Akad Al Hilween

For Akad Al Hilween, the choice to leave Baghdad was not simple. An artist and a philosopher by nature, Akad speaks of Baghdad as his muse. He describes a maternal relationship between Baghdad and her citizens. “It’s a very old city. She’s like mom, like home. It’s not just a place.” But Iraq was changing. The extremist group, ISIS had taken over the north of Iraq, and Akad sensed a shifting moral code in his beloved city. He no longer trusted in the goodness of his fellow Iraqis. Akad and his wife and son were no longer safe. For two months he agonized about the decision to leave. But when he finally made the difficult call, he didn’t equivocate.

Akad and his family spent two months in Virginia before moving to Maine. All they knew of Maine was its proximity to the ocean, and that there would be some snow. “Snow sticks eight months here. It was nice at first, but after that, it’s too much!” Akad echoes the sentiments of even the most seasoned Mainers after a treacherous winter. While many immigrants move to Maine to connect with a large diaspora, or to access its renowned refugee resources and services, Akad was drawn to MECA: Maine College of Art.

It has been two years, and the pace of life is still a shock. “It’s busier here. Everyone’s always busy. In Iraq, you could spend time in conversation, talking about life and art. Here if you’re having a conversation, you’re always talking about something like DHS.” Although there is a significant Iraqi population in Portland, Akad mostly keeps to himself. “There’s no problem with them,” he clarifies, “but my thoughts are different. I think a lot about art about humanity.” Akad is desperate to share his perspective with the world and create something new. He loves music, and plays a bit of guitar, but he doesn’t have the time to commit to honing the craft. For now, he chooses to focus on his painting.

In Iraq, Akad was an art teacher, with a strong command of language. Now, he says, he has many stories to tell, but he isn’t ready for that yet. He feels barricaded by the language barrier.  “When you say something in English, it is hard to say what you feel, so by art, music, painting, that’s easier for people to understand.” Akad thinks about his past like a book. “I open it just to see something and then put it back in my library.” It’s too painful to think about his past. “In the future, I’ll look at the book, and maybe paint, but not now. It doesn’t matter. I’m safe now.”

For Akad, Baghdad is home. He dreams of someday helping to build a new Iraq, founded on pacifist ideals. When he moved to the United States, the hardest possession to leave behind was his collection of art books. He disbursed them among his friends. He shrugs, uncertain about whether his friends have kept them. He did manage to bring a few books with him, and they travel with him everywhere. He says that the smell of natural earth and fire smoke are his most evocative aromas, but I imagine the scent of these books conjures even more.

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