less of all refugees worldwide are even eligible to apply.

To live on the margins for so long without a true sense of place or safety unveils levels of emotional exhaustion one never knew existed. These measureless barriers take shape in language, finances, government paperwork, regional symbolism, racism, gossip, and expectations. To paraphrase writer Viet Thanh Nguyen’s critique on the quickest way to kill a cocktail party, “People want to hear immigrant stories. Heartwarming stories of how hardworking folks become a credit to the American Dream. Most Americans just can’t relate to the refugee experience.” This sense of shortcoming created by the disparity between an American Dream or immigrant fantasy, and a refugee reality, also leads to isolation.

To earn a living, Akram has mainly focused on his art sales. He also studies English in hopes that he will one day be able to teach painting to American students. Akram first taught art in the early 1970's, when his friends started to ask him for lessons. By the time he applied to study at Iraq's Academy of Fine Arts in 1976, the school informed him that he was qualified to be a teacher, rather than a student. In fact, they did not believe that he had painted his admission portfolio at all. He was brought in to paint live in front of them, and the arts faculty were astonished in the most wonderful way.

In Portland, Akram recently helped to create the Rain Garden Mural Project at the North Tabor Montessori School. The school originally hired Akram to design and paint the mural alone, but it was his idea to bring the kids together so they could watch him and learn about art. He worries about kids in the U.S. not having enough access to arts education and wanted to make sure the students saw how he was able to translate a small design onto a big wall. After Akram met with the principal, the learning opportunity was approved, and everyone trusted his talent would speak for him if his English failed to relate to the kids.

Despite small gains, the search for work and trudging toward acceptance in America requires constant determination. It took Akram years of applications, studying and tests to get as close to citizenship as he is now — only a few months away. All the while, he continued to fill his homesick hours with easels, canvas and paint brushes. The materials of his craft were something he could fashion with his hands, put love into and watch flourish. His tiny apartment quickly filled up with dozens of paintings.

Via mentorship services available to him, Akram has made new friends and become familiar with the local galleries, museums and art schools. Pacific Northwest College of Art instructor Paul Missal has championed Akram’s work. Justin (aka Master Paul) of ArtHedron Studios & Gallery built a website for Akram to help him establish an online presence for his art sales. The Portland Art Museum gave Akram the opportunity to showcase one of his paintings in the regularly updated Object Stories exhibit. He has also been featured in shows at Portland State University, Gallery 360 and the Columbia Center for the Arts.

THE GIFT

Back to that sunny day in downtown Portland, when Akram's good friends Kent and Meredith Frigaard helped him to haul his multitude of canvasses out to the Portland International Muslim Cultural Festival.

“Not realizing how much he was bringing," said Kent, "I drove my little old ‘94 318i convertible. For all the art to fit we dropped the top and piled it into the back seat. With all the current anti-immigrant awfulness, cruising into downtown PDX with a boatload of art for a Muslim Festival, for me, was enjoyable and cathartic.”

Many local businesses share Kent's sentiment. Portland's distinctive N.W.I.P.A. tap house was elated to adorn their walls with Akram's art, just as they have for so many local artists since 2012. Their show ran from August 18th - September 15th, 2018. Portland Meet Portland helped to create this partnership for Akram, which included an event night that introduced new audiences to his Sarrajism style.

We asked Akram about living in Portland and what he thought about the art scene in Oregon. “I think here, in Oregon, it’s very good to my family here. Because there are good people here, and the life is very good. And the weather is the same as my country in Mosul. Just I hope to exhibit my paintings in New York. When I visit the galleries in Portland, they make me sad. Because no people coming to visit the galleries here. And the people don’t care for the original art, just the copy.”  

“One day, my teacher say I want everyone to paint a painting like Akram. And everyone went like this [clapping]...From this day, I understand who I am.”

This is the peaceful life Akram grew up with in Mosul as a youth. Bright classrooms, cheerful markets, courtyard gardens, ornate mosques and minarets. The long shadows and empty spaces, brought alive by the lush colors of culture.

If you would like to find out more about the history of art in Iraq — "the cradle of civilization" — or about the artist's unique philosophy on painting, you can connect with Akram via his website akramsarraj.com. Start a conversation and give him the opportunity to practice his English. Connections with kindred spirits are what keep us all going, and this is especially true for Akram.

Once you've become acquainted, please consider purchasing art from Akram. If you are unable to afford the prints or original paintings, you can still make a contribution to Akram's life through the Donate & Inspire section of his website (link above). The gift you offer will furnish his art studio and students with much needed materials and art supplies.

A final translated thought from the artist, to help us understand why, through much suffering, he still loves to study the world: “Beauty is what creates and simulates the sunrise on the Tigris River, with excessive tenderness. It is the practice of ritual, and conveying it with finely tuned senses. The vivid colors, soaked in light, show us the meaning of beauty and offer us joy - a moment when the heart is united with the heart.”

And now, please keep scrolling to view our tribute to Sarrajism style and a wish for renewed beauty in Mosul.