Paul Batou is an Assyrian American artist who fled Iraq in 1989 after serving in the Iran-Iraq War as a medic. Today, he is both a painter and a poet who takes inspiration from the stories of immigrants, and Iraqis in particular, that he has known throughout the years.
Iraqi Christian Relief Council spoke with Batou about his Assyrian identity, his journey to America, and how he feels the world can heal through expression as part of ICRC’s Art Through Assyrian Eyes artist series. Batou’s art can be found at paulbatou.com.
ICRC: How would you describe your artistic aesthetic?
Paul Batou: Art has changed for me throughout the years. When I was a child I moved from our village [Tin in Dohuk province] to Baghdad. We were forced to leave a peaceful place for the chaos of the city. My family fled to Baghdad to escape an ethnic cleansing perpetrated by the Kurds who had burned down our homes [in the village of Tin] in hopes of clearing the land for their own use.
I believe my first art pieces was about escaping to this lost beauty of our village. We had lived on a farm in northern Iraq, and then we were forced to move to congested and dirty Baghdad. Art was a way to feel that lost beauty from my childhood. But now, art has become something different for me; it’s a venue to describe my thoughts and feelings through colors. Now my art is also a message to the world about Assyrian culture that continues to suffer genocide after genocide.
ICRC: What inspires your poems?
Paul Batou: I collect so many thoughts from Iraqis that ultimately inspire my poems, and I can say that casual conversations are what inspire me most. When I hear Iraqis say something, I write down that thought and I later construct a poem out of it. For example, on the morning of 9/11, my mom called me and said there was a plane crash. We watched television together and realized that terrorists had hit the Twin Towers with planes. We didn’t know where to run to at that point because we had escaped Iraq, and now it felt like terrorists had chased us to America. The idea that you cannot escape terror in this world inspired my poem, Baghdad to New York.
ICRC: When did you first decide to become an artist?
Paul Batou: Going to art school meant being very close to Saddam Hussein’s party [the Baath party], so I decided not to go because I would never supported the Baath party. This later impacted my life when I was sent back to the front line to serve in the Iran-Iraq War because I was not a Baathist.
I had a few choices for university based on my high school testing scores: I could go to Basra further south, or go to Mosul to become a dentist, or stay in Baghdad and go to pharmacy school. So I chose Baghdad and within two days of starting pharmacy school, I realized that my university had an art school, so the teacher welcomed me to join, and I went every day. I became a faithful member — skipping my own classes to go learn art. This led to my first art show in Baghdad, and eventually I was able to produce art in the US, as well.
ICRC: How did the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) impact your life?
Paul Batou: I escaped to Italy in the beginning of the Iran-Iraq War thinking that the war would last just one or two years, but in the end it lasted eight years. Unfortunately, I was drafted into the Iraqi Army where I spent five years on the front line. It was one of the darkest experiences in my life.
In the Army, I started reading the Bible every night looking for answers about this war. I saw so many dead soldiers, wounded bodies, and daily atrocities, so I started to look for answers from God on why this was happening. I was a medic stationed on the front line, so all the wounded would come to me before transport to hospitals in other cities. I gained so much experience in that war from the wounded soldiers who would whisper things to you while they lay on stretchers. Many of my poems were constructed from these wounded Iraqi soldiers’ thoughts, ideas, or their reactions to what had happened to them.
ICRC: In 1989, you fled Iraq with your family and moved to Los Angeles. How did this move impact your art?
Paul Batou: I was released from the Army in 1988 and in 1989 I left Iraq. The move improved my style as an artist because I had more freedom in America. Freedom makes a difference in how you can expose yourself to new ideas and express yourself. In the beginning of my new life in America, I didn’t create any art because I was looking for a job. I was only doing drawing on paper I could find, and then selling it for $25. I didn’t have the means to buy canvas or do larger projects. It wasn’t until 1994, when I was more settled and employed that I could really focus on my art again.
In 2003, I did my first art show titled, “From LA to Baghdad.” I put some pieces up about American history, which is connected to the story of Assyrians. Like the Native Americans, we are also indigenous people who have seen genocide after genocide from invaders until the point that we have almost disappeared. It was a very successful art show, and it inspired me to produce more art to share with the public in America.
6. Let’s discuss one of your poems. In “Identity” in your book, “My Last Thoughts About Iraq” you write:
“I am not Assyrian nor Chaldean or Akkadian.
I am not a Christian nor Muslim or Buddhist.
I am a human.
I was born in Mesopotamia, Uruk, Nippur, Shuruppak, and Sippar.
I was born in Babylon, home of Anu and Ishtar.
I am a son of Enlil, Shamash, and Gilgamesh.
I am a son of Ishtar, Ea, and Ninsun.
I was killed once by a flood,
And a million times by a creature,
Called a country.
I was killed by a nation,
Or United Nations.”
What does this poem mean to you to start?
Paul Batou: To start, not only the Christians are suffering today in Iraq, or even in the larger Middle East. Everyone suffers now. Sometimes you can be a Christian, but other times you have to be a human. Christians make up a small number of the Middle East’s population, but we have been targeted by not only the government but the people themselves. I think this is essentially the difference between Christians and the larger populations of the Middle East who suffer under oppressive regimes. This is the essential difference between us and the Muslims. So, I’m not forgetting my Assyrian identity, but urging Muslims in the Middle East to see minorities as human beings. Sometimes revenge for the pain you have experienced will get you nowhere. This poem is about changing the hearts and minds of Muslims to love not only themselves, but all of mankind.
ICRC: How do you represent Assyrian culture in your art?
Paul Batou: I feel I am always inspired by our ancient Assyrian heritage, culture, and of course our genocides. As an artist, you can see that art is a universal language. The only thing I am doing is exposing my culture to an audience, and hoping that people outside the Assyrian community learn from our history.
ICRC: How can Iraq’s Assyrians build a strong future in their native land?
Paul Batou: Unfortunately, we are in need of strong leaders. I wish someone like Gandhi or Nelson Mandela emerged in our land to help people come to the reality of healing and rebuilding. But so far, there have been no great leaders coming out of Iraq. For Assyrians, we truly need a leader to unite all the Christians in the Middle East — we are not one voice. I hope a leader will emerge soon to fill this void.
Read ICRC’s last Art Through Assyrian Eyes blog on Rabel Betshmuel, a multi-medium Assyrian American artist living in Chicago.