Beard

June 2014 is when Daesh (ISIS) barged into Iraq and took control over one of its biggest cities; Mosul. The Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) were the remnants of Zarqawi’s group, an offshoot of Al-Qaeda primarily active in Iraq. He died in an American airstrike in 2006, while attending a meeting in a safe house.

Fighters loyal to him and Al-Qaeda were fragmented, and susceptible to new extreme ideologies that would unite them. They found this in their new leader known by his alias Abu Bakr al Baghdadi.

When the rebels were fighting the Syrian government, the ISI leader sent a deputy to start a branch of Al-Qaeda in Syria and fight alongside with them. In order to grow stronger, Baghdadi started to attack the Iraqi prisons to free the former jihadists and recruit new ones. After gaining massive control in Syria, ISI becomes ISIS. By June 2014, they had established an army powerful enough to launch a military style invasion into Iraq. The Iraqi army, weakened by corruption, folds, offering barely any resistance.

Furthermore, many Sunnis were tired of the Shia-dominated and increasingly authoritarian government, and welcome or at least tolerate ISIS’s arrival. Within days, ISIS controlled a third of Iraq and a big part of Syria. I had just started working for UNICEF around that time.

It was also in 2014 when I met my friend H who had just returned from abroad. He had a beard that he grew for 3 years straight. We used to hang out together all the time, going out in Erbil and going for hikes on the weekends. He used to be harassed and called terrorist most of the times. To support him, my friend R and I decided to grow our beard together and said we would grow it and shave after 6 months. My friend R had a hard time keeping his commitment for that long and shaved it off after 8 weeks. Me on the other hand, obviously as committed as ever, grew my beard for 6 months straight.

It was a big struggle to keep growing it for that long, but I didn’t just grow it, I kept it neat and clean. Before I knew it, it became the newest trend. I’d like to think I was one of the pioneers that brought the beard back in to town, especially in a society where big beards were/are associated with Muslim extremism and not so much fashion trends.

The struggle was not only to keep it shiny with oil, shampoo, conditioners and to trim it, it was more than that. Everyone, including my mother, neighbours, friends and colleagues used to tell me I looked like an ISIS member and that I should shave to go back to my old original ‘clean’ look. Just like everyone else.

Back home, growing a beard is associated to religious beliefs, but anyone who knew me, knew that I was not doing it for religious reasons, yet I was still told to shave.

Living in Kurdistan, Iraq is not like living in London, we have security checkpoints, even within its cities. When I used to drive or walk, I would always get stopped and asked for my ID-card. Don’t get me started on the checkpoints between the cities! They have all stopped me to check my car and my ID, every time I wanted to go out of the city, which I did on the weekends to go for hiking with my friends. I have so many stories when it comes to these check points and security, if I started talking about, I’d have to start a new blog.

I was afraid of not getting my visa to UK when I got accepted to do my Master’s degree. I thought I’d be rejected and sent back to Iraq because of the preconceptions that people have. I was told by everyone around me that this was a very realistic concern.

The day I landed in London, the gentleman who was checking my documents at the airport had beard himself, which made my entrance to the UK easier than passing any checkpoint from back home.

I thought living in East London, with a big beard and long hair would make me stand out like a black sheep. I was wrong, and so were my family and friends. If you’ve ever been in East London you know what I mean. I have received so much compliments on my beard for the past couple of years while living here.

It went as far as modelling for renowned grooming and beard product companies such as Murdock London! I have gotten the opportunity to inspire others to grow and groom their facial hair.

Living in a conflict zone, makes it hard to be yourself, to do what you want or to be who you want to be. It’s not only the war, but the religion, society, community and social norms that will withhold you from your passions. I have learned to recognize and appreciate the events and people in life that have turned me in the person I am today. Even though this has all happened, I’m still able to pursue the things I enjoy in life and even do things and go to places that I deemed as impossible before!

