Sundus Abdul Hadi

Jul 17, 2019

“Communities can create powerful shared narratives, which allow all of their members to look in the same direction, to share intentionality, and to experience the belongingness of coherence with other people.” – Dr. Lewis Mehl-Madrona from Healing the Mind Through the Power of Story: The Promise of Narrative Psychiatry

I’ve always loved books. The smell of the pages, the feeling of getting a new book you can’t wait to read, sharing books with the people you love, and oh, the stories.

“New Sumerian: Portrait of the artist” / digital collage / 2019

My parents always kept a powerful collection of books. I learnt about my culture and heritage through their library, especially when I felt deprived of knowledge I could relate and connect to while studying in a Eurocentric institution throughout my art studies. Our books on Ancient Mesopotamia and modern Arab art gave me roots, and endless inspiration.

Stories gave me life. I devoured any book by an Arab author, searching for a nostalgia I never quite knew, but spiritually felt. They helped to balance out the damaging misrepresentations of my culture in Western media while the Iraq war raged on, and helped me define my own story and experience as an Iraqi artist in the diaspora. For years, I meditated on the dark, heavy cloud of war and displacement, finding in it the stories I shared through my art to bring justice to the unheard and unseen.

“The Forgotten” from the Warchestra series / Acrylic on Canvas / 2008

Then one day, in my ancestral city Baghdad, that dark cloud enveloped me, and my world turned upside down.

I couldn’t take in any more stories of war. I stopped reading the news. I couldn’t watch or read anything that had to do with Iraq, or with any reference to violence. None of the stories felt responsible to the trauma we carried in our bones. I (we) needed to heal. More than a year later, suddenly and without pretext, the story of “Shams” spilled out of me.

“Regaining lost instinct and healing injured instinct is truly within reach, for it returns when a woman pays close attention through listening, looking, and sensing the world around herself, and then by acting as one sees others act, efficiently, effectively and soulfully.” – Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes in Women Who Run With the Wolves

Spread from the book “Shams” / Shams and Shifaa

Shams is about a little girl made of glass. One fateful day, Shams breaks into a million pieces. In the story, which I also illustrated, we follow Shams’ transformation from a fragile little girl into a survivor, with the help of her own imagination and the guidance of Shifaa, the healer. The illustrations blend symbolism from Mesopotamian art, landscapes from the Middle East, Arabic calligraphy by eL Seed, and magical realism to create Shams (Arabic for the word sun), an otherworldly being in her small universe.

My healing process from this particular trauma was long and arduous, and ongoing. I share a lot of the insight from my own coping and self-care in the story, like learning how to breathe, accept and believe, or, on the days I miss the past, to go and sit by the water. I pursued this story because I wished for such a book when I was at my most broken. So I offer it to the youth of our broken world who need to see themselves in a book that they could relate to, and to feel empowered by their survival and resilience despite the trauma of war and displacement.

Spread from the book “Shams” / Transformation

This journey has led me to connect with other communities that are working through their own collective traumas, as a result of white supremacy and colonialism here in North America. That connection culminated in my research-creation project “Take Care of Your Self”, an exhibition that brought together twenty-seven powerful artists of colour whose work intersects with struggle, trauma, self-care and empowerment. I am on the eve of publishing “Shams” in Arabic, as well as a book based on “Take Care of Your Self”, two projects that have been so instrumental to my practice of community-care and personal healing, and for that I am grateful.

“Take Care of Your Self” exhibition poster, 2017

To begin a story in Arabic, we say the words “Kan Ya Makan fi Qadeem al Zaman…” (Arabic for “Once Upon a Time”). Those words birthed my imagination, sparked my love of books, and have since reaffirmed the power of storytelling, and art, as medicine to heal deep wounds. And so, I will choose to end with them to make space for your story to begin. Thank you for listening to mine.

Spread from the book “Shams” / Freedom

*** Learn more about Take Care of Your Self here