Karen Dabrowska

Exhibition at the Atrium Gallery, London School of Economics

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Ruptured Domesticity: Mapping Spaces of Refuge in Iraq Exhibition tells the stories of trauma and homemaking

“Wars come and go but the trauma stays with us. Time passes, the military goes away, the rubble stays, the people stay and the trauma stays with them.” This comment from Ali Al Baroodi a photo journalist from Mosul summarises the experiences of 15 Iraqis whose loss of their homes, their plight between 2002 – 2020 and their creation of new spaces to live, is the subject of Ruptured Domesticity: Mapping Spaces of Refuge in Iraq.

Dr Sana Murrani
Dr Sana Murrani: “My search for home asks the question what does home mean to you?”

It is a three part project which culminated in an exhibition at the London School of Economics (LSE). Dr Sana Murrani, Associate Professor in Spatial Practice and Architecture at the University of Plymouth, has produced a visual archive exploring how 15 Iraqis from the north to the south of the country responded to war and created domestic and intimate spaces of refuge in preparation for and in response to war and violence.

The pieces displayed in the exhibition were created by Murrani as part of the London-based British Institute for the Study of Iraq-funded fieldwork for her forthcoming book Rupturing architecture: spatial practices of refuge in response to war and violence in Iraq (Bloomsbury, 2024).

Like the book the exhibition is based on the experiences of 15 Iraqis. The story of each individual is told through a map, a biography and a long quote exhibited on the walls of the LSE’s Atrium Gallery. Also on display are photographs selected by each individual which encapsulate their most vivid memories.

Map 5, Traumatizing home, tells the story of Amera Ibrahim a biologist who at the time of her interview with Murrani was working as an associate for the Sinjar Academy a charity supporting the education of Yazidis in Iraq. Amera is originally from the North of Sinjar. Born shortly before 2003 in Sinjar, Amera’s encounter with violence and trauma was at the hands of ISIS in 2014. Her map charts multiple journeys of displacement between camps in the North of Iraq moving from tents to cabins, until a return, against all odds, back to Sinjar.

Amera Ibrahim - Map 5
Amera Ibrahim’s story

Amira says: There was no time to discuss anything, there was chaos. We went along with another five families who were relatives who together decided to get out of Sinjar and head towards the mountain. Adults were in charge as they knew the shortcuts, and routes through the mountain that would be difficult for ISIS to trace, and we, the children, just followed.

When we arrived at the camp Bersivi in Zakho, we were only given tents. After a while, international organisations tried to help us with some equipment (cooking, cleaning, etc). After that people started improvising and improving their tents, so for example, we created gardens to grow trees between tents. We had more tent material and made extra spaces or partitions inside. After two years we moved to Rwanga camp and lived there for three years as it was safer than others. The gardens were the only places that resembled life back in Sinjar before ISIS.

We completed school inside the camp and after that, we went to the university, then we were able to go out and come back to the camp. It was very difficult at the beginning, but after a while we adapted to the new life in the camp. People who lived outside the camp in the Kurdistan Region also adapted with time. The government needs to help rebuild Sinjar, even if this means building a small house for each family. Camps are not safe places for living.

Fires have burnt so many tents and we lost so many people to accidents like these. That is why we decided to leave the camps and return to Sinjar.

Murrani’s project adopts a mixed methods approach combining archival material, textual analysis, storytelling through interviews with Iraqis living in Iraq, exile/diaspora, and those on the borders in camps, and case studies of architectural buildings. The project engages with Iraqis’ constant struggle with trauma, revealing their creativity in shaping new design and spatial practices that could potentially influence post-war and conflict structures of living and refuge.

A digital archive of the 15 maps went live on the eve of the 20th anniversary (20th March 2003) of the 2003 US-led invasion and Murrani is completing a book: Rupturing architecture: spatial practices of refuge in response to war and violence in Iraq. The book is an examination of transient changes to the built environment that could yield new design approaches to spaces of refuge in Iraq: the informal making and re-making of home, domestic, urban and border spaces of refuge from traumatic events during times of war.

At the launch of the exhibition Murrani emphasised that the three-part project is based on the 15 interviews she conducted. “I call the interviewees researchers. It was a truly participatory project. I was able to connect very quickly and easily with the refugees because I had also lost a home. At the outset, I said to them ‘I share a loss of home with you’. As an architect, my interest in the search for a representation of what home means in exile became further profound through this shared loss. And this is why I took on an interest in this search for home that is not about the recreation with bricks and mortar or how many bedrooms you had. It asks the question ‘what does it mean to you?’

“Through one-to-one interviews and creative group workshops, the refugees shared their recollections as well as physical objects such as diaries, items they brought with them and photos of their life. Over time, they created and shared a selection of exhibits, including audio-visual material, digital maps and models.”

Muranni also spoke about her home in Baghdad before she left Iraq in 2003 after the invasion. “Our house was located between the main road to Baghdad Airport on one side, the road to Saddam Hussein’s presidential palace, and the road that took you to the notorious Abu Ghraib prison. We knew it would be a hotspot for missiles and for the first three days, bombs and missiles rained over the area each shaking the ground underneath us. During those three days of no sleep, all I was thinking is ‘how are we going to survive this one?’. I made a mental map, which gave me a way to navigate the violence and trauma, and which has ultimately inspired much of the research I am doing today.”

Ruptured Domesticity: Mapping Spaces of Refuge in Iraq, Atrium Gallery, London School of Economics until May 12, 2023