Photos by: Husam Al-Deen

Bananas

March 1991; after the war was over in Kuwait, the Iraqi army was defeated, and the US did not want Saddam to stay in power anymore. This time, they wanted the Iraqi people to rise up against him. The former president Bush stated: “There is another way for the bloodshed to stop, and that is for the Iraqi military and the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands. They need to force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside and re-join the family of peace-loving nations”. The old regime was tyrannical, with the country serving as its prison. The Kurds and the Shia Muslims were targeted for their ethnicity and religious beliefs. The Iraqi people believed that the US, or at least, its neighboring countries would have their backs. In March 1991, both the Kurds from the North and Shia from the south rose up against the Ba’ath regime.

Neither the US, other Western countries or even the neighboring countries intervened.  They did not think that a powerful dictator who had been at war with Iran for eight long years and who had invaded Kuwait, would be able to resist the will of its own people. What followed was a desperate attempt by the Peshmerga in the North and the rebel forces in the South to grab a hold of some of its key cities. The regime responded to the uprising with brutal force and regained control within a mere few days. During these few days, the cities’ landscapes were marked by a barrage of indiscriminate artillery attacks, helicopter gunship strikes and ravaging tanks through the streets. The Kurds in the North flew and dispersed to the mountains, several refugee camps along the Turkish border and Iran. In the South, the civil defense sirens were hit, to subsequently massacre the people sheltering. The cities of Najaf and Karbala were devastated along with thousands of casualties and more than a million people were displaced. Words cannot describe the extent of human suffering.

In a way, I’m happy my family didn’t flee, because we survived, and I can share my story with you. I can’t recall exactly what year it was -probably around ’91-, or what was happening, because we were spending most of the time in my grandmother’s underground shelter. This is the house where I grew up as a kid, and where I recall most of my memories of the war from. I remember the helicopters flying by with the rattling, firing indiscriminately into my hometown. We weren’t allowed to leave the basement, rightfully so. The world was painted with black smoke and its petroleum scent, whilst the shelter had safe aroma’s of all the foods that were stored there. The two small windows -or rather ducts-, provided for some daylight and limited fresh air. The bitter cold was slightly soothed by the old furniture and the mattresses that were laid our for six kids, my parents, grandmother and my two aunts. A month later the situation calmed down, electricity came back on and I could enjoy a good dose of Tom and Jerry, my favorite cartoon.

I was fascinated by the trickeries they pulled with banana peels, waiting for one another to trip up. I always wondered how banana’s would taste like. Iraq didn’t grow any bananas at the time and was furthermore suffering heavy sanctions imposed by the west, making it near impossible to buy them. If you did manage to do so, you would pay a hefty price. I talked to my aunt about this, before writing this. She felt reluctant to talk about it, as she clearly was embarrassed. She recalled an occasion where she, her sister and my sister were going to visit one of her friends. Along our way, I noticed banana’s hanging outside one of the shops and I asked her if she could get me one. I told her I had seen them on TV and was curious to find out how they tasted like. She claimed that one kilogram costed 30 Dinars back in the 90’s and we could only afford 1 for Dinars, since this is what her salary allowed.

The only condition was that I’d share it with my sister, so each had a half. Turned out it was even smaller than a half since she took a bite off each of the halves. Who can blame her? The banana was so good that I can still taste it. We made sure absolutely nothing went to waste, Including the inner layer of the peel, which no one eats. Not me though, I still eat them, whether its bitter or not.

It is only since 2007, when Kurdistan was flooded with newfound wealth,  that I remember us having bananas in our fruit bowl, every day. Still, it didn’t taste the same as it tasted for the first time.

You might recall a short video I posted earlier, where I explain why the color yellow is so dear to my heart. It reminds me of that first bite. It reminds me of holding my aunt’s hands and strolling through the streets.

Fashion is as tangible and real as it is an emotional roller coaster for me, that’s why I’m so intoxicated by it. Sometimes my mind wonders off into thinking what it would be like if I hadn’t been born in a war zone. Would I ever get to appreciate food, family, happiness and least but not least -fashion-, the same way as I do now? Perhaps, but I would definitely be less obsessed with yellow and.. You know… Bananas.

