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PHOTO CREDIT: Above photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, California.

Heritage and Innovation:
An Interview with Mohanned Hawaz


by Amani Jabril




Table of Contents



Introduction by Amani Jabril

Editor's Note: Throughout this article, numbers in parentheses reference footnotes which appear at the bottom of this article. The footnotes contain citations for sources and often explanatory background information.

In the article " Roundtable: Perspectives on Researching Iraq Today", Mona Damluji, Assistant Professor of Film & Media Studies and a Peabody and Emmy Award-nominated producer of the short documentary series The Secret Life of Muslims, opens the discussion by briefly recapping events following the 2003 U.S. Invasion of Iraq, which led to the destruction of national archives, artifacts and historic sites. Damluji states that, "The loss of these historical sources, as well as the devastating toll of decades of dictatorship, sanctions, occupation, and war, has influenced critical studies of Iraq."(1) Of course, these losses Damluji speaks of also include the loss of human life. We must not forget that human beings are repositories of information, histories, skills, and knowledges. When a person dies, their knowledge and experience die with them. The destruction of an archive or works of art in one country are a loss to all Human cultures, but so too is the loss of human life.

Outside of Iraq, the world watched on. Increasingly since 1991 and the First Gulf War, there has grown a greater awareness and interest about the country of Iraq, its histories, peoples, and cultures. Still, our socio-cultural understanding of Iraq, particularly with regard to the arts is severely lacking. There is still much to be done in the way of recovering and documenting Iraqi arts. In the fields of the arts and humanities, we can see strong examples of how the arts do more than simply express the culture, history, and beliefs of a people. The work of practitioners and scholars in the fields of cultural geography, art history, public art, art therapy, art activism, to broadly include the various and different fields of art themselves, have demonstrated how art work and the work of artists have had the power to influence ideas and effect change. (2)

ABOUT THE PHOTO: Mohanned Hawaz and Hannah Abdullah shown in Moscow, Russia with a troupe from Belarus. Click on this and any other photo in this article to see more detail.

It is the work of artists that I am especially interested in. My own dance career as it has intertwined itself with my academic research has taken me all over the Middle East, where I eventually came to focus my work on Kurdish art and artists in Iraqi Kurdistan at the intersection of the arts and activism. It is from this understanding that I reached out to Iraqi dance-artist Mohanned Hawaz in order to gain a greater understanding about the dances of Iraq. Mohanned has gained great acclaim on the international dance scene for his dynamic teaching style and authentic performances. Granted honors from the Algerian, Jordanian and Egyptian ministries of culture and recognized for his accomplishments by the Swedish and Chinese governments, Mohanned has achieved much for being a relatively young man.

Mohanned Hawaz was born in the city of Mosul, northern Iraq, and began performing in local festivals at age seven. (3) By the time he was fifteen, he was admitted into the city of Mosul's Iraqi Artists Union of Nineveh. It was there that he began his formal instruction in dance, stage make-up and costuming with Ahmed Al-Jumali, Yesin Taha Yaseen and Ghazzi Feisel. Within a few short years he was transferred to the Iraqi National Troupe of Folkloric Arts and trained with troupe founders Hannah Abdullah, Fouad Thanoon and Adel Al-Aabi. Mohanned spent six months travelling across Iraq for his field training in Iraqi folkloric dances and customs as part of his qualifying studies to become a professional dancer. In 2006, Mohanned left to go to Cairo, Egypt to study with renowned Modern/Contemporary dance choreographer, Waleed Awni. After leaving Cairo, Mohanned moved permanently to Sweden, where he has lived for the last fourteen years. He continued his dance training there at the Loftadalens Folkhogskola in Ballet, Jazz, Modern/Contemporary dance and anatomy. Later in 2010, he founded his own dance troupe, Enkidu. (4) Enkidu was the first dance company to bring Iraqi dance to the national stage in Sweden. Mohanned and Enkidu have had the opportunity to travel the world presenting Iraqi dance in thirty different countries and have won numerous awards along the way.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: Mohanned Hawaz performs as part of the Loftadalens Folkhogskola, Halland, Sweden. Click on this and any other photo in this article to see more detail.

