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Chapter 4: The Story, "Story" and the Ides of Iraq

William_Cleveland_Photo Stories can be fun, or frolic or amuse.
But, they are also nimble, tricky, malevolent, and …
well, you fill in the blank… 

Some say, “If you own the story
then you hold the power.” 
Others say, “Defining the story” is defining the future 
and that subjugation is story killing.

What we do know is that every
individual, every family, every community
is defined by their stories.

And, If we don’t tell our stories

we lose our dignity,
our humanity,
our souls,
as in South Africa, under Apartheid;
as in the Yugolslavia, with Milosivic;
as in Cambodia, during the Khmer Rouge times

as in Iran

These particular stories teach us that
tyranny is story subjugation driven by fear. 
Here’s how it works:
1.    Keep them from telling the story.
2.    Ignore the story.
3.    Control the story by altering or editing it.
4.    Romanticize the story
5.    Simplify the story,
6.    Trivialize the story
7.    Buy, then sell the story
8.    Kill the story

9.    Kill the story teller

But, you know, these stories do not die.
They morph and mutate
like love, like friendship,
like the blackberry canes and kudzu
that swarm the land and climb our fences

And you all know that story about friends and fences.
Good fences do make good neighbors …and…
good stories too.
And, of course, when those good stories migrate and join
at the intersection of self interest and common ground
no matter how stifled, those tall tale siblings
become democracy zygotes

Yes, Democracy is the art of collective story making.
Democracy says:
“Here is the story to this point—Let’s decide together what’s next.” 

What we call “the arts” are the tools humans use to craft stories. 

Words, music, movement, symbols, color, metaphors,
they all get into the act.

But, un-told stories, un-sung, un-danced, un-painted stories

are nascent shadows. 

The shadow grows as the story is smothered,
That’s right, untold stories,
unpeeled stories,
unexamined stories,
left to fester
are very dangerous.

If you don’t examine and tell your own stories
Its hard to see yourself in the mirror and
it’s hard to know the truth.

Stories reveal humanity in all its frailty, power, ugliness,
passion …
you fill in the blank.
Some stories entertain, some reveal, some lie, others fanaticize. 

Imagination is cold fusion,
generating more power than it consumes
as it chugs along raising the temperature
in the hot house of stories.

Privilege is the ability to manifest ones story, unabated,
to the exclusion of other’s stories.
Dignity is the unfettered capacity
to make and share stories. 
If you have great material wealth
you can buy the story you want. 
If your story holds great meaning
you can acquire power
out of proportion
to your material status. 

Empathy happens when
I tell you my story
and you tell my story back to me
and I nod my head.

Improvisation is fishing for fugitive stories
New stories get born
when improvisation and imagination converge
bending time and space wide enough
for story sperms and story eggs
to find each other and join.

But of course there are no new stories
And all stories are new

Some artists say
Have a seat while I tell my story
Some artists say
Have a seat while I tell someone else’s story
Some artists say
Have a seat while I tell your story
Some artists say
Stand up we have a story to tell

I say

Once upon a time…

...this spring actually, on the ides of March, I came across an extraordinary article in the online news service Truthout, called “The Ongoing Occupation of Iraqi Artists,” by Dahr Jamail, the guy who wrote Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches From an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq.  The article described the desperate life of artists trying to survive and create in the slow motion conflagration that is contemporary Iraq.  The stories were all too familiar.  Artists looking for safe space to make work with integrity and courage; artists speaking truth; artists feared and fearful; artists shunted aside and shut down---just like Cambodia in the time of the Khmer Rouge, just like Yugoslavia during Milosevic, just like and South Africa under apartheid.

Encountering these stories I was moved to write back in the comments section on the Truthout.org site. I addressed my remarks directly to the artists profiled in the piece:

Dear Mohammed, Ghassan, Ahmed, Saad, Wesam, and Khalid:

I am an American musician and writer. I have spent the last ten years documenting and reporting on the resilience and courage of artists working in communities around the world living with the kind of upheaval that is reflected in this article. Now, as we in America struggle to rediscover our own humanity in the face what we have done to the people of Iraq, I would assert that it is the creators who have the capacity to begin to heal these terrible wounds. I believe there are thousands of artists here in America who would enthusiastically join in the building of a creative bridge with our brother and sister artists in Iraq to begin the healing. Please, lets open some windows and doors to make this happen. I'm serious. Let us know how we can connect and collaborate.

"Some people think you can't beat the devil with a song---But they don't know!'

William Cleveland
Center for the Study of Art & Community
Bainbridge Island, WA

Then, a few weeks ago, I received the following email from Ghassan Alawchi, one of the artists profiled in the Truthout piece.

Dear Mr. Cleveland:

My name is Ghassan Alawchi. I'm an Iraqi sculptor… Sir, you had written a comment to an article titled The Ongoing Occupation of Iraqi Artists in the web site truthout.org on Mon, 03/16/2009 ,  saying that "Some people think you can't beat the devil with a song---But they don't know!'' U don't know how this one sentence reflected the new growth of a new hope you did put inside me after reading your comment in this very article.

You said that the creators who have the capacity to begin to heal the terrible wounds ... And I as one of these creators you referred to in your comment would like to tell you that our wounds are neither the destroyed buildings nor the closed streets.  Our true wounds are in our bleeding souls. Our enthusiasm is never less than our brother and sister artists in America to begin the process of healing.  Our prior concern is that we can find a way to contact and build the bridge you mentioned. We are looking for creating shared exhibitions between the Iraqi and American artists. To prove to the world that in spite of all the wars and violence that exist there's still a possibility of soul to soul communication in the human societies ...

You can consider me the very first step to communicate with the rest of the Iraqi artists, This is my e-mail ghassan622@yahoo.com

Genuinely, I do hope that we shall keep in touch.
Ghassan Alawchi, an Iraqi artist 

In my reply I sent Ghassan a copy of the song Art and Upheaval that I quoted in my note and a piece of writing.  I also thanked him for responding with an open heart and promised to share his message with colleagues.

So, here I am doing just that.  If you are moved to join in this conversation, I encourage you to jump in and take Ghassan up on his offer to act as a conduit.  Who knows what bridges might appear?  Who knows what devils might succumb?



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Encountering these stories I was moved to write back in the comments section on the Truthout.org site. I addressed my remarks directly to the artists profiled in the piece:


Great blog post. As a storyteller I understand the power of story. BTW A few of the comments above look like spam messages....in fact I've gotten the exact same messages on my personal blogs.


This theme has interested me! Encountering these stories I was moved to write back in the comments section on the Truthout.org site.

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