Many of the images Americans see of Iraq show rubble, blood, militias and violence. But on the walls of the Foundry Gallery in Washington, D.C., watercolors depict bright sunshine, sparkling waters, tropical foliage — and palm trees everywhere.
The terrible stories that come out of Iraq make it hard to remember that the country has beautiful, tranquil places as well — but young artist Ahmad AlKarkhi says we must not forget that these spots exist.
"There is always that beautiful side that we must keep alive," AlKarkhi says.
AlKarkhi worked in Baghdad until 2006, when violence forced him to flee to Syria. In just three years in Damascus, AlKarkhi made and sold some 240 paintings at the city's best galleries.
AlKarkhi was nervous about how long he would be allowed to remain in Syria — until a prominent Damascus art collector got in touch with Marjorie Ransom, an art-loving, retired American diplomat who had served in Syria for years. AlKarkhi needed arts connections in the U.S.
"I have always loved introducing Americans to the beauty of the Middle East," Ransom says. "You hear so much about the woes of the Middle East — it's always been a goal of mine to show Americans the beauty of that part of the world."
It wasn't long before Ransom received another phone call. This time it was AlKarkhi himself — he was in the U.S., spoke little English and needed help.
"He absolutely hates to ask for help," says Ransom, who has gotten to know AlKarkhi since that first phone call in August. "I have to guess what he needs and anticipate, because he will not ask. He's extremely proud."
Ransom is doing what she can, though she insists she isn't an expert. She has tried to find arts organizations and sponsors for AlKarkhi. She helped him get a brief show at the Foundry Gallery. She feels compelled to help a talented young artist whose life was uprooted by the horrors of war.
"Life has ceased to continue," AlKarkhi says of life in Baghdad. "Everything has stopped. Only militias were on the street. We heard through news reports on the radio that there was targeting of artists including actors and actresses, because extremists think that what we're doing is prohibited by Islam."
Many of AlKarkhi's artist friends have been killed, and those who are still in Baghdad are desperate.
"I get e-mails from a lot of them and they all wish that they could leave." AlKarkhi says. "There is nothing there to live for. There is nothing left."
Ever since he arrived in the U.S. in August — U.N., French and American officials helped him move here — AlKarkhi has painted steadily. With oils, acrylics and watercolors he's painting his dreams and memories of Iraq — in vivid oranges, fuchsias and greens.
Ransom says she can't decide which she likes better — AlKarkhi's portraits or his landscapes.
"One minute I say I like his portraits because I see a variety of emotions in the faces," she says. "They're very real. They reach out and touch you. ... And then I look at his landscapes. I've never been to Iraq, but I can taste Iraq that way."
AlKarkhi has given Ransom a small watercolor portrait of a woman, her white hair rimming the edge of a red scarf. The viewer gets the sense that this woman has seen a lot of difficulty in her life. Yet there is hope in her eyes — something eternal.
"This is a mother to all of us who left Iraq," AlKarkhi says. "So when you look at it, you look into your mother's eye. The eyes of this woman reflect the eyes of the mothers of everybody who left home."
After much difficulty, AlKarkhi, his wife and small child are settling into a new homeland. He can have a peaceful life here, he says.
AlKarkhi says that his dream — like the dream of artists everywhere — is to be recognized for his art, and to sustain a living for his family.
"I took this dream with me to the United States," he says.