This series of interviews is intended as a deep dive into the realms of the Iraqi dance arts through the career of this exceptional artist. I sat down with Mohanned through a video chat to discuss his career and the state of the Iraqi dance arts. In this first interview, we focus on getting to know Mohanned and the beginnings of his dance career. We will trace his path from child-performer to the Iraqi National troupe of Folkloric Arts and his journey from Iraq to Sweden where he formed his troupe Enkidu. I begin this series in this way because it is important to remember that art is not created in a void, and an artist cannot be separated from their historical moment in time. It must also be said that we cannot separate the art from the artist as one might pluck a tempting peach from its tree – there are consequences when we do this. In subsequent interviews, we will talk more with Mohanned about regional music and dances traditions throughout Iraq, performing as part of the Iraqi National troupe of Folkloric Arts, to include questions sent in from our readers!

Projects like these are labors of love from the hands of many people who care deeply about our communities, our artists and our arts as human contributions to unique yet shared human cultures and societies. In this spirit, I would like to thank Sara Al-Hadithi and Meriwan Abdullah for their time and patience in translating pieces of this interview. This interview was conducted in a mixture of Arabic and English with many requests on my part to Mohanned to, "Please just type it in Arabic", so that I could read it and interpret accordingly. As such, the transliteration of Arabic names, places and other words herein, more importantly, any mistakes that maybe, are entirely my own. I would also like to extend a special thank you to Shira for giving us the opportunity to present these interviews here. Shira's reputation for championing the preservation, documentation and dissemination of high-quality, primary source information about Middle Eastern dance and music is well-known in the international Middle Eastern dance community. This is why is the precise forum for this conversation.

Let's begin!

ABOUT THE PHOTO: Mohanned works with a Kurdish dance troupe, Baghdad, Iraq. Click on this and any other photo in this article to see more detail.



Performing at an Early Age with a School Group

Amani Mohanned, welcome and thank you for agreeing to talk with me today!
Mohanned Hello!
Amani If we may, I'd like to begin by getting to know a little more about you? We know from your artist's biography that you are originally from Mosul, Iraq and that you began performing at an early age.
Mohanned Yes, I started performing around age seven.
Amani Could you tell us a little more about that?
Mohanned Yes, I began performing with a group in my primary school. Teachers would come from the Nashat Al Madrasi and they would teach us dances from our region. (5) As a group, we would perform at festivals on holidays.

That could mean a lot of dancing! There are many holidays in Iraq like national holidays, religious holidays and even holidays that are specific to one city or region! Often these holidays have big public celebrations with music and dancing!



Family Support and Performing with the
Iraqi Artists Union of Nineveh in Mosul

Mohanned Hawaz performs with the Iraqi Artists' Union, Mosul, Iraq.

ABOUT THIS PHOTO: Mohanned Hawaz performs with the Iraqi Artists' Union, Mosul, Iraq. Click on this and any other photo in this article to see more detail.

Amani Your bio also talks about working with an "Artists' Union", do you mean the Iraqi Artists Union of Nineveh in Mosul? Can you explain to our readers what it means to be part of an artists' union?

Yes, the artists unions in Iraq bring professionals together, but also, they have apprentices. Sometimes they can be political. As a child I worked with them but not as a professional! At that time, Ghazzi Feisel was the Director of the Union. Now, he is the Director of Mosul TV.

So, I went to the Artist's Union everyday with my teacher Ahmed Al Jumali to learn. See, the National Troupe would send a dancer to train those in the Union and the Union would sometimes join in performances by the National Troupe, like for the annual Babylon Festival. (6)

Amani Here you mean the Iraqi National Troupe of Folkloric Arts?
Mohanned Yes!

There's so little quality information out there about this troupe that is outside of Iraq. Just briefly, and for our readers who might not know about the troupe, the Iraqi National Troupe of Folkloric Arts was established in 1971 with the goal of preserving the folklore and popular arts of Iraq and to represent Iraqi art and culture to the world. We will talk more about the National Troupe a bit later in this interview.

Back to your family, to have begun performing so young, you must have had family support?

