Be His Guest: A House for Healing

Posted on 10/15/21 10:32 AM

As the cocreator of an art installation and gathering place in Philadelphia, a doctoral student and Iraqi refugee is both sharing his home culture and exploring the notions of belonging and healing—all while applying what he’s learned at IUP.

Yaroub Al-Obaidi, a student in IUP’s Media and Communication Studies PhD program, has designed a mudhif (Arabic for guesthouse) that sits outside the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education. Together, the guesthouse and a gallery component make up the exhibit Al-Mudhif—A Confluence, which runs through the end of October.

Several people sit on the ground inside a structure made of reed grasses as light streams through the ceiling
A mudhif (Arabic for guesthouse), created by IUP doctoral student Yaroub Al-Obaidi and fellow artist Sarah Kavage, is part of the exhibit Al-Mudhif—A Confluence at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Philadelphia.
Five people work on the start of a structure, tying together two columns made of reed grasses to meet at the top and form an arch, while using wooden planks to measure the space in between
Giving the mudhif strength are tightly bound columns of reed grasses that form its frame.

Mudhifs are structures that the people of southern Iraq began building from reed grasses more than 5,000 years ago, according to Al-Obaidi, a former lecturer on art and industrial design at the University of Baghdad who came to Philadelphia in 2016. He and his collaborator, Seattle-based environmental artist Sarah Kavage, believe their mudhif is the first to be built outside of Iraq.

While mudhifs have traditionally housed special events, they have also served as meeting places for discussing and resolving differences—a theme the artists introduced at the start of construction in June.

The full frame of a structure, made of sturdy poles of tied-together reed grasses, located in a wooded area
Giving the mudhif strength are tightly bound columns of reed grasses that form the frame.
Several volunteers move in the wooded area around where the guesthouse is being built, while two small groups assemble sheets of tied-together reed grasses for thatching the structure’s exterior
A number of volunteers assisted with construction of the mudhif.

Volunteers who helped with the project included both Iraqi immigrants and veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—a collaboration that promoted healing from the traumas of war and displacement. Programs held in the mudhif throughout the summer and fall—which included a September 11 program for veterans, refugees, and immigrants—maintained that focus on communicating and healing.

Even the construction materials for the guesthouse are tied to the exhibit’s theme. While reed grasses are native to Iraq, the variety used to build the mudhif is non-native to the Delaware River watershed and, in fact, is considered highly invasive. The artists hoped that using this plant in a productive way would offer a different perspective on displacement and on the movement of plants and people.

Artist Sarah Kavage writes in a notebook while sitting in the woods on a bench with a wooden seat and a back made of columns of reed grasses in a fan-like formation
The mudhif is part of Water Spirit, a watershed-wide series of art installations by Seattle-based environmental artist Sarah Kavage, Yaroub Al-Obaidi’s collaborator on the project. Kavage also used reed grasses to create a bench, which sits outside the mudhif.
The exterior of a completed structure made of reed grasses, shown from the rear, in a wooded area
The rear of the completed mudhif

Al-Obaidi also links the building materials and the project as a whole to lessons he has learned in Communications Media classes. For example, he draws comparisons to communication theorist Marshall McLuhan’s famous phrase, “The medium is the message,” meaning the method of communication is sometimes as important as the message itself.

“I connect my artwork to Marshall McLuhan and his theory when I start to think about the message of the material—reeds—as the first engagement between humans and available material thousands of years ago,” he said.

A view of the exterior of a completed structure made of reed grasses, with an opening for the doorway and a sign on a stand in front of the structure with a long description of what it is
The front of the mudhif
Yaroub Al-Obaidi speaks at a podium, with another man in the background, in a grassy area with woods in the background
Yaroub Al-Obaidi spoke at the grand opening of the exhibit, Al-Mudhif—A Confluence, on June 24.

Al-Obaidi also connects conversations guests have had in the mudhif to sociologist Stuart Hall’s encoding and decoding model, which relates to how media messages are produced, disseminated, and interpreted. He believes this knowledge will help him deliver his messages more effectively.

“The Communications Media PhD program has shaped my practice as a social and conceptual artist,” he said.

Learn more about Al-Obaidi and his art installation at “Iraqi Refugee Brings a Piece of His Culture to Philadelphia.”

The interior of a completed structure made of reed grasses, with mats lining the edges of the mulched floor and pillows placed on top of the mats for seating
While mudhifs have traditionally housed special events and celebrations, they have also served as meeting places for discussing and resolving differences.
Artists Yaroub Al-Obaidi and Sarah Kavage sit within a group of people, talking and laughing, in a structure made of reed grasses
Artists Yaroub Al-Obaidi and Sarah Kavage intended the mudhif for programs that focus on communicating and healing.
Photography by Robert Zverina