I will see you very soon in the next post, and I hope your mind didn’t go elsewhere each time you read banana.

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A Stitch in Time

Every event in life is a stitch that manages to create a new piece. Sometimes beautiful, sometimes sad, but all equally valuable pieces that help to portray who we are. I would like to take you on an ongoing journey that started in one of the most war-torn countries in the world; Iraq. Like any place in the world, people there have dreams, fascinations, and aspirations, but are bound to the cards they are dealt.

This was no different in my family. In order to get dressed-up like TV stars and movie actors, my aunt used to copy their dresses at home. My mom stepped it up a notch and even sewed our underwear and pajamas, coming up with her own designs as she found new fabrics in the Bazars. Living in London gave me the opportunity to reflect back on my past and help me understand the inception of my fascination with fashion. It helps me understand and appreciate the wealth of inspiration my heritage gives me. This journey to the past is defining who I am now, but simultaneously guides my future decisions.

My current wardrobe, and even borrowing pieces from friends is how I dress up now, nothing complicated really. This simple yet expressive way of styling is what used to draw the attention and gain the trust of my friends. Back in Erbil, when I was a student at University, my friends would ask me to join them to choose their outfits. I remember my friend Ali, who got engaged shortly after Uni, that asked me (or actually let me!) to find the perfect suit and tie to wow his future wife. The holiday of Eid used to be the most hectic for me, a time when everyone goes out to buy new outfits and try to distinguish themselves amongst the crowd.

Helping express others through fashion is what I’ve always done as something innate and natural to do. Hearing personal stories and understanding the different personalities is what forms the basis for me to help anyone express their self. Attending fashion shows, modeling for photographers, or styling models for shoots, all these experiences throughout my professional life have reinforced my belief that personality is at the core of what we do with fashion. I am excited to work with people and contribute with my understanding and personality to fashion anywhere.

Fashion Show

Now you are thinking: War and fashion show? Yes, exactly! War and Fashion Show.

The deadliest bomb attack in Baghdad, happened on July 3, 2016, in one of the most famous neighbourhoods of Al-Karaddah. The bomb killed about 292 civilians and injured more than 200. The attack was carried out by the so-called Islamic State – IS. IS is what everyone has been talking about for the past 7 years. As a countermovement for the Iraq invasion of 2003, and the grab for power by the Shia majority, the IS came to existence. In order to be heard and to show their presence, they started bombing and killing people.

You’ve probably heard about the month of Ramadan. Muslims fast during a whole month, followed by a three-day celebratory ending, better known as Eid Al Fitr. Somewhere halfway Ramadan, people will go to the markets and shops to get new clothes for Eid. Amongst them are children, adults, mothers, fathers, newly weds and so on. During the preparations of Eid 2016, a lorry filled with explosives exploded and killed dozens of people that were from all parts and sects of Iraq. Later, they were in coffins instead of new clothes.

The first thing I head when I got to work was the news of this deadly attack. When we saw what had happened, everyone bursted into tears. I couldn’t work that day, no one could, Iraq was mourning. These feelings return as I’m writing this, the same heartbreak, that was felt by every Iraqi. Every single person was affected either by losing a family member or scarred emotionally. It feels like the red flower from the “beauty and the Beast”. Iraq is the flower and it’s losing its petals one by one and it will be doomed to remain a hopeless case for all time. But, heartbreak does not mean that the Iraqi people stopped living their lives. We move on and do what little we can to make a simple change.

The story for this blog started when I went to London Men’s Fashion Week 2018, June 8 to 11. For the first time in my life, I was asked as an invitee to a couple of shows. Guys, the feeling when I received the email was just indescribable. Me, the guy from Iraq attending one of world’s biggest fashion weeks as a participant. YES I did it. I was extremely happy but I had one problem; I didn’t know what to wear.