Mohanned Yes, I am very grateful for my mother and her side of the family. My mother's side was very supportive of my dancing, especially my grandmother. I grew up with my grandmother. She was illiterate, she could not read or write, but she was a very smart woman! She taught me a lot!
Amani Like what? What did she teach you?
Mohanned She taught me everything about Mosul! Like the traditional dress and the customs. The colors and symbolism behind the ladies' scarves and their [facial] tattoos. Everything!
Amani I understand that Mosul is a diverse place with many different ethnic and religious groups, many different languages?
Mohanned Yes, it is! My grandmother, she spoke Arabic, but she also spoke Kurdish, Turkmeni and Shebeki. But my grandmother, she was the most supportive of my dancing. She came from a working-class family and in that community everybody knows everybody!
Amani Do you mean that people would gossip?
Mohanned Yes! Because some people there who are very conservative look at artists badly. It is very hard especially in Mosul. Baghdad is more open. No, Mosul is very traditional. When they see me that I am performing in the theatre or when they see me performing on TV, some people really like it, but some people don't approve and look at me in a bad way. Some even keep it hidden that they don't approve, they smile at me in public but still they talk badly about me.
Amani How would your grandmother deal with that sort of gossip?
Mohanned Well, people in my area know my family because my grandmother is well known and they love and respect her. She is known for always helping the people. Of course, she would be very angry and she would answer back immediately. You see, my grandmother has one face. If she likes you, she likes you. If she doesn't, she won't speak to you. My teacher Hannah is also very straight like this as well.
Amani I don't think that many American dancers understand the way that you are tied to your family, your community and your teachers in such a way that whatever you do, particularly the things that end up in public, like live performances, photos, videos, and the negative things people might say about you get back to your family, your community and your teachers — they are all directly impacted by what happens to you.

Yes, it is true! But, you know, back in Mosul, the people who would talk badly about me, my grandmother would shout at them! "You should be ashamed!!!', she would say, "He is folklore!!"

Yes! When I was younger, back home, I was very open. My grandmother gave me my freedom. Still, sometimes I get sad because my family has had problems because of my dancing. But my grandmother and mother never told me to stop dancing! They encouraged me! I think about this many times in life and still now. But you see, dance for me is blood. I dance when I'm sad when I'm happy. Dance, it's my life…it's in my blood.

Amani And clearly your mother and grandmother understood that about you! Our readers can't see or hear our conversation right now, but I think it is worth nothing that your voice has changed as you have told me this story and it is full of emotion right now. It is clear that you and your family together have had to struggle and fight to continue your dance career.
Mohanned Exactly!

Thank you for sharing this with me.

Going back a little bit…You were admitted into Mosul's Iraqi Artists Union of Nineveh at the age of 15!? What are some of your happiest memories working with the Union?

Mohanned Mosul is a big city with a long and ancient history. When I was training with Ahmed Al Jumali and the company in Mosul it was not happy, exactly, it was very hard and very challenging. It was a military type training that was very strenuous. I did not realize how much training would be involved, particularly in Mosul because of how diverse Mosul is. It is multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-cultural. There are so many different cultural traditions to learn and it was a lot of hard work to learn all of these things.
Amani So, there are no happy memories of that time?
Mohanned Well, it is because of this that I finally got to meet Hannah Abdullah. It was my dream to dance with her! When I was a child, I would watch her and the National Troupe perform!
Amani Of course, you are talking about Hannah Abdullah, one of the most important founders of the Iraqi National Troupe of Folkloric Arts. That must have been exciting!?
Mohanned Yes!
Amani In your artist's biography, you mention having had the opportunity to work with Ahmed Al-Jumali and Yesin Taha Yaseen, in the Artists' Union and in the National Troupe with Hannah Abdullah, Fouad Thanoon and Adel Al-Aabi.
Mohanned Yes! You know, I speak about them a lot because my teachers gave me everything!!! I always mention their names because it is so important that people know the history and that they are remembered for their contributions.

Yes, you are so right about that! This is how people and our important stories are kept safe – through memory! It is especially important with subjects like the arts that often do not make it into the history books. We must name the people and tell those stories.

