Waheda al-Mikdadi introduces Khalid Kishtainy
At an event held in his honour at the Iraqi Cultural Centre in Shepherd's Bush, West London on the evening of 8 June, the Iraqi journalist, satirist, writer and painter Khalid Kishtainy spoke with candour and humour about his eventful and creative life. The event also marked the launch of his new book, an autobiography entitled Time in Iraq and England (Dar Al Hikma, London).
The evening was introduced by journalist Waheda al-Mikdadi, who paid fulsome tribute to Kishtainy's many achievements and contributions. Kishtainy thanked Waheda for her kind words and flattering phrases, which reminded him of "the Archbishop of Canterbury, when he was in a similar situation giving a lecture, and the chairman showered him with praise... the Archbishop came to the platform, paused for a while and said 'excuse me, I'm sorry but I have to make two prayers: one to ask the Almighty to forgive the chairman for all these flattering words, the other to pray to the Almighty to forgive me for having enjoyed all this flattery!'" Kishtainy continued: "In addition to these two prayers I make another one: that you will say these same things behind my back!"
'swerving between the worlds of word and paint'
Kishtainy was born in Karkh, Baghdad, on 10 October 1929. His father, Shakir Mahmud Kishtainy, was a teacher. A 12-page booklet on Khalid's life and works issued on the occasion of the evening begins: "With so many interests and talents, Khalid Kishtainy spent most of his life swerving between the world of the word and the world of paint. At the age of 18, he was busy writing poetry, like most educated young Arabs, and thought of improving his power of poetic description by studying painting, which prompted him to join the art department of the Fine Arts Institute in Baghdad." There he was coached by Faiq Hassan, a grand master of Iraqi art.
After spending five years at the Fine Arts Institute Khalid won a scholarship to study painting in London, where he was enrolled at Camberwell College of Arts, Chelsea College of Art and Design and the Central School of Art and Design. This period "influenced his entire life and opened his mind to Western thought." On returning to Baghdad, Kishtainy taught painting and theatre design at the Fine Arts Institute.
The evening honouring Kishtainy included the official opening in the Iraqi Cultural Centre's gallery of an exhibition of paintings by him and by his daughter Jasmine Jones-Kishtainy. Jasmine was born during Khalid's first marriage: the booklet on Kishtainy tells of how "in some very unhappy circumstances, Khalid Kishtainy was separated from his only daughter, Jasmine, almost fifty years ago."
After a long and painful search he managed to trace her and re-established contact. To his surprise he found that she too had pursued a career in art, and had like him studied at the Central School of Art.
Kishtainy's writing career began when he started writing for the Lebanese magazine Al-Adab during his time in England. He has written some 34 books in Arabic and English, and has a widely-read and highly-appreciated columnist in the London-based newspaper Ash-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper. He recently started to write a well-received satirical column for the London-based Middle East monthly magazine, and contributes to various other publications.
A selection of Kishtainy's books in Arabic and English was displayed on the glass table in front of him at the Iraqi Cultural Centre. One of his books, Arab Political Humour (Quartet Books 1985), was a particular favourite of the late renowned scholar of International Relations and of the Middle East Professor Fred Halliday, who regularly commended it to audiences.
Kishtainy's other books in English include The New Statesman and the Middle East (Palestine Essays) published in 1972 by the Palestine Research Centre in Beirut; The Prostitute in Progressive Literature (Allison and Busby 1983); Tales from Old Baghdad: Grandma and I (Quartet 1997); Tomorrow is Another Day: A Tale of Getting By in Baghdad (Elliott and Thompson Limited 2003); By the Rivers of Babylon (Quartet, 2008), and Arabian Tales: Baghdad on Thames (Quartet 2012).
The Kishtainys are a highly talented family. The evening at the Iraqi Cultural Centre included guitar performances by one of Khalid's two sons, Adam, who is an accomplished musician and a music therapist. Introducing Adam, Khalid said there was nothing more fitting for a beginning to the evening than "the mistress of all the arts, music". Adam gave a beautiful performance of Isaac Albeniz's famous composition Asturias.
"You may wonder why I brought him here," Khalid said, joking that Adam's music therapy might be needed in case the audience were shocked when they read his latest book Time in Iraq and England.