Back to Eid. It’s is exactly like any fashion week in the world. People save money for that day just to get the most expensive, and stylish outfit. They will be seen by all the friends, family, relatives and if s/he is lucky, the crush will be around to say happy Eid to. So, can you guess my favourite day? You guessed it right, it’s the day of Eid! I would go with my aunt or mum when I was little and would make sure I was sleeping right next to my new outfit. My heart would beat so fast with excitement for getting up early in the morning, and smell a typical breakfast being prepared; Shekh mahshi, roasted chicken, peach soup and of course rice decorated with raisins and nuts, at 8 o’clock in the morning. We used to go to Eid prayer with friends and cousins. We always had the debate about wearing the new clothes to the prayers or wear them after having breakfast. My cousins had a friend in their neighbourhood, he always used to wear it for the prayer (what a joke), but we all wore it after breakfast as this is when the real Eid starts.

I would put on my outfit, get my hair done, and wear some of my father’s old perfume. All the kids, adults would go out and congratulate one another, whilst showing off their clothes. They would complement and comments on other’s outfits, followed by some serious posing for the cameras. Since this lasts 3 days, the rich kids could go and change every day or so, but the majority would wear the same clothes, for 3 days straight.

When I was at the fashion week, I felt I was with like-minded people wearing new clothes, (not exactly my own clothes though) posing for the cameras, being excited to go see more new designs and trends.

When I was growing up I didn’t even know there is such a thing called fashion week, all the while attending a similar fashion week twice a year.

Fashion has been accompanying me all that time without me really knowing it. Well, I am happy that I was not left out all these times and I can’t wait to attend future ones. All the children, families who wanted to attend the fashion week on July 2016 couldn’t because they fell victim to war and some foolish political disagreements between sects. At least fashion can bring people together, make you feel safe with family and friends in war zones or in a peaceful place like the UK. Maybe my next stop is going to be Milan, Paris, or even New York.

I wish I could go to Baghdad and take pictures of the actual area. But instead, I am attaching some pictures of me attending the fashion week in London and some of the highlights I’ve seen.

I hope you enjoyed reading it, see you in the next post.

1Photo by amazing:  Issa Yazji – Instagram @issayazjiphotography

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Belonging

In order to understand the cause of a conflict, looking into its roots is a must. One of the theories that talks about this is the sense of social, or ethnic belonging. I am going to try and place this theory in the context of the Iraqi conflict and look at how people dress a certain way to fit in.

Iraq is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country. All these people living together is not an easy task for any of its ethnicities, religions and cultures. People belonging to a certain group try to do whatever necessary to belong to that group and to gain power. Aside from occasional international and neighbouring interventions, most of the time, these groups rely on their own strength.

Therefore, during the historical formation of a group, sector, or class an act of vicious violence can come about because of the tension between different identities and groups.

In Iraq, there are two main ethnic groups, Kurds and Arabs, as well as others smaller ones like Assyrians, Turkmen, Shabakis, and few more. There are also different religions like Islam – with its two schools Sunni and Shiite – Christianity, Yazidi to mention only a few. Oh, and they all have their own languages. So, how can all these identities live together in peace if everyone wants to be in power or be heard?

In our daily lives, our identity is expressed through the way we dress. In Northern Iraq – Kurdistan Region for example, local men wear baggy trousers with a loose top, better known Kurtak and Sharwal. This helps them to move more easily through the mountainous regions. However, in the southern region, the local men wear long white traditional dresses with scarfs, known as Dishdasha, to protect them from the hot, sandy climate. The difference in cultures and identities is expressed in the way its people dress.

However, personally, I have always liked, and still do, wearing different outfits. I never wanted to look like other people, I have always wanted to be seen and noticed. When I was at high school, the uniform was to wear white shirt with gray pants. We had a neighbour who was living in Sweden around that time and they used to come and bring gifts. There was that checked white shirt which had light green and yellow lines on it which was gifted to my father. I made sure I get it before my mother hid it for my dad for a special occasion.

I still like to be different and belong to the people who want to be different from other groups. At the end of the day whether we want it or not we all belong to some group.