This is also a good moment to be clear with our readers that before this article was published, we reached out to your teachers for their consent to use their name and their images to appear here. But, back to your performance… wasn't it exciting to get to perform with them?


The first time I had to perform [with the Union] I was thirteen and we had to perform after Hannah and the National Troupe. I was too nervous! I ran away!! But I had memorized all of the choreographies of the National Troupe!!!! Every dance step, every entrance every exit…

Amani So, not only have you been training your entire life, it sounds like to be a dancer at this high-level was a dream of yours since you were a child?

Yes! This is a happy memory and I worked with many important and influential artists during this time. I did this first performance at the Babylon Festival as part of the Union's dance troupe, representing Mosul. Our show was called "Leylat Mosulia" (7) and Rakan Al Alaf created this performance to show the many different group of people in my city.

So many countries came to the Babylon Festival! Every day we met with different companies and were training with different companies. The festival took two weeks! Of course, it was the responsibility of the National Troupe to represent Iraq.

Amani I like that you said it in this way…that is was the National Troupe's responsibility to represent Iraq. As I have gotten to know more about you and your career, I have come to understand that you view representing Iraqi dance and culture as a responsibility. About how old were you for this performance?
Mohanned I was fifteen! That was the performance that pushed me to decide to become a professional dancer.



Performing with the
Iraqi National Troupe of Folkloric Arts

ABOUT THE PHOTO: One of Mohanned Hawaz' teachers, Hannah Abdullah, performs a Bedouin tableau with the Iraqi National Troupe of Folkloric Arts. Click on this and any other photo in this article to see more detail.

Amani Can you tell us a little more about how you became part of the National Troupe?
Mohanned Iraqi actress Amel Taha saw me dance and told me that I needed to audition. It was Amel who contacted Fouad Thanoon [with the National Troupe] to make the audition for me. When I went to Baghdad to do the audition for the National Troupe, I was too scared to perform in front of them! I was auditioned by Fouad and Hannah, which is special because they don't always sit in on the auditions!
Amani Wow!!! I think I would have been ridiculously nervous!
Mohanned See, the troupe is looking for certain things and they tested my musicality, my ability to learn choreography, my physical ability as dancer… was I trainable? They also asked me to do a demonstration of dances from my area, Mosul. I said I could do Mosul and National!
Amani What did they say to that?!
Mohanned I think they thought, "He's a child"! I did a couple of moves and Hannah stopped me. She said "ok" and that the troupe would accept me on certain terms. Hannah spent a lot of personal time with me on the academic study that was part of our training because she saw something special in me. We had to study history and also had to travel to do field training in Iraqi folkloric dances and to observe the traditions. For dance training, we had two types of training, ballet and folklore exercises.
Amani The things you are describing remind me a great deal of the stories Mahmoud Reda tells about how the Reda Troupe was formed and how it was trained! Reda is known for utilizing a curriculum that had ballet and folklore. I'm sure that you are also aware that there is a hot debate in some circles of our dance world about the importance and use of ballet in Middle Eastern dances.
Mohanned Why ballet? Ballet is used for stage technique and stage performance and it helps us to understand the difference between informal and performance dance. We don't need movement; we already have rich movement in our folklore. But we cannot take the original folklore on the stage as it is. It must change for the stage to make it a performance. You can take pieces of the ballet tradition, like the tradition of creating choreography, and utilize choreography to show off the dance and to highlight the theatrical aspect of it.
Amani You know? I have heard Mahmoud Reda describe the use of ballet, to present the dances for a stage setting, in a very similar way!

Well, before the National Troupe there was the Al Rasheed troupe that began around 1963 as a folkloric troupe. The Al Rasheed Troupe was created by Haqi Al Shibli. Haqi Al Shibli studied acting and directing in the 1930s in Egypt and at the Sorbonne in France. (8)

The dancers in the Al Rasheed troupe were Hassan Saadoun, Nahida Ali, Salman Mohammed and Rita John. You might remember Rita John because she created the dances for the actress Melaeen and so many people know these dances through her films. My teacher, Hannah Abdullah, was a member of this first group as well and Hassan Saadoun is very well-known for the choreographies he has created for the National Troupe. He is amazing! Hassan is both a choreographer and dancer and he is very good to be able to do both men and women styles. He can be very feminine, but he can also be very manly.
Amani There are so many important details for the men's style and women's style that are so critical. It really is impressive and unusual for a male choreographer in this area to be able to do both styles well! This is really interesting!

