The burly GI was talking to three Iraqis at the gates of the barracks in the morning sunlight when he suddenly noticed someone creeping around a nearby tank. "Get that guy! Get that guy!" he barked at his colleagues, pointing at Al Braithwaite. "I'd been hiding behind a tank, trying to take a picture of a US Army barracks during one of my early morning jaunts in Baghdad," the 23-year-old British painter and sculptor says. "Suddenly, the GI was shouting and they all thought they were under attack. I dropped everything. You just wince and wait ..." Fortunately for the recent Oxford University geography graduate, the soldiers kept their cool long enough to realise he wasn't a threat.
Braithwaite and his friend, painter Henry Hemming, son of explorer John Hemming and a history graduate of Newcastle University, had decided to tour the Middle East long before the invasion of Iraq and even before the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. Indeed, the fall-out from those attacks only served to strengthen their resolve to experience authentic Islamic culture for themselves.
In early September 2002, the pair left London on their Visions of Islam expedition, hoping to debunk stereotypes of the Middle East. Joining the pair were 27-year-old collage artist Stephen Stapleton, who was with them for four months, and Georgie Weedon, a 23-year-old filmmaker studying at Goldsmith college, who spent several weeks with them in Jordan. They drove through northern and eastern Europe, visiting Muslim communities in Prague, Amsterdam and Sofia, through Turkey, Iran, northern Iraq, Oman, United Arab Emirates, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Syria and Lebanon. They also went to Baghdad and Israel.
"The images and ideas that we linked with this part of the world before our journey seem so far removed from what we saw," says Hemming who, like Braithwaite, has no formal training as an artist. "That ignorance was the reason we decided to spend a year driving, painting, photographing, sculpting, writing and filming our way through the centre of the Islamic world." Their art allowed them to explore and learn about Islamic cultures, establish a dialogue with the communities that they visited and, after the expedition, deliver to a Western audience a fresh, youthful take on Islam and the Middle East.
With God's will
Yasmine, their trusty red pick-up track, doubled as a mobile studio, allowing them to complete artworks on the road. Early in the trip, they painted Masha'Allah--'God has willed it'--in large Arabic script on the front door panels to ensure safe passage. It almost backfired, however. "Leaving it outside a Burger King in Beirut perhaps wasn't such a good idea," says Hemming. "People thought it was a terrorist's car. Within 45 minutes, ten people had called the police. By the time we returned to the truck, soldiers and police had cordoned off the street."
They were also detained by the Turkish military, who thought that they were British spies, and denied entry to Slovakia because they were considered extremists (a Penguin paperback translation of the Qur'an gave them away). They were interrogated for four hours at the Israeli border on suspicion of being suicide bombers, and at various times called tramps, dreamers and idiots.
These weren't views shared by the British Council, which booked galleries and studio space for them and saw them as diplomats helping to restore feelings of goodwill towards the West. The late Sir Wilfred Thesiger, writer and explorer of the Islamic world, had also given his support for their mission. Robin Allen, former Financial Times Middle East correspondent, says, "They did more in a year for the image of Britain in the Middle East than an ambassador might in a lifetime."
The artists' first incursion into Iraq was to the semi-autonomous Kurdish area in the country's northeast, where Saddam's law didn't reach. …