Below are some pictures taken on a beautiful sunny Saturday. I am wearing a shirt designed by an Iraqi designer whose inspiration comes from Iraqi Dishdasha and it has that modern feel to it while keeping with the tradition. The trousers is not Iraqi or Kurdish, but the scarf that I am wearing is from Kurdistan Region. In Kurdistan Region the men put long scarfs around the waist to keep their tools when they work in the farm or when they go on the mountains. I tried to mix both cultures to show that they can work they can work together really well, at least with my fashion sense I believe. I am in love with the print – called Hawri it just has this tribal design to it and it’s just so simple but rich at the time.

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Shirt by – @amoatelier on Instagram

Pocket Squares

On the 6th of August 1990, following the Iraqi invasion of its neighbor Kuwait, the United Nations Security Council imposed sanctions against Iraq’s old regime which was close to a total financial and trade ban. This lasted for 13 years. The aim of the sanctions was to force Iraq to withdraw from its neighbor, compensate for everything, and get rid of any weapons of mass destruction. The sanctions were elaborated at the end of the war in 1991 and included the ban of trade.

Obviously, this sanction only affected civilians and when I say ONLY I mean who else would be affected by any sort of punishment? The old regime? They were living the same, maybe even better. The people who were supporting them? Of course not. Only the normal population had their life destroyed and dreams crushed. People can argue over the politics and motivations of sanctions but in the end it killed thousands of people who had nothing to do with the old politics and they didn’t even support old regime but ended up used as hostages.   

War can take dreams away from a nation, a small family starting new life, young people planning for their future, from someone who wants to be an artist or dancer; but, there is always that small hope that can make a huge difference deep inside.

This post’s story is about what I collected when I was teenager. Every one of us used collect something when growing up. I knew people collected toys cars, some collected stones and I collected two things: Toto surprise eggs and napkins.

Growing up, napkins weren’t something we would get and use on an everyday bases, let alone throw away. My family – my grandmother, aunt, and mother – used to cut old clothes to use them as napkins. I had a proper fabric one which I remember I got for the first day of Eid. For some reason I started to collect napkins. I remember I had a fancy one that was red on the edges with flowers in the middle. When we would go visiting our relatives and when they had napkins I would take one and put it in my pocket without using it.

I still have that habit, whenever I see a nice unique one in a restaurant or at a friend’s place… Actually, the other day I was with my friends having a BBQ in the sunshine and my friend brought these yellow napkins. My first reaction was; “are we going to use these?” He looked at me and said; of course, that’s what it’s for, which triggered me to tell him them the story which inspired me to write this post.

Now, I have started collecting pocket squares made of fancy materials like silk. I will wear pocket squares with everything. With smart jackets, casual jackets; when I wear a shirt I will just wrap it around my neck or tie it on my wrist.

I think during conflict, we look for these small little things, sometimes  not even made from fabric, but paper, that can make you feel safe and give you hope that life is still safe and you forget about all the dark clouds that are covering your dreams. My dreams led me from paper napkins to silk pocket squares. Maybe others went from toy cars to real ones. At the end of the day war cannot stop what we are passionate about.

Next time when you see a unique napkin or pocket square that you think tells a story, think about me and take it, keep it until you see me to give it to me or just go to your closest post office and post it to me.    

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Pocket Squares – Fariba Soltani – https://www.faribasoltani.com; Jacket – COS; Trousers – Zara

Red Socks

On 2nd of August 1990, Iraq invaded its neighbour Kuwait. When Iraq’s old regime was in power, they had a mountain of debt because of the eight year war with Iran. The solution was to invade neighbouring Kuwait, the country with the second largest oilfield in the world – at the time, 10% of the world’s oil. Western leaders refused to accept this occupation. The United Nations condemned the invasion and called on Saddam to withdraw his troops from Kuwait.

By the end of 1990 the UN Security Council passed a new resolution; if Saddam’s troops didn’t withdraw from Kuwait in six weeks, the coalition would attack and force the Iraqis out. The mid-January 1991 UN deadline expired and a  couple of days later the coalition members took to the skies and American aircraft started to bomb Baghdad, the capital of Iraq. This lasted for about 4 weeks.

