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1 essay

by Saif Alsaegh

Saif Alsaegh is a US-based filmmaker from Baghdad. Much of Saif’s work deals with the contrast between the landscape of his youth in Baghdad growing up as part of the Chaldean minority in the 90s and early 2000s and the U.S. landscape where he currently lives. His films have screened in many festivals including Cinema du Reel, Kruzfilm Festival Hamburg, Kassel Dokfest, Onion City Film Festival, and in galleries and museums including the Wisconsin Triennial at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. He received his MFA in film from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.


          There is always dust around us, penetrating us. Dust we take refuge in, and sometimes, we blame. With old brooms, we expel it from our homes. At times, we regret its departure during the autumn nights of crispy air, so we open the windows and invite it again. I lived with dust in its various forms my whole life. It was annoying and intense during my childhood in Baghdad where dust storms would cover everything in an orange color. The houses after its heavy downfall looked like old bodies in a crowded hallway in an insane asylum.

          Dust covers everything around it while changing its quality and proportion of being. Dust conceals the features of truth. Objects become different forms—varied and renewed. This is what happened to the yellow Virgin Mary statue in our house in Baghdad. The statue had a black plastic base partially covered with green cloth. As the days passed, dust accumulated. The light of the morning sun made the Virgin look like a 20 year-old American blonde singer closer to Britney Spears. My grandmother Rosa’s veiny hands that were as beautiful as her small seedlings on the window used to touch the statue in the morning to draw the sign of the cross and close her eyes to Britney and say: “Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”

          The dust in Montana is different. It looks like a quiet Tom Waits song or Fairuz music on Valentine's. It’s less intense, comes without being seen. I wouldn’t notice its presence for many months. The dust is rarely noticed on the backlog of books, only halfway read. Dust likes everything laying on the ground, especially books.

          Dust is like rust, always changing the shape of objects. Rust eats away the face of truth. I remember how the edges of the metal window frames in our house in Baghdad changed when rust covered them partially. The edges became of a reddish color, bubbles appeared. Their look became similar to the red bean stew my mother cooked every week. They looked veiny, like the foggy photos broadcast of the lonesome Mars surface.

          I’m not sure why, but rusty metal surfaces remind me of dictators.

          For rust, there was always a simple yet scary solution in our house. Paint was the best remedy. The rust on the window frames was beautiful. The unbroken rusty edges were full of dust as if there was some kind of attraction between the two. They looked like a young couple in love changing the atmosphere of a gloomy cafe into a pleasant one. I didn’t understand the beauty of rust in my youth. I immensely loved painting it with white, but white is a cruel color. For white has no beginning nor borders. The white paint didn’t completely erase the meandering scars engraved by rust. It did, however, wipe the dust that sticks to the edges. White is like a cosmetic surgery obliterating the truth partially and strangely. I still remember the sound of our white garage door in Baghdad and how its rusty edges would break when we hit it with a football. The many impacts made a light sound, like the cracking of wood burning in fireplaces of cabins hiding in the Rocky Mountains. You can barely hear it, but you listen to it carefully.

          As fire has a sound and the wind has a sound, the passage of time also has a sound: the sound of rust.

          I don’t remember rust in Montana.

          Wind has the characteristic of a magician. It has the agility of movement and the manipulation of vision. Wind changes the movement of things and distorts the mood of inanimate and moving objects. The winter wind in Montana is always strong and volatile. The wind manipulates the movements of clouds. Sometimes the sun shines, making the snow appear gleaming and friendly. In the snow, huskies chase each other empty of all worries. I look at the snow as if it was an old, close friend that I’ve known for a long time. Other times, the clouds block the sun. Everything becomes gray and heavy. Even the birds flying quickly look like a silent film scene of lost bomb shrapnel.

          Wind also messes with the properties of sound. During the war in Iraq, the wind was messing with our existence. The wind sometimes brought the sounds of bombs closer, making death appear to be coming with fuming anger like a mother who discovered that her teenage son started smoking cigarettes. In other times, the wind vibrated the sound waves differently, making the bombs sound distant and thus giving us a chance to survive. Then, for a split second, life seemed attainable. As if the war were over and the shops opened their doors again. As if the tanks were parked side by side in their gray camps. The graves were dug and covered. As if my grandmother, Rosa, prayed another time to Britney Spears saying: “Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”

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