Sitting in the audience was Britain's former ambassador to Iraq (in 1985-89) Sir Terence Clark. Khalid recounted how on a recent trip to Baghdad he and Sir Terence had been stuck in Al-Rashid hotel in the Green Zone with little to do. He had noticed Sir Terence looking bored, and so gave him a copy of his new book, suggesting he read a few pages to pass the time. "The following day he came to me and said 'I spent the whole night reading this book and I tell you, it is a shocker!'" Kishtainy said readers might get a series of shocks from Time in Iraq and England, and "if you're not satisfied with that you can go to my short stories and you will have even more shocks. One of you may even faint and collapse, or get a nervous breakdown - and here is the music therapist to revive you."
Adam Kishtainy prepares to "therapise" the audience
Introducing the second piece he performed Adam explained that music therapy - in which he did an MA, after a first degree in physics - is very diverse, and that you can listen to music in a wide variety of ways. His second piece was an improvisation, as used in the type of therapy sometimes known as receptive music therapy in which the therapist actually performs the music. "So you are about to be therapised if that's OK - don't listen too closely - just let your mind wander and see if it takes you somewhere. I don't know where this will go, but it's made up just for you tonight. " He embarked on a delightful meditative improvisation that suggested Moorish influences.
The artist Emad Altaay (standing) at the unveiling of his portrait of Khalid Kishtainy
Emad Altaay. Altaay specialises in equestrian painting: "He came to one of my lectures and as he listened to me he said 'oh this man must be a horse' and he decided to paint me as a horse." The portrait is in fact an excellent likeness of Kishtainy.
In a wide-ranging, often amusing, account of his life and experiences Khalid revealed how his wife Margaret, whom he married in 1972, had encouraged him to write about his family and Iraq, and about his coming to England.
Looking back over his life Kishtainy said: "My real trouble is backing the wrong horse or, putting it plainly, espousing unpopular causes". In his latest book he recalls how as a child he saw peasants and their families and children pushing at each other while competing to get morsels of food his family had left behind after a picnic. That incident influenced him deeply: "Poverty and the poor and the eradication of poverty became the theme of all my life - and it was a very unpopular theme which landed me in so many unpalatable situations."
In his young days Kishtainy became a communist, but he found the communists did not solve the problems of the poor. "I started writing against them, and turned the communists against me too. Being a communist in a Muslim country is bad enough but to have the communists against you as well...." Another of his concerns was corruption and ways of tackling it. "I came to discover the only period Iraq was free from corruption was when Iraq was under the British mandate. Really the people who were more considerate to the poor and trying to help them were the British and not the Iraqi nationalist leaders who took over." Some time after this "I went even further and wrote that the leaders of the sacred cow in the Arab world - the national liberation movement - are no more than a bunch of thieves."
Following this he began to address the question of Arabs and Jews and spent years studying the problem of Palestine and the Arab-Israeli conflict, partly "as a result of my contact with Palestinians who were working with me in the BBC." He wrote a dozen books on this subject, the last of which was the novel By the Rivers of Babylon. He and his publisher, Quartet, had high hopes for the book and "waited to see a great stampede for it, at least in Israel where we have a very big community of Israelis of Iraqi origin - but that hope did not materialise. The Arabs didn't like the book because it portrays a Jew as a noble man who risks his life to save a Muslim woman. The Jews, or most of the Jews, didn't like it either because there's a Palestinian who suddenly appears on the scene and says to an Israeli Jew 'this house you live in was the house in which I was born and spent my childhood'. Most of the Jews didn't like the mention of a Palestinian at all. As a result the book was boycotted in Israel as well."
Sir Terence Clark about to open the exhibition of paintings by Khalid and his daughter Jasmine
After Kishtainy's talk Sir Terence Clark cut the red ribbon to open the exhibition of paintings by Khalid and his daughter Jasmine. Khalid said that he still paints "with an impressionist's brush, and in a realistic fashion. Realism and impressionsm I adhere to - and they are out of fashion. I describe the bulk of modern art as humbug; all this stuff of Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst is humbug and I wouldn't follow their track. This is another cause in which I lost, I am old fashioned and behind the times." His daughter happened to follow the same school of realism as he did, although in her case it is photographic realism. After graduating from the Central School of Art she did a Masters in History of Art at Nottingham and a further course at the Hochschule DerKünste, Berlin.
Khalid said visitors to the exhibition would notice that some of the people in his paintings are wearing masks. "This was a stage in my career when I tried to express the theory of Dr Al Wardi who wrote a book about the duality or duplicity of the Iraqi character. There is always a dual personality for the Iraqi, and its not only Iraqi - in this country it's just the same."
pictures at an exhibition
above and below, paintings by Jasmine Jones-Kishtainy