1001 Nights in Fairfield, refugee tales from the choir

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Jennine Khalik Journalist Sydney
Zanny Begg with, from left, Ansam Toon, 22, Salvina Al Hadad, 20, and Yousif Yousif, 20. ‘It was three days, but it felt like three years,’ says Yousif of his kidnap and torture. Picture: Jane Dempster
It was 2003, the year that the US invaded Iraq, when eight-year-old Yousif Yousif was kidnapped by men whose names he never knew. He was taken while walking home from school in Baghdad and tortured for three days.

Now 20, Yousif calls Australia home. He is a Chaldean Syriac refugee, a survivor who finds solace through hymns and music with an Iraqi Christian choir in Fairfield in southwestern Sydney.

“It was three days, but it felt like three years,” Yousif says. He doesn’t know his torturers. He didn’t ask. He describes some of his harrowing ­experiences in a work by Sydney filmmaker Zanny Begg, 1001 Nights in Fairfield, rec­ently shortlisted for the $35,000 Blake Prize for religious art.

Through documentary, imagined sequences and improvised fiction, it ­explores the power and the pressure of telling a story to survive, says Begg.

The essence of the Arabic classic One Thousand and One Nights is how one woman, Scheherazade, entertained a murderous king by telling him stories nightly to avoid being executed come morning.

“It’s amazingly empowering, but it’s also a pressure — it’s kind of the same position we put refugees in. You have to tell a story as a refugee; they are made to tell ­stories all the time,” Begg says.

Similar stories of abduction and extortion are told by refugees from the Choir of Love in 1001 Nights in Fairfield. The suburb is home to many of Iraq’s Christian minority refugees.

Iraq’s turmoil is often portrayed as a war between Islam and the West, but it goes beyond that, Begg says. Cultural diversity in Iraq is under threat, including that of the Assyrian, Chaldean, Syriac, Armenian and Mandean minorities. “It’s very traumatic and very relevant to today; a lot of them were kidnapped by Islamic State, their families were extorted for money,” she says.

The film intertwines the musical tradition of Arabic maqam to relay stories of love, war and exile. Christian, Muslim and Jewish com­munities in Iraq historically embraced maqam. “They had a dialogue through music, not one of hostility, but shared stories and shared spaces produced in the coffee houses,” Begg says.

Choir of Love founder Bashar Hanna, a former refugee, says more recent arrivals from Iraq and Syria have been joining the group, established in 2004 to help the cultural survival of new arrivals from Iraq. The choir works with the NSW Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors.

Yousif suffered from depression and anxiety when he arrived in 2011, but with the choir he has found joy. “I feel the happiness, I feel the love with them. I feel like who I am.”