Honoring Iraqis in film and television 

BY WEAM NAMOU

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On Sunday, September 10, the Iraqi Canadian Artists Federation (ICAF) gathered with a number of Iraqi American organizations at Ali Baba in Sterling Heights to present the Amanuel Rassam Award to actor, director, and author Abed Alsenad. The award will be given annually to two artists, one in Canada and one in the United States, who worked in television. 

“We decided to commemorate the first anniversary of the departure of Amanuel Rassam by allocating an annual gathering in his name because he is the most notable television director of the history of Iraq,” said Muhammad Jurany, president of ICAF. 

Rassam, who passed away last year, was an advisory member on the board of ICAF, a nonprofit organization established in 2008. He was born on July 7, 1940 in Mosul near the Great Mosque of al-Nuri, famous for its leaning minaret which collapsed recently during the battle of Mosul. His mother died when he was only 8- years-old and his father, Afram, was an English teacher. Both parents were talented in the arts. His mother had a beautiful voice and sang hymns in the church choir. His father played several musical instruments and every summer he directed and acted in church plays, taking his son, Amanuel, for the rehearsals and plays. 

Yet, when Rassam wanted to enter the Academy of Fine Arts, his father refused. He explained that in Iraq, artists would not have any worth for another ten decades. In this refusal, Rassam became more adamant about pursuing this path. In 1958, he entered the Academy of Fine Arts, the Department of Drama. Upon seeing a television for the first time, Rassam fell in love with it. He returned home and wrote a play about his father, who’d loved his mother dearly and had kept her hair locks for decades. He presented this play, The Memory Album, to the television station and acted in it as well. 

After graduating in 1961, Rassam was appointed as a teacher in Mosul, but he refused the job and instead entered the Academy of Fine Arts, the Department of Film. He graduated in 1964 and was summoned to compulsory military as a second lieutenant, spending his service in the Armed Forces Radio. 

Rassam was famous for his three-letter abbreviated name, ANR. He’d used this abbreviation when he once had to substitute for a director. He had initially chosen it to make the matter quick and simple, but the initials created a buzz among audiences, many coming to see who this ANR was. The abbreviation gave his name extra value in the television industry and he enjoyed the responses. The name grew and he wasn’t able to change it after that. 

Discharged from the army in 1967 and given employment in radio and as a TV director, Rassam’s work thrived. He directed tens of songs, dozens of episodes, more than 30 documentaries, 500 television commercials, and he participated in over 20 conferences and festivals. 

He became the president of the Department of TV Drama for more than seven years, worked as a consultant in the Ministry of Information, was appointed as an expert in the Department of Cinema and Theater, and in 1988, was asked to retire due to financial pressure on government production because of the Iraq-Iran War. He therefore established a television station, Ishtar, which continued operation until 2003. 

In 2000, he received the best director award at the festival of Cairo for his episode The World of Miss Wahiba. He never pursued fame, tried to network, or even put much effort preserving his works, something he later regretted. His first and only television interview was in 2012. 

“I feel that the soul of my father was fluttering this evening, blessing this award,” said Aseel Rassam, a radio host at Voice of the Future. Aseel is one of Rassam’s four daughters, all who were born in Baghdad, Iraq but today live in different countries. She’s in Michigan, her sister Abeer lives in the United Kindgom, and Rend and Rana are in Canada along with their mother Suad. 

The Amanuel Rassam Award was given in Canada in August to Emad Bahjat, a former student of Rassam in Iraq. In the United States, it was given to Abed Alsenad, a man who’d worked with Rassam in the past. In 1984, Alsenad received a master of Theater Arts degree from the University of California and the Best Director of Theatrical Award for his play. In 1988, he completed his doctorate in theatrical arts from the University of Colorado — Boulder. He has a long list of publishing credits for articles and books and his play performance won him the Best Actor Award in Baghdad in 1974. 

Mr. Alsenad, currently confined to a wheelchair, was so moved by the “humanitarian gesture” of the award ceremony, he said, “I feel as if I’m standing on my feet.”

Present were his wife, Hinda, his two daughters, Hadeel and Sarah, and his son Saif was not able to attend due to his work obligations. Alsenad had once stated in an interview that the secret to his greatness and his great reward was his closeness to God, adding, “My aspiration is that Iraq and our people live a dignified life that is governed by a system led by responsibility not favoritism.” 

The evening ended with a surprise appearance by a Syrian folklore band, Yasmine Al Sham, sent to the event by a listener and fan of Aseel Rassam.