It was in 1971 that the Ministry of Culture [of the Iraq government] became involved and the from this came the government troupe. Also, at this time, there was cultural exchange between Iraq and Russia. (9)

Through that exchange, they brought Qamar Khanum. She was a ballerina from Azerbaijan. She taught Hannah and together they created the National Troupe. They brought teachers for music, art, history to teach the dancers and worked with them to create an international company. There were many foreign and Iraqi experts who were brought to create the National Troupe. You couldn't just dance you must also be an actor, you must also understand the traditions, and know the history. You must deeply understand the music. So, Hannah and Qamar Khanum went around the country to collect and research the dances, the traditions and the customs. Did you know that there were 3,000 people at the first auditions held for the troupe?! For me, this shows that in Iraq in the early 1970 is very open place. Very different than now.

Amani You know, this reminds me so much the history of the Reda Troupe in Egypt!

But you know, the first performance for the National Troupe, it wasn't folklore. It was a Romeo and Juliet type of story called "Antar Wa Abla"! (10)

The Iraqi Symphony played for the dance company. Hannah and Qamar Khanum, together with the dancers were working from eight in the morning to four in the afternoon every day to develop the different dance styles for the stage. For example, she looked to the Kawleeya people and took their steps, dance, poetry and rhythms to make the "Al Hacha" choreography – the one you know with the daggers.

Amani That's really interesting as well. I wonder how many of the dances that we know, I mean those of us who love Iraqi dance, are original to the National Troupe or inspired by their work? It is starting to seem like all roads lead back to the National Troupe at some point!



Death Threats

ABOUT THE PHOTO: Mohanned Hawaz performs a contemporary piece. Click on this and any other photo in this article to see more detail.

Amani Let me shift the conversation just a bit now. I see that in 2006 you went to Cairo to study Modern/Contemporary dance. Why was this important to you? Can you tell us more about your experiences?

Well, I didn't have a plan to go to Cairo. Around 2004 and 2005 things became bad with the Shia - Sunni split in Iraq. Around that time, I moved from Baghdad back to Mosul around, but still I had to travel back and forth every month to work.

In 2004, I started to work with Yesin Taha Yaseen. He is a film director and actor, and he is the director of the Artists' Union for Mosul. With him, I did a play "The Master and His Servant". The play was based on a Sumerian story and there were three characters, the master, the servant and the temple dancer. I was the temple dancer.

This was first time that I performed a modern/contemporary piece. For this role, I was very inspired by Waleed Awni's work. (11) He is a very important Modern/Contemporary dance choreographer in Egypt. However, I didn't know him personally, but loved his work. You see, from 2003 the internet was open and I was able to see his work. He is the first person to begin Modern/Contemporary dance in Cairo.

Amani Yes! Internet cafes became very popular around this time and people could access information in a way they had not been able to before. At the same time, there was an interesting boom of exchange of information happening between the Iraqi people and the outside world!
Mohanned But also, after 2003 it became more violent in Iraq. So, we worked and performed under very dangerous and hard circumstances. Terrorist gangs were threatening the artists and the performance. These gangs announced the names of those artists whom they were going to assassinate. They demanded that I renounce my dance career and write a statement, that asked God's forgiveness. There were three specific mosques where you had to go with your statement, in writing. If I did not do this within three days, they were very clear what they would do. They would cut off my left arm and my right leg. This part, they took from the Quran.
Amani How did you feel???

At first, I didn't take it very seriously. Then when I realized it was real…My mother and grandmother became afraid… I was very afraid! This is when Iraq changed to be more closed. For me, it was much better before 2003. It was safe and I could travel and work. But, now that I was on this list, I made a problem for all of my family and I could no longer stay with them. So, I had to leave my house so that I wouldn't endanger my family.

