Along the banks of the Euphrates, what is life like? In Iraq, in the aftermath of the long US war and occupation, and in Syria, in the midst of an unconscionably bloody war, what goes on beyond the gaze of the Western camera lens? The constant portrayal of violence in the Arab world creates stereotypes of a one-dimensional plane of brutality and corruption—it’s dehumanizing. In reality, human beings are resilient and life goes on—people work, love, grieve, play, prepare meals, create art, and otherwise carry on. The natural world also goes on—rocks erode, trees bear fruit, birds migrate, predators prey, seeds germinate, rivers flow.
Our project, Confluent, seeks to immerse Northern Spark audiences in communal, environmental, and other commonalities—confluences—between here and there. The project is a video of the Euphrates River projected onto to the underside of the Hennepin Avenue Bridge, bringing together the Euphrates and the Mississippi—two rivers that hold a profound place in human history and culture—and the Arab and American worlds that surround them.
As the concept developed, we were concerned that it was irresponsible to recruit an artist to film a river scene in Iraq or Syria. One Iraqi artist who saw our Call for Artists candidly echoed our fears: “The concept of this project is nice but totally unrealistic or naive. This is not a case for civil/artistic film photography. To get to film . . . one needs national security clearance.” We were seeking a long, steady shot of Euphrates water, taken from a public space, and we knew that anywhere someone shoots video of a major waterway for a sustained time, she may well draw suspicion. This would be true in the surveillance-happy United States, where whistle-blower Edward Snowden is being taunted by the U.S. government to “man up” and turn himself in, and where we’re all still living under the pernicious command to spy on and profile one another: if you see something, say something. And it’s doubly true in Syria, where the Assad regime–fueled war has already caused more than 150,000 deaths, or in Iraq, where the wake of the U.S.-led invasion has left Iraqis with unreliable access to electricity and clean water, where government power is unchecked, and where life is still unforgivably difficult.
We received a mix of feedback from friends and advisors close to both countries. Though a couple had responses that were in-line with the artist’s above, others were encouraging and spoke about the importance of a project like this to reflect the strength of the people of Syria and Iraq. One reported: “Just yesterday I was speaking to a young man from Aleppo and he told me his family went back to Aleppo because his younger brother needs to finish high school. It blew my mind that they would risk living in such violent conditions considering he could finish high school elsewhere.” We were humbled by this defiant resilience.
Going forward with the concept, we worked to secure an artist or videographer who was on-board with the idea and could navigate the logistics. After a number of dead ends, we found a solid lead through our old friend Sami Rasouli, an associate of the local Iraqi American Reconciliation Project (IARP) and the director of its partner organization, Iraq-based Muslim Peacemaker Teams. Sami lived for many years in Minneapolis, and was the owner of Sinbad Café on Nicollet Ave (where Icehouse now stands). He is now back in his home country working to make life better in Najaf, Iraq, a city on the banks of the Euphrates, and he provided a vital and unusual solution for our project. His friend Ali Al-Tayar was interested in doing the videography for Confluent, and as a professional Iraqi journalist, had the necessary and elusive official permits for public filming. It was a good solution: Ali could explicitly film the Euphrates River, on bridges, banks, or boats, and, having the proper credentials, would be less likely to be bothered by authorities.
As the project has developed, it’s been stimulating to consider, and offer up, this added dimension to what we were first drawn to in terms of the environmental and cultural intersections of the Euphrates and the Mississippi, and the windows they provide onto political, social, and natural life. Issues of agency, freedom of expression, and the right to inhabit and represent public space are deeply tied to this project. In an unexpected way, these ideas echo those of the Turkish movement, the Gezi Uprising, which began a year ago last week. While it became a movement for other important freedoms, Gezi was sparked by popular resistance to an urban development plan for Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park—a fight for the people’s right to green, public spaces. Incidentally, in Turkey, but hundreds of miles away from Istanbul, the Euphrates originates with the confluence of the Karasu and Murat Rivers.
We have been poignantly and repeatedly reminded of all of this as Confluent has been weaving and turning towards show time on June 14.