‘You remember you are foreign’ at this time of year in Ireland

New to the Parish: Bassam Al-Sabah arrived from Iraq in 2004

Bassam Al-Sabah’s Dublin studio is littered with an array of sketches, photographs, paintbrushes and small cardboard objects. As the final rays of winter sunshine creep into the high-ceilinged room, the 22-year-old artist moves around explaining the meaning behind multicoloured 3D-printed figurines placed precariously on top of an old JVC TV set.

He stops beside a metre-high sculpture – his recreation of a robotic character from the cartoons he watched in Iraq as a child – and a collection of glass paintings spread across a piece of fabric.

The paintings are based on screengrabs from cartoons and represent “the distortion between fantasy and reality”, says Al-Sabah. “When I was a child I didn’t understand that war was a violent thing because I equated it to what we saw in cartoons. All the cartoons were based around a hero and in the context of Iraq, that hero was part of the army. That’s how fantasy can slip into reality without you noticing.

“You hear a bomb going off but you equate it to what you see in a cartoon so it never feels like something violent.”

Following his graduation from the Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology earlier this year, Al-Sabah was selected as one of the 13 best graduating artists in the country and awarded a place to exhibit at the RDS visual art awards. He was also the recipient of the Royal Hibernian Academy 2016 graduate award, giving him the use of a studio at the RHA for a year.

His work is deeply influenced by his memories of the first 10 years of his life in Baghdad and the sense of displacement that comes with being shifted from one culture to another. In 2004, shortly before his 10th birthday, Al-Sabah, his mother, grandmother and sister left their home in Iraq to join their father, who was working in Ireland.

As a child, Al-Sabah says it was difficult to make sense of the Iraq war. “As a 10-year-old you don’t really know what’s going on and your parents aren’t going to take the time to explain what’s happening because you’re so lost anyway.

“Whenever people ask me about my experience in Iraq I like to point out that we had an extremely sheltered childhood and kind of grew up in a bubble.” His parents, both engineers, valued the importance of a good education and ensured their young son and daughter went to a good school. When he was seven, Al-Sabah’s father moved to Ireland for work and began to organise visas for his family to join him. He failed to secure the visas before the outbreak of the violence in Iraq and so he returned home.

“We were supposed to move before the war but the visas never came through so my dad came back to be with us. His company was really nice and said ‘Take as much time as you want, there will always be a job for you when you come back’.”

Ireland was so far away from Iraq and Al-Sabah struggled to imagine what life would be like in a nation of only four million people. He remembers his grandmother squinting through her glasses as they scanned a map of the world, searching for the small island in the Atlantic.

In summer 2004, the family travelled to Syria to organise visas with the Irish consulate and flew to Ireland , where they moved into their new home in Balbriggan. Al-Sabah spoke no English when he started going to the local school.

“I repeated 4th class in Ireland so it gave me a year to learn English as my main priority. But I found the subjects quite easy, especially maths because in Iraq maths is quite intense.

“I think learning English through speaking is a lot easier than learning from a book because you have to absorb it. My mom and sister and dad learned through a book so their idea of pronunciation is completely speculative.”

Western culture

Western culture felt foreign to the family, particularly the unlimited access to music and films. “Iraq was very censored and controlled. Western music was banned and if there was a movie shown in Iraq it would be completely different from here because it would be censored and dubbed in a certain way.”

On arrival in Ireland, he discovered a whole world of musicians he had never heard of in Iraq. "We experienced the 1990s and 2000s all at once. We got Christina Aguilera in her Disney phase and Christina Aguilera in the dirty phase at the same time. We got Westlife; we got Spice Girls."

After sitting his Leaving Cert, he decided to go to IADT to study art. “I guess I picked art because it was the most fun thing. You’re 18 and suddenly you have to make this life decision so I was like, art.” At first, his parents were unsure about their son pursuing a career as an artist. “They wanted their kids to succeed but all they knew was this extreme, intense education and art was new to them. But then I was nominated for the RDS visual arts award and I got this studio so that kind of quantified the skills for them. It’s a success they can understand.”

After more than a decade in Ireland, Al-Sabah says his parents are happy living in Balbriggan. “They only really settled once they started making friends with Irish people. It helped them feel a calmness because there wasn’t this separation between ‘I am this and you are that’.”

Life in Ireland has been slightly more difficult for his grandmother. "I don't want to speak for her but I think it's quite sad because she hasn't had all her kids in the same place in 20 years. Everybody's all over the place. I have an aunt in California, an aunt in Dubai, an uncle in Oxford, there's part of the family in New Zealand, there's another aunt in Sweden. "

“You remember how foreign you are during Christmas because everyone has big family events but all our family here is my mum, my dad, my sister and my grandmother. You remember how disconnected you are from the rest of your family.”