Still, I went to the union and the theatre and to work every day. Yaseen told me to be careful because these gangs were very serious about their threats. Then one day I heard one of the actors who was announced [on the same list] with me was killed. When they killed him, I was very afraid. I didn't sleep, I stopped going out. After this, many artists were very afraid. I've never been so frightened in my life. They killed many artists.

But also, in 2005, during this trouble, I had the chance to work with Dr. Mohammed Ismail. He was the head of the theatre department in the College of Fine Arts at the university in Mosul. He saw my work and I was invited to teach, briefly for the theater students. At the university, I met Dr. Abbas Abdel Ghani. He invited me to work with him and to make a contemporary dance performance which he called "Joumjouma".

Amani What was "Joumjouma" about?
Mohanned It spoke about the situation after 2003, like I have been telling you.
Amani That is really impressive! Not only was it a contemporary dance performance but it was also political in message. This is really leading-edge!



With Waleed Awni in Cairo

ABOUT THE PHOTO: Mohanned Hawaz with Waleed Awni in Cairo, Egypt. Click on this and any other photo in this article to see more detail.


You've mentioned that being a dancer and having a dance career in Iraq is very difficult and that being a dance-artist can mean putting yourself at risk. I noticed in your biography that after your time in Egypt, you didn't go back to Iraq but went on to Sweden?


Yesin helped me. I sent an email to Waleed Awni introducing myself and asking to audition for his school. But it was not easy to travel to Egypt from Iraq. Waleed also helped me a lot! But the problem was that  I didn't  have money for plane ticket or money to live on. Yesin contacted Kaka Abdul Ghani, Director of the International Center, through the KDP party in Mosul. (12)

The Prime Minister of the Kurdish Regional Government Prime agreed to help me. I was so very grateful for this! So, I left Mosul and went to Erbil, from Erbil, to Damascus and finally to Cairo. I would not have made it without their support and I cannot thank them enough!!

Amani That's it truly amazing! You know, I really must thank you for speaking about these things, I know that these are not easy topics and that they carry difficult memories with them.
Mohanned Yes, you know, only recently I found out that Kaka Abdul Ghani died. This is very sad.
Amani I'm so sorry to hear that. For my husband and I, it seems like every month we get news of someone who has died back in Kurdistan. This past year, we have lost a number of artists, friends and even family. For me, this is why doing interviews like these, getting to speak directly to the people and sharing those stories is critical!

You know, I speak about them, my teachers and the people who helped me a lot because they gave me a lot and because it is so important that people know the history and know them.

Yes! You remember that I told you that I was able to see Waleed Awni's work on the Internet and I was so inspired? It was his work, that I saw contemporary dance for the first time. He was the first contemporary dance school in the Arab world. So, when I came to Cairo, I was so excited to work with him. You know Waleed is like family, he helped me so much and he still supports me! I didn't know anyone in Cairo when I got there, but he became my family.

Amani Here again, our readers can't see your face or hear your voice like I can. But, again I think it is worth nothing that your voice has changed while you have been talking about going to Egypt and about your teacher. Your eyes have changed and they are full of emotion right now.
Mohanned Yes, my teacher Waleed means the world to me! I enjoyed my time in Cairo studying with Waleed. I felt that I had found my true expression in Modern/Contemporary dance. When I dance Modern/Contemporary dance, it is very different form when I do Iraqi dances. Of course, I couldn't go back to Iraq. But, my teacher Waleed suggested that I should go to Europe.




ABOUT THE PHOTO: Fouad Thanoon, one of the teachers who worked with Mohanned Hawaz, visits Sweden and awards Mohanned honors from the Iraqi National Troupe of Folkloric Arts. Click on this and any other photo in this article to see more detail.

