Fed up with the lack of Iraqi’s on screen during supposed representations of Iraq or Iraqi stories, this year Halal Gurls star Hajer has galvanised to connect with artists who felt the same way. Creating a space for themselves that wouldn’t be created by others, the IDCN (Iraqi Diaspora Creatives Network) will launch a new web series titled This Is What An Iraqi Looks Like (TWILL) on their YouTube Channel later this month on December 10th.
JDEED spoke with Hajer who gave insight into her background, her work as an artist and the story of the IDCN.
I’m a writer and actress born and raised in Australia to Iraqi immigrants. My writing is mostly fictional and explores themes of Arab womanhood and dysfunctional families. I’m currently procrastinating and working on a novel that follows a young Iraqi-Australian woman named Zainab who is struggling to feel at home in the world in the aftermath of being disowned.
I’m 22 now and have been writing seriously since I was 17. I put myself into the arts scene as soon as I left school and was lucky to be quite integrated in the scene pretty quickly. Through my time in the Sydney arts scene one thing has become clear, we have a diversity issue, that’s something the world is dealing with really. But even within the existing representations in the literary scene and screen world in Australia there’s a particular narrative that exists of minorities and of Muslim women in particular, that I simply didn’t fit into. Often times the narrative that’s out there is Muslim women especially hijabis dealing with racism and balancing their faith with their western lives.
In Australia, most of this representation comes from a Lebanese/Palestinian or other Levantine perspective which is really quite different to an Iraqi experience. While I understand that the Lebanese diaspora in Australia is large and older than the Iraqi diaspora, I was getting really impatient with this. In the arts scene that I inhabit there aren’t many Iraqis and so I looked internationally and couldn’t find as many Iraqi diaspora artists as I would like. I knew that they were out there, but our diaspora is quite scattered. Long story short I wanted to unite all these artists and connect, collaborate and befriend them. And so I started the Iraqi Diaspora Creatives Network.
There’s plenty of us out there doing all kinds of amazing things! A lot of us feel quite similarly about feeling unseen and unheard or just misrepresented entirely by mainstream media.
Something I’ve learned is that representation isn’t just about showing the world what we look like but also showing each other what we can be. When we are so scattered and our references of Iraqiness are based on our family’s nostalgia of Iraq or their particular identity formation it can be hard to imagine other possibilities of expressing identity and culture even if deep down we know those possibilities exist. By coming together, we can be physical representations to each other of the diversity of our community which I think is so needed for a community that’s been in tatters for so long. I think it’s really healthy to engage with Iraqis that aren’t from the particular clusters within our at home environments, to expand our views and challenge ourselves for the better.
In all honesty, I haven’t lived anywhere else before, so I have no point of reference. One main thing is it’s very comfortable here and I have a lot of privilege and space to do what I want.
I was really excited about this show. It was marketed pretty heavily as an Iraqi perspective on the 2003 Iraq war but as soon as I watched it, it felt wrong. The Iraqi dialect was all over the place and it had an inauthenticity to it. Then I looked up the creators of the show and low and behold they were all white. The only Iraqi in the whole creation process was the associate producer who was brought on quite late in the process when everything was figured out.
I simply wrote my thoughts on the IDCN private Facebook group and was surprised with how many people agreed with me. I thought about it for a while and suggested an open letter campaign to the creators. I did a lot of research and the more and more I dug, the more of an injustice the show felt. I worked on writing the open letter and had about 10 different Iraqi artists who’d seen the show and write for a living edit and finalise the letter. We ended up rallying members of the IDCN and allies to send the letter individually to both the production company and the broadcast network. I can safely say they knew we were upset.
It’s pretty enraging. I can’t speak for the homeland as much as I can for the diaspora, but I’ve always speculated that the diaspora would deal with these misrepresentations more as we share countries with the people misrepresenting us and it affects us directly. I’d imagine that in the homeland they’d be more occupied with more imminent danger. I know when I’ve spoken to my relatives in Iraq they don’t seem to be as frustrated with racism by say America or the British as much as the actual invading by them.
I can say for a fact that whenever I’ve told any non-Iraqis that I’m Iraqi, the response is always of pity or shock and especially as a woman there’s an assumption that I’m a victim of some really violent male relatives. That’s definitely a big impact of the poor portrayals.
Haha. They’ve hardly been represented let alone ‘better represented’. There are a few international novels written by diasporic Iraqis that do grapple with the nuances I’d like to see more of. These nuances are mainly the disconnect between us and our families with the specificity of an Iraqi perspective. We do see these disconnects in immigrant families reflected more and more but I really just want to see this in an Iraqi perspective. I think we deserve that.
Iraq is one of those places that has had so much foreign intervention and been puppeted for so long that a big part of our what people know about Iraqi and Iraqi culture is what’s happened TO us – not what we’ve chosen for ourselves. Everything else has been stripped away from our stories as a result. Reclaiming the agency of our narratives is to me the only way we can heal.
A real range of different videos, lots of laughs, relatable moments and introspection. I think it will really resonate with a lot of diaspora kids from the SWANA region and beyond. If a big part of your life involves speaking to relatives via video call (pre-COVID), or had your mum interrupt you when you’ve been giving some wisdom or had an existential crisis about how you fit into your culture then there’ll definitely be something in This is What an Iraqi Looks Like for you.
I put out a callout for video submissions on the IDCN page for a period of a month and received submissions from Iraqis all over the world including a submission from Dubai based visual artist Neel Jassani who also featured in the famous Adidas x Vogue Arabia video, award-winning author and filmmaker Weam Namou, and an animation by Daby Zainab Faidhi who is a layout artist at Warner Bros just to name a few.
The idea is really in the name, I wanted a simple way of showing the world and the Iraqi community that being Iraqi can look so many different ways. The best way I could think of was visual and it had to be an anthology. A web series felt like the perfect format.
Since the 10th December on the Iraqi Diaspora Creatives Network YouTube channel!
I honestly don’t know and I’m excited!
I hope it becomes a go to place for people (Iraqi or not) looking for Iraqi artists. That’s the main thing. I’m so sick of hearing the same old excuses by producers and project managers who create content about Iraq or Iraqis and don’t invite Iraqis because ‘there aren’t enough Iraqi artists out there’. It’s just not true, not in the slightest and I want the IDCN to be proof of that.
This Is What An Iraqi Looks Like will premiere here https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCdC6tE_XT0Vj76-MNHe_kZw on December 10th. To keep up to date with the work of the IDCN, to get involved or to join the conversation, visit their Facebook group here https://www.facebook.com/groups/858723824625103 and their instagram page here @iraqi_diaspora