Being Dia al-Azzawi:  A Lebanese Perspective

Today, Dia al-Azzawi is a renowned figure, celebrated not only for his artistic accomplishments but also for his political engagement and tireless dedication to giving a voice to those who still await justice. A deep love for his Iraqi homeland is palpable in his work, and his life as an exile in London since 1976 is well documented. However, this special issue dedicated to Azzawi’s illustrious career aims to present a different perspective – one that casts a spotlight on Lebanon, a country that played a pivotal role in his artistic journey and continues to inspire him to this day.

From the first visit onwards, Lebanon was more than just a place on the map for Azzawi; it was a revelation, a sanctuary of artistic freedom. Its capital city represented freedom, a stark departure from the socially conservative atmosphere of Baghdad. Azzawi vividly recalls Beirut’s status as a prominent cultural and artistic centre of the time. It was here that he had the opportunity to forge connections with numerous Lebanese artists, fostering a rich tapestry of artistic exchange and collaboration. Moreover, his time in Beirut provided a unique window into the works of other visionary artists from across the Arab world, including Sudanese artist Ibrahim El-Salahi, and the works of Egyptian sculptor Adam Henein. This cultural immersion broadened the artist’s perspective in ways that Azzawi acknowledges would have been inconceivable in the isolation of Baghdad.

In Beirut, there wasn’t only unparalleled artistic freedom, but also an atmosphere in which open press and critics with diverse artistic and cultural backgrounds thrived. This environment not only nurtured his creative spirit but also inspired him to push the boundaries of his creativity. Among those who left an indelible mark on his journey was Waddah Faris, “a true instigator of art in every sense”, who Azzawi believes epitomised the creativity and richness of Lebanon in the vibrant 1970s.

From the cultural apex of the 1960s and 1970s to the civil war that would eventually unfold, Lebanon’s influence on Azzawi did not wane with time; it evolved, continuing to shape his artistry in profound ways. The country’s tragic events, such as the Tel al-Za‘atar massacre of 1976 and the Sabra and Shatila massacre of 1982, served as powerful catalysts, inspiring some of his most iconic and emotionally charged works. These works stand as testaments to Azzawi’s unwavering commitment to portraying suffering and resilience, transcending borders to speak to the universal human experience.

Returning to Lebanon after the end of the civil war, Azzawi encountered a different country from the one he had known. He recalls, “In 1991, when I landed at Beirut airport, I could not believe what I saw: a ruined and dark country. It was a shock that I could not bear. When I remembered the days of old, I was amazed at the destruction caused by its people who were fighting one another under the banner of religious sectarianism despite the openness of their society.”

The trajectory of Lebanon in the ensuing post-war years has echoed that of Azzawi’s homeland of Iraq in many ways. For Azzawi, the parallel is clear. “There is no difference between the two countries today,” he says. “The bad model of Lebanon was brought by those who came on American tanks. Both have had their wealth plundered, and both have become more sectarian, as opposed to national. The politicians are not ashamed of working for neighbouring countries, nor are they embarrassed by the language of revenge or acceptance of outsiders over any loyalty to the Arab nation.”

Through all the years and in various ways, Lebanon has profoundly influenced Azzawi’s art. And in turn, Azzawi has honoured that inspiration with an unwavering dedication to being a beacon of truth, justice, hope, and the enduring power of art.

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