Amani How did you end up in Sweden?
Mohanned Why Sweden? I have a lot of good thoughts about Sweden and I though that it was peaceful and beautiful. Actually, When I was a child I also loved the cartoon from Sweden called "Nils". I fell in love with Sweden through this television program. It talked about Sweden from North to South, about how people lived and the nature found there. As a child, I dreamed that when I grew up I would be able to travel to all of these places. I even made some research about it. So, it was amazing to come here and to live here!
Amani And you continued to study dance in Sweden?
Mohanned Yes, when I came to Sweden, I spoke no English, and no Swedish, but the Swedish people and the social system are really very nice. I have so many friends now and they make me feel like I have a family here in Sweden. I studied at the Loftadalens Folkhogskola with Sofia Barkevall, Ottillia Bergstrom and Lena Cederwaal-Broberg. They taught me a lot about the dance! I studied jazz, ballet, contemporary, and also anatomy. They also changed my mind to be more free. It is was not easy. I was already a professional but I had to start from the beginning. This school was like my family and it taught me how to start my career in Europe to be dancer and teacher. After I finished, I started my company and since then I have had a lot of performances around Sweden – even performing twice at the Norrlandsoperan!
Amani I understand that you particularly enjoy modern/contemporary dance?

Yes, I have found true expression there. See, the National Troupe is very traditional. When I dance [Iraqi] it is not about what I want, it is not about my art. But contemporary dance is MY art, my expression.

I have also created many choreographies. One of my favorites is called Gränslandet. I performed this one with a flamenco guitar, played by my dear friend, and singer who sang in Arabic. We performed this piece for three years, all over Sweden and for special presentations about respect and diversity in the Swedish schools. I made this choreography for my city, Mosul. The story is about a woman who has lost her family. ISIS killed all of her family. She is trying to forget. She wants to live in a good way. She has forgotten her son, her family, her husband, she forgets everything. But, she finds happiness to live and tries to live and have a good life. This choreography was presented on Swedish TV and it won an award!

Amani I've seen the video of this performance. It is incredible!  What a moving story! It is also interesting to see how your home city continues to inspire your work.
Mohanned I work very hard to help all Iraqi artists to give them different opportunities from here. This is my point, to help. For example, I organized an arts exchange between Iraq and Sweden. I contacted the Kurdish Artists Syndicate in Kurdistan and the Swedish Konstnärsnämnden supported our project.(13) We were in Sulaimani and in Duhok. There, we taught students while we were there and we also performed together with Kurdish dancers.
Amani Of course, you know Sulaimani is my favorite city! This is where I have done most of my arts research. It is also my husband's hometown and known as the "Arts Capital of Kurdistan".
Mohanned During this exchange, I decided to show the Gränslandet choreography…
Amani Wow! The one about the woman who has lost all of her family?
Mohanned Yes! I was afraid. I come from Iraq and I know what people think… but when I finished I was very proud to hear the applause and the acceptance from the public.
Amani Whether you want to or not, being an Iraqi dance-artist, particularly outside Iraq means that you represent your country, its people and its cultures. What responsibilities do you have in dancing, not only your "native" style, but other dances from around Iraq.

It is a huge responsibility to represent the Iraqi culture and heritage. Iraq is multiple nations and many different cities. It is very rich, and each is very unique and remarkable. There is Arabic, Christian, Kurdish, Yezidi, Shebeki, Turkemen, Subba… all mixing together. Every group has their own rich heritage. Anything you perform must represent that heritage and its people perfectly.

Another responsibility is to send the message to the countries outside of Iraq. I must introduce my culture and traditions to them. I will introduce them to the history of my country, the heritage and culture and show them how my country is a big mixture… it will show what our people own.

They [Iraqis] own the culture and traditions so that responsibility is on me – to represent the folklore. This is why I say that the folklore must be studied and must be carefully crafted because we must show the country's heritage. When I perform folklore, I must perform it in the right way and with well-done choreography because I am representing my country.

For me, we have so much respect for our teachers. Like now when I was in Moscow with Hannah, for example, when she speaks, I cannot speak. The training…all the teachers have different qualities and backgrounds, but we have so much respect for our teachers!

Yes, Jumali was my first teacher. Hannah made me a professional dancer. Fouad gave me the power to be professional. I never saw someone who loves to work as much as Hannah! She doesn't joke, she is very serious!

Amani Are there special responsibilities you have, as a native dancer, to representing Iraqi dance?
Mohanned I don't think about art now like I did when I was in Iraq. Boundaries are different for me now.
Amani Boundaries?

