Issam has been associated with Christ's for many years and has greatly enriched the visual arts in college, in part through his life drawing classes but also through various works he has developed in college, notably Issam's images of Christ's College taken through the camera obscura. Born in Syria, he trained at the Institute of Fine Arts in Damascus, the Repin Institute of Fine Arts in Leningrad (St Petersburg) and at Wimbledon School of Art (London). Since 1990, he has lived and worked in Cambridge, eventually becoming a Christ's College, Artist in Residence and a Bye-Fellow (2007-2011), and where he is now Lector in Art.
In 2009, as part of Cambridge University's celebration of its 800th anniversary, Issam was invited to design the sets for the play Let Newton Be! and for a contemporary dance piece Light Matters, which was presented in the University Senate House. His Cambridge Palimpsest, a puzzle box linking time and archaeology, was also published by Cambridge University Press as part of the celebrations and was presented to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.
His work has widely exhibited and, in 2008, a collection of his sketches Sound Palimpsest (some inspired by the Epic of Gilgamesh and others by language, war and memory) was acquired by the British Museum and exhibited in their Iraq's Past Speaks to the Present exhibition, run in parallel with their major 2008-2009 exhibition Babylon: Myth and Reality. The Museum also featured Issam's work in their 2011 exhibition: Modern Syrian art at the British Museum. His Excavating the Present - Cambridge, March 2013 exhibition raised funds for Oxfam's and Médecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) Syria Crisis Appeals, and proceeds from his recent exhibition Scattered, Gathered in Kuwait 2014, went to Al Madad Foundation's education and literacy programs, on the ground in Aleppo Syria. Issam has also participated in Behind the Headlines: A Revolution in Syrian Art, a discussion on Syria and art through looking at the British Museum objects.
2015 saw Another Day Lost, a series of installations across five sites in London, inspired by and based on the Syrian refugee crisis. These installations resembled 'camps' constructed out of waste materials, such as medicine packaging and discarded books. The 'tents' were marked with Kourbaj's distinctive black lines, based on Arabic calligraphy and traditional mourning ribbons, and encircled with a 'fence' of used matches. On the first day of the festival, there were 1,579 matches in every 'fence', and another match was added for every day of the exhibition, resulting in a total of 1,593 matches by the end of two weeks on display. Each match represented a day lost since the beginning of the Syrian uprising. The sites were scattered around London, mapping out and loosely reflecting the geographic pattern of refugee presence outside the borders of Syria. The installtions at Goethe-Institut London and St. James's Church, Piccadilly, roughly related to the locations of camps along Syria's southern border; Central Books in East London correlated to the cities of northern Iraq; 10 Golborne Road represented Lebanon; and Heath Street Church, Hampstead, approximated the location of camps in Turkey.