Around that time, I was five years old. I had a rare disease which required me to have surgery on my arm. The best doctor that my family could find was in Baghdad. For that reason my parents and my aunt had to travel to Baghdad while under US bombing. I must say I don’t remember much about the trip, except the long hours that I had to share between my mother’s lap and my aunt’s lap to sleep.

We arrived at the home of my mum’s cousin’s. Everyone was hiding, I could only remember Baghdad with the big date trees and sitting on the swing with the twin children of my mum’s cousin. Oh, that swing, that made me so happy because we didn’t have those big swings in the garden. I guess I was the luckiest child between my other siblings because I was on the fancy swing. But hey, I was having a surgery so we were even.

Long story short, I had this pair of RED socks, which I still remember. They were loose from the top because they were my favourite socks and I used to wear them all the time. In the surgery hallway, as I was being taken alone, being all brave because of all the promises that my family had made to me about what would happen to me after the surgery (if I don’t become very emotional I can share that in another blog post).

Moving on, I remember them preparing my arm and cleaning it with sanitizer and putting the drug mask on my face whilst the nurse was asking me to count to 10. I remember I said 7 but after that I remember losing one pair of my red socks. My mother was laughing and crying at the same time because she was extraordinarily happy that I made it safe out of the surgery. They promised me they would get me new ones, but they never did – it went away with the other promises that they had told me. I am guessing they barely managed to pay for my surgery and they couldn’t afford the pair of socks or they didn’t care because I was alive and they didn’t have to cut off my right arm.

I forgot about them or I didn’t care or I simply didn’t find a pair of red socks after that. Until last Christmas that is, when I told a dear friend the story and she got me a pair of CK red socks as one of the presents in my Christmas stocking.

Every time I wear my pair of red socks, it just takes me back to those days, to the days when my mum would tell me you will grow up and become an engineer (which I didn’t) and the smell of the flowers in the garden, swinging on the big swing with the twins and the picture of the dates trees.

Maybe I would never have gotten those pair of socks if I hadn’t moved to London. Or this story may never been told; I wouldn’t have told the story if I was not madly in love with my socks and fashion just like when I was 5.

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Socks – Calvin Klein; Shoes – Clarks; Pocket Square – Fariba Soltani; Trousers – Zara; Jacket & Shirt – Hackett

Brands

Iraq has been through a lot of war – it has been a war-torn country for over two decades. The Gulf War, 1990 – 1991, is the one I remember vaguely – I was very young. Economic sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council resulted not only in the death of half a million of Iraqi children (I can talk about this in length but this is yet another story), but Iraq also lost its ability to trade with the rest of the world. Anything that needed to be imported required approval from the UN Council. Goods related to the military use were forbidden – including the trousers.

At the time I knew nothing about any of the brands. We had no magazines, no TV channels, nothing that could connect us to the rest of the world. I grew up in a big family, according to the European standards; I have 5 siblings and it was really hard for us as a working class family. During the sanctions my father worked 2 different jobs in order to keep the family going. I remember that depending on the money we have had, we could only afford one jumper, two pairs of trousers and two shirts. One set was for school and the other one for festivities. I am and always have been the type to dress well. I would take care of my clothes and keep them in a good condition, which meant that I could wear them the whole year, along with making the most of all the little pieces of clothing I have had.

I was extremely upset when I used to see all the clothes I couldn’t have. Even when I was very little and as far back as I can remember, I used to choose for myself what I wanted to wear while, my brother, cousins and friends would have their mothers choose for them, as you would when you’re so young. The days we would go shopping were the most joyful for me. Yes, it was tiring but I loved it because I had five siblings that needed new clothes, weren’t into fashion, and I could choose what to get for them. As you can tell, fashion wasn’t something I could pursue back in Iraq, a distant dream that was unattainable

Now, look at me! I’m wearing clothes by COS, Zara and Fariba Sultani. Who would have thought that the young boy from Erbil, Iraq, would live in one of the biggest fashion capitals in the world and wear amazing brands?

I’ve always dreamt about it and dreamt big. Now, I know that nothing is impossible.

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