When I do folklore, I am very strict with the folklore. I utilize the exact style of the National Troupe because they do it very traditionally. My fusion, I do it differently and I give it the Iraqi feeling. Of course, we also have to make a difference between popular and traditional dances. If we are being traditional, we don't cross the lines.

My country now has a lot of problems. My mother company can't travel, and they have a lot of problems. I do Iraqi dance to save my traditions. Enkidu is in the tradition of the National Troupe. Especially if you see my company Enkidu, my troupe which I built together with Martine Von Schwerin,  in Sweden you will see a copy of the National Troupe, the same style of study and training, the same costumes and even rehearsal clothes. They are trained in the same way I was… with lots of study.

When Hannah came to Sweden to visit, she cried when she saw Enkidu and told me that we made her feel like she was back in the company [National Troupe] in the 1970s. This creation was specific to preserving the work of the National Troupe, especially in the dance arts. I am proud to say that no one else has done that.

Amani It is such a gift for so many that you have chosen to share your native dances. However, in sharing your dances and your knowledge, it does create a bit of risk in that anyone can take a small piece, out of context, and go in their own direction with it. For good, but also for bad. In whose hands to do you trust to put your dance?
Mohanned I am concerned about people learning about dance history in Iraq, not just learning a dance. The people who learn our dances are also representing our country and our history. Again, this is why I always speak about my teachers and the really important artists. I am not trying to say, "Look who I worked with", I am trying to make sure that people know these important artists and what their contributions have been. When I speak about them, more people will know them and so they can see the real Iraqi dance. I got lucky to go out [leave Iraq]. There are still many, many, many amazing teachers still there who could not leave. I wish to help the teachers in Iraq to let them go out so they can teach outside.
Amani Thank you! Thank you for taking time to speak with me!
Mohanned Certainly!




  1. Damluji, Mona. (2015). Introduction. Roundtable presentation Perspectives on Researching Iraq Today full text from Arab Studies Journal, Fall 2015, retrieved from
  2. Cockrell-Abdullah, Autumn. "Guest-Editor's Introduction: Towards a Greater Understanding of Contemporary Kurdish Art and Aesthetics". In The Journal of Intersectionality, Special Issue, Making Faces: Art & Intersectionality in Iraqi Kurdistan. December 2019.
  3. Mosul is one of the major cities in the Northern regions of Iraq. For more information
  4. For more information about Enkidu begin by checking out this resource:
  5. The Nashat Al Madrasi is similar to a regional department of education.
  6. The Babylon Festival for International Cultures and Arts was an annual arts and culture festival held outside Baghdad. Saddam Hussein used to hold the festival at the end of summer on the site of the ancient ruins of Hammurabi and Nebuchanezzar. Since the last Saddam-era festival in 2002, the festivals have broken with that mission and have revived the event with new purpose. For more information
  7. "Mosul Evenings"
  8. Reference from archival materials from the Iraqi National troupe of Folkloric Arts provided by Mohanned Hawaz
  9. Here, Mohanned refers to "Russia". In the early 1970s, Russia was included as part of the Soviet Union.
  10. "Antar Wa Abla" is one of the great love stories from classical Arabic poetry. Composed between the 11th and 12th centuries, the epic poem tells of Antar, who was a child born to a tribal leader and his Abyssinian slave. He rose to become a warrior, free himself, and demand his father recognize him as his son. For more information begin by checking out this resource
  11. The contributions of Waleed Awni certainly deserve greater expression than a small footnote allows. Now living in Egypt, Awni was born in Lebanon. He was inspired by the movement found in the artwork of the writer Khalil Gibran. He studied at the Beirut Academy of Fine Art and the Royal Academy of Fine Art in Brussels. While there he met the famous French-born dancer, choreographer and opera director Maurice Béjart who took Awni on as a student. Later, Awni would design scenery and costumes for a number of Béjart's operas, in addition to performing as a dancer. In 1990, Awni would make Egypt his new home and there create a number of works for the Cairo Opera Ballet Company. He later created the Egyptian Modern Dance Theater, the first modern dance troupe in the Arab world. For more information, begin by checking out this resource:
  12. KDP, the Kurdish Democratic Party.
  13. The Konstnärsnämnden is the Swedish Arts grants committee.



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