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Using art to bring together Iraqis, Americans

The Iraqi American Reconciliation Project uses art to foster understanding between the two cultures.

IARP Wasfi.JPG
Maestro Karim Wasfi, a classically trained composer, performs on cello at the Rochester Art Center May 15, 2022 as part of a Poetry Despite / Music Despite event.
John Molseed / Post Bulletin
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ROCHESTER — To help bring Iraqis and Americans closer together, a Minnesota group is using languages people from both cultures share.

Art, music and poetry convey messages and emotion between people who don’t speak the same language.

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The Iraqi and American Reconciliation Project uses art to foster understanding between the two cultures. The Minnesota-based organization was formed to create that understanding and provide assistance to war victims.

That connectivity is essential in fighting extremism, said Maestro Karim Wasfi, a classically trained composer who performed at the Rochester Art Center May 15, 2022.

His performances are a combination of planned composition and improvisation. Wasfi said he listens to the rooms in which he plays, measures the emotional responses from the audience, reflects them, redirects or amplifies them. Each performance is unique to the time, place and people in the room and are not replicable, he said.

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“Everybody is a part of it,” he said. “Every thing, every atom – I try to connect with every molecule.”

That’s why in-person music and performances are so important and a reason why isolation during the pandemic was so difficult for many people.

“We need live performances,” he said. “People cannot live in silos.”

Wasfi performed alongside depictions of visual art by Aaron Hughes, a teacher and Iraq War veteran who is now an anti-war activist.

His work is on display at the Rochester Art Center through Aug. 7.

Iraqi poet Dunya Mikhail works to find the right words to describe how she and other Iraqis felt living there more than 30 years ago.

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Dunya Mikhail, a poet and writer from Iraq, reads from a book of her poetry at the Rochester Art Center Sunday, May 15, 2022.
John Molseed / Post Bulletin

“There’s an English expression, stuck between a rock and a hard place,” Mikhail said.

She read her poetry at the event. In recent years, Mikhail has been translating her own poetry, written first in Arabic, to English. Since she started translating her poetry herself, she has found she is more careful about her word choices in both languages.

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“The second language opens my eyes to that,” she said.

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Dunya Mikhail, a poet and writer from Iraq, reads from a book of her poetry at the while Karim Wasfi performs on cello at the Rochester Art Center Sunday, May 15, 2022. Behind both artists is work by Aaron Hughes, a teacher and Iraq War veteran who is now an anti-war activist. His work is on display at the Rochester Art Center through Aug. 7.

It also helped her understand how people hear the same words but assign them different meanings based on their own experiences. That isn’t necessarily bad or a barrier, but the nature of art through interpretation, she said.

“It’s a connection,” she said. “It’s a connection with strangers in ways I don’t realize.”

The translation itself automatically invites more people to experience her poems. That invitation is part of the reconciliation project and philosophy for connection people, she said.

“You need to sit with someone, have tea,” Mikhail said.

More than 50 people attended the Sunday events. Pamela Hugdahl, executive director of the Rochester Art Center, said the museum plans to continue to collaborate with the Iraqi and American Reconciliation Project for shows, exhibitions and events.

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People attend Poetry Despite / Music Despite event at the Rochester Art Center May 15, 2022. The music and reading event was put on in cooperation between the art center and the Iraq American Reconciliation Project.
John Molseed / Post Bulletin

Related Topics: PEOPLEROCHESTERARTEXCLUSIVE
John Molseed joined the Post Bulletin in 2018. He covers arts, culture, entertainment, nature and other fun stories he's surprised he gets paid to cover. When he's not writing articles about Southeast Minnesota artists and musicians, he's either picking banjo, brewing beer, biking or looking for other hobbies that begin with the letter "b." Readers can reach John at 507-285-7713 or jmolseed@postbulletin.com.
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